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Cagliostro was an alchemist born centuries ago in Palermo, under the watchful and rocky gaze of Mount Pellegrino. Beware of phonetic mix-ups or bad pronunciation as his name perhaps sounds dangerously similar to colostrum, the liquid produced by the mammary glands of female mammals, which, as you might expect, has nothing at all to do with this story.

Phonetic and physiological clarifications over, let’s return to Palermo. Centuries before three outstanding films put Corleone firmly on the map, this island was a tranquil place with a thriving cultural scene, having given rise to artists such as Giuseppe Tomaso di Lampedusa and his timeless novel, The Leopard.

It would be unfair, however, if we didn’t also point out that opera is one of the island’s other great protagonists. And that leads us to the Teatro Massimo, the largest in Italy, even bigger than La Scala in Milan.

The image of Sofia Coppola falling dead into the arms of Al Pacino in the moving final scene of The Godfather Part III is etched in our collective memory, inseparable from the location where it was filmed: the central entrance steps at the Massimo theatre.

Cagliostro was one of the most important master freemasons; during the 18th century, he travelled the European courts administering miracle remedies and searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, tiptoeing along the precipice of what, at that time, could be considered heresy or even worse.

His greatest interests were alchemy, Kabbalah and black magic. In fact, Orson Welles played him in a 1959 film named precisely Black Magic. Christopher Walken did the same in a much more modern The Affair of the Necklace, made in 2001. Cagliostro, then, remains very much alive in fictional accounts and tales.

This notable and contradictory character was born in the neighbourhood near what is now known as Vía della Libertà, a street filled with art nouveau villas. Many of these buildings were designed by the famous architect Ernesto Basile, who, coincidentally, was the same bloke responsible for the Teatro Massimo, located between Borgo Vecchio and Monte di Pietà.

Unlike other alchemists such as Hermes Trismegisto, George Ripley or Nicolas Flamel, whose biographies are more discreet or perhaps darker in nature, Cagliostro enjoyed the good life. So much so that it is believed to have been his own wife who reported him to the Inquisition, probably sick of his infidelity and excesses.

We’ll take a little artistic licence here, given that this is a work of fiction, to state that, although few people are aware of this, Cagliostro tried to introduce a new initiation rite tailored to his personal appetites. And it had nothing to do with the Rosicrucian Order or the Masonic Lodge he belonged to.

No small number of sects, cults and occult religious movements have a decidedly sexual background. The result of these amorous encounters was a small legion of illegitimate children, of both sexes. In secret and over various decades, Cagliostro tried to initiate and instruct these boys and girls in the mysteries of freemasonry which, as we know, does not discriminate against women.

Our alchemist was imprisoned in the most famous jail of the time, the Bastille in Paris, for nine long months, accused of a murky affair related to a necklace. There, he struck up friendships with other inmates who’d already heard of this magician, healer, wise man or charlatan, as he was variously described by the opinion makers of the age. Palermo was far away and Vueling didn’t yet exist to connect Boccadifalco, the military air base turned into Palermo’s civilian airport in 2005, with the other locations that this illustrious son of the city visited, such as Saint Petersburg, Rome, Paris and London.

Over the centuries, in a covert and clandestine manner, Cagliostro’s descendants had all become members of different masonic lodges, always maintaining the Teatro Massimo as their headquarters. They didn’t run the risk of sending out messages or notes to call their secret meetings. Simply, the first performance each season of the opera Il Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo marked the date.

This beautiful opera has three protagonists: Canio the clown, his unfaithful wife Nedda and Silvio, her lover. In real life, however, the three formed a passionate love triangle.

The procedure was that after the famous aria Recita!…Vesti la giubba finished and the curtain dropped at the end of Act I, during the interval, all the illegitimate descendants of Cagliostro had to meet in one of the rooms inside the theatre. It was closed to the public but the Grand Master had a key.   

“Is everyone here?” he asked in a thunderous voice.

Given that over 200 years had passed since Cagliostro’s death, his descendants were numerous. There were more than 20 men and a good few women, all with the freemasons’ insignia pinned to their lapels, which features a compass and other building-related tools, references to the origins of this secretive group. It also included a symbol to indicate that they practised the Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry, established by Cagliostro himself in the 18th century.

“There are two missing,” signalled his aide.

“I’m afraid they might not be able to attend. They’re the singers who are performing Nedda and Silvio,” explained the Provost.

“This has never happened before. No-one can miss this meeting under any circumstances. I fear the worst,” said the Grand Master, visibly displeased. “Someone search their dressing rooms while they’re on stage. We have time, there’s still the second act of the opera.”

When the two envoys returned, both were carrying dark, leather-bound volumes decorated with Arabic writing.

“It’s true, they’ve fallen back into Cagliostro’s ways, which did so much harm to our Order. We’ve found these two books of black magic, which were believed to have never existed. They’re two copies of Necronomicon, written by the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred.”

“This is proof that they’ve abandoned the Light and that their lyrical activity is no more than a cover,” said the Grand Master in a grave and circumspect tone. “Change the prop knives in the final scene for genuine blades of sharpened steel. It will take a while before the audience realise that the blood pouring from their hearts is real.”

Those were his last words because that night the ovation after the final curtain was so deafening that no one heard the six dull gunshots. In the confusion following the closing scene, Canio realised what had happened, rushed off stage and ran to the secret room that Silvio and Nedda had occasionally shown him, and where he’d surrendered himself to pleasures impossible to recount here.

Blinded by the pain of losing his two real-life lovers, he emptied the barrel of his revolver without hesitation, watching as the Grand Master tumbled to the ground. Then he ran away.

The three crimes were put down to score settling without anyone ever linking them to Cagliostro’s descendants.

Illustration: Amaya Arrazola