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The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason    by Iain McCalman order for
Last Alchemist
by Iain McCalman
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by Ricki Marking-Camuto

Last fall was the first time I ever encountered the name of Cagliostro. I was directing a group of teens in Noel Coward's classic comedy Blithe Spirit. At one point in Act III, Scene ii, the dead Elvira comments that not even Cagliostro and a handful of other prominent magicians from the past could get her back into the spirit world. Not surprisingly, none of my high school actors knew who Cagliostro was, much less how to pronounce his name (something of which I am still not entirely certain). I was able to garner a little background from the dictionary enough to satisfy my teens, but not nearly enough for me. Iain McCalman's The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason finally filled me in.

McCalman's easy-reading biography details the rise and fall of the great late 18th-century alchemist, Guiseppe Balsamo, aka Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. McCalman divides his book into seven chapters, each detailing an aspect of Cagliostro's fame: Freemason, Necromancer, Shaman, Copt, Prophet, Rejuvenator, and Heretic. Each chapter depicts Cagliostro's dealings with one or more people (including Casanova, Catherine the Great, and Maria Antoinette) who helped shape his identity then, and whose connections helped keep his name known up to the present day. The epilogue details how writers and other artists after Cagliostro's time helped immortalize him on canvas, on stage, and on screen.

Cagliostro was born to a poor Sicilian family in 1743 and was educated by monks in alchemy. In his mid-twenties, he married the beautiful teenaged Seraphina. With her help, he set up various Egyptian Freemasonry lodges and orchestrated swindles throughout Europe. Eventually held by the Catholic Church on heresy charges in Rome, Cagliostro died in prison of a stroke in 1797. McCalman notes in his prologue that most writers are hesitant to dub Cagliostro either sinner or saint, and the author stays true to this philosophy in The Last Alchemist by discussing the major events of Cagliostro's life without bias.

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