book reviews


Iain McCalman
The Seven
Ordeals of Count Cagliostro,
The Greatest Enchanter
of the Eighteenth Century Flamingo

‘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 Eighteenth Century

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 secrecy.

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 both.’

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 acquitted.

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 greatness.

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


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