The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro,
The Greatest Enchanter of the Eighteenth Century
‘The thing,’ Casanova explained in his memoirs, ‘is to dazzle’.
Today we would call them grifters or con-men. Men who sell fascination
without substance, and very profitably too. In the middle years of the
eighteenth-century, these dazzlers were playing on velvet in the courts of
Europe, and two charismatic Italians dominated the profession: Casanova
himself and his arch-enemy Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.
Both men sold lustrous promises of immortal life, supernatural knowledge,
alchemical gold, but most of all they peddled in spectacle:
dramatic seances, rebirthing ceremonies, laboratory experiments more like
religious rites, not to mention the invisible wonders they conjured with
their golden tongues.
The success of Cagliostro and Casanova undermines the rational credentials
of the so-called Age of Reason. It was not geometry or philosophy that
intrigued the rich, bored courtiers and bankers of Saint Petersburg,
Strasbourg, Paris and London. What they wanted were dreams, spectral
events, prodigies, shivers down the back. Casanova, who left three
thousand pages of candid recollections, did not claim any more mystical
powers for himself than the ability to give those who were gullible, vain
or mad enough, and possessed pockets deep enough to make it worth his
while, just exactly what they desired in the way of fantastical
mumbo-jumbo. But as is more typical of one who trades in highly perfumed
air, the ineffable Count Alessandro di Cagliostro left no written memoir.
He has remained more mysterious: he never really explained himself.
This is the task taken up by Iain McCalman in his iridescent biography
The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, The Greatest Enchanter in
McCalman is the companionable kind of biographer who charts not just the
life of his subject - organised into seven long anecdotes, each revealing
new and glittering facets -
but also records elements of his own life as a
researcher. And so The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro begins
beguilingly with McCalman in front of the ruins of the humble house in the
souk-like backstreets of Palermo where life began in 1743 for one Guiseppe
Balsamo. In the dusty Moorish slums of Palermo McCalman sees the seeds of
Balsamo’s spiritual identification with Africa, which is echoed in his
own. But Balsamo’s was to prove more intense and profitable, as he chose
to associate himself with the Greek-Egyptian mystic cult of Hermes
Trismegistus and with the hebraic cabbala.
The son of a bankrupt jeweller, the young Balsamo showed a special
aptitude for chemistry and drawing, essential talents for a budding quack
and forger. Expelled from the monastery where he was training as a novice,
he took to selling magic amulets in the markets of his home town. Fleeing
Sicily after his first serious con-trick on a silversmith, he studied
apothecary arts on the Island of Malta with the Knights Hospitallers of
Saint John, a brief period of apparent respectability.
But he left the island with pungent ambitions, arriving in mainland Europe
in swirl of mystical incense, repackaging himself in a choice of names and
personal histories, as the occasion suited.
He also acquired a wife, a blonde blue-eyed fourteen-year-old, Lorenza
Feliciani, soon rechristened Seraphina. For the next two decades the
beautiful Seraphina mostly stood by him, helped him out of scrapes,
usually by seducing his oppressors on his behalf, a task she seems to have
undertaken without distaste, and sometimes with more enthusiasm than her
husband required. On one occasion Cagliostro wrote to the Paris police
demanding her incarceration in the Sainte Pelagie convent for disobedient
wives. She appears to have borne no grudge when he came to release her
four months later. Seraphina shared his fortunes, ill and luxurious,
without serious complaint, until the end, when, hunted and cornered, she
finally denounced him to the papal authorities in Rome.
But before that happened, what a life he led her! How many mansions did
she decorate, only to escape hastily in the night? How many gullible
princes did she blind with her seductions while her husband rifled their
more material treasures? Cagliostro built his myth town by town, creating
a bigger noise in ever bigger cities. He liked to arrive in style, with
the whispers already in circulation about what-might-not-be-said-aloud –
his connections with the great spirit world, and his dominance of the
capillary network of freemasonry that bound all Europe in convenient
The freemasons of Europe had one theoretical bond – a symbolic rite based
on the biblical allegory of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon. But each
city, each lodge, each sect perfumed their fraternal gatherings with other
kinds of mysticism. In all too many cases, they were eager to embrace a
visitor with a compelling physical presence, a mysterious pedigree and a
nice line in special effects. Like Casanova, Cagliostro knew how to
dazzle, and he knew exactly what his patrons wanted.
Cagliostro and Seraphina went by a number of colourful titles, usually
cobbled together from bits and pieces of real peoples’ identities. These
included the fictional Colonel Pellegrini of the Brandenburg Army, and the
most favoured one, Count Cagliostro, a family name borrowed from an uncle,
sometimes curlicued with the additional title Prince of Trebizond. But he
also referred to himself as The Great Copt and took other shamanic names
as and when required. His patrons lapped it up. With a little careful
brand management, a little spin, and a genius for publicity,
Cagliostromania came to supplant the balloon craze launched by the
Montgolfier Brothers, and its fascinations leaked out of the closed
circles of the freemasons to the general public too.
While clearly detailing Cagliostro’s deceptions, there are times when
McCalman simply throws his hands up in amazement at his subject. In among
the charlatanry, the faked seances and the outright lies, there are
predictions Cagliostro made, and brilliant cures he effected that simply
cannot be explained away. There were the free clinics he set up for the
poor. McCalman points to the fact that modern science has analysed nine of
Cagliostro’s prescriptions and found them at worst innocuous and in many
cases beneficial, and way before their time in being so. Then there was
the way, for example, he announced the death of Catherine the Great, five
days before the news of it could possibly have reached him. McCalman’s
theory is that it is not necessary to define Cagliostro as either the
worst scoundrel of his age of a great occult healer. ‘It seemed to me,’
writes McCalman after his years of research, ‘that he might have been
Renouncing the need to prove a point, McCalman therefore devotes himself
to presenting all sides of the man, and he does so in a discursive and
highly pleasurable way. The style of narration dilates comfortably with
certain incidents, and indeed is paced almost like a novel. McCalman has
the novelist’s skill of inhabiting the skins of other people interested in
Cagliostro, usually from motives often less kind than his own. For
example, in Venice, in 1778, we see him narrowly through the eyes of a
down-at-heel Casanova, reduced to working as an ignominious spy for the
Inquisitors, waiting just a fraction too long to pounce on Cagliostro. We
see the young Cagliostro through the eyes of one his first dupes, a
Sicilian silversmith, through the young Elisa von der Recke, for whose
family he conjured a tempting treasure surrounded by devils only he could
tame. Elise eventually changed from an adoring disciple to possibly
Cagliostro’s most damaging detractor.
McCalman is good at conjuring himself. He gives deft thumbnails of each of
the cities where Cagliostro made his dubious mark, and of the seething
ants’ nests of local politics into which he inserted himself, brimming
with impudence, sometimes disastrously. This is a portrait of Cagliostro’s
society and his victims, as much as of the man himself. McCalman gives a
fascinating account of the famous affair of the diamond necklace, the
fraud perpetrated upon Marie Antoinette which saw Cagliostro thrown into
the Bastille for his very slender involvement, of which he was later
Cagliostro had a talent for powerful enemies. Catherine the Great, Empress
of Russia, Marie Antoinette, Pope Pius VI. Those in power often saw
Cagliostro as subversive. In an age of revolution, there was a whiff of
the demagogue about him, and the secret networks of the Freemasons always
seemed threatening to the established order. As a celebrity, he made the
fatal error of getting on the wrong side of the gentlemen of the press.
And wherever he came from – and more than one vicious hack spent years
trying to track the true facts down – it was not from the empowered
classes. He was all things to no man and no class: he had no natural
protectors and nowhere to run when he ran out of goodwill.
He had a talent for choosing bad friends too, among them the Lord Byron
(whose heir was the poet) the rabble-raising insurgent who sparked the
Gordon riots and worse in London.
The claims Cagliostro made for himself seem laughable today – for us the
amazing thing is that he sustained them for so long. In the end it was
mockery and derision that killed off the phenomenon of Cagliostromania. As
Casanova pointed out in his own attack, charlatan-magicians could survive
anything but ridicule.
In the last years, attacks on his credibility came from everywhere – he
was accused of stealing a silver cane in Cadiz, of faking alchemical
experiments, of being a syphilitic on the run. The diamond necklace
affair, which initially won him supporters, ended badly for him. The real
villainness of the piece, Jeanne de Valois de La Motte, defended herself
by denouncing him.
Eventually the groundswell of opinion turned against Cagliostro. More
damagingly, so do did many of his former disciples, and it was their
testimonies that finally destroyed his mystique. He and Seraphina spent
their last few years together in constant retreat. ‘Former acquaintances
were baying after the count like savage mastiffs,’ observes McCalman.
Eventually they returned to Rome. It was there that Cagliostro faced his
final betrayal – that of his wife.
After fifteen months questioning by the Inquisition, Cagliostro was thrown
into the grim cells on the rocky fortress of San Leo. There, after making
life a misery for his successive warders – among other things he kept
stinking fish in his cell to offend the nostrils of his confessors -
Cagliostro eventually died of a heart-attack at the age of fifty-two,
protesting till the end his adoration for Seraphina and his own inimitable
Casanova died alone and miserable too, but in relative comfort. The age’s
greatest lover and weaver of romantic enchantment ended up as an
embittered librarian in the small town of Dux in Bohemia. To the end, he
maintained his bitterness against Cagliostro.
My own novel, Carnevale, views Casanova through the eyes of a young
women who loved him. In reading Cagliostro’s life, many similarities
struck me. But in one other thing the two men were crucially different:
Casanova was in essence alone all his life. He never married. His one
hundred and thirty two romances, all scrupulously chronicled, were love
matches indeed, even if they lasted just a few weeks. He had the gift of
leaving a fond memory of himself, but not that of sustaining a
relationship. Cagliostro had Seraphina, and surely this must have made all
the difference. With one human being in the world, Cagliostro had a true
history. There was someone who knew all about him.
Cagliostro sold deep mysticism and its associated glamour. The main item
of merchandise peddled by Casanova was himself. Mysticism was a mere
accessory for him, sometimes useful in earning money, sometimes highly
diverting for a man who owned himself perilously addicted to novelty of
all kinds. Another difference: Cagliostro appears to have loved his wife
faithfully, even though he pimped her to his clients. Cagliostro himself
retained at least the aura of purity. When it came down it, Casanova was
not above selling his own sexual artistry, even to an antique French
noblewoman whose charms were so pitiful that he needed to keep constantly
in view (over her shoulder) a pretty young Venetian accomplice.
A new films of the necklace affair is due to be released next year. It
will be one of many to paint a portrait of Cagliostro. At least six bio-pics
have been specifically devoted to him. His larger-than-life presence is
there too, as Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and many lesser
masterpieces. He haunts cartoons, pulp fiction, film and television.
His grip on the popular imagination has scarcely relaxed.
Cagliostro himself would hardly be surprised. He told his followers that
he would never die. If he disappeared, Cagliostro declared, it would
merely be a sign that he had reached the highest grade of Egyptian
Freemasonry and become one of the twelve immortals ruling over the destiny
of mankind. Like Iain McCalman, this reviewer prefers to keep an open
mind. When one looks at the predominance of celebrity and the celebration
of glamorous non-entities, the sexing up of plain realities, the
proliferation of cults, and the cult of the ego, it is abundantly clear
that the spirit of Cagliostro is alive and well and living in media-land.
Copyright ©Michelle Lovric 2004