The Juggling Genius of Paul Cinquevalli

Remembering a showman who gave his life to his craft

(Sidedoor)
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Listen to this episode of Sidedoor, the Smithsonian podcast that explores behind-the-scenes stories from the Institution, for more about the history of the circus.

As a boy, Emil Otto Paul Braun, born in 1859 in a Prussian (now Polish) village, was renowned for his limberness and poise under pressure. At first, Braun’s athleticism was just for kicks—no one could have expected his rise to international fame. His father thought he was cut out for a quiet life in the priesthood. But once a circus recruiter got ahold of him following a gymnastics meet, events were set in motion that wound up catapulting Braun, a.k.a. “Paul Cinquevalli,” into the spotlight.

A teenage Cinquevalli was whisked to the city of Odessa on the Black Sea, where he was given a position as a trapeze artist. Trapeze has always been dangerous, but it was especially so in the 19th century, when nets were by no means in common use. Cinquevalli’s trapeze career proved to be ill-starred. First, a freak tent collapse sent him falling onto an audience member, who was killed by the impact. Then, later, Cinquevalli himself nearly died after a flying trapeze incident resulted in the fracture of numerous major bones in his body.

He “was in a coma for a long time,” recalls juggling historian Erik Aberg. “When he woke up, he couldn’t be an acrobat anymore, so that’s when he switched to juggling.”

Gradually, Cinquevalli built a name for himself as an “equilibrist”—a performer marked by technical prowess in feats of balance, endurance and strength. The relentless work ethic Cinquevalli had once applied to gymnastics he now turned to perfecting his wondrous dexterity.  He made his formal juggling debut in 1876, at the Zoological Gardens in St. Petersburg.

Cinquevalli’s ambition drew large crowds. On one occasion, he is said to have juggled two plates with one hand and balanced a bucket atop a cane held in the other, all while employing a candle balanced on his forehead to light a cigarette, which he then smoked. Soon, his skill brought him to London, where the Prince of Wales asked to inspect his props after a seemingly impossible feat of balancing involving a cue stick and several billiard balls. The Prince found nothing, and Cinquevalli’s reputation only grew.

Known for juggling all sorts of disparately sized objects at the same time, Cinquevalli was a crowd-pleaser wherever he went—and he traveled far and wide. England in particular became something of a home for him, though, so it was a shock and a trauma when audiences there turned on him as World War I rolled around. The Brits didn’t like the German sound of his given surname, and in no time the performer found himself persona non grata in his beloved London.

Demoralized and devastated in self-esteem, Cinquevalli retired meekly, and died of abrupt cardiac failure in 1918.

Though largely overlooked in current history books, Cinquevalli—a huge celebrity in his own time—remains a hero to elite practitioners of the craft of juggling, such as Cirque de Soleil star Thom Wall. Juggling “is one of the last true meritocracies that’s out there,” says Wall, and he is glad to be able to draw on the creative ambition of Paul Cinquevalli as he pushes himself to innovate.

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