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by Alessandro Serena, professor, collaborator of CEDAC/Verona, Italy


Since the beginning of the modern history of circus, Italian performers have been among the most important artists. Not only have they contributed to popularise this art all over the world, but they have also stood out in a wide number of branches. From solo artists to historical, traditional circus families, Italy has been the homeland of circus.

World pioneers

From the very beginnings of circus as we know it today, Italians have played a central role in developing and popularising the art[1]. Along with Philip Astley, Antonio Franconi (1737-1836) was in fact one of the first pioneers of circus; a tightrope walker, bird trainer and presenter of equestrian shows who conquered Parisian audiences at his Cirque Olympique.

In 1768 when Astley was experimenting with what would later become the established format for modern-day circuses (horse displays combined with other disciplines such as clowning), Italy was still divided into a series of small states, each with its own laws and customs; a peculiarity which, incidentally, is still in evidence today in various towns and regions of the now united country.

But there was widespread enthusiasm for the art form at this time; a throwback to the Middle Ages when the art form was extremely successful and had retained its popularity ever since. One of the earliest known references to circus disciplines from the period appears in a decree issued by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1780 banning certain practices, and it gives us quite a clear idea of how widespread these practices must have been: it talks about “Charlatans, Balladeers, Storytellers, Puppeteers, Itinerants, Jugglers” and those who “exhibit freaks of nature, machines and animals.”

The circus was not a show held in a marquee at this time; the various Mediaeval acts were performed in a variety of places including public squares and theatres. The companies that toured the peninsula mainly put on equestrian displays, but there were many other types of act too that were to some degree interrelated: tightrope walkers, jugglers, clowns, acrobatic troupes (including ethnic troupes from Asia and Africa, and those with a particular novelty such as the Lilliputian companies and Carl Price’s boys), and illusionists (the most famous of these being Bartolomeo and Eugenio Bosco: a father-and-son act who performed magic acts and theatre).

Menageries were also very popular and offered three types attraction: viewing animals in cages, watching wild animals being fed, and actual performances that displayed the mastery of training techniques. One of these, a show featuring an Indian rhinoceros called Clara[2], was performed in the arena in Verona as early as 1751, and in 1834 the same city hosted the arrival of Benedict Advinent, curator of the imperial Hapsburg menageries. There were also quirky shows such as Matteo Esslinger’s flea circus, and some even stranger ones: freaks shows, an early example of which was the Italian “giant” Giuseppe Catoni,[3]and demonstrations of the wonders of science – from early experiments with cinematography (dioramas and panoramas, etc) to hot air balloon rides.[4]

In the 18th and 19th centuries Italians were renowned outside Italy mainly for their entrepreneurship; the Chiarini family, for example – one of the longest-established families in popular entertainment, who through the efforts of Giuseppe Chiarini (1823-1897) visited every continent with their travelling show and were given rapturous welcomes in Europe, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, Java and South Africa.  No nation remains untouched by the Italian circus families, and they have left their mark everywhere: the Priami, Pierantoni and Giotti families in France, the Sidoli family in Romania, and Alessandro Guerra and the Ciniselli family who were particularly successful in Russia.[5]Guerra “the furious”, as he was known, was the first Italian to make an impression in Russia, and constructed a wooden building there in 1845 which he called the Cirque Olympique.

The Cinsellis, however, were biggest Italian circus directors working in the vast Russian territory, and were responsible for establishing this genre of entertainment in the country. As early as 1869, following a period of intense activity in Milan where he staged countless shows at the local Arena and was influential in the establishment of the famous Teatro Dal Verme theatre, Gaetano Ciniselli took over the directorship of two Italian circuses in Russia, one in a brick building in Moscow and the other in a wooden building in St Petersburg, the latter being replaced shortly after with an elegant building that is still standing and bears his name to this day.

The success that Italians enjoyed abroad was not because circus performers were stars in great demand, but because the poverty they suffered in their own country had caused a physiological reaction in them that led to the formation of certain professional “antibodies”: expansion of the repertoire, cross-contamination of genres and the expedient of a nomadic lifestyle – the only way they could find new public squares and new markets, and deliver themselves from starvation.[6]

Paradoxically, the success they enjoyed abroad was not matched by similar success at home, and in the 18th century circuses in Italy were mainly small, family-run affairs with just a few acts. Not until 1870 did more sizeable operations start to become established, with the success of companies with performers such as Truzzi and Fassio, and families such as the Cristianis, the Carolis, the Zavettas, the Zacchinis and the Travalglias. In 1861, however, working conditions improved when Italy was finally unified, and it became easier for circus companies to travel between different parts of the country, for example. The monarchy encouraged the development of circus skills, among other things, and equestrian shows in particular, which were very much admired by King Vittorio Emanuele.

The circus started to reach large audiences and became the hub around which city life revolved. In 1887 and for the next 20 years, the local authority in Rome designated Piazza Guglielmo Pepe as a special venue for circus performances that rotated on an annual basis throughout the year. It is interesting to note that when electric lighting was first introduced in the capital in 1881, it was to illuminate the space for some particularly thrilling aerial acts. As final proof of the attention that popular entertainment attracted, Emilio Salgari – the famous author of Sandokan – wrote a review of the Buffalo Bill show on the Verona leg of its tour in 1890.

Early 20th century

The social status of circus artists improved considerably in the 20th century, producing the genre’s first celebrities. Amongst the artists who still perform at major entertainment venues around the world are such fine entertainers as legendary quick-change artist Leopoldo Fregoli, trapeze artist Genesio Amadori – the first European to perform a triple somersault, and the Fratellini Brothers, a clown trio who taught at Jacques Copeau’s Vieux Colombier theatre and gained the admiration of eminent artists such as Jean Cocteau.

Italians also excelled in the equestrian disciplines: the two Frediani brothers, Guglielmo “Willy” and Aristomdemo “Beby”, were the first in the world to perform the acrobatic feat of balancing three men high on the back of a horse, and were taken on with their apprentice René by Barnum & Bailey in the United States.  It is remarkable that whatever they earned abroad they reinvested in Italy with nothing like the same success; a device that has been the trademark of Italian circus artists to this day and has served to characterise the Italians as a nation of travelling circus folk. In 1934 Ernesto Cristiani and his five sons, Lucio the most well-known amongst them, were engaged as equestrian acrobats at the Medrano in Paris. The following year they sailed to the United States, where they founded the Cristiani Bros. Circus, one of the greatest circuses of the 1950s.

Female artists worthy of mention include Cipriana Portner-Folco, the only woman in her day who could perform a somersault on horseback, and worked alongside her brother and brother-in-law at some of the biggest circuses in Europe with their double act. The Caroli dynasty that had been performing in circuses all over the world since the early 19th century, produced an heir, Enrico, at the beginning at the following century, who along with his brothers Ernesto and Francesco delighted audiences throughout Europe with their stunning performances as clown trio Les Francescos.

Acrobat Alberto Braglia was three-times Olympic champion in artistic gymnastics before moving on to further success in the world of circuses and music halls, and winning various contracts to perform on the US and French circuits. The 20th century also produced the most accomplished juggler of the time in Italian Enrico Rastelli, who astounded world audiences with his peerless virtuosity, juggling 8 plates whilst balancing a vase on his forehead, and skipping a rope on one foot whilst spinning a hoop with the other.[7]Francesco “Frank” Lentini, the man with three legs, was a peculiar case; born in Rosolini, Sicily, he emigrated to America at the age of eight where he gained a certain notoriety along with other circus “freaks”.

Once again the political situation intervened to influence the development of arts and entertainment, at least in part. During the Fascist regime Mussolini was always keen to exploit any means of communication to influence the populace, and demonstrated his delight for popular entertainment which served to promote circus and circus-type events.

Great circus families

After the First World War, the specific anthropological characteristic of the circus as a family-run affair, became established, assisted by the invention of the big top, which in the latter half of the 20th century became the venue par excellence for circuses. In Italy a map of interconnected circus family relationships evolved, out of which grew a veritable itinerant community under a patriarchal-type system, with several intermarried family units that shared the burden of work as well as living space; a system not dissimilar to the old peasant communities who shared responsibilities for their communal animals and protection from the elements.[8]

The development of the circus art in Italy and demand for it was arrested with the onset of World War II. The crisis in Europe took its toll on the variety circuits and permanent circuses, but provided a boost to the itinerant big-top circuses which increased greatly in number due to the economic boom and produced, amongst other things, one of the most important triumphs for the industry: the Ente Nazionale Circhi – National Circus Association. Through the efforts of its president Egidio Palmiri, the Ente Nazionale Circhi succeeded in bringing Law no. 337 into effect on 18 March 1968, which conferred on circus the status of a recognised artistic entertainment, and credited it with having a social function.

This positive climate helped to reinforce the role of the prominent dynasties, whose influence over the circus business the world over has never waned, the greatest of these being the Orfei and Togni families. One outstanding success story concerns Orlando Orfei (1920-2015) who entered the family business, the Circo Nazionale Orfei(Orfei National Circus), and with his innate charisma went on to become a renowned animal trainer who used the gentle approach. He moved to Brazil in 1968, where he founded theCirco Nazionale Italiano(Italian National Circus) with his sons, orchestrating a vast amusement park. On his death he was commemorated with great affection and remembered as a circus man “of two worlds”.  Moira Orfei, however, is the most prominent icon of Italian circus. She filled the collective imagination and for many people was quite simply the personification of the circus, even after her death in 2015. One famous photograph of her entitled Gli Italiani si voltano (Heads turn in Italy) taken in 1954 by photographer Mario de Biasi, shows a remarkable number of men turning round to admire her as she makes her way towards the Vittorio Emanuele II shopping centre in Milan; an iconic symbol of the wealth that was returning to Italy, and also of the fame to which Orfei had risen – her personal charms and charisma had an incalculable effect on Italy’s association with the circus. Moira’s circus tent travelled throughout the Italian peninsula for many decades and visited other countries such as Yugoslavia, Spain, Bulgaria and Libya as part of several foreign tours that started in 1975. Two years later the company was in Iran, under the continuing leadership of her husband Walter Nones, when the popular uprising broke out and prevented the circus troupe from leaving. There were some anxious moments as reported in the national press, as people clamoured for news about the fate of the 100 performers and 50 animals desperate for the moment when they could return home.

Aristide Togni started out with a small tent that held just 40 spectators, which grew into a mighty circus entertainment business: success was achieved in the 1920s when the troupe took the name Circo Nazionale Togni (Togni National Circus). After the war, the company divided into three units: the Circo di Cesare Togni (Cesare Togni’s Circus), the Circo Americano di Enis Togni (Enis Togni’s American Circus), which acted as technical director for the Circus festival of Monte Carlo, amongst other things, and the Circo di Darix Togni (Darix Togni’s Circus). Darix died on 15 October 1976, leaving the running of his circus to his son Livio, although it operated under different names, notable amongst which Florilegio. Flavio Togni was one of the greatest animal trainers from the 1970s, performing in almost every country in Europe as well as the United States (with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for the 1991-92 season).

Other prominent figures from Italian circus undeniably include Leonida Casartelli a versatile artist who performed as an acrobat, clown and animal trainer; he quickly became established as a producer and joined the Ente Nazionale Circhi where he became one of its greatest directors since the Second World War. Under his directorship, the Casartellis created the biggest travelling zoo in Italy, spending the winter months at home and the summer months abroad in places such as Greece, Israel and Turkey. Among the many names that the Casartelli tents and performances assumed, the most famous is the Medrano, which first made its appearance in 1972 and secured the reputation of the Casartelli-De Rocchi family.

Egidio Palmiri, mentioned above, was one of the most famous architects of the success that Italian circus enjoyed in its relationship with institutions. He came from a family that specialised in thrilling audiences with aerial feats and performed at major circuses all over Europe before the war, including Barum, Bouglione, Busch, Krone, Rancy and Schumann, and the permanent circus Carré.[9]Created by the Bellucci family, the Embell Riva troupe also achieved great success, due in large part to Roberto (a tiger tamer) and Mario (elephants and exotic animals) under the astute leadership of their brother Armando. Their most recent tours include Egypt and Albania.[10]

So many stars in a dark sky

Following the upbeat period of the 1970s that saw the rise of circus “blockbusters” inspired by the theatre “review” genre, colossal big tops with state-of-the-art technostructures and bigger attractions in great demand, the following decade (which ironically saw the introduction of state subsidies) witnessed a general downturn to which circuses responded by downsizing and organising tours by foreign troupes. However, Italians still figure amongst the top performers in many circus disciplines today. David Larible for example: an Italian who is considered the greatest traditional clown of the new millennium. He has achieved many successes throughout his career, including his performances at Circo Klone where he entertained audiences at the entrance, before the start of the show. His character, an auguste clown inspired by Jackie Coogan in The Kid, was seen in South America by Kenneth Feld who hired him as the first clown to perform for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey in the main ring. In the USA he also took part in Kaleidoscope, a polished show directed by another Italian, Raffaele De Ritis, who pioneered nouveau cirque in Italy. In 1999 Larible was the first winner of the Golden Clown at the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo. In addition to his circus performances, Larible also appears at some of the most prestigious theatres with his one man show designed specifically for the stage.[11]

Gianni Fumagalli Huesca is another clown who has achieved enormous success. After extensive tours of Europe and appearing in pantomimes in the United Kingdom, he was noticed by Bernhard Paul, director of famous German circus Roncalli, whilst working at the Austrian National Circus, and was hired on the spot. The meeting was propitious; it opened the door to the Big Apple Circus in New York for Fumigalli. He won a Silver Clown at Monte Carlo and other international engagements followed, culminating in the well-deserved top prize at Monte Carlo in 2015.

Since the 1980s Italy has been at the forefront in animal training; the Accademia d’Arte Circense (Academy of Circus Arts) in Verona, championed keenly by Egidio Palmiri, is an outstanding example. Pupils of the Academy have the opportunity to attend school regularly in the city of La Scala without missing any of their circus training. There are currently no other traditional circus schools of this type in any other country. The diligence of the Academy is rewarded by the success of its pupils in acrobatic games: Rony and Steve Bello moved from the Roncalli to the Cirque du Soleil, and Sascia and Yuri Guidi are in demand all over Europe. In 2001 the Errani brothers won the Golden Clown award in a reaffirmation of the Italian style across the world. One of the brothers, Maicol, married Geraldine, heiress to the biggest family in Swiss circus, whilst working under contract with Circus Knie in Switzerland, uniting the two families and establishing himself as a sort of co-director of the   renowned circus company.

In terms of animal acts, the above-mentioned Flavio Togni is one of the most well-known; he has performed with his horses and elephants all over Europe, and with his Noah’s Ark act at the Ringling circus. And then there’s Massimiliano Nones with his 12 tigers at the Moira Orfei circus, who was the first big cat tamer to win the Gold award at Monte Carlo. Stefano Orfei Nones, the son of Moira Orfei and Walter Nones, is considered his successor; he has won a number of awards at Monte Carlo and was voted artist of the year in 2016 by an international jury at the second annual International Master Awards in Sochi, Russia.

Also worthy of note are the Pellegrini brothers with their challenging four-man acrobatic acts at Ringling and the Lido in Paris, winning the Golden Clown in 2008.

Cirque nouveau

In recent years the circus has been shaken up by a new and unprecedented genre, the so-called nouveau cirque.[12]Although this is a recent phenomenon that is still evolving and therefore hard to define, it’s apparent that contemporary circus has introduced a plethora of new artists not from traditional circus families but from diverse backgrounds such as dance, theatre and gymnastics, into an environment that has not always welcomed change, and enabling fans of this genre to set out on a career that has often produced high quality results.

The increased number of circus acts has created a demand for training courses in the contemporary style that are open to everyone and offer the appropriate levels of professionalism. The Italian names de rigueur to mention in this respect are the Piccola Scuola di Circo in Milan and two companies in Piedmont – Flic and Cirko Vertigo, but new establishments are springing up at a phenomenal rate and it would be impossible to list them all here.[13]

All this turmoil has created a mini revolution in the circus world, which has nonetheless maintained the steady course that is part of its traditional identity, and indeed the new companies seem desirous of actively reviving this aspect of circus, which in some ways is as indispensable as artistic expression and may be the reason why companies such as Circo Paniko, El Grito, MagdaClan, Side Kunst Cirque and La Capra Grassa (and this again is not an exhaustive list) have chosen to equip themselves with a small marquee of their own, embracing the itinerant nature of circus. Like Orlando Orfei who started his career after the Second World War sewing together pieces of tarpaulin from American army vehicles to make a tent under which to perform, so the new draftees in Italian circus are starting out on their artistic adventure with a basic tent, knowing that they will spend long periods of their lives on the road; a journey of wonder and amazement – the immortal essence of the circus.


[1]     This article is based on previous papers – whose authors are referenced in the notes – reedited in collabration with Nicola Campostori.

[2]     For the life of Clara see Ridley Glynis. 2004, Clara’s grand tour; Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-century Europe, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press.

[3]     For the life of Giuseppe Catoni see Di Giacomo Silvio, 1991, Giuseppe Catoni. Gigante d’Acciano, Acciano, Associazione Achillopoli.

[4]     Giarola Antonio, Alessandro Serena, 2013,Corpo animali meraviglie; Le arti circensi a Verona fra Sette e Novecento, Equilibrando, Verona.

[5]     SERENA Alessandro, 2016,“La meraviglia in viaggio. Saltimbanchi e circensi dall’Italia all’estero”, in Rapporto italiani nel mondo 2016, published by Fondazione Migrantes, Tau, Todi.

[6]     Meldolesi Claudio, “La miseria e il palazzo degli spettacoli”, in Meldolesi Claudio, Taviani Ferdinando, 1991, Teatro e spettacolo nel primo Ottocento, Laterza, Roma-Bari, pp. 102-108.

Also according to Alessandro Cervellati decadence was growing in Italian circus throughout the latter half of the 19th century, reaching its height in the early years of the new century: see Cervellati Alessandro. 1961, Storia del circo italiano; Questa sera grande spettacolo, Edizioni Avanti! Milano.

[7]     Senelick Laurence, “Rastelli, Enrico”, in Banham, M. 2000, The Cambridge Guide to the Theatre, Cambridge Universitiy Press, Cambridge, p. 905,

and Vergani Orio, Rastelli, piccolo mago bianco,Corriere della sera, 14 December 1932, now in Abat-jour, Longanesi, Milano, 1973.

[8]     Franco Filippo, 2008, “La famiglia circense”, in Arti e mestieri del circo italiano, edited by Serena Alessandro, Cuem, Milano.

[9]     Leonardi Ruggero, 2006,Sospeso nel vuoto; L’avventura del circo italiano nella storia di Egidio Palmiri, suo grande protagonista, Gremese, Roma.

[10]   For an in-depth analysis of Italian circus families see the chapter “Il Novecento italiano” in Serena Alessandro, 2008, Storia del circo, Mondadori, Milano.

[11]   Larible David, Locuratolo Massimo, SerenA Alessandro, 2015,Consigli a un giovane clown, Mimesis, Sesto San Giovanni.

[12]   De Ritis Raffaele, 2008,Storia del circo Dagli acrobati egizi al Cirque du Soleil, Bulzoni, Rome.

[13]   Serena Alessandro, 2012, Proliferazione di sensi” inIl circo oltre il circo; Dai funamboli di Marco Aurelio agli eredi di Fellini, Mimesis, Sesto San Giovanni.

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