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Every Italian city has its saintly protector, and also its own not-so-saintly one: Politician Niccolò Macchiavelli
of Florence, seducer Giacomo Casanova of Venice, comedian Totò (Antonio
de Curtis) of Naples. Some would say that the secular folk hero embodies
a city's true spirit as no patron saint ever could. With the passing centuries,
he becomes the true model for his fellow citizens. Duiring his lifetime,
however, the native son is loved because he seems to typify the people of
his city. He is the classic "local boy who makes good" in a larger
Which historical figure could be said to be the embodiment of the Sicilian
capital, the very archetypal exemplar of the "Palermitanism" for
which the city is famous today? The most obvious choice is the eighteenth
century charlatan, imposter, alchemist, arch-deceiver and all-around "flim-flam"
man, the so-called Count of Cagliostro. Not surprisingly, his name was not
Cagliostro and he was not a count.
To be sure, the Post-Baroque era of "European Enlightenment"
produced more than its share of scoundrels and swindlers, in real life as
well as fiction --Franz Anton Mesmer, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Tom Jones and
Barry Lyndon, to mention a few. Some had their merits, to be sure. But above
them all stands Cagliostro.
His beginnings were both prosaic and humble. Born in 1743 as Giuseppe
Balsamo in Palermo's Albergheria district, formerly the old Jewish Quarter,
he spent his youth as a street urchin. Afforded an education, he learned
some chemistry and the rudiments of medicine at a monastery but was forced
to flee Palermo when accused of murder following a petty theft and forgery
spree. As they say, a prophet is never appreciated in his own country.
Arriving in the thriving city of Naples, Giuseppe discovered a potential
clientele far greater than anything in Sicily. (Naples was then the third
largest European city after Paris and London.) He wed the beautiful Lorenza
Feliciani, a young woman of extraordinary beauty and grace and, like Balsamo,
boundless ambition. Moving beyond Naples, they decided to work as a team
of con-artists amongst the gullible and thrill-seeking Continental aristocracy.
Alchemy, magic and mysticism were their stock and trade. In 1771 they became
purveyors of "immortal youth" and Lorenza's amorous charms. His
young wife was purported to be a woman of sixty, and yet with the help of
their miracle elixir she allegedly retained her youth, grace and sexual
The shrewd Count of Cagliostro, as he now styled himself, was also quite
busy as a faith healer, mystical philosopher, alchemist and necromancer.
He even earned the trust of the discerning Cardinal de Rohan, to whom he
claimed to have witnessed Jesus' crucifixion by using the the special elixir!
Cagliostro's natural gregariousness, and ever-growing need for cash, motivated
him to found several clubs devoted to "ancient Egyptian" freemasonry.
With a growing demand for his services by wealthy clerics, statesmen and
noblemen, Balsamo became ever wealthier and avaricious. His adventures took
him across Europe, as far as Saint Petersburg. A master of deception, he
remained in one place just long enough to make a good impression without
being called upon to produce tangible results.
By 1785, good sense and healthy skepticism began to uncover Balsamo's
pretensions. A scandal in Paris prompted the authorities to investigate
Cagliostro. He was imprisoned in the Bastille and, when released, ordered
to leave France. During his incarceration, Balsamo's notoriety spread throughout
Europe. By the time he returned to Italy, even the Holy Inquisition was
after him, his wife having denounced him as a heretic to save her own skin.
The Catholic authorities apprehended him in 1789.
Instead of death, he was imprisoned for life in the San Leo Prison in
Urbino. There he remained until his death six years later. He never saw
The people of Balsamo's city named a street after their folk hero, where,
in typical Cagliostro fashion, they identified a house as his birthplace
without having any factual indication that he had ever lived there. The
street, Via Cagliostro, was meant to be a tourist attraction. It has become
a home for cats and rats. Yes, Giuseppe Balsamo truly typifies the spirit
of Palermo --or should it be called "Cagliostroville?"
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.