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HOME / 8.5 Batteries of Enchantment / “Cagliostro Unmasked” by Mariano Tomatis (IAS Warwick)

In 2001 Nathan Shedroff introduced the expression “Experience Design”: it describes the practice of designing events, products, and environments aimed to involve someone in an experience coherent with specific styles, atmospheres and messages to be inspired and communicated. The concept of “experience” is so general that such a design activity draws from many other disciplines including cognitive and perceptual psychology, linguistics, theatre, storytelling, heuristics and so on.

Publishing his book Experience Design, Shedroff did not claim any trademark, but rather emphasized its practical implications: introducing the concept, he wished that others could find it useful, contributing to define its potential, features and areas of application.

As a stage magician, Ferdinando Buscema sensed that his activity was to design experiences to be described as impossible, surprising, unexpected, wonderful, amazing, extraordinary - all that we usually label with the word “magic.” I loved the expression “Magic Experience Design” and together we wrote the manifesto of such a discipline: L’arte di stupire (“The Art of Amazement”) was published in 2014 by Sperling&Kupfer (Milan, Italy.)

Magic Experience Design in the past

Looking for traces of magic experience design in the past, an 1829 book stands out: On The Occult Sciences by the Parisian author Eusèbe Baconnière de Salverte (1771-1839). The miracles of the Bible and the legends and prodigies of the ancient mythology are submitted to a rigorous analysis with the goal of referring them to natural causes and to the activities of magic experience designers. Salverte stresses the importance of what is hidden in the dark:

It [is] impossible to have a just idea of the extent to which the sciences had been carried, among the ancients, without examining the kind of knowledge employed […] in working the wonders related in their annals. […] Much information was shut up in the temples, and employed there, during many ages, to excite either wonder or fear. (1) 

Salverte brings a lot of arguments to the contemporary discussion about what makes a false story seem credible—a discussion which is no contemporary at all. Sometimes a magical explanation of a fact is accepted because Nature has singular and deceptive appearences. Sometimes it is just a problem of stories which are badly referred, because of exaggeration of details, improper terms, figurative expressions, the use of poetic style and the adoption as real facts of allegories and fables. Some phenomena are real but rare, local or periodical and may be held up as prodigies. Sometimes the Genii invoked by the Magician are interpreted as occult forces but they are just physical or chemical agents. Sometimes those mysterious facts are the results of impostures like jugglery and ventriloquism. The taxonomy of trickery is incredibly wide: Salverte analyses mechanisms involving principles of acoustics, optics, hydrostatics, combustion and so on.

The author debunks many pretended miraculous phenomena like incombustible icons—wooden panels with religious subjects that can resist to the fire. Salverte explains that treating wood with alum it becomes capable of withstanding the flames for a lenght of time. (2)  It may explain the icon of the Immaculate Mary of Ivrea (Italy) whose image resisted to the action of fire.

L’immacolata dei miracoli (“The Immaculate of Miracles”), the incombustible icon of the Immaculate Mary of Ivrea (here). Was the wood saturated with alum?

The sound of thunder

Let’s focus on a single phenomenon: the artificial production of the sound of thunder. Salverte writes:

The tremendous thunder accompanied with lightning was regarded by the vulgar as the arm of the avenging Gods; and the Thaumaturgists were careful to make it heard when they spoke in the name of the Gods. The labyrinth of Egypt enclosed many palaces so constructed that their doors could not be opened without the most terrific report of thunder resounding from within. (3) 

Following a footnote, we get to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

It is when he is already exhausted with walking that the visitor reaches the bewildering maze of passages. […] Inside are columns of imperial porphyry, images of gods, statues of kings and figures of monsters. Some of the halls are laid out in such a way that when the doors open there is a terrifying rumble of thunder within. (4) 

The architects who designed the maze put all their efforts to create physical structures evoking fear and puzzlement through light conditions, scary statues and magic tricks. The technical issues involved in the thunder-making activity are analysed by Edmé-Gilles Guyot in a volume of his Nouvelles recreations physiques et mathematiques (5) 

Guyot’s method is based on pneumatics.

"Imitation of thunder by the shaking of the air" in Edmé-Gilles Guyot, Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques, Vol. 4, Gueffier, Paris 1770 → p. 159.

Four years later William Hooper describes a method based on a chemical reaction, exploiting a sort of Molotov cocktail. (6) 

"Artificial thunder" in William Hooper, Rational recreations, Vol. 4, L. Davis, London 1774 → p. 153.

But one thing is to read technical essays on the principles behind magic experience design, one thing is to read actual descriptions of their use in everyday life. That’s the opportunity offered by novels written in the same period. Even if they are fictional works, Marc Bloch (1886-1944) suggests to analyse them in order to find unintentional historical evidences of customs and traditions, by isolating fragments of truth buried inside the fiction. “Something cloudy sneaks into the novels,” writes Carlo Ginzburg; “something comparable to the perceptions a gaze can record without understanding, like the emotionless eye of a camera” (7) 

In order to practise the ability of digging up these deeper truths under the fictional levels of a story we can consider The Ghost-Seer, the gothic novel written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and published in 1787. Besides the literary value of the novel, a magician like me finds an interesting analogy between this work and a booklet published in 1975 in the U.S.

At the time, the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller is known for his television performances of spoon bending and feats of psychokinesis and telepathy. In order to debunk his claims, the magician and science writer Martin Gardner (1914-2010) publishes Confessions of a psychic. It is an account on how fake psychics perform seemingly incredible paranormal feats. Unlike the typical works by militant skeptics, the book is peculiar being a satirical narrative written in first person as a detailed confession. The fictional approach allows Gardner to better analyse and explain the wider context surrounding Geller’s illusions and its subtleties. Uri Geller is never openly named, but the book is signed with the pen name "Uriah Fuller".

The Ghost-Seer (1787), the Count of Cagliostro, Confessions of a psychic (1975), Uri Geller.

Two centuries before, Friedrich Schiller does the same with another self-proclaimed psychic: Giuseppe Balsamo, the Count of Cagliostro. The Ghost-Seer is the first person account of a series of magic experiences, followed by the confession of the natural means employed to perform them. Cagliostro is never openly named, but Schiller refers to him as “an adventurer from Palermo.”

This book of fiction is engaged in a dialogue with other contemporary non-fiction books and together they offer a vivid portrait of the multilayered illusions and deceptions performed by Cagliostro. In order to make that dialogue explicit I have created an hypertextual structure (see Annex 1) documenting ten magic experiences described in the novel. The first link is an internal reference to the page in the novel where the performance is described: it is the so-called “effect”, the seemingly paranormal phenomenon described as perceived by the protagonist. The second link points to the page in which the mystery is solved and the explanation of the magic feat is provided. The third link points to a nonfiction book explaining the same feat: it is generally a technical how-to guide.

For example, the mysterious sound of a thunder heard during the necromantic ritual is described at page 48 and explained at page 60 of The Ghost-Seer (1800).

Effect (p. 48) | Explanation (p. 60)
Source: Friedrich Schiller, The Ghost-Seer (1800).

The trick appears also in the fourth volume of Nouvelles recreations physiques et mathematiques (1769) by Edmé-Gilles Guyot at page 159, in the second volume of 1786 edition at page 328 and in the second volume of 1799 edition at page 302.


This interdisciplinary approach to the study of 18th-century Literature and Stage Magic makes use of electronic instruments, shared libraries and advanced principles of database management and data linkage, providing a model for further investigations on this and related topics.

Mariano Tomatis
University of Warwick, 8 May 2017

Official poster


1. Eusebe Baconnière de Salverte, The Occult Sciences: The Philosophy of Magic, Prodigies and apparent Miracles, Vol. 1, Harper & Brothers, New York 1846 (1st ed. 1829) → p. vi.

2. Salverte 1846 → p. 322.

3. Salverte 1846 → pp. 254-5.

4. Pliny the Elder, Natural History → Book XXXVI, vv. 87-8.

5. Edmé-Gilles Guyot, Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques, Vol. 4, Gueffier, Paris 1770 → p. 159 and Edmé-Gilles Guyot, Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques, Vol. 2, Gueffier, Paris 1799 → p. 302.

6. William Hooper, Rational recreations, Vol. 4, L. Davis, London 1774 → p. 153.

7. Carlo Ginzburg, Il filo e le tracce, Feltrinelli, Milano 2006, p. 11.

Annex 1. Ten magic experiences from “The Ghost-Seer”

The Ghost-SeerNonfiction books
Magic experienceEffectExplanationBookPage
1Extrasensory perception of someone else's death p. 7 p. 157  
2Watch disappearing from a pocket and reappearing at home p. 20     Scot 1584, p. 270
3Key lost and found in a coffin won at the lottery p. 22 p. 73     Guyot 1769, p. 34
4Magic looking-glass making faces appear p. 31 p. 71     Guyot 1770, p. 77
5Participants to a necromantic rituals experiencing an electrical shock p. 48 p. 81     Guyot 1786a, p. 285
6Sound of a thunder heard during the necromantic ritual p. 48 p. 60     Guyot 1770, p. 159
7Apparition of a ghost in a cloud of smoke p. 50 p. 76     Guyot 1786b, p. 254
8Gunshot failing to injury the ghost p. 50 p. 138     Astley 1785, p. 43
9The ghost perfectly resembling the Marquis of Lanoy p. 51 p. 78     Mercier 1798, p. 102
10Ghost speaking and interacting with the audience p. 51 p. 79     Decremps 1784, p. 1

Bibliography and links to People’s Magic Library

The Ghost-Seer 
Friedrich Schiller, The Armenian, or, The Ghost Seer!, Translation by Rev. Wilhelm Render, Vol. 1, C. Wittington, London 1800.

Astley 1785 
Philip Astley, Natural Magic or Physical Amusements Revealed, London 1785.

Decremps 1784 
Henri Decremps, La magie blanche dévoilée, Chez l’Auteur, Paris 1784.

Guyot 1769 
Edme-Gilles Guyot, Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques, Vol. 1, Gueffier, Paris 1769.

Guyot 1770 
—, Vol. 4, Gueffier, Paris 1770.

Guyot 1786a 
—, Vol. 1, Gueffier, Paris 1786.

Guyot 1786b 
—, Vol. 2, Gueffier, Paris 1786.

Mercier 1798 
Claude-François-Xavier Mercier de Compiègne, Manuel du Voyageur a Paris. Contenant la description des spectacles, manufactures, établissemens publics, Favre, Paris 1798.

Scot 1584 
Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Elliot Stock, London 1886 (I ed. 1584).

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Mesmer è curato da Mariano Tomatis, già autore di La magia della mente (2008), Te lo leggo nella mente (2013, prefazione di Max Maven) e L’arte di stupire (2014, prefazione di Derren Brown).

Insieme a Wu Ming ha curato il Laboratorio di Magnetismo Rivoluzionario, sperimentazione teatrale tra mentalismo e letteratura.

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