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Alessandro Cagliostro


Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (June 2, 1743 Palermo, Sicily - August 26, 1795 San Leo, Province of Pesaro and Urbino) was the alias for the occultist Giuseppe Balsamo, an Italian traveller.



The history of Cagliostro is shrouded in rumour, propaganda and mysticism. Some effort was expended to ascertain his true identity when he was arrested because of his possible participation in the affair of the diamond necklace.

Goethe relates in his Italian Journey that the identification of Cagliostro with Giuseppe Balsamo was ascertained by a lawyer from Palermo who, on official request, had sent a dossier with copies of the pertaining documents to France. Goethe met the lawyer in April 1787 and saw the documents and Balsamo's pedigree: Balsamo's great-grandfather Matteo Martello had two daughters, Maria who married Giuseppe Bracconeri, and Vincenza who married Giuseppe Cagliostro. Maria and Giuseppe Bracconeri had three children, Matteo, Antonia, and Felicitá who married Pietro Balsamo. The latter couple's son was Giuseppe Balsamo who was christened on the name of his greatuncle and eventually adopted his surname too. Pietro Balsamo was the son of a book-seller, Antonino Balsamo, and had declared bancruptcy before dying at age 44. Felicitá Balsamo was still alive in Palermo then, and Goethe visited her and her daughter.

Cagliostro himself stated during the trial following the Affair of the diamond necklace to have been born of Christians of noble birth, but abandoned as an orphan upon the island of Malta. He claimed to have travelled as a child to Medina, Mecca, and Cairo, and upon return to Malta to have been initiated into the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta, with whom he studied alchemy, the Kabbalah and magic, but this may be nothing more than the typical mystical background asserted by many impostors and charlatans throughout history - Goethe classifies this as "silly fairy-tales".

Early life

He was born to a poor family in Palermo, Sicily. Despite his family's precarious financial situation, his grandfather and uncles made sure the young Giuseppe received a solid education: he was taught by a tutor and later during his adolescent years became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God, from which he was soon expelled.

During his period as a novice in the order, Balsamo learned chemistry as well as a series of spiritual rites. At the age of seventeen, Giuseppe, a thief and brawler, convinced Vincenzo Marano, a wealthy goldsmith, of the existence of a hidden treasure of large proportions, buried several hundred years prior, at Mount Pellegrino. The young man's knowledge of the occult, Marano reasoned, would be valuable in preventing the duo from being attacked by Djins and other creatures guarding the treasure. Through prayer, fasting and animal sacrifice, the negative influences of the spirits guarding the treasure could effectively be countered. However, in preparation for the expedition to Mount Pellegrino, Giuseppe requested seventy pieces of silver from Marano.

When the time for the two to dig up the supposed treasure came, Balsamo attacked Marano, who was left bleeding and wounded, wondering what had happened to the boy—in his mind, the beating he had been subjected to had been the work of Djins or some other magical creature.

The next day, Marano paid a visit to Giuseppe's house at Via Perciata (since then renamed Via Conte di Cagliostro), where he learned the young man had left the city.

It was the year of 1764 and Balsamo (accompanied by two accomplices) rapidly fled to the city of Messina. Where the trio took from there is unclear, but at any rate, by 1765-66, Giuseppe found himself in the island of Malta, where he became an auxiliary (donato) for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and his skills as a pharmacist were soon noted.


His stay in Malta didn't last long and he left for Rome in early 1768, where he managed to land himself a stable job as a secretary to Cardinal Orsini. The job proved boring to Balsamo and he soon started leading a double life, selling magical amulets and forgeries. Of the many Sicilian expatriates and ex-convicts he met during this period, one introduced him to a young, fourteen year old girl named Lorenza Feliciani, whom he soon married.

The couple moved in with Lorenza's parents and her brother in the Vicolo delle Cripte. Giuseppe's coarse language and the way he incited her to display her body contrasted deeply with her parents' deep rooted religious beliefs. After a heated discussion, the young couple left.

At this point Balsamo befriended Agliata, a forger and swindler, who taught Giuseppe how to use his talent for drawing to his advantage. This meant he would teach him how to forge letters, diplomas and a myriad of other official documents. In return, though, he sought sexual intercourse with Balsamo's young wife, a request to which he heeded.

The couple travelled together to London, where he supposedly met the Comte de Saint-Germain. He travelled throughout Europe, especially to Russia, Germany, and later France. His fame grew to the point that he was even recommended as a physician to Benjamin Franklin during a stay in Paris.

Affair of the diamond necklace

He was prosecuted in the affair of the diamond necklace which involved Marie Antoinette and Louis René Édouard, cardinal de Rohan, and was imprisoned in France for fraud. He was held in the Bastille for nine months, but finally acquitted, when no evidence could be found connecting him to the affair. Nonetheless, he was asked to leave France, and left for England. Here he was accused by Theveneau de Morande of being Giuseppe Balsamo, which he denied in his Open Letter to the English People, forcing a retraction and apology from Morande.

Betrayal and imprisonment

Cagliostro left England to visit Rome, where he met two people who proved to be spies of the Inquisition. Some accounts hold that his wife was the one who initially betrayed him to the Inquisition. On December 27, 1789, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo. Soon afterwards he was sentenced to death on the charge of being a Mason. The Pope changed his sentence, however, to life imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo. After attempting to escape he was relocated to the Fortress of San Leo where he died not long after.

He was an extraordinary forger. In his autobiography, Giacomo Casanova narrates an encounter with Cagliostro who was able to forge a letter of Casanova despite being unable to understand it.

Occult historian Lewis Spence comments in his entry on Cagliostro that the swindler put his finagled wealth to good use by starting and funding a chain of maternity hospitals and orphanages around the continent.

In fiction

  • Alexandre Dumas, père used Cagliostro in several of his novels.
  • Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote the supernatural love story Count Cagliostro where the Count brings to life a long dead Russian Princess, materializing her from her portrait. The story was made into a 1984 Soviet TV movie Formula lyubvi (Формула любви/Formula of Love).
  • The Phantom comic book featured Cagliostro as a character in the story "The Cagliostro Mystery" from 1988, written by Norman Worker and drawn by Carlos Cruz.
  • In the DC Comics universe, Cagliostro is described as an immortal (JLA Annual 2), a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci as well as an ancestor of Zatara and Zatanna (Secret Origins 27).
  • In the Image comic book series Spawn, a mystic entity known as Cogliostro is the mentor of Spawn.
  • Cagliostro has been played in film by Orson Welles (Black Magic, 1949), Howard Vernon (Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, 1972), Nodar Mgaloblishvili (Formula lyubvi, 1984 (TV)) Nicol Williamson (Spawn, 1997), and Christopher Walken (The Affair of the Necklace, 2001).
  • In the 1943 German epic "Münchhausen", Cagliostro appears as a powerful, morally ambiguous magician, portrayed by Ferdinand Marian.
  • Cagliostro is a character in Robert Anton Wilson's The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles.
  • Cagliostro is frequently alluded to in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum.
  • Mikhail Kuzmin wrote a novella called The Marvelous Life of Giuseppe Balsamo, Count Cagliostro (1916).
  • Cagliostro appears as a criminal mastermind bent on upsetting the world economy with lead bars temporarily turned to gold in the Wonder Woman episode "Diana's Disappearing Act".
  • Cagliostro is Dracula's arch-foe and Marie Laveau's lover in Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula series, and is impersonated by Sise-Neg, an enemy of Doctor Strange, in Marvel Premiere.
  • Cagliostro is a character in Psychoshop, a novel by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny.
  • Josephine Balsamo, a descendent of Joseph Balsamo who calls herself Countess Cagliostro, appears in Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin novels.
  • In reference to the above, one of the Lupin III movies goes by the title of The Castle of Cagliostro, though it holds no relation to the historical figure.
  • Cagliostro makes several cameo appearances as a vampire in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula novels. In Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha, he finds his magic defeated by Orson Welles' conjuring tricks, a sideways reference to the film Black Magic mentioned above.
  • Cagliostro appears as a character in the anime series, Le Chevalier D'Eon, by Production I.G.

Links and references

Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Cagliostro, Alessandro, Count.
  • Biography from, identifying him with Giuseppe Balsamo.
  • Biography from, an account that just denies this hypothesis without giving a reason.
  • Biography from The Psychic Investigator.

Further reading

  • W. R. H Trowbridge: Cagliostro: Savant or scoundrel? - The true role of this splendid, tragic figure (1910)
  • Alexander Lernet-Holenia: Das Halsband der Königin (Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Hamburg/Vienna, 1962, historical study on the Affair of the diamond necklace, including a description of Cagliostro's background)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Alessandro_Cagliostro". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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