DeFlip Side #37: Stranger Than Fiction: Cagliostro


Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

While we spend so much time here on Destinies talking about Science Fiction and Fantasy, we shouldn’t forget that there were some people to whom the fantastic was more than just entertainment. It was a way of life. Edgar Casey, Alexander Crowley, Nostrodamus. All of them loom large in occult circles and, for good or ill, people still seek out their teachings today. So I’ve decided to inaugurate yet another occasional DeFlip Side segment called “Stranger Than Fiction” where I’ll explore the actual lives of some of these notorious figures, to see if we can penetrate the veil of mystery that surrounds them and discover how they’ve managed to endure in the margins of history.

I’ll kick things off tonight with a look at one of Europe’s more infamous occult heroes, Count Allesandro di Cagliostro.

Cagliostro’s story reads sort of like a Horatio Alger tale, but without the strong moral center. As presented in the biography 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 sensation 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 his biography’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 encountered 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 the great rulers of the time, from French queen Marie-Antoinette, to Catherine the Great, empress of Russia; he also played a central role in the infamous scandal that has since become known as the affair of the necklace.

Cagliostro had a talent for inserting himself into many of the socially relevant scenes 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 teaching 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 Masons, 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, it’s Cagliostro’s utter lack of credibility that makes me wonder why he has such a cult following today. Certainly, a good share of gossip, scandal and social scheming followed the Great Copt throughout Europe in the latter half of the 18th Century. But I find this scant justification for Cagliostro’s folk hero status and his enduring reputation as a charming rogue who bucked the so-called “enlightened” ideals of the time to propel himself to everlasting fame. Biographer McCalman even closes his book with this quote from a present day Cagliostro enthusiast in Palermo:

“Cagliostro may have been a crook, but he had a great soul.”

If only that were true. Then Cagliostro’s story might actually be 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 on those in grief and rigged alchemical experiments to manipulate people’s greed; an all-around reprehensible boor that no amount of nostalgic spinning can redeem.

Yet the man and the myth endure. He was the inspiration for Mozart’s final opera, The Magic Flute. And he played a pivotal role in Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. And he still has followers today. Plug his name into your favorite search engine, and you’ll find websites lauding his Masonic teachings, despite the fact that he spent the last years of his life rotting in jail, betrayed by his wife to Inquisitional authorities and exposed as a phony. Some devotees even claim that Cagliostro and Giuseppe Balsamo were not the same person, and that the Inquisition fixed the historical record to forever discredit the Great Copt by turning him into a common street thug.

So why do so many people still laud this sad little man? McCalman’s biography tries to answer this question by paraphrasing author Umberto Eco’s thoughts on Cagliostro, in which Eco calls Cagliostro an “empty sign,” a person of such transparent ordinariness, that he’s become a magnet for the multiple fantasies of those who have lost any sense of reality. I suppose that makes as much sense as any other explanation. But I think it’s sad that people are so desperate to keep Cagliostro’s legacy alive and stubbornly see greatness where none exists.

Granted, Cagliostro was certainly a tumultuous figure living in tumultuous times, and his dodgy dealings affected enough legitimately historical figures to keep his name in the footnotes. But the man’s legacy is ultimately a reflection of the man himself: without substance.