Question: Where in the world is this towering fortress where a famous magician, adventurer, and swindler live out his last days?
Answer: Fortress of San Leo in San Leo, Italy
High in the clouds above Italy, the craggy mountain fortress of Forte di San Leo is brimming with history. With roots dating back to the ancient Romans, battles between great empires and kingdoms have unfolded before it. But perhaps the most legendary story to come from the Fortress of San Leo is that of a famous scammer and supposed mystic who died in an underground jail cell.
Both the fortress and the quaint commune of San Leo are perched upon limestone and sandstone cliffs, with the fortress a steep climb away from the village. There’s only one road that cuts through the precipitous rock to reach the top. Here, there are breathtaking views of the surrounding Apennine Mountains and the Emilia-Romagna region. The enchanting life upon this bluff earned San Leo the right to join the Borghi più Belli d’Italia—or the association of Italy’s most beautiful and historic towns.
The Romans first understood the defense potential of the rocky peak and built the earliest fortification atop it in the third century B.C.E. During the middle ages, this strategic point was battled over between the Byzantines, Goths, Franks, and Lombards who fought to rule the region along the Adriatic Sea.
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In the 17th century, under the stable rule of the Kingdom of Italy, the fortress was adapted into a prison by the Vatican. Tiny, cave-like cells were carved into the ground of the building. With plummeting cliffs on all sides, prisoners had no chance of escaping. Gruesome torture techniques were also used on the convicts—the fortress still displays some of the frightening devices used.
The most notable prisoner of San Leo and what gives the fortress much of its fame was the Sicilian scammer and alchemist known as Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. He was popular among noble courts in Europe for his supposed cures, visions, and healing powers. Many believed him to be some sort of wizard and his séances drew a large following. However, he was a true swindler. When he was finally exposed as a fraud, the Vatican sentenced him to life in prison in San Leo where he lived in an underground cell until his death.
The Deceitful Life of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro:
- Born as Giuseppe Balsamo in 1743, the Count grew up in a poor family on the streets of Palermo. After committing a series of minor crimes, he escaped the island and traveled through Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Rhodes studying alchemy and pulling off small schemes.
- In Rome, he learned how to forge letters and documents, and began selling fake Egyptian amulets that he claimed to be magical. He also changed his name, deciding on the regal-sounding Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.
- He married and began traveling to all major European cities, selling his miraculous “healing” powers to the rich. He pawned elixirs and powders which he claimed would help one extend life, preserve youth, and find love.
- He also found enormous success holding séances and giving demonstrations of clairvoyance to the aristocracy in France. In the years leading up to the French Revolution, his séances were exciting and fashionable events for the rich. He also pulled off fake experiments where he tricked the audience into thinking he could transform lead and mercury into silver and gold.
- While he was a charlatan to the rich, Cagliostro was a popular humanitarian among the poor because he held medical clinics at no cost. He may not have been a trained doctor, but he helped many common people with their ailments.
- His relationship with the wealthy and powerful in France led him to become involved in the French scandal known as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. This infamous incident began the public’s disillusionment with King Louis XVI and ultimately helped to begin the French Revolution. After his involvement, he was banished from France.
- Back in Italy, he was soon exposed to the authorities by his wife as a Sicilian swindler on the run in Europe for his crimes. He was accused of faking his séances and alchemical experiences and selling fraudulent remedies.
- The Vatican arrested him for his tricks as a fraudulent magician, conjurer, and Freemason. They also burned all of his books and manuscripts.
- After Cagliostro was arrested, he was sent to the Fortress of San Leo for life in prison. Guards were worried he’d manipulate them with his mind to escape. But since his powers were not real, he died in the prison in 1795.