"I had often heard Cagliostro talked about at table" - The Italian adventurer and charlatan Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, née Giuseppe Balsamo

7 June 1743, the Italian adventurer and charlatan Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, née Giuseppe Balsamo, was born in Palermo.

“A little before the end of my journey, an interesting adventure happened to me. During my stay at Palermo, I had often heard Cagliostro talked about at table, and stories told of him. The Palermites were all agreed on one point, to wit, that the mysterious personage was no other than a certain Giuseppe Balsamo, who, after more than one piece of scoundrelism, had been driven from the town. He was recognised in the published portraits. I learnt thus that a jurist of Palermo, at the request of the French Ministry, had made inquiries into the origin of this man, who had had the audacity, in the course of a grave and momentous trial, to retail the most absurd fables in the face of all France one may say, of the whole world.“ (Goethe, “Italian Journey”)

Cagliostro studying with Althotas

say that travel broadens the mind. And while the cold winds of Enlightenment began to blow through Europe in earnest and philosophers and scientists and authors set forth to deconstruct cosy myths and starry-eyed belief in miracles, of high and low, and substitute the growing disenchantment of the world with the wonders of science and progress, the breeding grounds of the yearning for nostalgic marvels, secret knowledge and the occult in general grew exponentially as a counter-draft on the eve of the Romantic period as well as that of the French Revolution and the Industrial Age. Thus, a smart and enterprising young man with the conscience of a long dead cat and huge ambitions who had travelled to wonderous places such as Greece, Egypt, Arabia and Persia, studied alchemy with a Greek named Althotas and pharmacy and the Kabbalah with the Knights of Malta, who were, admittedly, not exactly authorities in the latter subjects, had more or less two choices: two become a poor, prosaic scholar of the obscure or a world-class charlatan. Young Giuseppe Balsamo of Palermo chose to be the latter and left Malta in 1766 as the Count Cagliostro and the reputation of being able to perform the opus magnum – to make gold.

Cagliostro predicting a bleak future to the Dauphine

Completing his education with the forger Agliata in Rome, Balsamo married the 14-years old Lorenza Feliciani who was equally unburdened by such trivialities as truthfulness or scruples as he was, and the happy couple travelled across Europe, selling love potions, Egyptian amulets with Giuseppe playing the miracle doctor, seer and mystic and grew rich on it. His involvement in the infamous affair of the diamond necklace, a final nail in the coffin of Marie Antoinette’s reputation, brought him in conflict with the authorities in earnest and into the Bastille for nine months. Set free for want of solid evidence, the Count and Countess Cagliostro left France for England and then Italy where he finally ran afoul of the Inquisition and ended up in the Castel Saint’Angelo, accused of being a freemason, still a capital offence in 1789 in the Papal States. After confessing about everything the inquisitors wanted to hear about to hear about freemasonry, the occult, racy stories about European nobility and whatnot, his death sentence was changed into imprisonment for life and that ended in 1795 in the Fortress of San Leo.

A dramatic photography of a sculpture of Count Alessandro Cagliostro,
created by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741 – 1828) dating around 1786

There is no proof that Balsamo ever was a freemason, with freemasonry then being a melting pot for various ideas of the Enlightenment, science of all sorts and freethinking, dismissing the often still rigid barriers of society within the lodges, but certainly not revolutionary hotbeds as assumed by the reactionary powers all over Europe. Balsamo’s confessions did a lot to confirm some of the more popular myths about freemasonry, even though the real masons would have been and probably were appalled by his mumbo jumbo approach on alchemy and the occult. However, the masterclass charlatan left his mark in the imagination of the European history of mind, from Goethe who felt obliged to visit Balsamo’s family in Palermo to help unmask him and writing a play about Cagliostro’s shenanigans to Dumas, who made him into a master conspirator aiming at bringing House Bourbon to its knees and, of course, Umberto Eco who placed him in a post-modern context in his tongue-in-cheek examination of conspiracy theories, “Foucault’s Pendulum”.

And more about Cagliostro on


and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace on