The history of Cagliostro is 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.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe relates in his Italian Journey that the identification of Cagliostro with Giuseppe Balsamo was ascertained by a lawyer from Palermo who, upon official request, had sent a dossier with copies of the pertinent documents to France. Goethe met the lawyer in April of 1787 and saw the documents and Balsamo's pedigree: Balsamo's great-grandfather Matteo Martello had two daughters: Maria, who married Giuseppe Bracconeri; and Vincenza, who married Giuseppe Cagliostro. Maria and Giuseppe Bracconeri had three children: Matteo; Antonia; and Felicità, who married Pietro Balsamo (the son of a bookseller, Antonino Balsamo, who had declared bankruptcy before dying at age 44). The son of Felicità and Pietro Balsamo was Giuseppe, who was christened with the name of his great-uncle and eventually adopted his surname, too. Felicità Balsamo was still alive in Palermo at the time of Goethe's travels in Italy, and he visited her and her daughter.
Cagliostro himself stated during the trial following the Affair of the Diamond Necklace that he had been born of Christians of noble birth but abandoned as an orphan upon the island of Malta. He claimed to have travelled as a child to Medina, Mecca, and Cairo and upon return to Malta to have been admitted to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, with whom he studied alchemy, the Kabbalah, and magic.
He was born to a poor family in Albergheria, which was once the old Jewish Quarter of Palermo, Sicily. Despite his family's precarious financial situation, his grandfather and uncles made sure the young Giuseppe received a solid education: he was taught by a tutor and later became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God, from which he was eventually expelled.
During his period as a novice in the order, Balsamo learned chemistry as well as a series of spiritual rites. In 1764, when he was seventeen, he convinced Vincenzo Marano—a wealthy goldsmith—of the existence of a hidden treasure buried several hundred years prior at Mount Pellegrino. The young man's knowledge of the occult, Marano reasoned, would be valuable in preventing the duo from being attacked by magical creatures guarding the treasure. In preparation for the expedition to Mount Pellegrino, however, Balsamo requested seventy pieces of silver from Marano.
When the time came for the two to dig up the supposed treasure, Balsamo attacked Marano, who was left bleeding and wondering what had happened to the boy—in his mind, the beating he had been subjected to had been the work of djinns.
The next day, Marano paid a visit to Balsamo's house in via Perciata (since then renamed via Conte di Cagliostro), where he learned the young man had left the city. Balsamo (accompanied by two accomplices) had fled to the city of Messina. By 1765–66, Balsamo found himself on the island of Malta, where he became an auxiliary (donato) for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and a skilled pharmacist.
In early 1768 Balsamo left for Rome, where he managed to land himself a job as a secretary to Cardinal Orsini. The job proved boring to Balsamo and he soon started leading a double life, selling magical "Egyptian" amulets and engravings pasted on boards and painted over to look like paintings. Of the many Sicilian expatriates and ex-convicts he met during this period, one introduced him to a fourteen-year-old girl named Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani, whom he married.
The couple moved in with Lorenza's parents and her brother in the vicolo delle Cripte, adjacent to the strada dei Pellegrini. Balsamo's coarse language and the way he incited Lorenza to display her body contrasted deeply with her parents' deep rooted religious beliefs. After a heated discussion, the young couple left.
At this point Balsamo befriended Agliata, a forger and swindler, who proposed to teach Balsamo how to forge letters, diplomas and myriad other official documents. In return, though, Agliata sought sexual intercourse with Balsamo's young wife, a request to which Balsamo acquiesced.
The couple traveled together to London, where Balsamo allegedly met the Comte de Saint-Germain. He traveled throughout Europe, especially to Courland, Russia, Poland, Germany, and later France. His fame grew to the point that he was even recommended as a physician to Benjamin Franklin during a stay in Paris.
On April 12, 1776 Balsamo was admitted as a Freemason of the Esperance Lodge No. 289 in Gerrard Street, Soho, London. In December 1777 Balsamo and his wife left London. In February 1779 Balsamo traveled to Mitau. In September 1780 Balsamo made his way to Strasbourg. In September 1781 Egyptian Freemasonry was mentioned for the first time. In October 1784 Balsamo travelled to Lyon. On December 24, 1784 he founded the mother lodge La Sagesse Triomphante of his rite of Egyptian Freemasonry at Lyon. In January 1785 Balsamo went to Paris in response to the entreaties of Cardinal Rohan.
He was prosecuted in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace which involved Marie Antoinette and Prince Louis de Rohan, and was held in the Bastille for nine months but finally acquitted, when no evidence could be found connecting him to the affair. Nonetheless, he was asked to leave France, and departed for England. There he was accused by Theveneau de Morande of being Giuseppe Balsamo, which he denied in his published Open Letter to the English People, forcing a retraction and apology from Morande.
Betrayal, imprisonment, death and legacy
Cagliostro left England to visit Rome, where he met two people who proved to be spies of the Inquisition. Some accounts hold that his wife was the one who initially betrayed him to the Inquisition. On 27 December 1789, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo. Soon afterwards he was sentenced to death on the charge of being a Freemason. The Pope changed his sentence, however, to life imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo. After attempting to escape he was relocated to the Fortress of San Leo where he died not long after.
Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco credits to Balsamo the creation of the Egyptian Rite of the Freemasons and intensive work in the diffusion of Freemasonry, by opening lodges all over Europe and by introducing the acceptance of women into the community.
Cagliostro was an extraordinary forger. Giacomo Casanova, in his autobiography, narrated an encounter in which Cagliostro was able to forge a letter by Casanova, despite being unable to understand it.
Occult historian Lewis Spence comments in his entry on Cagliostro that the swindler put his finagled wealth to good use by starting and funding a chain of maternity hospitals and orphanages around the continent.
He carried an alchemistic manuscript The Most Holy Trinosophia amongst others with him on his ill-fated journey to Rome and it is alleged that he wrote it.
Appearances in fiction
He is mentioned in the story The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann where Spalanzani is said to look like a painting of Cagliostro by Chodowiecki.
He appears as a principal character in the 1794 opera Le congrès des rois, a collaborative work of 12 composers.
The French composer Victor Dourlen (1780–1864) composed the first act to Cagliostro, ou Les illuminés which premiered on 27 November 1810. The second and third act were composed by Anton Reicha (1770–1836).
The Irish composer William Michael Rooke (1794–1847) wrote an unperformed work Cagliostro.
Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote the supernatural love story Count Cagliostro where the Count brings to life a long dead Russian princess, materializing her from her portrait. The story was made into a 1984 Soviet TV movie Formula of Love.
The Phantomcomic book featured Cagliostro as a character in the story The Cagliostro Mystery from 1988, written by Norman Worker and drawn by Carlos Cruz.
The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, was adapted from an original story treatment by Nina Wilcox Putnam titled "Cagliostro". Based on Cagliostro and set in San Francisco, the story was about a 3000-year-old magician who survives by injecting nitrates.
There are numerous references to Cagliostro in the detective novel He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson), one of his Dr. Gideon Fell mysteries, published by Hamish Hamilton (UK) & Harper (USA) in 1946. In this book, a French professor, Georges Antoine Rigaud, has written a history: Life of Cagliostro. Also an attempted murder committed in He Who Whispers is similar in technique to part of an initiation ceremony undergone by Cagliostro into the lodge of a secret society.
Faulks, Philippa and Cooper, Robert L.D., The Masonic Magician; The Life and Death of Count Cagliostro and his Egyptian Rite, London, Watkins, 2008.
Camilo Castelo Branco: "Compêndio da Vida e Feitos de José Bálsamo Chamado Conde de Cagliostro ou O Judeu Errante", excerpts from the process against him in Rome, on 1790. Translated from the Italian by the author. Livraria Chardron, de Lelo & Irmão, editores, R. das Carmelitas, 144, Porto, Portugal. Date unknown.