Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Exhibitions in American Public Spaces - Tightrope Walking

The legendary Barnum & Bailey Circus ceased performances in the USA in May, 2017.  The circus has a long history from its beginnings in ancient Rome to its appearance in the 1720s British American colonies.
French Engraving La Fameuse Prussienne c 1789

In 1724 Philadelphia, a female dancer or wirewalker performed on a tightrope holding baskets with iron chains on her feet, while "wheeling a wheelbarrow, & spinning with swords."  In 1753, one pleasure garden announced truly extraordinary entertainment for their patrons.  
Archives of the City of Nantes A Tightrope walking in a public pleasure garden

New Yorker Adam Vandenberg employed a wire walker, Anthony Dugee, to perform in a "new House built for the Purpose" in his Mead Garden.  Shows occured in Vandenberg's open structure "weather permitting," & he charged four shillings for pit seating & two shillings for the gallery.  Vandenberg's wire walker advertised that he had performed for the King of Great Britain.  He walked forward & backward on a swinging rope, balancing first a pipe & then a straw on his nose.  He also juggled four balls at once & balanced a twirlling plate on the point of a sword.  Adding to the curiosity, an Indian & a young black boy assisted.  The most amazing part of the act was not the juggling wirewalker, but his wife.  The wirewalker's helpmeet, billed as "the Female Sampson," laid extended between two chairs bearing a 300 pound anvil on her chest while two men struck at it with sledge hammers.  Still precariously stretched between the chairs, the wife then had six men stand on her chest.  After this ordeal, the wife left the chairs & lifted the 300 pound anvil by her hair.  To climax her portion of the show, she planted a 700 pound stone on her chest & then heaved it 6 feet away from her.  Assisting them were a "Negro boy & an Indian." 
Archives of the City of Nantes Tightrope walking in a public pleasure garden

Traveling performers in the Early American Republic trouped from town to town & public garden to public garden in the summers. Baltimore's Public Pleasure Garden Chatsworth or Grey's Gardens offered an "afternoon's amusement" in 1792.  "The New Company of Tight Rope Dancers, Tumblers, &c, just arrived from Phildadelphia, will exhibit in Chatsworth Gardens...a five o'clock precisely...Tickets, one quarter of a dollar each."
Woodcut from the first text on gymnastics Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606).  De arte gymnastica libri sex. Tertia editione correctiores, & auctiores facti. Venitiis 1587.

Tightrope walking, also called funambulism, is the art of walking along a thin wire or rope. It has a long tradition in various countries & is commonly associated with the circus. Funambulism dates back at least to Ancient Greece — that's where the name comes from: funis means "rope" & ambulare means "to walk." In both Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome, tightrope walkers were revered, but their work was not considered "sporting" enough to be part of the Olympic Games. Instead it often became the providence of jesters & other entertainers. 
Roman fresco featuring two satyrs tightrope-walking from the villa of Cicero at Pompeii

Rope-walkers lost some ground in 5th-century France, as they were forbidden to come near churches, & since near churches was where most of the fairs were held, this was effectively a ban on tightrope-walking. But by the 1300s; during the lavish coronation of Queen Isabeau in 1389 Paris, an acrobat carrying candles "walked along a rope suspended from the spires of the cathedral to the tallest house in the city." This trend continued; there were tightrope walkers at the coronation of Edward VI in Westminster in 1547, & at the occasion of Philip of Spain's arrival in London to meet Queen Mary in 1554. 
Ascending the Campanile of St Mark’s, Venice. From an engraving done before the construction of the Sansovino Library in 1536

In Venice in the mid-16C, the annual Carnival gained a new opening tradition — Svolo del Turco (Flight of the Angel) — when a Turkish acrobat walked on a rope strung between the bell tower of the St. Mark's Church & a boat docked on the Piazzetta. 
Descent of Madame Saqui surrounded by fireworks at Vauxhall 1817

Madame Saqui (born Marguerite-Antoinette Lalanne 1786-1866) was a noted French tightrope walker or "rope dancer." She performed many times for Napoleon Bonaparte, often walking a wire with fireworks exploding all around her, & also at the celebration of the birth of his heir by walking between the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral. She also performed at Vauxhall Gardens & is mentioned in Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  In 1817, Madame Saqui “sparkling with spangles & tinsel & her head canopied with plumes of ostrich feathers” ascended above the crowd & trod the wire at midnight illuminated with blue lights while rockets were fired around her.
r Madame Saqui (1786-1866) was a noted French tightrope walker in public pleasure gardens

An Irishman named John Brenon walked the tightrope in Salem (USA) in 1788 with his legerdemain & a wife to assist him. By way of advertising, he sent up a hot air balloon before the performance. [“William Bentley’s Diary”, December 1788] ‘Such was the effect of the rope-flyers who visited New England, & after whose feats children of seven were sliding down fences & wounding themselves in every quarter.’ [“Dr Bentley’s Diary”, Boston, USA, 31 July 1792]

The good people of Boston, on August 10, 1792, flocked to “New Exhibition Room, Board Alley,” as they called their first theatre, was opened. Plays as such were still under a cloud, so the clever manager of the “Exhibition Room” announced them as “Moral Lectures”, thereby fooling nobody but the pious who did not attend. On the 12th, was presented a moral lecture, “Venice Preserved”, with “Dancing on the tightrope by Monsieurs Placide & Martine” & “Various feats on the slack rope by Mr Robert” between the acts. Four days later, Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” masqueraded as “A favourite moral lecture called… Catharine & Petruchio” & once again Monsieurs Placid & Martine held forth.
French tightrope walker Charles Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet, 1824 - 1897

In the 19C USA, everyone wanted watch rope walkers walk across Niagara Falls (located on the Canada–USA border). The first to do so was Charles Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet, (1824-1897) was a French outdoor tightrope walker. Blondin came to the United States in 1855. He especially owed his celebrity & fortune to his idea of crossing the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope, 1,100 ft (340 m) long, 3.25 in (8.3 cm) in diameter & 160 ft (49 m) above the water, near the location of the current Rainbow Bridge. This he did on 30 June 1859, pausing in the middle to sit down & drink a beer he pulled up on a rope from the Maid of the Mist. He would return to the Falls again & again, doing crazier highwire stunts each time: riding a bicycle across, cooking an omelet in the middle, going across blindfolded or on stilts, & even carrying his manager across on his back. 
Blondin tight rope artiste walking across Niagara Falls with a man on his shoulders

Next across was William Leonard Hunt (1838-1929), also known by the stage name The Great Farini, one of the most celebrated acrobats in Europe at the time. He duplicated many of the Great Blondin's stunts, & his coup de grâce in 1860, was crossing the Falls with a washing machine strapped to his back; in the middle he stopped to wash several handkerchiefs, which he then gave to his waiting admirers. 
Blondin on the tightrope at Niagara Falls, in an ape costume, pushing a wheelbarrow.

Maria Spelterini (1853-1912) became the 1st woman to ever cross the Niagara River gorge on a tight rope. Spelterini was a beautiful 23 year old woman of Italian descent. She made her debut on July 8th 1876 performing a successful crossing using a 5.7 cm wire located just north of the lower suspension bridge. 
Maria Spelterini,  July 12th 1876, crossed Niagra Gorge wearing peach baskets strapped to her feet.

After the first success Maria Spelterini proved herself equal to those tight rope walkers that preceded her by performing miraculous feats. On July 12th 1876, Spelterini crossed wearing peach baskets strapped to her feet. One week later, she crossed blind folded & only 3 days later, Spelterini crossed with her ankles and wrists handcuffed. 

On the other side of the country there is evidence that Mme Austen, the “Ariel of the Tightrope”, was spurred on by rather special competition in the development of her ability to take the spectator’s breath away. From John McCabe’s journal we learn that the lady made her first particularly sensational tightrope ascension & descension across a busy street in the heart of San Francisco, from the lot opposite the International Hotel to the top floor of that building. This feat she accomplished at about 8 oclock one morning in August 1855. The aerialist had intended to give her performance on the preceding evening, but had been prevented by too strong a wind. Early in October she did succeed in making a night ascension. But now an obtrusive rival appeared. At the same place, some three weeks later, one Signora Caroni, a member of Professor Risley’s troupe of gymnasts, performed the same act without using a balance pole; & then, on the third night afterwards, with Signor Caroni as her partner, she shared the honors of the first double ascension across the street. But not yet was the Italian upstart satisfied with the proof of her superior skill & daring. A month later, when the Risley troupe & the Stark’s dramatic company were sharing the boards at the Union Theatre, Signora Caroni made an ascension “from stage to dome,” over the heads of the audience! Mme Austen would be obliged to wait a while for the perfect opportunity to meet this challenge; but it came, on a March evening of 1857. At the Metropolitan the original “Ariel of the Tightrope” made an ascension, without the aid of a balance pole, from stage to upper tier - a performance described by a not unduly flattering reporter as “terrific”.’ (G.R. MacMinn, The Theater of the Golden Era in Califormia, 1941)