A lively bio of the once celebrated, but now little remembered, charlatan and troublemaker.
Australian humanities scholar McCalman, a learned student of the dark side of the Romantic era, has an excellent subject in the Sicilian count Alessandro di Cagliostro (1743–95), a formerly disavowed son of Palermo who has lately been honored with an alley in his name. And what better patron saint for Palermo? So asks an Italian journalist McCalman interviews. Though an “all-around flim-flam man” and “arch-deceiver,” Cagliostro had tremendous likability and undeniable charisma at his service, and with these qualities he ranged among the courts of Europe gathering acolytes and allies and expounding a weird philosophy that he called “Egyptian freemasonry,” which borrowed freely from Judaism and Islam—enough so to raise cries of heresy wherever he went. With his promises of turning base elements into gold and his habit of playing with other people’s money acquired through various exercises in faith-healing, Cagliostro got himself in trouble everywhere he went; he did time in the Bastille, incurred the considerable wrath of Catherine the Great of Russia, and wound up one of the last victims of the Roman inquisition, which saw to it that Cagliostro spent the last years of his life rotting away in prison. Cagliostro seems to have been most effective, in fact, in uniting scattered European intellectuals in a hatred of him: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for one, despised him with a burning passion, though William Blake adored him. Though surely a cad and a quack, writes McCalman, Cagliostro was honest in his own way: he “rarely made wild claims for the chemical values of his nostrums,” insisting that any cures that came to his patients were the result of divine intervention; and he was genuine in his belief that freemasonry could bring about a reconciliation of religions and governments, and with it peace.
Small wonder that politicians, poets, and popes were after his head. McCalman opens the files on a fascinating character—a con man for the ages.