By Marcello Truzzi
with Massimiliano Truzzi

From Bandwagon, Vol. 18 No. 2, March-April 1974

Egyptian jugglersThough numerous works exist outlining the basic techniques of juggling, how-to books, there has been a remarkable paucity of information available about its history. Similar problems exist with most of the great folk arts of the circus. Though there is much information available through interviews with still active performers, such occupational history continues to be neglected. What follows is a brief attempt at such cultural salvage, in part with the hope of encouraging others to collect similar facts about other circus arts.


The history of juggling is a long and fascinating one. The art has been with man in some form as long as civilization. There is evidence of jugglers during the great Egyptian civilization where it was imported from India. Juggling his been an institution for many centuries with Japan, China, South East Asia, Iran and Tibet. Even the Aztecs and other native Americans had jugglers. Jugglers in these early cultures were often prominent in the religious and mythological rituals. It is probably here that juggling had its origin along with other forms of dexterity, for some forms of juggling are found even today in primitive tribes, practiced by their shamen.

Greek jugglerJuggling was a favorite with the Greeks and later with the Romans. In ancient Rome various names were given what we today call jugglers, e.g., ventilatores (knife-throwers) and pilarii (ball players).

In its early forms juggling was usually combined with other forms of entertaining skill such as slight-of-hand and acrobatics. Juggling is a specialized form of entertainment which is quite recent. The joculatores were the mimes of the Middle Ages. The French use of the word jongleurs (an erroneous form of jougleur) included the singers known is trouveres, and the humbler English minstrels of the same type gradually passed into the strolling jugglers from whose exhibitions the term came to cover loosely the acrobatic, pantomimic, and slight-of-hand performances.

Medieval jugglersThere is very little known about these early jugglers, since most of them were vagabonds, and in their gypsy-like travels they were known to the community only through their display of skills in the city streets through which they wandered. Slowly, the art developed until finally it loosed itself from the legerdemain which usually accompanied it. (Legerdemain differs from juggling in that the juggler openly exhibits his skill, making no attempt to camouflage his dexterity of hand, while the slight-of-hand performer frequently masks his dexterity in order to produce astounding results).

Despite our lack of real knowledge about individual performers or their exact accomplishments, many stories and legends surrounding or including these wayfarers developed. A good example of such a popular story was that of "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame," originally a medieval miracle play which went through many versions including one by Anatole France which was later presented as an opera by Massenet in 1902.


Juggling per se did not develop into the specialized art that we now witness until the advent of certain Asiatics into Europe. The earliest record of a juggler in the modern sense appears to be a Chinese. Lau Laura, who was at Drury Lane in 1832.

In its early development juggling followed certain formal patterns. First there were the kraft-jugglers or jongleurs de force. These were jugglers who specialized in the manipulation of heavy objects and weights. They would work with such objects as cannonballs. A good example of such a juggler was Severus Scheffer who was descended from a family of street jugglers. He copied the Danish juggler Holtum, and preceded another great "weight juggler." Paul Conches (also a German) who appeared dressed as a Hussar. Another great kraft-juggler was Paul Spadoni, also a German. Most of the great kraft-jugglers were German, but it was apparently the vogue to take Italian names. Spadoni came into the ring dressed as a Roman on a chariot. He then dismissed the horses and proceeded to balance the chariot on his head. One of his typical tricks was done with a small spring-board. He would drop a cannon-ball on the board which would send another into the air, and he would catch the ball in flight upon the back of his neck. Spadoni, born in 1870, copied Scheffer who was well known around 1900. Contemporary with Scheffer were Paul Cinquevalli and Kara. Weight juggling is almost obsolete today.

The second popular form of juggling was "salon juggling" by the juggler mondain. The German juggler Kara (who often claimed to be American) has often been called the first salon juggler, but he is preceded by Agoust, a typical juggler of 1860-86 who staged his act in a restaurant setting. The salon juggler was one who usually worked in format dress and juggled such objects as his cane, gloves, top hat or derby, and articles to be found in the drawing room such as flower bouquets, billiard balls, and cues. Kara seems to have been the greatest of the salon jugglers. Kara was taught by Pospischil, the manager of a trapeze duo, who in turn was taught by Scheffer. Juggling has seemingly always been an oral tradition, taught by one practitioner to another. Another great salon juggler was Salerno (also German). He was a particularly great inventor of new juggling tricks and apparatus. Although he used some artificial effects employing "gimmicks," he was nevertheless a very excellent artist. Possibly greatest modern salon juggler is the German artist Adanos.

CinquevalliAlthough we are, in this discussion, classifying jugglers into specialized categories, most jugglers still combined into their acts many of these forms. A good example of more eclectic type of juggling was Paul Cinquevalli (another German, born in Posen whose real name was Lehmann-Braun) who achieved great fame in England at the turn of the century. He entered dressed in a leotard and tights and performed many balancing feats and some weight juggling.

A third specialization was that of the Equestrian Juggler, that is, the performer who would juggle while standing upon the back of a moving horse. Probably the greatest of these was Briatori. He was the first (and possibly the last) to juggle seven balls while standing on a moving horse! Another great Equestrian Juggler, Nicolai Nikitin (the son of the famous Russian circus owner), was a particularly great showman and was also a very fine salon juggler when he exercised his skill on the ground. Another great Equestrian Juggler was Enrico Truzzi, the father of Massimiliano Truzzi, the greatest juggler in the generation following Enrico Rastelli's death.

A fourth form of juggling is that of the Antipodist. An antipodist is one who juggles objects with his feet. Generally, jugglers think of antipodism as a separate form of juggling. Although it can be very well done and can be very difficult, it is relatively limited in its possibilities and generally consists of balancing and/or spinning of objects upon the feet while lying upon the back. This form of juggling is most often combined with other forms of dexterity. Quite often it is found in combination with acrobatics, the one performer "juggling" the other with his feet while the latter performs somersaults, etc. This form of antipodism is not usually considered a form of juggling, and its practitioners are known as icarians. Although there have been many Oriental antipodists, the greatest icarians seem to have been Europeans, especially Germans and Hungarians.

The fifth and final classification of these early jugglers is that of the Group Jugglers. This consists of more than one person juggling the same objects back and forth. A fine example of this category was the well known French family, the Perezoffs, which at one time consisted of eleven persons. Another very fine group juggling act was the Amoros family, a German troupe, one of whose members was the first recorded person to ever juggle nine balls in the air at one time. There have been many group juggling acts in the past, but they are slowly becoming extinct. It is today more financially practical for acts to be small, and this applies not only to juggling acts; jugglers today usually work as singles or sometimes as duos. There are some group jugglers, but their caliber is not comparable to those of the past. Some of the great group juggling acts were the Mangadors, the Arizonas, the Aicardis, and the D'Angolys (who, by the way, are related to the Briatori family).

The early 1900's brought the end of these specialized schools of juggling. Although there still exist persons doing many of the tricks which were performed, the classifications no longer exist in a pure state. The Weight Jugglers are no longer seen, and the Equestrian Juggler seems also to have disappeared. Group juggling is passing from the scene, and there seem to be fewer and fewer antipodists, although there are still quite a few icarians left in acrobatics. Salon juggling still remains with us in part, but not in the old sense. Performers still work with top hats and canes, but the specialization is essentially gone.

One thing more must be mentioned: the Oriental jugglers. There is, very unfortunately, very little record of even these early European jugglers, and the fate of the early Oriental jugglers who so greatly influenced the art is much more clouded in obscurity. Although we today think of the Oriental jugglers primarily in terms of the much over-done and over-emphasized plate spinning, many of them were expert in other forms. Since they were members of a strange minority group and "Outsiders" to the average European, their sometimes magnificent feats were underestimated. Somehow the viewers seemed to impute these visitors from the East with a natural talent for such difficult techniques. Because of this, the individual names of some of these performers just were not noted, and their feats were not fully described. Nevertheless, we can not fail to note the important influence which they have had upon this ancient art. It is significant that Lau Laura was the first recorded performer who specialized in juggling to be found in Europe. It should be noted also, however, that Oriental juggling followed a somewhat different pattern than that which we have discussed. It consisted primarily of balancing feats. One particularly amazing trick which was quite common was the rolling on the body, in all sorts of ways, of a large trident. This trick, as was common with most Oriental juggling, was usually coupled with amazing contortions and acrobatic skills. Another common feat was the manipulation and dexterous handling of large balls of twine or yarn. This was the basis for the fantastic use of rubber ball manipulation by the greatest juggler the world has ever known - Enrico Rastelli.


RastelliOnce in every art's history, there emerges a figure whose talents and motivations are so unique that he will achieve heights in his profession which will never be surpassed and which still shine forth to dazzle any future aspirants. Such a person was Enrico Rastelli - undoubtedly the greatest juggler the world has yet produced. The feats of this fantastic performer are circus legend, and they seem even more phenomenal to those who understand their technical difficulty.

Enrico Rastelli was born into a circus family. His father was Alberto Rastelli, a juggler himself but primarily a circus aerialist or "flyer." Enrico was born in Siberia in 1896 when his family was touring Russia. Although he might have spent some of his early years in Italy (details are unavailable, the greater portion of his youth was spent in Russia; and it was in Russia that he acquired his skill and his first great reputation. His father wished for him to become an aerialist, and he did work in his father and mother's aerial act, but at a very early age juggling captured his being. To Rastelli, juggling was not a task to be laboriously performed; it was his first love. He literally practiced night and day throughout his short life. It was not uncommon for him to practice twelve hours a day, and he seldom practiced less than six. He would often converse with performers and even conduct his business affairs while practicing. He truly loved his art, and this love was clearly reflected in his miraculous feats. At one point in Germany, his act, which was a solo performance always, was so filled with variety that it lasted a full forty minutes!

Rastelli's contributions to juggling were many, but the most important was his introduction of the manipulation of a large (six to twelve inches in diameter), air-filled rubber ball. At an early age, Rastelli saw the Japanese juggler Takashima, who used a cotton ball which he manipulated with a stick in his mouth. Rastelli saw the potentialities for exercising juggling skill with this and, by using a child's rubber ball instead of the cotton one, turned such manipulation into an unparalleled work of art. His feats were unbelievable in their exacting coordination as he threw and caught the ball with all parts of his body. It was Rastelli, too, who began the now commonly seen practice of throwing the ball into the audience, having them throw it back, and catching it on a stick held in his mouth. Rastelli was the father of what is usually called Ball Juggling - the physical manipulation in various ways of inflated rubber balls. Ball Juggling includes such dexterous feats as spinning the ball on the fingers, bouncing the ball continuously on the head, and generally throwing and catching the ball with various parts of the body. The degree of control which Rastelli exhibited has never been entirely equaled. His manipulations even included the use of the oblong rugby football, a task still unmatched. In his last years Rastelli introduced the manipulation of the soccer ball into his act, and his extraordinary skill dazzled professional soccer players and fans alike. He could carry on a lengthy conversation while constantly and alternately, smoothly bouncing two balls on his forehead!

In addition to his mastery of Ball Juggling, Rastelli also as the master of what we shall term "pure" or Straight Juggling. Straight Juggling consists of the ability to throw up a number of objects into the air and alternately catch them. This is the form which one usually associates with juggling. In our later discussion of the technical aspects of juggling, the reader will see that there are various "systems" of juggling which are quite independent from one another. The most common such technique or system for juggling is called "cascading" and this system is used only to juggle an odd number of objects. For some quite inexplicable reason, Rastelli never cascade juggled to any degree. Thus, he would juggle eight objects or six objects but not seven. It was possible that he could juggle seven objects, but he never did so in his act.

RastelliRastelli limited himself to juggling three types of objects: small rubber balls, sticks, and plates. Rastelli was the complete master of juggling eight balls. This is a phenomenal feat which is generally not appreciated by a non-professional viewer. The general public is full of misconceptions about juggling having seen circus posters showing drawings of performers manipulating a vast multitude of objects. When one considers that juggling eight balls means that seven balls must be separately hurled into the air with such speed and precision that the eighth ball can be hurled into the air smoothly before the first ball can be caught, one recognizes the great skill required. And throwing eight balls into the air and just catching them is difficult enough, but continuously keeping up such an orbiting rotation is infinitely more arduous. Rastelli did, in fact, throw up and catch ten balls, but he did this for only one rotation. Apparently he only seriously concerned himself with attempting ten balls when he heard that a member of the Amoros family had set a record juggling nine balls. Since Rastelli did not like to cascade juggle, he did not bother with nine balls and directly attempted ten. However, it must be noted that it was not just the quantity of objects which made Rastelli's juggling phenomenal; it was the facile and flawless manner in which he accomplished his astounding feats.

Rastelli never juggled the commonly seen indian clubs which one sees jugglers using today; he juggled wooden sticks. Unlike a club, which is wider at one end, a stick is narrow and evenly balanced, although the stick does have one end (usually white) which is designed as its handle. Sticks and clubs are the most difficult objects to juggle, for they must be given a specific number of turns in order that they might be properly caught on their handles. Rastelli juggled eight sticks, and he was the complete master of six sticks. Rastelli's juggling of six sticks has never been equaled. Not only did he juggle them at a fantastically quick pace, but he did so at a low height where others have not been able to juggle four. He juggled five sticks and one ball together - a most difficult feat due to the differences in weight and throwing technique. He also juggled six torches, and the things that he could do with three torches have never been equaled. His physical stamina was amazing in itself. He would juggle three torches passing them alternately under each leg while goose-stepping completely around a large stage three times!

Rastelli's juggling of plates was equally astounding. The nature of plate juggling, that is, their curious shape, makes it exceedingly difficult to initially throw up more than three from each hand. However, Rastelli overcame this difficulty by constructing an apparatus attached to his legs which could loosely hold two plates. He would then juggle six plates into the air, thereupon grabbing the additional two plates from his legs, and thus he got the full eight plates into a continuous orbit. And he would do this while simultaneously balancing a tall object upon his forehead! This feat has never been duplicated. He also was the first, and one of the very few jugglers, to juggle six plates while simultaneously bouncing a small rubber ball continuously upon his forehead.

Rastelli was not only a rare artist, but also an intelligent and fine human being. He had the reputation of remarkably grand person and friend, and it was said that he had no enemies - a rare thing in such a competitive profession as show business. For example, when Rastelli fled Russia in 1919 due to the revolution there, he came to Italy virtually unknown. He initially went to work with the Circus Gatti and was an overnight sensation. But despite many great offers to appear in bigger and more spectacular shows, he remained with Gatti for a few years out of friendly loyalty. Finally he did leave Gatti, and in 1923 he visited the United States where he performed at the Hippodrome in New York. He returned to Europe and in Bergamo, Italy, in 1931, he cut his mouth very slightly with the mouthpiece that he used in his act. This cut became infected and he died. He was only thirty-five years old and in his prime. The world will never see his equal.

(© Copyright 1974 by Marcello Truzzi)

Notes Toward a History of Juggling / Juggling Papers /