The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason by Iain McCalman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my second time reading this book, the exploration of the fascinating, enigmatic Count Cagliostro - of many other names and just as many roles, from charlatan to spiritual guide. Rather than present a balanced, chronological biography, the book provides a wealth of setting, detail and strategically placed "snapshots" surrounding seven key episodes of Cagliostro's life. The years before and after these episodes are summarized in brief, interwoven when needed for context. Each chapter is about more than Cagliostro, although he is the star: one learns a great deal about his friends, victims, antagonists, kings, queens and luminaries, the social history of the times ...
There is very little dry about this book: it is presented with flourishes that sometimes resemble those of a gifted fiction writer. It is a joy to read, comprehensive without being dense, presenting its subject matter without apology - thoughtfully, but without trying to interpret too much for the reader.
Highly recommended, and not just as a biography of its subject. It does a great job of touching upon the period world and some of its central figures (Casanova, Catherine the Great), as well.
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