Off the Shelf

“The Last Alchemist”

By Marcus Pan

The Last AlchemistAlchemy – the word in and of itself, for me at least, conjures up visions of flasks bubbling over with frothy green liquids over small candle flames set atop an old wooden desktop in some underground brick and mortar laboratory. The ability to grew pearls, spin hay into gold and the search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone are the things I see when alchemy is brought up. And these are the things I thought of when I first received The Last Alchemist from Harper Collins Publishing.

Every continent and country has their folk heroes. And most always these folk heroes are imbued with a larger than life narrative, being told in equal parts fantasy and history, wound together brilliantly to give us all something to aspire to, or to help remember the times that have passed. Daniel Boone, a popular United States hero, reminds us of the travels in the mountains before the expansion of the “civilized” settlers who vied against the “uncivilized” natives. There’s a more tragic story here in Jersey that tells of Jenny Jump, also folklore that pits settlers and Indians together. Davy Crocket teaches us cunningness and Johnny Appleseed teaches us about nature. Paul Bunyon railed against the rise of industrial machinery. And many more besides…

Europe of course had their folk heroes as well, some we are sure to know. Casanova, the wandering lover that bedded women from coast to coast is one such example. And another of his contemporaries – and some might say bitter nemesis – was a man originally born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily. A traveler much like Casanova, Balsamo became better known for his made up name that chagrinned and possibly swindled many famous personalities – Count Cagliostro.

While the American folk heroes were rugged, strong and fearless, it seems that in many instances their European counterparts were genteel, educated and cattily intelligent. Such is the case with Cagliostro, who according to historical documents has crossed paths with such notables as the aforementioned Count Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, the beautiful (and supposedly sexually fluent) Catherine the Great of Russia, France’s Marie Antoinette (and many would say that it was the work of Cagliostro that may have helped bring her head to the populace – literally speaking), Louis XVI and even Pope Pius VI.

Balsamo/Cagliostro wore many titles. The most popular and well known of which was that of healer, as throughout Europe he established a number of healing clinics for the poor where he used his alchemical skills, learned as a high ranking Freemason having knowledge of secret and arcane arts, to cure those that could not afford medicines. Backed by a number of wealthy noblemen and noblewomen who believed in his craft and supported his Freemasonry lodges he established along the way, Cagliostro built up huge followings wherever he visited as his arrival was, once his reputation became well known, usually proceeded by mobs of people seeking help from him who crowded his front steps and bustled their way into his line of sight.

By becoming a people’s hero Cagliostro also became royalty’s thorn. Louis XVI had him thrown into the Bastille for his involvement in what came to be known as the “affair of the necklace,” in which Balsamo accidentally got himself involved in a large scale swindle that reached as high up as Marie Antoinette. In St. Petersburg, Catherine the Great became so tired of him and his popular “revolutionary” ways that she had him ousted from her country. Pope Pius XVI had him arrested and tried for crimes against Catholicism in his final days. And throughout all of this Count Cagliostro became a figure that you either loved or hated. A man to be shunned or flocked to, depending on your position in the world.

Whether or not Giuseppe Balsamo was indeed the last alchemist and high ranking Freemason to walk the Earth will depend entirely upon your beliefs, as most folk heroes are told about with as much fiction as fact. But wherever you stand, Balsamo aka Count Cagliostro was surely a conniving however enigmatic figure in the history of Europe and took advantage of an unsure time in the lives of European peoples – just before science took over the popular culture, Cagliostro helped bring the supernatural and magical ideas to a resounding bang of a close.

“The Last Alchemist” by Iain McCalman
Copyright © 2003 by Iain McCalman
Published by Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.
ISBN: 0-06-000691-9

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