The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Cagliostro, Count Alessandro di (June 2, 1743—August 6, 1795)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame
Casanova was jealous of Cagliostro; Goethe loathed him. Pope Pius VI accused Cagliostro of threatening the very survival of the Roman Catholic Church. He inspired Johann Strauss’ operetta, Cagliostro in Vienna and served as the prototype for the character of the magician Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He has inspired at least half a dozen films (so far), with Orson Welles playing him in Gregory Ratoff’s 1949 film Black Magic, based on a novel by Alexander Dumas.
Not bad for a poor boy from the slums of Palermo.
Alchemist, magician, charlatan, thug, philanthropist, Cagliostro embodies all the multifaceted contradictions of the Tarot card The Magician.
He was a mountebank in both the positive and negative senses of that word. A traveling magician, he picked up occult secrets wherever he wandered. His skills included alchemy, astrology, clairvoyance, and healing. He was a master of what today would be called aromatherapy. He was a practitioner of High Ritual Magic but was also adept at what some consider “low magic”—he concocted and sold love potions and was not averse to revenge magic.
He learned shamanic techniques whilst staying in the poor quarters of St Petersburg, where he did not get a warm reception from Catherine the Great (she wrote a lampoon of him). Instead he spent his time at marketplace crossroads among the poor whom he healed and fed at his own expense.
He could be very generous to the poor when so inclined. He ran soup kitchens, paid for out of his own pocket, when the concept of feeding the poor barely existed. He was also a pimp, thief, fraud, con artist, and illusionist.
Giuseppe Balsamo was born in Palermo, Sicily of Moorish-Sicilian ancestry. He was raised in Palermo’s old Arab quarter. His father was a jeweler who died bankrupt only a few months after Giuseppe’s birth. Giuseppe, his mother and older sister lived in a two-room apartment on a poor street in the poorest quarter of Palermo, the Albergheria, amongst Arab, Jewish, and Turkish immigrants.
As a boy, Giuseppe led a street gang, more than occasionally brawling with police, however he was educated, home-schooled by a private tutor until aged 10, after which he was enrolled for several years at a seminary for orphan children.
He also had private lessons from an art master, becoming an excellent copyist and draftsman. He could draw very well—well enough to reproduce maps, documents, and other people’s handwriting. He forged theater tickets and possibly legal documents.
Balsamo spent several years as a novice monk at the Monastery of the Fatabenefratelli healing order. At Fatabenefratelli, he learned basic rites of exorcism plus Hermetic traditions. Under Sicily’s two centuries of Moorish rule, the Catholic orders had become copyists and keepers of Arabic manuscripts including those devoted to alchemy and magic forbidden elsewhere. In the monastery, Balsamo learned the basics of alchemy, astrology, and gematria, Kabalah’s sacred numerology.
In 1764, Balsamo fled Sicily. For about a year, no documentation of his whereabouts exists. He may have visited Rhodes and become involved with a scam for an “alchemical procedure” turning hemp into silk. He may have gone to Egypt.
He used different names in different places and so is not easily traced. He next appears in Malta in 1765. Malta was the headquarters of the Knights of St John, competitors of the Templars. Balsamo sold elixirs and beauty creams before establishing a friendship with Grand Master Emanuel Pinto of the Order of the Knights of St John.
Grand Master Pinto was the longest-serving Grand Master (1741-1773). He set up a laboratory where Balsamo/Cagliostro worked as an alchemist, chemist, and pharmacist. The two men searched for the Philosopher’s Stone together.
In 1767, Cagliostro traveled to Naples, and then to Rome where he got work as a secretary for Cardinal Orsini but sold love potions on the side. In Rome, he met the love of his life, Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani, aged 14. Beautiful, blonde, and blue-eyed, she was the daughter of an illiterate brass worker from Trastevere. Lorenza and Cagliostro were married on April 20, 1768. He insisted she call herself by her more evocative middle name.
He loved her passionately, considering her his soul mate. However he allegedly sometimes beat her. When cash was short, he prostituted her in order to raise funds and used her beauty to attract and seduce wealthy patrons.
Cagliostro and Seraphina’s first appearance in history together occurred in 1769 when they met Casanova, a compulsive diarist, in a café. Casanova, a consummate conman himself, was peeved when he realized that Cagliostro had conned him instead: Cagliostro allegedly forged Casanova’s signature on a check.
Some, admiring Cagliostro’s grand metaphysical work but appalled by his criminal record reconcile his contradictions by insisting there were really two individuals, and that Giuseppe Balsamo of Sicily could not possibly be the adept Cagliostro of Paris.
Seraphina and Cagliostro traveled for years, sometimes wealthy, sometimes utterly impoverished. He studied genuine magic and occult traditions, supplementing his income with illusions and fraud as needed.
He used at least two noms de plumes consistently, switching between them as convenient: Count Cagliostro (the name, but not the title, borrowed from an uncle) and Colonel Pellegrini of the Brandenburg Army.
In July 1776, Giuseppe and Seraphina arrived in London for the second time where he described himself as an “occult scientist.” They rented a house at 4 Whitcomb Street in Leicester Square, complete with an alchemical laboratory, but wound up several times in the debtor’s section of both King’s Bench and Newgate jails.
Cagliostro became a Freemason in London, simultaneously initiated into the first three grades of Strict Observance Freemasonry. After these initiations, he discovered a treatise on the Egyptian origins of Freemasonry on a bookseller’s stall. According to this treatise, all contemporary Masonic rites were corrupt to varying degrees. Pure unadulterated Masonry was rooted in ancient Egypt amongst the pyramid builders; the founder of this ancient tradition an Egyptian high priest known as the Great Copt.
Cagliostro was inspired to establish what he called Egyptian Freemasonry lodges, initiating both men and women. (Admission of women is still controversial amongst some Freemasons.) Cagliostro as the Grand Master took the title the Grand Copt; Seraphina was Grand Mistress of the Order. Freemasonry was a secret organization; the flamboyant Cagliostro to some extent became its public face.
For his time, Cagliostro was a visionary man of tolerance, insisting that Egyptian Masonry be open to all sincere spiritual people including Jews and Muslims and supporting membership for women. The only requirements were belief in a Supreme Being and in the immortality of the soul. (On the other hand, he laid a public curse on 82-year-old Countess Constanze von Korff because she publicly called him a charlatan.)
He was a bit of a Robin Hood figure, scamming the rich but giving to the poor. He distributed remedies for free for those in financial need. Running free clinics for the poor may sound commendable today but at that time it landed Cagliostro in trouble with powerful local physicians who resented this competition. Perhaps inspired by his memories of himself as a poor boy in Palermo, he ran what were essentially soup kitchens for the urban poor.
He was controversial amongst Masons too and not only because of his insistence on women’s inclusion. Masons in Latvia were appalled to hear Cagliostro boast that he could concoct potions that would make women lust for men.
Cagliostro eventually became the rage in Paris where wild stories were told about him: not only could he transmute base metals into gold, silver, and diamonds, he could also double existing diamonds and precious gems so that they were twice their size and value.
It was rumored that he had personally spoken with Christ on the shores of Galilee
It was rumored that Cagliostro was the legendary Wandering Jew himself
It was rumored that he had entered into a conspiracy against Queen Marie Antoinette
Many who know nothing else about Cagliostro know his name because of his involvement in the notorious Affair of the Queen’s Necklace. In 1784, Cagliostro was a key figure and accused as a coconspirator of stealing a priceless diamond necklace under the forged signature of the queen as well as forging steamy love-letters signed in the queen’s name (and not addressed to the king).
Although Cagliostro was acquitted unconditionally, he was banished from Paris the day after acquittal. Ordered to leave France within three weeks, he went back to London on June 20, 1786.
Seraphina was tired of wandering and perhaps tired of her husband. She wished to return to Rome and persuaded Cagliostro to do so. Returning to Rome was like entering fire. The Inquisition hunted Freemasons like witches. Pope Clement XII had condemned Freemasonry in 1738; Catholics were forbidden from joining on pain of excommunication.
Once in Italy, Seraphina, who may have been unable to conceive of any other way of terminating their relationship, denounced Cagliostro to the Inquisition apparently in the hope of being free of her husband. Pope Pius VI personally issued the order to the Governor of Tome to seize Cagliostro and search his premises. Captured by the Inquisition on September 27, 1789, Cagliostro was taken to the prison of Sant’Angelo while Seraphina was escorted to the convent of Santa Apollonia “for her own protection.”
Seraphina, also a Freemason and magical adept, had long served as Cagliostro’s assistant. She was allegedly promised immunity in return for testimony against her husband. She apparently hoped to begin life anew in Italy among her family. However, to her bitter disappointment, Seraphina was confined for life in the Convent of Santa Apollonia where she died in 1794. For his part, Cagliostro allegedly never entirely believed his beloved Seraphina had turned him in.
Cagliostro endured 43 interrogations over 15 months, the Pope himself attending several of these interrogations. He was condemned to life imprisonment in the fortress of San Leo, described by Machiavelli as the strongest fortress in all of Europe.
He was a defiant prisoner, continually attempting to break free. Eventually he was chained in a tiny cell, forbidden to converse or communicate with anyone either in or out of jail—truly a terrible punishment for a man born under the sign of Gemini, the zodiac sign ruling communication.
He suffered two strokes in his cell, dying aged 52. Jailers were so suspicious of their prisoner that lighted rushes were held to Cagliostro’s bare feet to make sure he was really dead. As an unrepentant heretic, he was buried in an unmarked pit.