Is it the birthday of Cagliostro, definitely a man of mystery?

Eliminate the round belly, and Cagliostro looks impressive

Eliminate the round belly, and Cagliostro looks impressive

Wikipedia claims today is the anniversary of the 1743 birthday of Count Allesandro di Cagliostro, and who would disagree with Wikipedia? Well, actually I have, several times, but that’s irrelevant, because Cagliostro’s birthday is only the MacGuffin for this post about my own encounter with the man. Well, with his footsteps; I’m not old enough to have met him, since he died in 1795.

Cagliostro was many things: alchemist, doctor, seer, political intriguer, schemer, social climber, and scoundrel. He wasn’t an immortal, or the ruler of a country, and he wasn’t very tall. I mention the latter because he is so often portrayed in films as this tall, impressive fellow (see 1949’s Black Magic with Orson Welles or 2001’s The Affair of the Necklace with Christopher Walken as examples of Cagliostro being played by six-footers), when in fact he was at best of medium height and rather stout. And he had a beautiful wife, Seraphina, whose charms were, shall we say, sometimes lent out.

Cagliostro's target for seduction, Elisa von der Recke, as she appeared in 1784

Cagliostro’s target for seduction, Elisa von der Recke, as she appeared in 1784

In 1779, Cagliostro was traveling about Europe, trying to interest wealthy patrons to join his “Egyptian” Freemasonry lodge, which unlike most forms of Freemasonry admitted women as well as men. He paid a visit to the Duchy of Courland, a semi-independent state in what is now Latvia, and tried to convince the leading members of the German-speaking nobility to join. While there, he apparently tried to seduce a young divorced noblewoman, Elisa von der Recke, who happened to be sister to the future duchess!

(The rest of the family was less chaste than Elisa. Her sister Dorothea and two of Dorothea’s daughters were notorious for their affairs.)

Well, in 2003, my girlfriend and I spent several days staying in Riga. Now Riga is an interesting city in its own right. But we were hunting for places Cagiostro had visited. In this, we were helped by historian Iain McCalman, who in a kind gesture sent us some information from his biography of Cagliostro which was just then about to be published. The Dukes of Courland had two large palaces constructed by famed Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700 – 1771), who also designed several palaces in and around St. Petersburg, Russia. So we visited those two palaces, of course.

To this day, I am still amused by the reception we got at the museum in what was once the ducal palace in Mitau (now Jelgava). When we explained we were tracking down Cagliostro, the staff member exclaimed, “Caglisotro? But aren’t you Americans? Shouldn’t you be looking for Casanova?” Apparently Americans are supposed to be obsessed with sex, not the occult.

The former manor house of the von Medems, now a school in Vilce

The former manor house of the von Medems, now a school in Vilce

Our greatest triumph was tracking down the Wilzen manor of the von Medem family, where Cagliostro had conducted seances and claimed there was a buried treasure. We went to the present-day town of Vilce, Latvia, and began asking around. This was not easy, as between us we (that is, E.J.) spoke very little Russian and even less Latvian. We stopped in the first grocery store we saw, and tried to ask using the Latvian terms for “big old country house.” This did not work. In fact the people seemed to be telling us that there were no old buildings around, that the community was mostly a post-World War II Soviet factory town. Still, we persevered. Our attempt at the other grocery store in town also began as a failure. However, E. J. had an inspiration, and asked whether there was a “pils,” meaning palace or castle, in town. An elderly woman lit up at that, and informed us that there was such a place, which turned out to be the local school building. She tried to tell us a great deal more, but she knew no English, even though she managed to tell us she had relatives in Colorado Springs, Colorado!

Two years ago, E. J. got back to Latvia for a month’s stay on an artist’s residency. Thanks to the Latvijas Piļu un muižu asociācija (roughly the Latvian Palaces and Manors Association, to keep the initials the same), she received a tour of the old manor house in Vilce, with a guide explaining how the building had been laid out and used in Cagliostro’s time. Neat. All this will eventually be material for her graphic novel about Cagliostro’s schemes in Courland.

There’s just something about knowing the history of a place and going to see it. It makes me feel more connected to the history. Thanks to that trip, I have an enduring affection for that scoundrel Cagliostro, and a fond memory of an elderly woman trying to do her best to help out some American visitors who had strayed far away from the normal haunts of tourists and into her home town.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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6 Responses to Is it the birthday of Cagliostro, definitely a man of mystery?

  1. Isn’t it wonderful when you actually get to see the places you have read about? I have not been fortunate enough to see many places, but the ones I have I have tried my best to drink them in to my very soul so I can remember as much detail as possible. Thanks for sharing this. Are you going to go back and see this place yourself?

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Nice story, meant in a nice kind of way. Of course, if you happen to live in an East Coast port, small though it is, you have Latvians land on your doorstep – or at least in the bar where I once worked. Memories, they make up for not being able to get out much these days. (He tried to teach me a Latvian folk song that sounded remarkably Northumbrian!)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      When we were the there it was a commonplace that young British men would hit the port cities, drink heavily, and troll for women. Let’s hope they brought some folk songs with them! 🙂

      • crimsonprose says:

        I think our young English men do not know folk songs these days. Football songs, yes. Rugby song too (they’re generally more coarse that the former, not to be song to your maiden aunt) But folk songs? I think not.

  3. Judy says:

    Very sweet appreciation for the help the elderly lady tried to give. Those are the little human things that get remembered…as much as or even more than the history and the buildings.

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