As a young man, Emil Otto Paul Braun, born in 1859 in a Prussian (now Polish) village, was known for his agility and sturdiness under stress. In the beginning, Braun’s athleticism was purely to impress people. No one imagined his meteoric rise to international acclaim. His father believed the athlete was destined for a life of peace as a priest. However, when a circus recruiter came across him following the gymnastics competition, events began to unfold, eventually pushing Braun, a.k.a. “Paul Cinquevalli,” into the spotlight.
A teen Cinquevalli was taken into Odesa, located on the Black Sea, where he was appointed an artist in trapeze. Trapeze was always a risk, and it was hazardous during the 19th century when nets were not in any way in widespread use. Cinquevalli’s experience on trapeze turned out to be not-so-great. In the beginning, a sudden incident in the tent caused him to fall onto an audience member, who died from the force of the fall. Later, Cinquevalli nearly died following a trapeze fall that caused the breaking of several major bones within his body.
The juggling legend “was in a coma for a long time,” says the juggling scholar Erik Aberg. “When he woke up, he couldn’t be an acrobat anymore, so that’s when he switched to juggling.”
Over time, Cinquevalli built a name for himself as an “equilibrist” -a athlete distinguished by his technical proficiency in endurance, balance, and strength. The unstoppable work ethic Cinquevalli was once able to apply to gymnastics; he redirected towards perfecting his incredible agility. He officially debuted as a juggler in 1876 in the Zoological Gardens in St. Petersburg.
Cinquevalli’s ambitions attracted large crowds. In one instance, the legend says he may have managed to balance two plates using one hand and balancing the bucket on top of one of them while holding a cane in the other hand while using a candle placed on his forehead to ignite cigarettes, which he then lit. Then, his skills led him to London, and a visit from the Prince of Wales requested to examine his equipment following an impossible feat of balance that involved the use of a cue stick and several balls of billiards. The Prince did not find anything, but his reputation got better.
Famous for his ability to juggle all kinds of sized and shaped objects simultaneously, Cinquevalli was a crowd-pleaser everywhere he went and traveled across the globe. England specifically became an abode for him. However, it was a surprise and a traumatic experience when the crowds in the country turned against him as World War I rolled around. The Brits did not like the German sounds of his surname, and within no time, the entertainer was a non-performer in his hometown of London.
Feeling demoralized and shattered in self-esteem, Cinquevalli was able to retire peacefully and passed away from sudden heart failure in 1918.
While largely overlooked in modern historical texts, Cinquevalli, a central famous figure in his day, is an icon for elite practitioners of juggling. This includes Cirque de Soleil’s Thom Wall. Juggle “is one of the last true meritocracies that’s out there,” Wall claims. Wall, and he’s content to draw inspiration from the creative spirit that was Paul Cinquevalli as he pushes himself to be innovative.