The Heavenly and Earthbound Arts of Cagliostro

A few words today on the topic of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo, 1743-1795), familiarly known as Cagliostro. I had occasion to mention Cagliostro in my book No Applause, as he was a foundational figure in the history of magic, one of the last Medieval alchemists, one of the first to be called out on his charlatanism in his lifetime. The context for his mention in my book was his martyrdom at the hands of the Inquisition, though he himself was in part a religious mystic — it’s not as though he were an Enlightenment figure himself. Thomas Carlysle, who was born the year Cagliostro died, called him the Quack of Quacks, and it is probable that he was one of the models for the hero in later versions of Goethe’s Faust (the main model being of course Faust himself; he was an actual historical figure.) Goethe also wrote a comedy about Cagliostro called The Great Cophta. Alexander Dumas immortalized him in the novel Joseph Balsamo (1846-1848), that was adapted into the Hollywood movie Black Magic a century later, directed by Gregory Ratoff, and starring Orson Welles, himself an amateur magician and lover of charlatanism. Aleister Crowley named Cagliostro as one of his previous incarnations! I am certain I first encountered the name in the pages of Dr. Strange.

Cagliostro’s origins are murky, but is is believed that he was born in the Jewish Quarter of Palermo, Sicily, and was himself Jewish. The surname Balsamo in his case may be related to Baal Shem, the Kabbalistic Holy Men who were believed to be able to invoke the names of God, Satan, angels, demons, and other supernatural spirits in order to heal the sick, ward off evil, foretell the future, and interpret dreams. They often sold magical amulets, folk remedies and such like to earn their living. In his youth Balsamo had studied these mystical arts with its practitioners. When and where are difficult to ascertain, since many of his claims came from himself, emphatically not a trusted source. He claimed to have spent time as a child in the Muslim cities of Mecca, Medina, and Cairo, and to have belonged to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, where he resided for a time. He was also very much tied to Christianity, though, having been a novice of Catholic Order of St. John of God in his youth, and later serving as a secretary to Cardinal Orsini at Rome.

Cagliostro’s exposure to three world religions did not set him irrevocably on the path to goodness, it appears. Early in life we have report of one of his first swindles, wherein he enticed a goldsmith to a remote location which he claimed to have divined as a surefire location for mining the precious metal. He had earlier requested a quantity of silver from this dupe as a security. When they arrived at the site, Cagliostro konked him on the head and ran for it, launching him on his career for the next thirty years. In Rome he met Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani a.k.a. Serafina, whom he was to marry in 1768. She was his confederate and more, for Cagliostro is believed to have pimped her out to those willing to pay for the privilege. One of the johns was a man named Agliata, who taught Cagliostro the useful art of forging documents.

The Cagliostros went to London soon after this. This is where he first began using his famous name. Here he is believed to have met the Comte de St. German (more on him here) and to have studied with Haĩm Falk, the Baal Shem of London. Starting in the 1770s, Cagliostro traveled among the European capitols, enjoying the patronage of the wealthy and titled, purporting to heal their aches and pains, foretell their futures, divine their dreams, all, of course, for substantial remuneration. His legacy isn’t all wicked, however. He is also said to have used much of his wealth to start numerous charity hospitals. Starting in 1777 he became deeply involved in Freemasonry, which was then not just a fraternal organization, but a serious mystical order. Cagliostro is credited with helping to popularize it throughout Europe. This put him at odds with the Catholic Church, which considered Freemasonry a heresy, and pretty much still does.

The dominos began to tumble circa 1784/85 when he was named as a culprit in the so-called Affair of the Diamond Necklace. a scandal involving Marie Antoinette and Prince Louis de Rohan. He spent nine months in the Bastille, and then was banished from France. It all came to a halt in 1789 when he was imprisoned by the Inquisition at the Forte di San Leo in Nothern Italy, where he died six years later.

Naturally, Cagliostro was not what we call a performing magician. He dealt in “practical magic”, and has historically been understood in the context of either 1) religion, or 2) crime. (As to the former, Kabbalism still has its inherents, and we’re not here to knock it). But in very real terms, delightfully enough, he practiced the same art form as many professional entertainers do in our time, and this is what makes him relevant to our usual themes.

For more on entertainment history, including the magical arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,