My first encounter with the enigmatic figure of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was when doing research for my book, The Masonic Magician: the Life and Death of Count Cagliostro and his Egyptian Rite.
Philippa at the site of Cagliostro’s former house – 1 Rue Saint-Claude, Paris, 2011
IMAGE CREDIT: © Philippa Lee
He immediately came across as something of a mystery, a chimera, one of those flamboyant personalities that compel further investigation.
What started as a fascination with this bombastic character soon turned into something of a historical detective story.
Once I had established who he was – alchemist, traveller, Freemason and healer – my research then uncovered the makings of a tragic tale.
Adored and vilified in equal measure, this was a man who left ripples wherever he went. He careered, from patronage by some of Europe’s finest nobles, to persecution by his dissenters.
Most dangerously, he attracted the attention of the Roman Catholic Church and its feared Inquisition. Labelled a heretic, Freemason and occultist, Cagliostro had caught their eye and garnered their resentment for many years.
His overt spiritual assertions of the immortality of the soul, the path to divinity without a priest and the formation of his Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry made him a suitable target.
During his later life and ultimately his trial, the Church went to great efforts to denounce him. The chapter headings of this book echo these same calumnies – ‘the Imposter’, the Quack’, ‘the Charlatan’, ‘the False Prophet’ – all these ‘titles’ were judgments passed by those who did not understand a man well ahead of his time.
Original copy of Le Maitre Inconnu, Cagliostro 1932.
IMAGE CREDIT: © Philippa Lee – Private Collection
A question I am frequently asked with regard to Cagliostro is, ‘was his true identity Guiseppe Balsamo, the common thief and forger from Palermo, Italy?’ My response is ever the same – I really don’t know!
There are certainly documents provided by the Inquisition (several of which are reproduced in the pages that follow) that may persuade us that this man of apparent integrity and ideals could indeed have been born into a simple family, took a turn for the worse and fled Sicily when his ‘scams’ went wrong. Towards the end of his book, Marc Haven writes:
At the beginning of this chapter we said that the question of the unknown life of Cagliostro was of no importance, and we say it again now at the end, hoping to have proved it. Even if we join his enemies in accepting, without proof, that Balsamo really was Cagliostro, we do not find in this hypothesis anything, which in any way sullies the beauty and nobility of his remarkable life.
A book, La Vie de Joseph Balsamo, was published by the Inquisition and described by Haven, ‘as an apologia for its actions, [and] is a masterpiece of hatred and hypocrisy’.
Steeped in contempt and filled with ludicrous assertions, it was the metaphorical nail in Cagliostro’s coffin. The era was already one of suspicion and fear, with the French Revolution just months away at the time of Cagliostro’s arrest.
His supposed involvement in events such as the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’, the formation of the Bavarian Illuminati, through to his alleged support of the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy, meant that his confused and torture-induced confession literally ‘damned him if he did and damned him if he didn’t’.
Originally condemned and sentenced to death by the Inquisition, this was later commuted to life imprisonment in the Fortress at San Leo in Tuscany.
On 26 August 1795, four years after his incarceration, he died aged 56, a broken and unrepentant man.
The Holy Fathers who oversaw his burial penned this bitter epitaph:
Joseph Balsamo, known as the Conte di Cagliostro, born in Palermo, baptised a Christian but a notorious non-believer and heretic, after having propagated all over Europe the impious dogmas of the Egyptian sect, and having acquired, through his fame and eloquence, an almost innumerable crowd of followers; having undergone various mishaps from which he emerged safe and sound thanks to his magical arts; having been finally condemned by sentence of the Holy Inquisition to perpetual imprisonment in a fortress of this city in the doubtful hope that he would eventually repent; and having with the same obstinacy borne the sufferings of prison for a period of 4 years, 4 months and 5 days, but being finally struck down by a violent attack of apoplexy, which is not unexpected in a man with such stubbornness of heart and unrepentance of soul, died without having given any sign of repentance and without showing any regrets, outside the Communion of our Holy Mother Church, at the age of 52 years, 2 months and 28 days.
He was born in misery, lived in greater misery, and died in the greatest misery on 26th August of the aforesaid year at 3 o ’clock in the morning.
This day, a public supplication was ordered to petition God to, if it were possible, show mercy upon this piece of clay kneaded by His hands. As a heretic, excommunicated and unrepentant, burial in consecrated ground was denied to him: instead he was buried at the very top of the hill on the side where it inclines towards the west, more or less equidistant from the two structures which were built for the sentinels and which are known as Il Palazzetto and Il Casino, on the soil of the Roman Apostolic Curia, on the 28th day of this month at 11 o’clock in the evening.
On the 28th August in the year of grace 1795,
Even after years of research, Cagliostro remains an enigma to me, a character almost frozen in time.
This is the reason why the legend of Count Cagliostro still tantalises us and continues to evoke such strong opinions amongst both his champions and detractors.
Researchers love a mystery, always hoping there will be untold hidden depths to their subjects – I was lucky enough to find those depths in the long forgotten manuscript of Cagliostro’s Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry, which I then had translated.
Along with my co-author Robert L.D. Cooper, we brought his dimly wavering flame back to life.
In this seminal work, Cagliostro, The Unknown Master, Dr Haven is likewise intrigued and yet still often surprised by the Count’s adventures and achievements.
Haven obviously identified with Cagliostro. He was also a man of healing, with a utopian view of life, who later in his life, tried to establish a community with similar aims to the Count’s proscribed ‘way to enlightenment’ – through meditation, prayer, occult learning and Freemasonry.
At medical school Haven had become a friend of Dr Gerard Encausse (known as ‘Papus’) who at a relatively young age was already well established in esoteric circles for his treatises on Kabbalah, Tarot and occult subjects.
In 1894, Papus introduced Haven to the famous healer Nizier Anthelme Philippe (‘Maitre Philippe de Lyon’). Maitre Philippe’s life appears to have closely mirrored Cagliostro’s; he was a healer, occultist, was deeply spiritual and seemingly unswayed by public opinion. Maybe this is why Haven felt compelled to help rehabilitate the Count’s reputation with the publication of his book.
Throughout the pages Cagliostro appears all at once as both Master of magic and the archetypal rogue – he plays with our sensibilities yet enriches our opinion of him, even where it seems incredulous.
He was an unquenchable flame of a man, existing ahead of his time, worshipped and condemned in equal measure. His detractors poured venom on his reputation whilst his supporters fanned the flames of his successes.
And succeed he did, for after nearly 220 years, his memory and Masonic ritual lives on. Whether it is ridiculed or revered, that he left his mark on history is without doubt.
Standing, from left to right: Jean Chapas, Dr Gérard Encausse (‘Papus’), the author Dr Emmanuel Lalande (pen name ‘Dr Marc Haven’). Seated: Nizier Anthelme Philippe (‘Maître Philippe de Lyons’)
Perhaps you are already well versed in the life of Cagliostro, or merely a lover of eighteenth-century historical figures. Maybe you are drawn like a moth to the bright flame of the Enlightenment era; or possibly have an interest in the occult, Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry.
It is fair to say that, wherever your interest lies, Marc Haven’s book gives a fascinating and unique view of each aspect of this remarkable man.
For the past 8 years I have wanted to shed more light on the life of Cagliostro and it is thanks to the sensitive translation skills of Paul Ferguson, that we can offer the English version of this important book.
This text will peel back another layer of the magic and mystery that surrounds Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, while simultaneously deepening the enigma and legacy of this great man.
Replete with copies of letters from dignitaries praising Haven’s subject and including tales from the mouths of his contemporaries, Cagliostro, the Unknown Master, is a testimony to be reckoned with.
Read on and decide for yourself – Master of magic or seller of snake oil?
Article by: Philippa Lee
Philippa Lee (writes as Philippa Faulks) is the author of eight books, an editor and researcher.
Philippa was initiated into the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) in 2014.
Her specialism is ancient Egypt, Freemasonry, comparative religions and social history. She has several books in progress on the subject of ancient and modern Egypt. Selection of Books Online at Amazon
Cagliostro – The Unknown Master
First published in French in 1912, this detailed and extensively referenced biography of one of history’s most enigmatic figures has the advantage of having been written by one of the early twentieth century’s leading esotericists, Dr. Marc Haven (real name Dr. Emmanuel Lalande).
Born in Lorraine in 1868, and trained as a medical doctor at the University of Paris, Haven (a close associate of the legendary Papus) brought all his scientific training and esoteric knowledge to bear on the mass of source material – often confused, sometimes contradictory, sometimes scurrilous, almost always hostile – which had accumulated around a man who, at various times and places, was described as a thief, an impostor, a philanderer and a charlatan.
The Cagliostro that emerges from these pages – deeply moral, courageous, witty, lovable, a healer of unparalleled talent, a skillful alchemist, an early champion of women’s rights, a reformer of Freemasonry and, above all, a true Christian – is far removed from the absurd diamond-encrusted charlatan of fiction and film.
Haven’s meticulous analysis of the writings of those who knew the man on a day-to-day basis and his willingness to let him speak for himself in his own noble and powerful words, restore him to his rightful place as one of the truly great figures of Western esotericism as well as a man who, had he succeeded in two of his major projects – preventing the French Revolution and persuading the Roman Catholic church to embrace his Egyptian Rite – would have changed the course of history.
By turns hilarious and deeply moving, Haven’s book remains, despite its age, one of the most colourful and comprehensive sources of information about this enigmatic figure as well as one of the finest esoteric biographies ever written.
Paul Ferguson’s translation of Haven’s revised and corrected text is enriched with a short biography of the author, prefaces by ‘Secret History of the World’ author Jonathan Black and leading occult writer and Cagliostro expert Philippa (Lee) Faulks, and a list of English-language Internet sources.
Anyone with an interest in 18th century social and cultural history will enjoy this book, as well as esotericists, Rosicrucians, Freemasons and anyone concerned to see one of history’s most maligned figures portrayed in his true light.
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