Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Occultist, Charlatan, Adventurer—Who Was Count Cagliostro?

Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Alessandro Cagliostro achieved immortality in all kinds of ways: through opera, as a screen villain, even as a font. The occultist Aleister Crowley claimed that Cagliostro lived through him, as one of his own earlier incarnations. And while Cagliostro may have preferred to obtain immortality the simple, old-fashioned way—not dying—little about the man was ever that straightforward.

Of course, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro wasn’t even real himself. His title was completely spurious, and his surname was lifted from a rich aunt and uncle. Instead, it was Giuseppe Balsamo who began life in Palermo, the seat of Sicily, on June 2, 1743. He was born to poor parents, though his mother claimed descent from Charles Martel, the medieval Frankish leader who halted the Umayyad Caliphate’s conquest of Europe in 732 C.E. Although his family was poor, Balsamo was reportedly bright, and as a teenager he became a novice with the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God. 

This Catholic order devoted itself to medicine and service. It was here that Balsamo began to learn about pharmacy, though the monastic life did not suit him. After leaving the order (having either escaped or been expelled, depending on the source), he began to focus on a number of talents that served his less than above-the-board career choices. He studied art for a while, which helped his prodigious skill for forgery. He made a name for his knowledge of secret and sacred rites, which reinforced his reputation as a magician. And he began swindling people, including one incident in which he tricked a goldsmith into thinking he’d been attacked by demons while searching for buried treasure (in fact, Balsamo had robbed the goldsmith, and fled Palermo shortly after). 

Cut loose from the city of his birth, Balsamo began traveling the world, or at least around the Mediterranean. It was around then that he reinvented himself as Count Cagliostro, a student of mysteries and alchemy, once an orphan named Acharat in the holy Muslim city of Medina. He claimed to have spent time in Egypt with a mentor named Althotas, who allegedly led alchemical experiments, sought out mystic local rites, and became a Knight of Malta with Balsamo (the details vary depending on the account). Allegedly the pair also traveled as far as Mecca, Ethiopia, and India to learn the arcane arts. In 1768, Cagliostro reappeared in Rome and became secretary to Cardinal Virgilio Orsini, of an illustrious family.

That same year, Cagliostro married Lorenza Feliciani, who preferred to be called Serafina. As it turned out, she also had a gift for scamming people, and the pair became trusted partners in a number of confidence tricks throughout their lives. Some claim that the couple left Rome because they attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Either way, they continued Cagliostro’s earlier travels, performing séances and selling elixirs. In Paris, Cagliostro was welcomed with open arms and supposedly recommended as Benjamin Franklin’s personal physician. In Russia, Catherine the Great wrote scathing verse about their charlatanry. It was in London, however, on April 12, 1776, that Cagliostro was initiated as a Freemason, which began his period of greatest notoriety.

Cagliostro is credited with co-founding Egyptian Freemasonry the early 1780s. The sect is supposedly based on the rites of the ancient deities Isis and Osiris, and features extensive death and rebirth imagery. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute draws strongly from this theme, and some music historians have linked the opera’s wise mystic Sarastro, who triumphs over the Queen of the Night, to Cagliostro. Most importantly, the Egyptian Rite became huge in France, where Cagliostro became immensely popular with the nobility.

In 1785, it all came crashing down. Accounts of Cagliostro’s level of involvement differ, but ultimately the occultist became tied to an incident in which a con artist convinced a cardinal to buy an enormously expensive diamond necklace on behalf of Marie Antoinette (the con artist actually had the necklace sold in London, and pocketed the profit). Cagliostro was arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille for nine months, though a trial could not prove he had any part in the matter. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace, as it became known, so soured the French public that many credit the scandal with contributing to the French Revolution a few years later.

Reconstruction of the necklace involved in the Diamond Necklace Affair,Jebulon via Wikimedia // Public Domain

When Cagliostro was released, his troubles were not over. A muckraker in London publicly accused him of being Giuseppe Balsamo (which he was), with all his attendant past crimes and scams. Cagliostro noisily refuted the claims and earned a retraction. He then returned to Rome in 1789, but despite attempting to earn a living with his usual menu of magic, medicine, and communing with spirits, the Inquisition sniffed him out again. He was arrested that December, and sentenced to death, as Giuseppe Balsamo, for the crimes of freemasonry, heresy, and magic. (Serafina, meanwhile, was shuffled off to a convent.) The pope, however, commuted the execution to life imprisonment. After an attempted escape from the Castel Sant’Angelo near Rome, Cagliostro was sent to the Fortress of San Leo in the north of Italy. He died there on August 26, 1795, at the age of 52. 

One of the few people to interview Cagliostro’s (or Balsamo’s) family—people who had known him in life—was German cultural giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. During a visit to Palermo in 1787, Goethe tracked down none other than Felicità Balsamo, Cagliostro’s mother, who dispelled many of the myths Cagliostro had built up about his early life. Cagliostro had made a great impression on Goethe, for good or ill. Some scholars argue that Cagliostro serves as a model for Goethe’s seminal Dr. Faustus; others, however, point to a less well-intentioned deceiver in the literature—the devil Mephistopheles.

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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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iStock

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

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