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The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason Hardcover – June 3, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Cultural historian McCalman (editor, An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age) presents an enlightening account of the career of one of the most famous charlatans of the 18th century, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. He was born poor, in 1743, in Sicily, where he began his career as a petty street thug. Setting the pattern for the rest of his life, Cagliostro was forced to flee Sicily after defrauding a local merchant. He traveled all over Europe, usually one step ahead of the authorities, spreading his brand of Freemasonry and billing himself as an alchemist and healer. Tremendously charismatic, he gained legions of followers. In Russia, he tried to convert Catherine the Great to Freemasonry, but she viewed him as politically subversive and harried him out of the country. Cagliostro's journeys finally brought him to Italy, where he was hounded as a fake by the newspapers. The amorous adventurer Casanova described Cagliostro as a fraud who fleeced the gullible. While in Italy, his wife, Seraphina, grew tired of all the traveling and the constant bad publicity, and betrayed him to the Inquisition, which, shocked by his Freemasonry and his claims to have supernatural powers, sentenced him to life in prison; he died there in 1795. McCalman's account is adeptly researched and written with a light, charming touch; as the author makes abundantly clear, the Age of Reason was also an age of mysticism and downright quackery. 26 b&w illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

McCalman recounts the astounding adventures of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, the self-proclaimed alchemist and healer who was both revered and reviled by a host of eighteenth-century celebrities. Escaping a life of poverty in his native Sicily, the savvy street urchin turned to deception on a grand scale. Traveling across Europe promoting himself and peddling an odd amalgamation of Freemasonry and mysticism, he managed one narrow escape after another until he was finally imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition in 1789. Charming and outraging monarchs, priests, artists, scientists, physicians, and courtesans with his claims of magical powers, he crossed paths with or influenced Casanova, Catherine the Great, Goethe, Marie Antoinette, Mozart, and William Blake. McCalman, a cultural historian, takes this fascinating treatment a step further by analyzing the amazing scope of the Cagliostro phenomenon in the seemingly incongruous context of Enlightenment Europe. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (June 3, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060006900
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060006907
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,955,714 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book is a delightful insight into one of the most fascinating and influential periods in the history of Western Civilization. This book will be of interest and entertainment to Masons and non-Masons (even anti-Masons) alike.
Professor McCalman is a historian who delights in literary form. In his paper "Cultural History and Cultural Studies: the Linguistic Turn Five Years On" Iain McCalman tells us "Ever since a boy I have always believed intensely in the 'storyness' of life. Our world is suffused with stories. Consciously or not we use them continually to make sense of the mass of incoherent facts and sensations that immerse us."
This shows in his book "The Last Alchemist". Indeed by the fourth page of his introduction he has wasted no time to paint for us with a vivid brush of words:
"The Ballaro market that abuts Cagliostro's birthplace looks, feels, and smells like a casbah. It reminded me of parts of Cairo or even of Zanzibar: frying peanut oil, saffron, cloves, garlic, and rotting garbage. The flagstones are streaked with dust blown from North African deserts or smeared with slops tossed from windows and balconies. You have to step carefully because the tenements cast deep shadows. The paint on most of the buildings is covered in fungal-like stains. Bits of iron hold up the door frame; washing flaps on rigging strung between the houses."
The tone set and our attention grabbed, McCalman does not disappoint and continues to draw us into a very different time when a newborn Age of Reason battled with the institutions that had dominated Humanity since its beginning. A world where a common flimflam man can rise up from the gutter, lie and steal his way to prominence, and before his death help change history itself.
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Format: Hardcover
The new biography of Count Cagliostro, The Last Alchemist, is a fascinating read, the biographical equivalent of a beach book, as it were. Its author, Iain McCalman has done a commendable job of detailing all the important events in the life of this interesting product of this time. The age of enlightenment produced a bursting forth of superstitions and charlatans and the Count Cagliostro will always stand as the supreme example, achieving an immortality that would have thrilled him. His story nicely touches the lives of many other important figures of his time, such as Catherine the Great, Casanova, and many figures of pre-Revolutionary France through his invovlement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The story is told well and swiftly and makes for a great read. It could have been a little longer, though, with added context, such as more information on the political situation in Russia and France or further details on Freemasonry or Rosicrucianism for example, to help the reader understand more fully the world the Count was traveling through and, often, manipulating. Still, a very interesting biography.
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Format: Hardcover
According to Spence's Encyclopaedia of the Occult, Count Cagliostro is "one of the greatest occult figures of all time."(312) In modern culture his name is synonymous with the word `magic', an honour he shares with the infamous Svengali. But who is this legendary figure that captured the attention of queens, popes, poets, mystics and men of science? The mystic and poet, William Blake, painted and wrote about the man; Catharine the Great was motivated to banish him from her realm; Mozart included him in his operatic masterpiece, The Magic Flute; Goethe despised him though claimed Cagliostro as inspiration for his epic poem, Faust. He was famous throughout Europe as a great healer - and testaments to this fact ran into the thousands. At the same time, however, he was known as one of the greatest con men that ever traversed the continent in the eighteenth century. Iain McCalman's new book about this famous though mysterious figure of the Enlightenment, gives us an entertaining and unbiased account of the man in the context of seven `ordeals' during his life.
Giuseppe Balsamo (Cagliostro) was born in Palermo, and quickly learned the ways of the street, travelling later to the exotic lands of Cairo and Alexandria, soaking in their culture, to then become a kind of servant, or donat, with the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John. It is here he was made a member of the order, allegedly learning the many secrets of the ancients. Originally he learned the basics of apothecary in his native land, but furthered his education in the grand alchemical laboratories of the order. Cagliostro was a Freemason, but more particularly a leading proponent of the Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author of this book, Iain McCalman, previously known for the writing or editing of scholarly works, has done a fine job here of turning out an interesting and entertaining piece of popular history. This is the kind of history book I really enjoy- it tells about the life of a colorful and fascinating person who was previously unknown to me. Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (who wasn't a count- the title and name were pure invention) was born with the more prosaic name of Giuseppe Balsamo, in the rough-and-tumble world of mid-18th century Sicily. He grew up amongst cutthroats and con artists and by the time he was barely out of his teens he was himself an accomplished swindler. What makes him interesting is how he "evolved," the company he kept, and how, like a human inkblot, he was perceived differently by those he came in contact with. Cagliostro developed into a topflight alchemist- which in his case meant a combination of apothecary, magician and conman. He became a Freemason, which gave him entry into high places in various countries- but which also caused him to be distrusted and spied upon by those who looked upon Freemasons as secretive, subversive, freethinking and a bit too egalitarian for the standards of the time. Hence, Cagliostro was not on "The A-List" of such heavyweights as the Bourbons, Catherine The Great, and the Catholic Church. Like many swindlers throughout history, Cagliostro eventually came to at least half-believe in his own hokum, and in addition to thinking that he had great spiritual gifts, he also set himself up as a great healer. He set up various clinics throughout Europe where he "treated" (with pills, potions, and the laying on of hands) the poor- at no charge to his patients.Read more ›
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