Alessandro Cagliostro

(1743-1795)

Bio © 2008 Fra. Petros Xristos Magister 

Aleister Crowley considered the 18th-century sorcerer supreme Count Cagliostro to be one of his previous incarnations, and no wonder -- both men dominated the age in which they worked, both travelled widely in search of wisdom, power, and wealth, and both consciously endeavored to make a permanent mark in history, effectively becoming immortalized if not in physical form then at least in the minds of posterity. More than two hundred years after the death of Cagliostro, intellectuals and afficianadoes of mysticism in Europe and America still speak of him, write books about him, and even produce films involving him (most recently, The Affair of the Necklace, an otherwise lackluster 2001 costume drama in which Christopher Walken makes an effective cameo as a particularly sinister-looking Count.) In the half-century since his own death, Crowley has fared equally well in countercultural media. Both men dedicated their lives to the "reformation" of the Masonic brotherhood, both were possessed of large appetites for sensual enjoyment, and both men suffered a series of financial and legal disasters, ending their lives in ignominy and defeat. The clincher for Crowley may be that both shared identical initials.

The man who came to be known as Count Alessandro Cagliostro arose to prominence during a period in European history when alchemy and magic had lost much of their medieval seriousness due largely to advances in materialist science and education; it was the period of the so-called 'Enlightenment' when rationalist and nontheistic philosophy held sway, and the latter part of Cagliostro's career would dovetail with the disastrous fortunes of the French monarchy in the face of revolution.

Iain McCalman's 2003 book, The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason deals with what he takes to be seven key episodes in Cagliostro's life, devoting a chapter each to Cagliostro as "Freemason," "Necromancer," "Shaman," "Copt," "Prophet," "Rejuvenator," and finally "Heretic." It is thus a deliberately episodic biography, so those seeking a comprehensive chronological account may be disappointed. However, the episodic structure makes for enjoyable reading and makes the life of the Count accessible to modern readers. McCalman's account is free of esoteric jargon or theosophical rationalizations, treating Cagliostro as any historical figure -- though clearly an extraordinary man -- and showing a sympathetic attitude toward him without whitewashing his flaws and deceitful strategems.

In his published memoirs (which one must take care to read with a grain of salt, remembering that the author was a master of self-publicity), Cagliostro claimed that he knew neither his parents nor his birthplace, though he suspected that he was born on Malta, significantly the base of the medieval Knights Templar. In fact, the young man who would become the "Count" was born in one of the poorest sections of Palermo, Sicily, and grew up a streetwise survivor before taking on a relative's surname (which he felt to possess a romantic sound) and launching a career of wandering and opportunism among elite European circles of power.

He claimed ot have travelled widely in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically placing himself in the holy city of Medina where he said he used the name "Acharat" and lived in the mufti's palace. Cagliostro indicated that his earliest mentor was a magus by the name of Althotas, who instructed him in the esoteric arts. No mystical pilgrimage would be complete without a visit to the land of Khem, so Cagliostro was sure to tell of his visit to Egypt where, he said, he investigated the secred initiatory chambers of the Pyramids and other ancient edifices, guided by Egyptian wise men. At some point, Cagliostro said he and his mentor visited Malta and were entertained by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. Here, Cagliostro claimed his mentor Althotas died; and thus his student went on to Sicily and other parts of Mediterranean Europe before meeting the Pope.

By 1776 we find the budding alchemist/adventurer in London with his wife Seraphina, courting wealthy patrons and entertaining aristrocrats with seances and alchemical demonstrations. Less than two years later, Cagliostro and Seraphina departed England under a cloud of suspicion, creditors and disgruntled patrons behind them. Thus would begin years of gypsy-like wandering across the various petty courts and aristocratic circles of Europe, years of intermingled success and failure. He suffered embarrassment in cities such as St. Petersburg, where the anti-Masonic Russian ruler Catherine was so unimpressed with Cagliostro's schemes that she published several biting satires of him. Still, Cagliostro did enjoy some success in places such as Warsaw and Strasbourg, where Cagliostro's surprisingly effective healing abilities and innovative free clinics won him many friends and devotees.

Cagliostro's entry into the world of Freemasonry, in 1777, was a turning point in his life; here he found a hospitable atmosphere of conspiracy and fellowship suitable to his gregarious nature. He got the idea, as so many others had, of "reforming" this "ancient" rite; thus came about his concept of an "Egyptian Rite" which would be based upon the esoteric rites he claimed to have witnessed in the Middle East. It would also be open to women, which was something of an innovation at the time, though not unprecedented. Cagliostro's wife Seraphina may have been the inspiration behind this more egalitarian rite of Masonry. Seraphina also features prominently in several other episodes of the magician's life, and is instrumental in his eventual downfall. It is certainly ironic that in an age of rationalism and cynicism, Cagliostro should have found himself running afoul of that most medieval of institutions, the Inquisition. By the 1790s, however, its victims were no longer burnt at the stake, but imprisoned. It was in such a prison -- an inaccessible fort in the wilderness outside of Rome -- that he died of a stroke four years into a life sentence.



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The following continuation of this biography is from a Theosophical Society publication:

Cagliostro made his first speech on Egyptian Masonry in The Hague, where a Lodge was formed in accordance with the Rite. In Nürnberg, when Cagliostro was asked for his secret sign, he replied by drawing the picture of a serpent biting its own tail. This symbol was the "Circle of Necessity" of the ancient Egyptians, and it is also found on the seal of the Theosophical Society. After establishing his Egyptian Rite in other German cities, Cagliostro arrived in Mittau, capital of the Duchy of Courland, in March 1779. The Masonic Lodge in Mittau was composed principally of noblemen, most of whom were interested in some branch of the occult sciences. Cagliostro was immediately invited to give an exhibition of his occult powers. He refused, declaring that such powers should never be displayed for the gratification of idle curiosity. Later, after much persuasion, he consented. As a result, some of his new friends began to look upon him as a supernatural being, while others denounced him as a charlatan.

Cagliostro then proceeded to St. Petersburg, where he appeared for the first time as a magnetic healer. In May, 1780, he arrived in Warsaw, then a great stronghold of both Masonry and Occultism. There he was entertained by Prince Poninski, whose initiation into the Egyptian Rite gained the adherence of a large number of the Polish nobility.

In September, 1780, Cagliostro reached Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. On the morning of his arrival crowds of people gathered on both banks of the Rhine to catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger whose fame as a magnetic healer and friend of humanity had preceded him. From the day of his arrival in Strasbourg Cagliostro gave up his entire time to altruistic service. No sick or needy person appealed to him in vain. Every day he visited the unfortunate, whose distress he relieved not only with money, but, as Baron von Gleichen says, "with manifestations of a sympathy that went to the hearts of the sufferers and doubled the value of the actions." He refused all compensation for his services, and if a present were given to him, he repaid it with a counter present of double value. He supported his poor patients for months at a time, often lodging them in his own house and feeding them at his own table. Like Mesmer, Cagliostro treated his patients magnetically, applying the force directly without the aid of magnetized objects. When he left Strasbourg 15,000 people claimed to have been helped by him.

Shortly after Cagliostro's arrival in Strasbourg he was summoned to the palace of the Prince Cardinal de Rohan, who was deeply interested in the occult sciences and possessed one of the finest alchemical libraries in Europe. When Cagliostro was invited to live in the Cardinal's palace, malicious tongues began to wag, and the rumor spread that His Holiness was spending a fortune upon his new friend. The Baronesse d'Oberkirch repeated the gossip to the Cardinal, who vehemently asserted that "Cagliostro is a most extraordinary, a most sublime man, whose knowledge is equalled only by his goodness. What alms he gives! What good he does! I can assure you that he has never asked for nor received anything from me!"

After leaving Strasbourg, Cagliostro went to Bordeaux and Lyons, where Saint-Martin had formerly lived. These cities welcomed him as a new prophet, and many influential men and women were initiated into his Egyptian Rite. In Lyons his Rite was so highly acclaimed that a special Temple was built for its observance, which later became the Mother Lodge of Egyptian Masonry.

Cagliostro settled in Paris in 1785, and his house on the Rue St. Claude became the talk of the town. The entrance hall was adorned with a black marble slab upon which was engraved Pope's Universal Prayer. Statuettes of Isis, Anubis and Apis stood along the walls, which were covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the two lackeys were clothed like Egyptian slaves as they appear on the monuments of Thebes. Cagliostro received his guests in a black silk robe and an Arabian turban made of cloth of gold and sparkling with jewels. He had a striking countenance with "eyes of fire which burned to the bottom of the soul." Cardinal de Rohan confessed that when he first saw Cagliostro he found a dignity so imposing that he was penetrated with awe. According to Georgel, Cagliostro "lived in the greatest affluence, giving much to the needy and seeking no favors from the rich," although no one seemed to know the source of his income. His friends addressed him as "Grand Master," and busts of le divin Cagliostro adorned the salons of his admirers.

Shortly after Cagliostro's arrival in Paris he was invited to membership in the Philalethès, a Rite founded in 1773 in the Loge des Amis Réunis. The Mother Lodge was a Theosophical organization founded by Savalette des Langes, whose manuscripts, after his death, passed to the Philosophical Scottish Rite. Cagliostro joined the Philalethians hoping to infuse some Theosophical principles into their Rite. There are many landmarks in Cagliostro's biographies showing that he taught the doctrine of the "principles" in man and the presence of the indwelling God, and there seems to be no doubt that he served the Masters of a Fraternity he would not -- could not -- name.

In Cagliostro's letter to the Philalethians he assured them that the "unknown Grand Master of true Masonry" had cast his eyes upon them, as he wished to prove to them "the original dignity of man, his powers and destiny . . . of which true Masonry gives the symbols and indicates the real road." When the Philalethians refused his help, Cagliostro replied: "We have offered you the truth; you have disdained it. We have offered it for the sake of itself, and you have refused it in consequence of your love of forms." Cagliostro's own Egyptian Rite, however, flourished from the moment he reached Paris.

On August 23, 1785, Cagliostro was accused of complicity in the "Diamond Necklace Affair" and sent to the Bastille. After being imprisoned for nine months he was honorably acquitted, but at the same time (as the Queen was implicated in the scandal) he was asked to leave France. Upon his arrival in England he was accused by the French spy Morande of being the notorious Giuseppe Balsamo. Cagliostro refuted Morande's accusation in an Open Letter to the English People. Morande was forced to retract his statements and apologize to his readers. Nevertheless for the past 150 years historians have continued to confound Cagliostro with Giuseppe Balsamo. [In fact, the identification is most likely accurate, as modern biographers assert. -- P]

Broken-hearted by the loss of his good name, Cagliostro left England. After years of wandering he arrived in Rome in the spring of 1789. Making one last desperate effort to revive his Egyptian Rite, he was prevailed upon to initiate two men, who proved to be spies of the Inquisition. On the evening of December 27, 1789, he was arrested and thrown into a dungeon in the Castle of St. Angelo. Shortly afterward he was sentenced to death, the sole charge against him being that he was a Mason, and therefore engaged in unlawful studies.

During his imprisonment Cagliostro's private papers, family relics, diplomas from foreign Courts, his Masonic regalia and even his manuscript on Egyptian Masonry were publicly burned in the Piazza della Minerva. While the condemned Occultist was awaiting his fate, a mysterious stranger demanded an audience with the Pope. He was received, and immediately thereafter Cagliostro's death sentence was changed to life imprisonment in the Castle of St. Leo, located on the frontiers of Tuscany. This Castle stands on the summit of an enormous rock with almost perpendicular sides. Cagliostro was pulled up the side of the mountain in a basket and incarcerated in a dungeon. Here he languished for three years, writing a sentence every day on the walls of his living tomb. The last entry bears the date of March 6, 1795. Exactly seven months later, on October 6, the Paris Moniteur contained a small paragraph announcing that "it is reported in Rome that the famous Cagliostro is dead."

A century and a half have passed since then, and modern Masons, although describing Cagliostro as "a Masonic martyr" (a change of heart due principally, it seems, to the influence of Trowbridge's book), also write of him as a "medium" who perhaps resorted to trickery and employed the devices of a mountebank. How long will thoughtless people continue to defame the good names of the living and mar the memory of the dead by repeating slanders and calumnies? H.P.B. declared that Cagliostro's justification must take place in this century -- a task in which Theosophists can do their part."

(Note that the entirety of the above account is quoted from a Theosophical Society publication of the mid-20th century.)

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