Snake Oil Salesman or Healer: The Curious Life of Giuseppe Balsamo

Balsamo was born in the Albergheria district of Palermo. Far from the much-vaunted climes of his invented alias Cagliostro, Giuseppe came from a poor family; his father was the son of a bookseller. Given the nature of history, there would be little cause to remember Balsamo had he not taken the assumed identity of Count Alessandro Cagliostro and embarked on a career of fakery, forgery, finagling and pharmacy. At least, that is what most historians believe. There are still some who find the proof for the bookseller’s grandson to be somewhat tenuous and Cagliostro’s deeds to be maligned. There is, indeed, evidence to suggest that the Count turned his hand to helping the destitute.

Giuseppe Balsamo
Giuseppe Balsamo (Public Domain 70+)

It would provoke little debate by suggesting that the young Balsamo was a talented youth. His poor, but educationally rich upbringing saw him educated in the convento di San Rocco and in the convento dei Fatebenefratelli di Caltagirone, although he tried to flee from both institutions and perpetually showed himself unsuited to formal education. Cagliostro’s autobiography paints a different picture, with the Count unsurprisingly claiming noble birth, followed by being mysteriously abandoned on the island of Malta. His supposed childhood peregrinations took in Medina, Mecca and Cairo, with a return to Malta as a member of the Knights Hospitaller.

Balsamo, on the other hand, got into an altercation with a goldsmith called Marano over “hidden treasure” buried on the slopes of Monte Pellegrino. Let in on the expedition, thanks to a knowledge of herbs and magical rites, Giuseppe asked the smith for money. Needless to say, it seems the young swindler escaped to Messina with the actual rather than buried loot.

For those who want to follow the Cagliostro trail, there is a house in Palermo that purports to be the dwelling once inhabited by his family. In the now appropriately named, Vicolo Conte Cagliostro, in the heart of the Ballarò, is a house thought to be the birthplace of Giuseppe Balsamo. For the later periods in his life, at the height of his fame, you would have to look further afield including England and France.

The Count claimed that his first mentor of substance was a tutor called Altotas who initiated him into the ways of Eastern philosophy and alchemy. In Rome, his, or rather Balsamo’s knowledge of the esoteric was put to nefarious use in the falsification of amulets and other more lucrative official documents. It seems that Giuseppe’s marriage to an ex-pat Sicilian and his conniving with the self-styled, marchese Alliata, led to nothing but trouble. The uncomfortable ménage moved to Bergamo and on to Aix-en-Provence where none other than Giacomo Casanova called him ‘a layabout genius who prefers a vagabond life to a hardworking existence’ – the old phrase involving pots and kettles springs to mind at this point! Balsamo also mixed in Rosicrucian circles, the secret society who followed the tenets set down by Christian Rosenkreuz in the Middle Ages.

From France, the couple moved to Barcelona and Madrid, where beguiled by the fulsome attributes of Balsamo’s wife, the marqués de Fontanar maintained them at his expense. All the while, at each stop on his extraordinary journey, Giuseppe was making contacts, creating a network of well-connected people. In 1772 the pair turned up in France, this time under the protection of a lawyer named Duplessis. Tired of being Balsamo’s unofficial lure, his wife Lorenza Serafina was attracted to the advocate for more than his status. Amidst claim and counter-claim, the unfortunate woman ended back by Cagliostro’s side.

Whilst in France, Count Alessandro became well-known for his curative powers and his talismans. Bruno La Brasca, a Paris-based Cagliostro aficionado, to whom we’re grateful for much information detailed here, quoted this piece concerning his ministrations towards the poor: ‘… Il prolonge la vie, secourt l’indigence. Le plaisir d’etre utile est sa seule récompense’ (… He prolongs life, rescues the destitute. The pleasure of being useful is his only recompense). Maybe we should see Balsamo as a “Robin Hood” figure, hoodwinking the gullible rich with too much time on their hands.

Castel Sant' Angelo
Castel Sant’ Angelo by Jastrow

It is in London that Cagliostro became definitively associated with the masons. He joined a lodge in a tavern in central London, specifically the Esperance in Gerrard Street. The Count is reputed to have created a masonic rite known as the Maçonnerie Egyptienne, which drew on ancient Egyptian ritual and references. Such esoteric learning put him firmly in the path of the Inquisition; unsurprisingly he finished up in Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo. He escaped a death sentence, but ended his days in the San Leo prison.

On his way to this ignominious conclusion to his eventful life, he was implicated in the “Affair of the diamond necklace”, a complicated plot to defraud the French crown jewellers. It was a scandal that had wide-ranging political implications for a declining monarchy, in what was a time of austerity. Some big names were deeply tarnished by the affair, including Marie Antoinette, Cardinal Rohan and Jeanne de la Motte.

Rohan had been persuaded to purchase a very expensive necklace for the Queen, a necklace that Louis XV had originally commissioned for Madame du Barry. The Cardinal, in love with Marie Antoinette, believed he was meeting the Queen at Versailles; in fact, it was a hired prostitute dressed to resemble her. Encouraged by the meeting, he took the necklace, then on loan, to Marie Antoinette’s go-between, who was really acting on behalf of de la Motte. She quickly spirited the diamonds away to England for her own gain. The Countess de la Motte, perhaps to assuage her guilt, accused Cagliostro of being the brains behind the swindle. It was an allegation that saw him jailed in the Bastille. He escaped further punishment, owing to lack of evidence, but was banished from Paris.

More details on the scandal can be found in Evelyne Lever’s book, L’affaire du collier. Count Alessandro, however, sought exile in England, where he gave lessons in the alchemical arts. It was during this period that he was roundly denounced as Giuseppe Balsamo by the journalist, Théveneau de Morande, the type of scribbler who would have been very at home in the United Kingdom’s current tabloid press. It was an accusation that Cagliostro always denied, but little concrete proof was ever offered to disprove it. Nevertheless, owing to the Count’s published Open Letter to the English People, he received a retraction.

The curious life of Balsamo, aka Cagliostro, didn’t end when he died. The vagaries and hidden depths of such a character were bound to be fodder for the literary and artistic imagination. He pops up as Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute; composers such as Johann Strauss and Claude Terrasse dedicated operas to him; the German authors, Goethe and Schiller based works on his personality. Goethe even went in search of Balsamo’s origins, a story he recounts in his Italian Journey. None other than Alexandre Dumas (père) had Joseph Balsamo as a character in several novels. He is almost as prevalent on the big screen, with Christopher Walken playing him in the 2001 film, The Affair of the Necklace.

One of the most interesting depictions comes from another author who buried his identity in a pseudonym, Luigi Natoli, also known as William Galt. Luigi was essentially an author of romanzi d’appendice, someone whose works often appeared in serial form in newspapers or magazines. He wrote more than 25 works in this manner, all set in Sicily. He is most well-known for a novel on the secretive secret, I Beati Paoli (The Blessed Paulists). Cagliostro was one of his other themes and his fictionalized account of the Count’s life can be summed up by translating the cover introduction: ‘Historical novel, memoir, tale of travel and adventure. The story of a man who lived his own life around the myth he had created for himself’. There is no better outline of Giuseppe Balsamo’s life.

Unless someone uncovers a long-lost manuscript, it is extremely unlikely that the real story behind the smoke-screen of Cagliostro’s career will ever be truly known. Perhaps it is the mystery that still draws us to this contradictory man, someone capable of hoodwinking the rich, selling “snake oil” to the gullible, whilst continuing to indulge a more altruistic side.

Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Click the cover to view on Amazon (available across Europe and the US). Click here to follow their further literary adventures on Facebook.

Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

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