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If this book were a historical novel--say by someone like Gary Jennings--you'd say the author had gone so far overboard in piling up incidents that he strained credulity. That makes it all the more remarkable that Mr. McCalman's is a work of non-fiction. Giuseppe Balsamo, Count Cagliostro (1743-95) led a life filled with love affairs, cons, duels, frauds, pimping, scandals, encounters with the famous and infamous, and shrouded it all in so much mystery--especially Masonic mythology--that it has invited artists from Mozart to Dumas to Goethe to William Blake to Umberto Eco draw upon it for their works. But as this fascinating narrative biography amply demonstrates the topic is nowhere near exhausted.

You can get some sense of Cagliostro's intriguing multiple personalities just from the chapter titles--Freemason; Necromancer; Shaman; Copt; Prophet; Rejuvenator; Heretic--and the Epilogue, appropriately subtitled: Immortal. As the chapters suggest, to some degree, Cagliostro represents the persistence of the supernatural and mystical at the very center of the Age of Reason. Stripped down to essentials that can't possibly begin to do the story justice: Giuseppe Balsamo was low born in Sicily, but styling himself Count Cagliostro, loaning out his beguiling wife, Seraphina, and claiming magical healing powers and both a legitimate background in Freemasonry and a bogus one in an occult Egyptian-rite Freemasonry was able to gain entree to the best social circles in Europe, though he proceeded to be chased from Russia by Catherine the Great, imprisoned in the Bastille by Louis XVI over the notorious "Affair of the Necklace," and died in the prison he'd been sent to by the Inquisition. If all of that sounds entertaining be assured that Mr. McCalman makes it very much so.

However, in the end there's a dark side to the tale too, for the author convincingly argues that Cagliostro did much to make possible the myriad conspiracy theories that did so much damage to Europe in the ensuing decades and some of which persist to this day. Mr. McCalman notes that, on the one hand, popular writers conflated him into the mythical Wandering Jew and made him "a fashionably moody and anguished rebel, tilting against oppressions of the spirit" while, on the other, his presence lurks behind many of the delusions about Masons and Illuminati secretly controlling the world and says:
It would be unfair to blame Cagliostro for the actions of mythologizers, but Umberto Eco has shown that the idea of Masonic conspiracy has borne some terrible fruit. During the early twentieth, Jews rather than Masons became the prime target. By the time it reached a bitter young man in Vienna called Adolph Hitler, the idea had taken a new and monstrous shape. Templars, Illuminati, and Egyptian Masons had given way to the Protocols of Zion, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the world conspiracy of Judaism. Whatever one may think of Cagliostro, it is devastating to think that he was in some way a conduit of the Holocaust.
Even after we grant that some of that is simply an author stretching his subject a tad thin to make him seem more relevant than he might in reality be, it still tells us something, as does Cagliostro's whole career, about the disturbing credulousness that fits so comfortably with modernity's claim to have escaped the superstitions of religion for the bright new world of Reason. The interplay of this theme with Cagliostro's extraordinary life and Mr. McCalman's accessible story-telling makes for an eminently readable and often thought-provoking book.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

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Biography
Iain McCalman Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason by Iain McCalman (Harper Collins)
    -READING GUIDE: The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason by Iain McCalman (Harper Collins)
    -PROFILE: The picaresque life of Cagliostro the chameleon: It's not what you expect of a history professor, but Iain McCalman has produced an acclaimed biography of an 18th-century trickster that is delighting readers. (Michelle Griffin, 8/08/03, The Age)
    -REVIEW: of The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro By Iain McCalman (Brenda Niall, The Age)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Alchemist (EARL L. DACHSLAGER, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Alchemist (Simon Cunliffe, New Zealand Listener)

Book-related and General Links:

    - Alessandro Cagliostro (1743-1795)

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