June 28, 2011
Luigi Pirandello was born on June 28, 1867 in Caos, a small hamlet in Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily. He studied Philology in Rome and Bonn, and published his doctoral thesis, Sounds and Developments of Sounds in the Dialect of Girgenti, in 1891. He was a prolific writer best remembered for his plays, the most famous of which was, Six Characters in Search of an Author. The dramatist also produced poems, novels and numerous short stories, often expressing tragedy and disillusionment inspired by his own personal experiences. In 1934 Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. To the chagrin of his many apologists the Nobel Prize Laureate was a member of the Fascist Party and donated his gold medal to support the Italian war effort in Abyssinia. The literary giant passed away in Rome on December 10, 1936. Continue reading
Labels: Titans of the South
June 23, 2011
Giambattista Vico (b. June 23, 1668 — d. January 22-23, 1744)
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
"Jove hurls his bolts and fells the giants, and every gentile nation had its Jove.”
“Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.”
“It is a mark of the strong not to lose by sloth what they have gained by valor.”
“Honor is the noblest stimulus to military valor.”
“As the popular states became corrupt, so also did the philosophies. They descended to skepticism. Learned fools fell to calumniating the truth. Thence arose a false eloquence, ready to uphold either of the opposed sides of a case indifferently. Thus it came about that, by abuse of eloquence like that of the tribunes of the plebs at Rome, when the citizens were no longer content with making wealth the basis of rank, they strove to make it an instrument of power. And as furious south winds whip up the sea, so these citizens provoked civil wars in the commonwealths and drove them to total disorder. Thus they caused the commonwealths to fall from a perfect liberty into the perfect tyranny of anarchy or the unchecked liberty of the free peoples, which is the worst of all tyrannies."
(Reprinted from The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Cornell University Press, 1984.)
June 3, 2011
“The Mafia is a human phenomenon and as all human phenomena it has a beginning, an evolution and it will also have an end.” – Giovanni Falcone
‘He [Diogenes of Sinope] used to call the demagogues the lackeys of the people and the crowns awarded to them the efflorescence of fame. He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, "I am looking for a man."’ – Diogenes Laërtius: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VI (translated by Robert Drew Hicks), Loeb Classical Library, 1925
The American fascination with criminals has always been something of a mystery to me. Criminals rob, rape and murder with impunity, yet somehow the worst of them all too often manage to garner the best press. This is not a recent phenomenon in American history. As far back as the 19th century, “dime novels” chronicled the exploits, real and imagined, of various unsavory types such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Cole Younger and the Dolan Gang. Rather than denounce the anti-social proclivities of these sordid characters, more often writers held them up as people to be admired, if not in fact to be emulated.
Perhaps the most stunning example of this was in the case of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (aka “Bonnie and Clyde”). These two-bit sociopaths, along with their confederates, are known to have murdered nine police officers and several civilians. In spite of this (or perhaps, because of it?), they were celebrated in the press of their time as the modern-day male and female equivalent of Robin Hood (a mythical criminal of English legend).
To make these two vermin more palatable to the hoi polloi, certain key facts (like the staggering number of murders attributed to them) were minimized or even omitted by writers who covered their exploits. Years later, when Hollywood leftist and libertine Warren Beatty brought their saga to the big screen, they were guaranteed virtual immortality as bank robbers extraordinaire! That Bonnie and Clyde spent much more time knocking over liquor stores and rural gas stations than banks, that Bonnie Parker chain-smoked Camel cigarettes (rather than smoke cigars as she was most often depicted as doing) and probably never fired a gun were irrelevant. They were young, unmarried and carefree…in short, they were SEXY!!!
Another curious example of this is found with the Cosa Nostra (i.e. the Mafia). This Sicilian-spawned criminal organization probably found its way to these shores sometime in the late 19th century with waves of immigrants from the ruins of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Beginning with the movie Little Caesar (1931) starring actor Edgar G. Robinson, Americans soon developed a movie-fueled fascination with the Mafia that rivaled any previous love affair they had for home-grown criminals. Unquestionably the best known movies of this type of genre were The Godfather and Godfather Part II starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
Strangely, however, Americans (or rather, Americans of Northern European descent) did not similarly develop a fondness for the people depicted (all too often stereotypically) in these movies. In fact, these movies helped to cement that already wonderfully ubiquitous Anglo-American institution - anti-Italianism.
Thus, on the one hand you had legions of the Great Unwashed of Northern European descent lining up outside movie theatres to gleefully watch the murderous exploits of the members of a Mediterranean crime cartel. On the other hand, you have these same people looking down their aquiline noses at another people, better than 99% of whom have never had anything to do with that criminal organization!
In all fairness, this is not totally their fault. As I have said for years, reality is nothing and perception is everything. Let’s not kid ourselves: most humans simply aren’t that intelligent. I lost count long ago of people who have told me they don’t believe what they see on tv or read in the papers, but the facts speak otherwise. Even in this the so-called Information Age, the overwhelming majority of Americans depend on newspapers and television for their information on the world around them. Most simply cannot grasp the enormous power the mass media has to mold and shape public opinion.
Years ago, the late satirist Art Buchwald, in an article published in the NY Daily News, wrote that anti-Italianism was the last socially acceptable form of ethnic bigotry existing in these United States. It still is, in fact. What one today could never get away with saying or writing about members of other races and ethnic groups one can easily get away with saying about Southern Italians (and especially Sicilians).
Sadly, most members of our people seem little interested in defending against these bigoted attacks. When you stop and think about it, historically speaking, our people have really taken a beating. From the feudalistic exploitations of the Spanish Empire, to the ruinous invasion and conquest of the Risorgimento, and finally to our unsettlement in the Southern Italian Diaspora, few peoples have been put through the ringer as much as ours.
Under the tyranny of the Piedmontese many if not most of us were forced to flee our ancestral homeland or face certain starvation. Here in America, nativists told us it was wrong to call ourselves “hyphenated-Americans”, only to have them then contemptuously refer to us as “guineas”.
“ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS:”
– George Orwell: Animal Farm, 1945
With all this going against us, is it any wonder Southern Italians developed, what social theorist and political philosopher Thomas Sowell called, a “cultural fatalism?”
To combat this outward bigoted assault against us (and the concomitant collective inferiority complex existing in many of us) it is necessary first to educate ourselves as to the many members of our ethnos who have excelled in the various arts and disciplines. Armed with this knowledge, we can better stand up to those who would relegate us to second-class status. By taking pride in ourselves as a people, we can then take the necessary steps to insure that we as an ethnic group last well into the next century and beyond.
We can start by combating the stereotype of Southern Italians (especially Sicilians) being a “race of gangsters”. This stereotype exists largely by design. It is deliberately perpetuated here in America by a biased movie industry and an acquiescent Southern Italian public. If we took a united stand against the stereotypical gangster movies that come out of Hollywood, they would disappear. To do that we need to demand movies be made of the heroic figures that have come out of i Due Sicilie; men and women whose accomplishments are often recognized elsewhere, but largely ignored here. Few come more heroic than the following.
Giovanni Falcone was born in the Magione district in the city of Palermo, Sicily on May 18th, 1939. His father was Arturo Falcone, director of a provincial chemical laboratory. His mother was Luisa (née Bentivegna), a deeply religious woman. Spending part of his childhood in poverty, Falcone related two horrors he endured as a child: the sight of Mafia violence and destruction of part of the city of Palermo by Allied aerial bombardment during World War 2. The latter ended with the Allied conquest of Sicily; the former would remain and helped to shape his later life.
As he told it, growing up after the war, he was not only forced to endure Mafia violence, but the belief it was invincible. In addition, he was incensed by the pervasive attitude of many Sicilians to deny the reality of the Cosa Nostra, lest they find themselves parroting the views of their rulers in the north regarding the people of Sicily.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Falcone was fortunate enough (thanks to his father’s improved finances) to receive a classical education. After finishing secondary school, he briefly studied at the Livorno Naval Academy before deciding to embark on a career in law. He graduated from university in 1961 and began to practice law before being appointed a magistrate three years later.
For a time he served as a district magistrate in places like Lentini, Trapani and elsewhere in Sicily. He found the work challenging but rewarding. During this period he witnessed firsthand the stranglehold the Cosa Nostra had on the economic and political infrastructure of his native Sicily. It was also during this time he developed his conviction the Mafia could be weakened and ultimately destroyed. It was also during this time he became close to the man who would share his life’s work and ultimate fate – Paolo Borsellino.
By the late 1960s he had already made a name for himself as a capable and incorruptible anti-Mafia fighter. A senior magistrate, Rocco Chinnici, himself a noted anti-Mafia crusader, appointed Falcone to investigate a bankruptcy case involving shady banker and gangster Michele Sindona. Chinnici believed this case, which also involved a former municipal councilor and high-ranking member of the Christian Democratic Party, was the tip of a much bigger iceberg.
As it turns out he was right! During the 1960s much (but not all) of Palermo damaged during the war was rebuilt. Unfortunately, monies that had been earmarked for this reconstruction from the Marshall Plan and the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Italy’s development plan for the South) were mostly stolen by the Mafia and doled out to their compatriots in largely mob-owned construction firms. In addition, corrupt politicians demanded and received kick-backs to grant licenses to these phony construction companies.
The parks, playgrounds, gardens and decorative buildings imagined for Palermo never materialized. Instead, greedy mobsters built ugly, sterile buildings, destroying many historic ones in the process. In addition, large areas of Palermo were left to rot. The mobsters pocketed huge sums of money in the process! This sordid chapter has since come to be known as the Rape of Palermo. Similar scenarios played out across the island of Sicily.
Politicians in the north were aware of this but did nothing! Many, it turns out, were on the Mafia payroll! Others simply dismissed events as being typical of Sicilian corruption (conveniently ignoring the corruption in their own backyard, of course).
Falcone’s investigations turned up a rat’s nest of gangsterism and corruption that permeated the entire island and extended beyond its shores to even America. He was subjected to numerous threats and attempts at bribery but ignored them all. At the conclusion of the investigation, Gaetano Costa, a senior magistrate also assigned to the case, handed down a total of 80 indictments. Tragically, he was murdered shortly afterwards.
Falcone was undeterred! If anything, Costa’s murder cemented his conviction to destroy the Mafia, whatever it took. In 1979 he was made a member of Rocco Chinnici’s select pool of anti-Mafia judges and prosecutors. In addition to Chinnici and Falcone, this group included Paolo Borsellino, Giuseppe Di Lello and Leonardo Guarnotta. He had joined the group shortly after the murder of Boris Guiliano, the head of Palermo’s police force who had been gunned down as he was on the verge of a major breakthrough in his investigations of Mafia corruption.
His murder ushered in a new era of Mafia violence. For decades previously, police and politicians had been untouched by mob violence. As the mob’s heroin trafficking empire grew, however, so did the ruthlessness of its methods to protect the huge profits it was raking in. Falcone realized by this time he was a marked man, but rather than be cowed by it, he bravely continued. He even joked about it. “The thought of my death”, he said, “is not more important to me than the button on my jacket – I’m a true Sicilian”.
In spite of this stoic attitude, his crusade against the Cosa Nostra took a terrific toll on his life. When he married his fiancée Francesca Morvillo (also a magistrate), Falcone had Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando conduct the ceremony in total secrecy on a Saturday night. No family or friends were present and no photos were taken.
The Mafia’s sanguinary war against incorruptible Sicilian politicians during the 1980s came to be known as the “Years of Lead”. Falcone’s battles with the Mafia were hampered by a lack of resources, financial and otherwise. Rome was stingy with these resources thanks in large part to politicians and industrialists from the north. As mentioned previously, many of them were themselves on the Mafia payroll. Others were too bigoted to believe any good could be expected to come from the South.
Increasing violence due to the so-called Second Mafia War forced Rome’s hand. On May 1st, 1982 Carabinieri General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa was appointed Prefect of Palermo to stop the violence. He had earlier made a name for himself successfully battling the Brigate Rosse (It: Red Brigades), an ultra-violent, ultra-leftist terrorist organization based in Northern Italy. Dalla Chiesa had been sent to Palermo with orders to crush the Mafia. He had been there scarcely 100 days when he was himself killed along with his young wife and their driver. The order for Dalla Chiesa’s murder was given by Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, head of the Corleonesi faction of the Sicilian Mafia.
At the General’s funeral, politicians from Rome and Palermo who attended were jeered and spat upon by hundreds of enraged Sicilians who (rightfully) blamed them for the Mafia’s unchecked reign of the island. Those who viewed this sight on Italian tv witnessed the end of a cherished anti-Sicilian myth – that Sicilians loved the Mafia. In truth, they hated and feared it, but thanks to the apathy and corruption of the politicos of the pseudo-state of Italy, were powerless against it!
Returning to Rome red-faced from this debacle, Italian government officials finally offered Falcone and other members of the anti-Mafia group the resources they desperately needed. Falcone, in the meantime, had come up with an innovative technique to break the back of the Cosa Nostra, a technique he called “following the money trail” to help build cases against the mobsters and their corrupt cohorts. It was also Falcone who came up with the idea of arresting and trying large numbers of Mafiosi at a time, in order to chip away at the organization by making it easier to encourage members to turn state’s evidence. This technique would be copied with equal effectiveness here in the United States by famed prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani.
In the meantime, though, Mafia thugs were busy trying their best to murder as many anti-Mafia politicians, police officers and journalists as possible, before the government could drop its iron heel on their collective throats.
Rocco Chinnici was murdered by a car bomb on July 29th, 1983 along with two of his bodyguards and the concierge of his apartment block.
On January 5th, 1984 Giuseppe Fava, an investigative journalist and publisher of the anti-Mafia magazine I Siciliani, was gunned down while waiting to pick up his granddaughter, who was rehearsing for a part in a theatre comedy.
Antonino “Nini” Cassarà, a police chief in Palermo, was murdered along with his bodyguard. It was Cassarà who drew up ‘Michele Greco + 161’ report of 162 Mafiosi he felt warranted arrest. This report would form the basis of what was to become the famous “Maxi Trial” in Palermo. Cassarà was brutally gunned down outside his home by a team of over a dozen gunmen in front of his horrified wife!
The list, sadly, goes on, too long for me to list them all here. The blood of these martyrs for Justice is on the hands of their Mafia murderers, corrupt politicians in Palermo and Rome, as well as the greedy industrialists of the “Iron Triangle” in the north of Italy. May they all rot in Hell!
After Chinnici’s murder, Antonino Caponnetto became head of the Anti-Mafia Pool. Shortly after this, Italy (incredibly), for the first time in decades, passed a law making being a member of a Mafia-type organization a crime, punishable by imprisonment and confiscation of property. Such a law had not existed since the Fascist era. The law had earlier been proposed by one Pio La Torre, a Sicilian official of the Italian Communist Party (who naturally was later murdered by the Mafia for having the audacity to propose such a law).
The law gave the Anti-Mafia Pool a new and powerful weapon in its war against the Cosa Nostra. Now, the government could not only imprison convicted Mafiosi, they could bankrupt them as well! The clincher came with the arrest in Brazil of one Tommaso Buscetta in 1983. Buscetta, a major figure in the Sicilian Mafia, had grown tired of life ‘on the run’ and decided to turn informant (It: pentito) against his former mob cohorts.
With all the evidence they had thus amassed, Giovanni Falcone and his comrades launched the largest anti-Mafia trial in Italian history; the famed “Maxi Trial” (It: Maxiprocesso). The trial, several years in planning, began on February 10th, 1986. It involved a total of 474 defendants charged (119 in absentia) with, among other things, a total of 120 murders, along with numerous counts of narcotics trafficking. The presiding judge was Alfonso Giordano who was flanked by two “alternates” (in case the Mafia was able to get to Giordano). The chief prosecutor was Giovanni Falcone. The trial took place in a concrete-reinforced bunker next to the Ucciardone Prison in Palermo.
A few months earlier, across the Atlantic, Rudolph Giuliani and the U.S. Justice Dept. had launched a similar series of trials against American Mafiosi. Dubbed “the Pizza Connection Trial” by the American press, the two series of trials represented a major disruption in operations between the American and Sicilian Mafias. The governments of Italy and America cooperated closely to secure the maximum possible number of convictions. The Maxi Trial represented both Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino’s finest hour, but it also sealed their fate, for Tommaso Buscetta warned them the Mafia would now stop at nothing to kill them!
The trial ended on December 16th, 1987. It took an hour to read through all the verdicts. Of the 474 tried, 360 were convicted. Many received lengthy prison sentences. In 1988 Giovanni Falcone again worked closely with Rudolph Giuliani during the latter’s handling of operations against the Gambino and Inzerillo crime families here in the United States.
Falcone’s success in taking on the Sicilian Mafia did not give him any illusions about Tommaso Buscetta’s warning. Sometime after the end of the Maxi Trial he confided to a friend, “My life is mapped out: it is my destiny to take a bullet by the Mafia some day. The only thing I don't know is when.”
Sadly, that “when” came on May 23rd, 1992. Salvatore “The Beast” Riina had given the order to take out Falcone. While driving to Palermo International Airport, Giovanni Falcone, along with his wife and three bodyguards were blown to smithereens by a powerful, remotely-controlled bomb that had been placed in the roadway. It was reported that afterwards, Riina threw a party and drank champagne to toast the murder of his better. Less than two months after Falcone’s murder, his dear friend and colleague Paolo Borsellino would also be murdered in a car bomb attack like Rocco Chinnici.
Salvatore Riina’s celebration would not last long. The national outrage sparked by these horrific murders again caused the government to move in force against the Mafia. Riina is now serving a life sentence for sanctioning both killings.
Dear reader, I do not know your feelings on the subject, but I cannot for the life of me fathom the need to keep scum like Salvatore Riina alive at public expense. The specter of a hug in the cold, awaiting arms of Madame Gallows would probably do much to rid our people of the pernicious influence of murderous gangsters. Italy needs a death penalty! Sadly, the draconian excesses of the Fascist era plus decades of the enervating effects of Democratic Socialism seem to have robbed not just the peoples of Italy, but of Europe of the determination to meet out justice where needed.
Since his murder, Giovanni Falcone’s name survives as a beacon of hope to those who battle the twin evil monsters of Gangsterism and Corruption. Palermo International Airport is now named Falcone-Borsellino Airport in honor of the courageous duo. Falcone’s fame is not limited to Italy, however.
After his murder, the Train Foundation posthumously awarded Falcone its Civil Courage Prize in recognition of his "steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk." The Instituto Brasileiro Giovanni Falcone (Port: Giovanni Falcone Institute of Criminal Sciences) in Brasilia, Brazil is named in honor of him.
It is people like these, my friends, we should be honoring and admiring, for they are the truest and noblest specimens of our ethnos. We should shun the televised and cinematic swill that brings us things like True Romance and Jersey Shore. Instead, all too often, our people here in America, like the rest of the Great Unwashed, line up lemming-like for their dose of anti-Southern Italian bigotry, courtesy of the big and small screen. Something is seriously wrong with that picture.
• Alexander Stille: Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, First Vintage Books, 1995
June 2, 2011
“I never smarten up a chump, educate a mark and I never give a sucker an even break. Remember: you can’t cheat an honest man.” - William Claude Dukenfeld (aka W.C. Fields).
Of all the rascals, thugs and no-accounts that have darkened the pages of human history, none is perhaps as colorful as the confidence (con) artist. Whereas other types of thieves rely on force or the implied use of force to separate their victims from their money, the con artist relies on his victim’s personality to do the job. Where a robber uses a weapon, a con artist uses his (or her) wits.
Con artists come in no set profile. They exist in all varieties, as do their victims. A con can be something as simple as hitting someone up for a donation to a phony charity, to something spectacular like the infamous Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff. In the former scenario the con artist is preying on his victims’ compassion, in the latter, their greed. Despite false assurances to the contrary by some, virtually anyone can become a victim of a con artist under the right circumstances.
Some of the wealthiest and most influential people in history have in fact fallen victim to the schemes of these tricksters. A number of victims of the aforementioned Bernie Madoff were multi-millionaires and even some banks were taken in by him! Several prominent charities that had also invested in his phony wealth management business were forced to close. It is only logical then, those con artists who prey on the biggest ‘fish’ would get the most press and perhaps earn a niche in the history books.
It could be argued that it’s apropos the same ethnos that has given the world organizations like the Camorra and the Cosa Nostra has also given it some of its greatest con artists. Who pulled off the first con in history? Who knows? Who really cares? If you were to ask me, though, who was the greatest of them all, my choice unquestionably would be the man Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle called the “King of Liars.”
As one might imagine with a character like ‘Count’ Alessandro di Cagliostro, his origins are shrouded somewhat in mystery and controversy. He claimed to have been born of Christian parents of noble pedigree. For reasons he could never quite explain, he was abandoned as an orphan on the island of Malta.
Most historians agree, however, that Alessandro di Cagliostro was, in fact, Giuseppe Balsamo, a man born into the poverty of Albergheria, the old Jewish section of Palermo, Sicily on June 2nd, 1743. His father, Pietro Balsamo, was a jeweler who had died bankrupt only a few months after Giuseppe was born. This left his mother Felice (née) Bracconieri to care for him and his older sister in a two-room apartment on one of the poorest streets in the poorest section of Palermo.
Giuseppe Balsamo might have lived out his life as anyone else living in Palermo at that time, but he was not like anyone else. Quick-eyed, sharp-witted and possessed both with charisma and bravado, at an early age he commanded a gang of picciotti (It: “street toughs”) who made a name for themselves robbing people from other quarters when they weren’t battling the police.
Signora Balsamo was able to acquire needed funds from her well-off father and brothers to send the boy to school. His education included private tutoring, training as a novice monk at the monastery of the Fatebenefratelli healing order in the inland town of Caltagirone, and even tutoring from an art master in Palermo itself.
All who came in contact with young Giuseppe agreed he was exceptionally intelligent and imaginative. It was noted early on he was especially adept at chemistry and could draw with remarkable accuracy. This accuracy extended to reproducing handwriting, printing and insignia. This latter talent would serve him well in his later years.
Had he devoted himself to serious study, Giuseppe might have eventually gone on to become a fairly accomplished businessman like his uncles or even a significant figure in the Church. Sadly, however, his years on the streets of Palermo had left him with a hard edge. While his intelligence was surpassing, his behavior was appalling! His inability to conform to social norms guaranteed his expulsion from whatever institution of learning he enrolled in. That plus the dark lure of the fast ducat would forever prevent him making an honest living.
Balsamo’s first major swindle was on a local chump – a wealthy silversmith named Vincenzo Marano – in 1764. Giuseppe had convinced Marano of the existence of a treasure that had been buried centuries earlier on Mt. Pellegrino. Balsamo had also convinced this polpetta the treasure was magically guarded by demons and Marano would need him to cast the spells necessary to keep them at bay. For “services rendered” Balsamo had Marano pay him the princely sum of 70 pieces of silver.
However, when the time came to dig up the treasure, Balsamo instead attacked Marano and made off with the money. Marano was apparently so stupid he actually thought he had been attacked by demons! By the time he got around to inquiring what happened to his ‘partner’, Balsamo (and two accomplices) had left Palermo for Messina, taking Marano’s money with them.
|Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani|
By 1768 he found himself in Rome, where he had been able to finagle a job as secretary for one Cardinal Orsini. Soon, however, he found himself returning to old habits, eventually selling “Egyptian” amulets with purported magical properties and forged paintings. It was while in Rome he was introduced to a 14-y.o. girl named Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani, whom he married. Initially the couple lived with her parents, a deeply religious couple. However, when Cagliostro’s corrupting influences upon the girl became apparent, they were forced to move.
Around this time Balsamo befriended another ne’er-do-well by the name of Agliata who taught him how to forge letters of credit, merchants’ bills of exchange, diplomas and a number of official documents including military brevets! In return for this, however, Agliata demanded sex with Seraphina. Incredibly, Balsamo gave his consent!
Balsamo’s relationship with Agliata ended when a member of their gang betrayed them to the local constabulary (and Agliata disappeared with everybody’s money). Giuseppe and Seraphina were able to con their way out of any serious trouble with the law and departed for other parts of Europe.
Claude Louis Comte de Saint-Germain
Giuseppe and Seraphina made their way to London, where it is said they eventually made the acquaintance of the Comte de Saint-Germain, another legendary con artist and swindler. The exact details of this meeting are sketchy, but it was said to have had a profound influence on the younger Balsamo. Several years later, in July of 1776 to be exact, when Giuseppe returned to London, he began to introduce himself as ‘Count Cagliostro’ (or sometimes Count Pellegrini), taking the surname of one of his forebears. Like Saint-Germain, he also began to work his way up the food chain of the gullible and greedy by cobbling together some of the most fantastic bricolage of his day! Balsamo discovered, to his delight, there was no shortage of fat pigeons waiting to be plucked, even among the wealthiest and most educated peoples of Europe!
Observation“Men are so simple and yield so readily to the wants of the moment that he who will trick will always find another who will suffer himself to be tricked.”– Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince, II, 1513
Armed with their new identities, and the costumes that went with them, the Count and Countess Pellegrini-Cagliostro made a splash in London high society. Cagliostro’s fortunes in London soon changed, for he had another run-in with the law. However, it was during this time he also joined the Esperance Lodge of the Freemasons. For Giuseppe Balsamo, now Count Pellegrini-Cagliostro, this was an epiphany! For now the roguish son of a ruined Sicilian jeweler saw the means by which he could give full expression to both his genius and his connivance!
Shortly after this Cagliostro and Seraphina left London and eventually arrived in The Hague where Dutch Freemasons treated them like visiting royalty and conferred upon them both additional Masonic honors (and certificates).
With these honors bestowed upon them, Cagliostro and his wife traveled about Europe, opening up a number of Masonic lodges as they went about. In spite of official displeasure by Roman Catholic authorities (i.e. the Inquisition), Cagliostro was instrumental in spreading Freemasonry and its ideals across the Continent. Some even credit the creation of the Egyptian rite of Freemasonry to him. He is also credited with helping women to gain acceptance into the community.
Several historians point out Cagliostro did in fact do some good during his career as the “King of Liars”. Among examples of his beneficence, his is credited with starting and funding a chain of maternity hospitals and orphanages around Europe. It should be remembered though that Bernie Madoff likewise engaged extensively in philanthropy while he was simultaneously running his infamous Ponzi scheme.
Ironically, of all the scams associated with Cagliostro, the one for which he is best remembered is the one in which he probably played no part. This incident is remembered as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
The Affair occurred in France and was the brainchild of another con artist (a woman) named Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, wife of an officer of the gendarmes, soi-disant comte de la Motte. It concerned a lavishly expensive diamond necklace that had been ordered by King Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry. However, the King had died before the necklace had been finished and his son, King Louis XVI banished Madame du Barry from court. In turn, Louis XVI’s wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, refused the necklace.
Basically, Jeanne de la Motte-Valois had conceived a scheme to make one Cardinal de Rohan, a former French ambassador to the Court of Vienna, believe the Queen was in love with him. Using a prostitute look-a-like of the Queen, she conned the Cardinal into loaning her huge sums of money which she used to enter French high society. The scheme fell apart when Jeanne le la Motte-Valois and her husband conned the Cardinal into putting a down payment on the necklace which they purloined and smuggled into England to sell off. The jewelers complained to the Queen when they realized they weren’t going to be paid. This in turn ignited a scandal which further blackened the reputation of the Queen in the eyes of the French people (who came to believe she had a part in it) and undoubtedly contributed to the French Revolution.
Cagliostro was arrested with the conspirators and thrown in the Bastille where he languished for nine months before being acquitted at trial. Nevertheless, he and his wife were ordered to leave France and never return. He and his wife departed for England in 1786.
While in England his past briefly caught up with him. He was publicly accused of being Giuseppe Balsamo by a gutter journalist named Charles Théveneau de Morande. In response Cagliostro published his Open Letter to the English People which succeeded in turning public opinion against de Morande, who apologized to Cagliostro and retracted his claim.
Not too long after this the Cagliostros traveled again to Italy, where this time he fell afoul of the dreaded Roman Inquisition. According to some accounts Seraphina had thoroughly tired of being married to her domineering husband and desired to be rid of him (since divorce was impossible). Back in Rome and the apparent safety of her family, she contacted two spies of the Inquisition who did the rest. Cagliostro was arrested on December 27th, 1789 and tried with the crime of being a member of Freemasonry (a serious charge back then in Catholic Italy). Seraphina was in turn placed under house arrest in the Convent of Santa Apollonia, apparently for the remainder of her life.
Tried and condemned to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Castel Sant’Angelo. After trying unsuccessfully to escape, he was relocated to the hell-hole prison in the Fortress of San Leo, where he died under miserable circumstances shortly afterwards.
Though charlatan, cheat, pimp and rogue, Giuseppe Balsamo (alias ‘Count’ Alessandro di Cagliostro) lived a life most can only dream of living. A master forger and liar extraordinaire, he used these two unsavory talents to burn his candle at both ends until he was burned in the end. Nevertheless, due to humanity’s love affair with rogues, he remains to this day a potent figure in both fiction and non-fiction. Prominent actors such as Orson Welles and Christopher Walken have portrayed him in film, and several operas have been composed about him. No less than Germany’s supreme literary genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a comedy based on his life, Der Groß-Coptha (Gr: The Great Cophta).
His influence on Occultism and Freemasonry are well-established, and he is regarded as a historically significant figure in both movements to this day. Much of the negative press written about him and his exploits are undoubtedly false; an occupational hazard of controversial figures.
Though I must confess to finding his life a dishonorable one, I would consider it an injustice to simply dismiss him as just another con artist. In truth, he was the King of them all! Though many would come close to him, none would match him in daring, bravado and chutzpah! That so many to this day find him so fascinating can no doubt be explained by the disturbing realization there are so many who secretly wish to be like him.
That realization, then, is probably the chief good that can come from keeping his memory alive. To know there are to this day many like him, those who promise us the moon while reaching for our wallets, may help protect some of us from these unscrupulous types. In any event, when we read about the Cagliostros of this world we can always chuckle to ourselves at the greed and naiveté that exists in us all that allows his sort to exist in the first place.
• Iain McCalman: The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason; Harper Collins Publishers, 2003