History of circus art. Part I. The infancy of circus

A new thematic exhibition, "Circus Parade" is opened in the museum Collection. It features the unique automata dolls created in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries from the museum's collections.

We are planning to publish articles about the origins of circus art, its history, the peculiarities of circus programs in various countries and historical periods, distinctive national circuses and skillful artisans, makers of mechanical curiosities. We will also explain how controlling and musical mechanisms of amazing circus performers – automata dolls are designed!

Part I. The infancy of circus

Circus art, in its separate manifestations, emerged several thousand years ago. Perhaps even before our era, tightrope dancing appeared in China. In ancient Egypt, performers demonstrated all sorts of juggles, which is amply illustrated by the wall paintings of the necropolis at Beni Hasan Egyptian cemetery. The images depict scenes with acrobatic and juggling exercises. The Greeks borrowed the art of juggling, acrobatics and equestrian vaulting from the Egyptians and then passed the knowledge on to the Romans.

The ancient Roman circus corresponds to the modern hippodrome: outdoor exposed, elongated oval-shaped building where horse and chariot races were held. The Circus Maximus, or Great Circus, was the largest building of the kind. In addition to circuses, amphitheaters were also built, including the famous Colosseum, in which human and animal gladiatorial fights were held, as well as naumachia (theatrical water battles).

During the Middle Ages, the ancient circuses and amphitheaters fell into decline and decay, but artists, comedians, stuntmen and jugglers began to travel around Europe, giving mostly spontaneous performances at fairs, carnivals and town festivals. Their position in society resembled that of a tightrope walker and was very precarious, as itinerant performers attracted scrutiny from the authorities and the church and were sometimes persecuted.


The modern circus emerged in the mid-18th century in England, more specifically, in London. The emergence of this new form of spectacular art is associated with the name of Philip Astley, who was born into the family of a carpenter in 1742 in the town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. From an early age, he demonstrated affinity and aptitude for riding, thus he became a soldier, joining a regiment of light dragoons under Colonel Eliot, where he gained great experience as an equestrian. After his retirement, he opened a riding school, and began organizing public shows with demonstrations of vaulting tricks - equestrian gymnastic and acrobatic exercises. Philip Astley purchased a site in what is now the Waterloo area, where his first performances were held in 1768.

Moreover, in 1773 to Astley's Amphitheatre, the first world circus was opened. Tickets cost a shilling for a box seat and sixpence for a place in the stands.

Astley's military background appears to have had a major influence on the art he later created. Some circus costumes, such as the uniforms with galloons on the shoulders of the tamers, and the abundance of red, black, dark green and gold colors both in actor's toggery and in the circus space decoration, continue to resemble military uniforms.

A major innovation was the programme of performances, in which Astley added jumpers, dancers, acrobats and jugglers to the equestrian numbers, and introduced comic numbers - equestrian. Astley staged a sketch called Billy Baton, or a Tailor's Ride to Brentford (the regimental tailors could hardly stick on the horse). The number, by all accounts, was incredibly funny, and was performed in various modifications in circuses for another century. By the way, Astley did not use wild animals in circus performances.

Remarkably, Astley never called his Amphitheater a circus. His rival Charles Hughes was the first to put the word 'circus' on the entrance pediment. It was he, who in 1782 opened the establishment under the name Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.

In 1772, Astley was invited to perform for King Louis XV in Versailles, and in 1774, he travelled with the troupe to France. In 1782, Astley erected English Amphitheatre in Paris; it was the first Parisian circus (also known as the Cirque Olympique). From that moment on, the development of French circus arts and the rise of Paris as its center in the second half of the 19th century began.