The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro By Iain McCalman

The extraordinary career of Count Cagliostro - master forger, fraudster and occultist - both dazzled and bemused his contemporaries. Bill Saunders charts the spectacular rise and fall of a man who found fame but lost his liberty
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The Independent Culture

In April of 1791 Count Cagliostro was imprisoned for life in the Papal fortress of San Leo, after he had been accused and found guilty by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, for freemasonry, fraud, and starting the French Revolution. The last charge was somewhat exaggerated.

Politically Cagliostro was such a buffoon that he had gone to Rome optimistic that the Pope would grant official recognition to the Ancient Order of Egyptian Freemasonry. The Order had limited existence outside of Cagliostro's imagination, and dated back all of 15 years. The same spirit of optimism had taken Cagliostro to St Petersburg in 1779, where he had expected to charm Catherine the Great into bed. His was a devious life, but beneath everything Iain McCalman detects a beguiling streak of naïveté, if not innocence.

Cagliostro was a brilliant manipulator of others in the confined space of a drawing room, but unable to grasp that more sophisticated manipulators still had elevated him into a champion in the cause of Liberty, famous across a very restless Europe. He was an unlikely candidate, and his brief but mesmerising career puzzled his contemporaries as well as the dwindling band of historians who have taken any interest in him since. Evidently his reputation was built on charisma, but the portraits, sculptures and descriptions left to us are not very promising material for reconstructing the mystique.

His life began as it ended, in a cell. A poor boy from Palermo, he became a novice monk, apprenticed to the monastery apothecary and alchemist, Father Albert. Cagliostro gave many different accounts of his life in the course of his career, but Father Albert featured in all of them in one guise or another. Whether the old monk initiated his pupil into the arts of charlatanism, as McCalman suspects, or whether he innocently passed on a folkloric science which gave as much weight to conjuring as to chemistry, the boy remained grateful and remembered the debt. Eventually Father Albert's magic was to dazzle Enlightened Europe.

Forced to leave Sicily under various clouds, Cagliostro surfaced in Malta among the redundant crusading order of the Knights of St John. Here he worked quietly at his alchemical experiments, won golden opinions and left for Rome with a pocketful of excellent references. He was a talented young man, a good artist as well as an excellent forger, and presumably a qualified apothecary too. He preferred crime, however, and was cemented into that way of life when he fell in love with and married the 14-year-old daughter of a brass worker.

Seraphina was a natural beauty and under her husband's tuition soon became an accomplished seducer. For a decade they roamed Europe together. At times they lived off the simple ruse of Seraphina acting the ingenue for passing libertines, with Cagliostro showing up half way through as the outraged and very dangerous husband. At other times Seraphina went out on extended loan to wealthy patrons, who retained Cagliostro for his alchemical and forgery skills.

It was a life which had its ups as well as downs, but was certainly in a trough when the couple were in London in 1776, and Cagliostro was initiated into a shabby lodge of Freemasons and then happened upon a manuscript which claimed to prove the Egyptian origins of Freemasonry. This proved to be the alchemical catalyst which changed their lives.

Drawing on Father Albert's magic and his own travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cagliostro promoted himself as the ambassador of a pure and unbroken tradition of Egyptian Freemasonry. He answered the hunger for authenticity that is always found among enthusiasts for occultism, as he made a brilliant progress across Northern Europe, becoming bolder every step of the way. In St Petersburg, rejected by Catherine, he opened a free clinic for the poor which soon became a sensation among high society (much as Rasputin was to do 125 years later). He repeated this success as he swung South, moving on whenever doubts began to surface. He arrived in Paris a celebrity, and was imprisoned in the Bastille where he became a cause.

The imprisonment was plainly unjust, and the injustice was exploited by anti-monarchist factions. Cagliostro had become entangled in the lies of a swindler named Jeanne La Motte, who had more or less plucked his name out of the air as a culprit for her own crimes. Cagliostro emerged a hero to the people, an enemy of authority. He was hounded from Paris and then London by the French secret police (and the ridicule of London Freemasons who knew Freemasonry was founded in a pub in Drury Lane rather than Egypt). He found sanctuary with a knot of devoted followers in Switzerland but his own restlessness provoked quarrels here. Then he moved on to Rome where Seraphina betrayed him to the Inquisition.

Iain McCalman sees this as a picaresque life and tells it as such against the background of his excellent knowledge of 18th-century low life. He dedicates only one, albeit brilliantly succinct, chapter to Cagliostro's significance. Why was Europe so receptive to Cagliostro? There is surely more here than exploitation of individual hopes and wishes. The more serious-minded and respectable occultist, Louis de St Martin, for example was appalled by Cagliostro, but took his abilities very seriously.

Thomas Carlyle took Cagliostro seriously too, and gave him the epigraph to his famous history of the French Revolution. Carlyle saw Cagliostro's irrationality as truer to the spirit of 1789, than Rousseau's reason. More recently, Robert Darnton's 1968 study of the career of Franz Mesmer revived this argument. We should not take it for granted that it was the Enlightenment which brought the ancien régime to an end. The appetite for novelty of any description, the scepticism which is willing to believe everything rather than nothing, no doubt also played their part. The spectre of Cagliostro haunts civilisation still.