A History of the French Circus

Hazel Smith traces the elegant antics of acrobats, clowns, and trapeze artists, starting in the 18th century Versailles until the Cirque du Soleil.

The moment you step under the Big Top, the audience is thrilled. Acrobats and aerialists, as dazzling as the birds, are sure to amaze the audience. Fire-breathing daredevils will make the audience gasp. The circus has some entertainment for everyone, where enchantment and fun mix with street performers’ humor and ambiguous ethical stances. The music of the circus organ and a hefty swath of exotica from the world’s four corners globe add to the spectacle.

The circus has enthralled France since English horseman Philip Astley impressed Louis XV with the acrobats, horses, clowns, jugglers, and acrobats he introduced into Versailles in 1782. Astley and his brothers would go on to construct the Amphitheatre Anglais, which is located in the same area as the Place de la Republique currently.

In the French Revolution, the master of the Astley’s birds, Antonio Franconi, leased the theatre from his employer. Franconi’s Cirque Olympique was the very first French circus. Franconi and his brothers added many changes to their theater, such as establishing the size of the circus’s ring to 13m, which remains the norm up to the present. This made it easy for performers on the move to shift their shows from circus to circus, and the theatre in the round provided an intimate relationship between the performers and the audience.


In the magic ring, the audience members were exposed to risk and danger and were awestruck by the amazing athleticism and absurdity of the acrobats and clowns. Circuses employed a range of performers from all over the world to create a vibrant and attractive show. In addition to tightrope walkers and knives, there were stilt walkers, jugglers, and contortionists. The original draw of the circus was trick riding.

The earliest European circuses were run by families of equestrians who relied on their horses for transporting their circuses between towns. The popularity of the traveling circus grew, as did the advent of trains that made it simpler to transport the equipment and roustabouts required to set up the big tents. As time passed, traveling menageries of exotic animals were added to the list, as did the Lion Tamer, an adored new circus family member.

The rooster-like The rooster-like carnivals, or funfairs, quickly appeared at the fringes of Paris. The nomadic camps of well-worn wooden wagons lined the colorful pavilions, which showcased the wonders of circuses and bizarre shows for half the price of admission to one of Paris’s regular circuses.

The mid-19th century was the time when Paris was the capital of circus shows. The performers specialized in equestrian performances, clowns, and acrobats, each appealing to a particular customer base. In 1840 the Cirque d’Ete first opened, which operated during the warmer months to people from the top of the Champs-Elysees crowd. Cirque of Hiver attracted various local audiences on the other side of the year. It was located on rue Amelot in the 11th arrondissement; this amphitheater was 20 sides in 1852 and was later renamed it was known as the Cirque Napoleon.

The most notable development in the 19th century was due to Jules Leotard, of the name-brand clingy one-piece suit. Leotard created an act using trapeze ropes, bars, rings, and rigging and presented his gravity-defying performance in Cirque Napoleon in 1859. Cirque at Napoleon on 18th May 1859. The 1867 hit song, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, immortalized Leotard. The Cirque of Hiver Bouglione has been operated since 1934 under the Bouglione brothers is the world’s longest-running circus that is still operating and is a full-service one featuring dancers and daring feats.

Cirque Fernando was established in 1875, much in the admiration of Belle-Epoque artists in Montmartre, and the likes that included Renoir, Degas, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec quickly became regulars in the crowd of 2,500. The Fernandos granted them access to sketch performers at work. It was a means for the artists to show modern-day life to the owners, and it brought significant publicity.

Due to their unorthodox jobs with bohemian attitudes and the things considered by a discerning public to be morally questionable, the circus and artists were like-minded people in society. Edgar Degas painted Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. Renoir created the circus jugglers of the Cirque. Georges Seurat’s pointillist work”Le Cirque ” precisely depicts the circus’s fun. Toulouse-Lautrec made several sketches and pastels that depicted shows in the Cirque Fernando. For other poster artists similar to Jules Cheret, circuses were their bread and butter.

When Fernando fell into the hands of the renowned Spanish clown Geronimo “Boum-Boum’ Medrano, The open-door policy continued, and a new generation of artists was attracted to Cirque Medrano and including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse. Picasso was intrigued by the lifestyle of acrobats, also known as saltimbanques wearing vibrant harlequin costumes. He painted the saltimbanques in 1905 within the Rose Period, which is often referred to by the name of his Circus Period.


Picasso’s entourage bonded with the famous comedy troupe of Rico, Alex, and Grock. Grock’s show was a clever mix of musical and pantomime errors, and he was the most well-paid entertainment professional in the entire world. The Medrano, called ‘The Temple of the Clowns, ‘ starred several of the best performers in the world performers, ranging starting from Geronimo Medrano himself to Buster Keaton, and launched the remarkable careers of the famous Fratellinis. They were famous performers from their European circus. The building was destroyed in 1974. Today, Cirque Medrano is a traveling circus.

The original site for the Hippodrome was destroyed in 1897 and then constructed in 1900 along the Boulevard Clichy with 5,000 seats – half of the capacity initially. The Hippodrome’s opening was an enormous event involving 600 elephants, 200 performers, and 50 horses. The Hippodrome hosted sporting events and huge equestrian events and, when it was flooded, played out massive naval combats. The Hippodrome was shut down in 1911 because it could no longer have enough seats. It became cinemas, reflecting the changing trends in entertainment. The golden time of cinema had long ended, pushing the circus from the spotlight. The performances were sluggish, with no innovation seen in many years. Animal rights also started to become a matter of concern for the public. The 20th century was a period of crises for the circus, and many major industry companies became bankrupt.


Federico Fellini says Paris was “the city that made the circus an art.” For those interested in trapezing or clowning, it took much work to perfect one’s craft without an entertainer’s family. The 1970s created two of Europe’s top professional circus schools. Famous circus performers from French families founded both. Annie Fratellini, from a long line of clowns, created the Ecole Nationale de Cirque in 1975. The Ecole au Carre was opened by the famous Alexis Gruss. From small family-run shows to large-scale Cirque du Soleil-sized shows, French circuses typically put on as many as 1,000 shows each year. In 1981, the French government subsidized circus as entertainment, establishing an environment to help ensure the thriving circus culture France has today and establishing the nation as the center of study and circus performances.

Nowadays, circus schools do not provide elephant tricks or tiger training. In the past, circus animals have been abused, but France’s view has changed in this regard. Secretary of the Environmental Transition Barbara Pompili said in September 2020: “It is time that our ancestral fascination with these wild beings no longer means they end up in captivity.” France will gradually end using wild animals such as bears and tigers, lions, and elephants – in traveling circuses but not in permanent locations.


The modern circus focuses on acrobatics, not animals, captivating the audience with its spectacle of strength, agility, humor, and dazzling costumes, all laced with a compelling story and unique music.

Although the classic Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione continues present with high wires, horses, and human cannonballs, contemporary circuses of France provide a slick combination of the traditional circus and the authenticity that is urban. Cirque Alexis Gruss, a French-based Cirque Alexis Gruss, is advertised as a show of equestrian, comic, and musical art. In the final quarter of 2021, Le Cirque Phenix will honor the women who comprise the circus. France is also home to the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain and the Cirque de Panama, which is part of the Bois de Boulogne, a display of light and color dancing and singing, accompanied by aerial performances and incredible feats of strength.

Some, like Le Zebre de Belleville, present a more intimate, cabaret-like setting. It is described as the tiniest cabaret in Europe; tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, and jugglers entertain the audience while they are served a candle-lit meal.

Others are radical and counter-culture, like the Cirque Electric, an electropunk-inspired burlesque of comedy in which the libertines are barely dressed. Since 1995, their creative and experimental shows must be witnessed to believe it.

There are many circuses throughout the Hexagon to suit every taste. Archaos is a pioneering alternative circus located in Marseille, where you can witness death-defying tricks like chainsaw juggling. It is poetry at work under the giant high-top that is Cirque The Plume, located in Besancon. Acrobats and aerialists find their homes at Nowhere Circus in Amiens, along with the architectural masterpiece Cirque Jules Verne. In the meantime, the Festival International du Cirque de Bayeux is preparing this year to begin the ninth time. As it turns out, 239 years since Philip Astley entertained the King King, the circus is the same essential aspect of French culture as ever.

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