Allessandro Cagliostro – Imposter and Adventurer

Count Alessandro di Cagliostro
(1743 – 1795)

On August 26, 1795, Italian physician, occultist and adventurer Giuseppe Balsamo aka Count Alessandro di Cagliostro passed away. The history and stories around Cagliostro are shrouded in rumour, propaganda, and mysticism. Some effort was expended to ascertain his true identity when he was arrested because of possible participation in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

Despite the fact that Giuseppe Balsamo had to deal with a poor financial situation from early years on, he received a good education and became a novice at church later on. This duty influenced him critically. Balsamo learned chemistry in these years while getting to know many spiritual rites. Back then he was befriended with Vincenzo Marano, who was financially in a good position and asked by Balsamo to explore Mount Pellegrino for a hidden treasure. The two men agreed to follow the myth and Balsamo was supposed to use his occult knowledge in order to be safe in case of attacks by various creatures. During the journey, Balsamo attacked Marano just before they dug out the possible treasure and fled to the island of Malta. He became a pharmacist and helped the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in this period.

The restless chemist and alchemist was not yet tired of his adventures and traveled to Rome, becoming a secretary to a cardinal. From there, he started living a double life, selling magical amulets and fake paintings in his free time. He quickly learned how to forge important documents like diplomas or letters and continued his journey along with his young wife Lorenza. Starting from London, they traveled through Europe, increasing his reputation and fame. While staying at Paris, he was even recommended as a physician to Benjamin Franklin. His journey continued across Europe in 1776 and about a decade later, he left for Paris at the request of a cardinal.

During the Affair of the Diamond Necklace during the 1780s, Cagliostro was a suspect and held in prison for almost a year. Fortunately for him, no evidence against him could be found and he was again a free man, almost. He was departed to England afterwards where he was accused of being Giuseppe Balsamo. In an open letter he was able to convince the public that he wasn’t. However, he left again for Rome, where he was imprisoned by the Inquisition and sentenced to death for Freemasonry. Even though his penalty was changed to life imprisonment, he passed away after trying to escape.

The myths around Allessandro Cagliostro are numerous. It is said, that a great part of the money he made from forging was spent for good causes like maternity hospitals and orphanages. His interest in alchemy is undeniable. When he got arrested in Rome, he brought an alchemistic manuscript with him and it is assumed that he was its author.

Alessandro di Cagliostro was one one the most controversial figures during the enlightenment period. Historians still discuss his ‘achievements’ during these days.  Cagliostro is often illustrated either as a hero or as nothing but a criminal. At yovisto, you may learn more about the Age of Enlightenment by Professor Justin Champion. 

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