The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason
by Iain McCalman
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
It’s sort of like a Horatio Alger tale, but without the strong moral center. In The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason, author Iain McCalman traces the strange life of Giuseppe Balsamo, who rose above his humble beginnings in a Palermo slum to become a cause celebre amongst the nobles of Europe in the later half of the 18th Century as the self-proclaimed Count Allesandro di Cagliostro, Freemason, Healer and all-around wonder worker.
Unfortunately, the details of Balsamo’s life don’t quite live up to the hard-sell tactics of the book’s grandiose title. Rather than a “master of magic,” readers are subjected to the exploits of a piggish lout and charlatan who had no discernible skills and made no discernible contributions, but who nevertheless managed to generate enough buzz to cultivate a sketchy sort of infamy. And though he lived and died almost two centuries ago, you might consider Cagliostro the perfect man for our times; were he alive today he’d no doubt have his own reality series on FOX and be a firm fixture in that realm of quasi-celebrity graced by the likes of Paris Hilton, Lizzie Grubman and Monica Lewinsky. Cagliostro, toast of the Hamptons!
What really makes Cagliostro’s story the least bit interesting is the people he encounters during the course of his wanderings: his teenaged tenure with the rich and powerful Knights of Malta (where he gained the knowledge of chemistry and medicine that served him so well later in his life); a friendship-turned-rivalry with the fabled Casanova; brushes with great rulers of the time, from French queen Marie-Antoinette, to Catherine the Great, empress of Russia; his central role in the infamous scandal that has since become known as the affair of the necklace.
For good or ill, Cagliostro had a talent for inserting himself into many of the socially relevant events of his day. He accomplished this through Mysticism, as embodied in the Masonic movement that was spreading like wildfire all over Europe at the time. Reinventing himself as “The Great Copt,” Cagliostro flimflammed his way into blue-blood circles with his teachings of Egyptian Freemasonry, which he largely made up. As his teachings spread, so did his reputation, granting him instant access to the upper classes wherever he went—a perk that came in very handy whenever his scams were discovered, forcing him to flee in the night.
Cagliostro further enhanced his social standing by setting up healing clinics that treated the poorest members of society free of charge, oftentimes with great success. In fact, it was in his healing ability that Cagliostro showed his greatest measure of genuine talent. Unfortunately, it would so arouse the ire of the local physicians that they would mount vicious campaigns to discredit the healer as a fraud—not a difficult task, considering Cagliostro’s otherwise deceitful tactics.
Still, Cagliostro might have better weathered these skirmishes if not for his appalling conceit. His enormous ego would not permit the slightest bruise, and he would often engage in bitter and very public feuds in an attempt to discredit those who were trying to discredit him. And while this served to keep him in the public eye, it also garnered him many powerful enemies, including the Bourbon Monarchy, rival Masonic sects, the Inquisition and Pope Pius VI.
This shadowy pedigree has earned Cagliostro a somewhat sultry reputation in the annals of both European and Occult history. Some historians even go so far as say that he sparked the French Revolution. But that’s giving him way too much credit.
In fact, Cagliostro’s lack of credibility was one of the main failings of this book. Author McCalman serves up a slice of latter 18th Century Europe as viewed through the prism of gossip, scandal and social scheming that surrounded one of the period’s dodgiest figures. And while this approach may appeal to those looking for some reading material to fill in the gaps between weekly deliveries of The National Enquirer, most readers of popular history will probably find it lacking.
Do not misinterpret this as a slight to McCalman’s writing ability. While his prose might not have the panache of contemporaries such as Simon Winchester or Erik Larson, he’s certainly no hack. The short-comings are all in the subject matter, and McCalman’s over-reliance on Cagliostro’s folk hero status to sustain the image of a charming rogue who bucked the so-called “enlightened” ideals of the time to propel himself to everlasting fame. He even closes the book with this quote from a present day Cagliostro enthusiast in Palermo:
“Cagliostro may have been a crook, but he had a great soul.”
Were that that were true. Then this book might actually have been interesting. But it’s not. Cagliostro was a liar, a cheat and a buffoon who was so driven by his own grandiose self importance that he pimped out his wife whenever he thought it might be socially or politically advantageous; a fraud who staged séances to prey of those in grief and rigged alchemical experiments to manipulate people’s greed; an all-around reprehensible boor that no amount of McCalman’s nostalgic spinning can redeem.
Granted, Cagliostro was certainly a tumultuous figure living in tumultuous times, but the man’s legacy is ultimately a reflection of the man himself: without substance.