Guide to San Leo: the history of the Cagliostro fortress

Guide
Once upon a time there was a magician. Or maybe a charlatan. He was born in the East. Or maybe I am wrong, he was Sicilian. He turned metals into gold. Was he an alchemist or a vulgar con man? He was an adventurer with no scruples and many appellations. Count of Cagliostro or Giuseppe Balsamo?
 
San Leo fortress cherishes his ambiguous story and legend. They are mixed up together in the cell where Cagliostro was buried alive by the Inquisition.
 
"In August 1795, Giuseppe Balsamo, the so-called Count of Cagliostro died here at the age of 52, two months and 28 days. Baptized as a Christian but sadly famous as a heretic and pagan, he withstood for four years, four months and five days and finally died without showing any penance and without leaving anyone in sorrow, devoid of the Communion by the Church”.
 
A detached death certificate put an end to the vicissitudes of one of the most enigmatic and dark characters of the Age of Enlightenment. His adventures were confined in San Leo fortress in the Marches, the ancient Montefeltro, a rock spur situtated 30 km far from the sea halfway between Urbino and San Marino. "I won’t die", he said, "I cannot die", he repeated to the jailers while walled up alive in his death cell: a stone tomb without a door which was connected with the outside by means of a little trap door. How could Cagliostro, the man who discover the elixir of eternal youth, die?
 
Worried that either demons or followers could rescue him, Pio VI decided to transfer him from the cell of Castel Sant’Angelo to San Leo fortress, which was turned into a prison by the Inquisition. Once flocked here, Cagliostro was starved and tortured for four years.
 
In the end, the so-called "wizard" was strangled. Cagliostro the Impostor inspired awe, since he was said to have deep connections with both evil spirits and the Revolution. Imprisoned in the Bastille in 1875, he not only managed to get out proving his innocence, but also foresaw the fall of the prison in 1789.
 
He was prosecuted for the famous “necklace affair”, a scandal which deeply hit the French monarchy. The wizard was accused of having stolen a collier bought by Cardinal Rohan as a present for Marie Antoinette. Imprisoned, Cagliostro demonstrated that the deception had been plotted out by a wicked countess and one of her lovers. That little elegant man made everybody feel uneasy.
 
He appeared out of the blue in 1776 in London, accompanied by his wife, the beautiful “Countess Serafina”. He said he was born in the East or in Malta and had been brought up by the Knights of St. John, heir of the Knights Templar.
 
Since then, he had travelled all around Europe adopting different fantasy names like Achara, Marchese Pellegrini and Count of Cagliostro. He had never used the appellation of Giuseppe Balsamo. He always denied his humble Sicilian origins and fled from the convent of Caltagirone. He was not an alchemist  but a quack and a forger.
 
This is what judges affirmed, and this is the way he went down in history. He certainly wasn’t a "count", but simply a thug who forced his wife into prostitution. And she, of course, wasn’t the “Countess Serafina”: the priestess who served Osirides religious rites with Cagliostro was called Lorenza Feliciani and was a Roman adventuress. A few years before Balsamo himself denounced her for adultery after she escaped with a rich man from Paris: Lorenza was imprisoned.
 
In 1790 the criminal acts of the Tribunal of the Inquisition drew the identikit of the fraud wizard, of a heretic freemason. Cagliostro was arrested in Rome on December 27, 1789, where he hoped to obtain the recognition of his Egyptian freemasonry from the Pope.
 
After many months of process, he was sentenced to death, commuted into “perpetual jail in a fortress”. This was the beginning of a real calvary: forced to forswear, Cagliostro walked barefoot from Castel Sant’Angelo to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva where he asked for forgiveness on June 20. “A storming night”, writes a journalist of the Moniteur, “the wizard mistaked a thunder for the rumble of a cannon.”  "I am here, free me", he shouted. And the frightened judges transferred him to San Leo.
 
The man who had been venerated like a Saint becomes the masses’ laughing stock. Goethe mocks him in his Gran Copto comic work . However, among the barrage of insults, the keynotes of a music maker – a freemason like Cagliostro – arise. It is Mozart’s magic flute that pays homage to the wizard.
 
Today the prison is a museum and the dungeons are visited by large numbers of curious people every day. The pilgrimage ends near a gravestone-shaped plank-bed: “No flowers on the Count’s grave, nobody knows where it is, nobody ever found it”.
 
The death certificate states he was denied ecclesiastic burying. His body had been buried on the west side of a mountain. Killed by the hardships or murdered by his torturers? The newspaper of the time talked of murder, the jail chaplain of heart failure. His death, like his life, is shrouded in mystery. Since August 26, 1796 many people swear they have met him.

Get advice about our best facilities

All the hotels