Sun, Jul 13, 2003 - Page 19 News List

`The Last Alchemist': Turning adversity into triumph and back

Count Alessandro de Cagliostro deceived everyone but his wife, who proved to be his eventual undoing


The Last Alchemist
By Iain McCalman
288 pages

Johann Strauss named an operetta after him, and Mozart fashioned a character like him in The Magic Flute. William Blake rhapsodized about him, and Alexandre Dumas immortalized him in a 10-volume historical romance. Thomas Carlyle and Walter Benjamin philosophized about him. Orson Welles and Christopher Walken went Hollywood with him, portraying him on the big screen. The Prince of Wales entertained him, while Catherine the Great hounded him out of Russia. Napoleon credited him with starting the French Revolution. Casanova spied on him. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette locked him in the Bastille, while Pope Pius VI set the Roman Inquisition after him.

He himself claimed to be a healer, a seer, a magician and an alchemist who could create gold. He presented himself as a colonel, a count, the Great Copt, the mythical priest who founded Egyptian Masonry, and even the 1,400-year-old Wandering Jew. If he lived today, he would probably have his own television show, just after the psychic Jonathan Edwards.

Count Alessandro de Cagliostro is one of those extraordinary figures who channel a particular historical moment while tapping into deeply eternal human drives.

Iain McCalman, the director of the Humanities Research Center at the Australian National University, has written a biography of this rogue. Such a notorious figure has many chroniclers, but if McCalman hasn't dug up new evidence, he has assembled a readable and compact life that gracefully weaves in the politics and passions of the age.

As McCalman relates, this remarkable man had unremarkable beginnings. Born Giuseppe Balsamo in 1743, he lived in one of the most poverty-stricken sections of Palermo, running a predatory street gang at one point, grifting suckers at another.

Yet Balsamo stood out from the run-of-the-mill thugs. A keen

intelligence, magnetic eyes and a golden tongue contributed to his powerful charisma. "He is the most extraordinary person I have ever met," wrote Elisa von der Recke, one of the numerous nobles who fell under his sway. And when Cagliostro's spiritual powers failed to woo, his lovely wife, Seraphina, offered more fleshy enticements to potential benefactors.

But Cagliostro needed the right vehicle for his attributes to catch hold. That came in 1776, during an unhappy sojourn in London, when he joined a Masonic lodge. "Entry into the secret world of Strict Observance Freemasonry at last gave Giuseppe a framework for his remarkable intelligence and ambition," McCalman writes. "Masonry became the crucible of his genius."

It provided a network of contacts and sympathizers throughout Europe and an aura of ancient mystery and magic that Cagliostro (a surname borrowed from an uncle) was able to exploit. He traveled from Warsaw to Paris, from London to St. Petersburg, holding seances, conjuring alchemical transmutations and healing slum dwellers and nobles alike.

The immense popularity of Cagliostro highlights the limits of such tidy nomenclature as "the Age of Reason." Periods of social upheaval -- whether in late 18th-century revolutionary France, late 19th-century industrializing America or post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s -- are often accompanied by popular fascination with the occult.

Remember that at this time, science still had a mystical side. Friedrich Anton Mesmer was using "animal magnetism" to hypnotize patients in Paris and Vienna, while the scientist Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to be in touch with spirits and angels.

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