The Museum and the region
It is here in the in Alto Polesine region, specifically in·Bergantino, that the·'Museo Storico della Giostra e dello Spettacolo Popolare' (Museum of Amusement rides and Popular Entertainment) was founded in 1999. The Museum has deep ties to the history of the town, which has a decades-long tradition of travelling shows and the world of fairs and amusement parks. Come along with us: we’ll tell you a fascinating story with a fairytale ending.
The star of this story is, of course, the merry-go-round. But what does the merry-go-round mean to Alto Polesine?
Here, these fairground rides are born in so-called 'dream factories'. This is how journalists define the industries in the Polesine region that produce the most dizzying and adrenaline-pumping attractions for amusement parks and funfairs all over the world. In Alto Polesine, therefore, the merry-go-round is not merely a source of entertainment: it is a regional work-of-art and part of its economic, cultural and artistic fabric, a source of work and social well-being. In fact, a manufacturing district for the production of state-of-the-art rides eventually sprang up here, representing an Italian avant-garde that came to be well known in all the major international markets. Naturally, Bergantino is also home to a one-of-a-kind museum in Italy dedicated to the carousel, a symbol of the fascinating world of travelling shows, which deserves to be better known in all its true identity and dignity.
“Bergantino, Home of the Carousel” is how hurried drivers are welcomed
to the city. The town’s status as “Home of the Carousel” is now an integral part of its name, uplifting its image from its obscure past as a land of floods and migrants.
Today, despite being made of only wood, steel and electrical wires, the Carousel is like a huge living creature, covered in tentacles and exuding a fascinating allure, full of stories passed down through the centuries. A living, life-giving character.
Was there a real "cultural and socio-economic revolution" in Alto Polesine?
Yes. Long ago, Polesine was seen as a land of hunger and misery due to disastrous floods and tearful emigrations, which at the time were the only way people could escape starvation. Today, those dreadful living conditions are only a distant memory.
This small corner of Polesine has been able to lift itself out of a century-long economic depression thanks to the merry-go-round, in an entirely original way for a farming community tied to its land and far removed from the nomadic life of the town square: sometimes, hunger is the mother of miraculous invention.
In the past, the life of the peasants here depended on the river Po, for better and for worse.
The elderly residents still remember the songs and rhythmic motions of the washerwomen on the Po.
In their minds, they still see the foggy banks of the river and the wan figures of the “scarriolanti”, labourers who carried away wheelbarrows full of earth, intent on repairing the flood-ravaged embankments.
So how did the idea of the merry-go-round originate and take root in this rural environment?
We could start by saying “Once upon a time…” It was the era of the infamous economic crisis of 1929, a disaster on the international stage and a tragedy for the already beleaguered Polesine. The protagonists of our story are two clever bicycle mechanics from Bergantino, Umberto Bacchiega and Umberto Favalli. One day, visiting a village fair, they had the opportunity to see the first electrified merry-go-round: a 40-metre oval track on which small cars powered by an electric motor ran. It was the first small-scale, family-oriented reproduction of the famous Monza Circuit racetrack, which had just recently been inaugurated in 1922.
Amusement parks had discovered electricity. The first car track built in Italy
by Cesare Pelucchi and Ermanno Drouet in 1926. The carousel was a resounding success, so much so that it was immediately referred to as the “jewel of entertainment.” The horse was no longer what Italians dreamed of and desired: that honour now went to the automobile.
Crowds of people flocked to the merry-go-round in awe, throwing their money at the chance of storming those fantastic little cars and dreaming of being famous race car drivers: in that era, only the wealthy had access to real automobiles, but the desire for them knew no social class! The two bicycle mechanics were surprised and impressed by the immediate profit it generated and the cash flowing abundantly into the operator's till. The carousel inspired them: it looked like a real money-maker! Only that carousel could solve their economic problems, and at the same time be an attractive alternative to permanent emigration to foreign countries in search of their fortunes.
The two determined friends combined their economic, human, and professional resources, and eventually recreated that racetrack of hope. It was destined to change their lives - and the life of an entire community.
The two pioneers of the travelling show in Bergantino
Bacchiega told a journalist: “My friend Favalli and I, worked for almost a whole year to launch our new venture in Bergantino on 24 April 1929, the day of the San Giorgio Fair, and then in May we went on our first tour, starting in Novellara, Reggio Emilia. I remember that first trip as if it were yesterday: we were all excited, happy and full of hope”.
Here is the square in Bergantino, where Bacchiega and Favalli proudly presented their surprising creation to their fellow villagers on 24 April 1929. It was a resounding success, but no one could have imagined at the time that this little racetrack, designed by chance as a fun project, would end up changing the life of the entire local community for the better.
How many villagers followed the two bicycle mechanics into their new business?
Bacchiega and Favalli set an example for more than a hundred local families who eventually followed in the pioneers’ footsteps and entered the carousel business, chasing their dream of escaping poverty. Today, Bergantino performers, known in fairground circles as “Bergantini”, are professional groups who still travel for their work, and not just out of a desire to lead a nomadic life. Their home of Bergantino remains for them an emotional landmark and a safe haven, but at the same time they do not hide the fact that they have been won over by the allure of the nomadic life, especially the young people.
The town gives the pioneers great credit for paving the way both for the Bergantino travelling show and for the subsequent birth of the “Polesine Carousel” Manufacturing District in Veneto.
Here is the industrial zone of Bergantino with its “dream factories”,
which have boosted the business of many other companies in neighbouring towns. They produce state-of-the-art rides for an international market.
In fact, in addition to the work of the travelling Bergantino carnival folk, a parallel entrepreneurial activity of constructing and marketing amusement park rides has developed in Alto Polesine. Today, 70 companies in the manufacturing district are involved in the production of everything needed for a modern travelling or fixed amusement park: from the most dizzying attractions to luxury caravans and the most spectacular fireworks.
Their clientele is highly diverse, ranging from all over Europe to various countries in Asia, North and South America and the Arab countries. For their purchases they come right here, to Polesine: once a land of mud-filled wheelbarrows and impoverished labourers, but now an international industrial centre of entertainment, renowned both for the quality and variety of the products on offer.
Exemplary productions of the Polesine Carousel Manufacturing District
Who created the Museum in Bergantino and why?
The Museum of Amusement rides was set up in 1999 by the Municipality of Bergantino and the Province of Rovigo, under the aegis of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and in collaboration with the National Museum of Folk Art and Traditions in Rome, the Ethnographic Centre in Ferrara, and the Accademia dei Concordi in Rovigo.
The only museum of its kind in Italy, it was immediately a hit with the public, who enthusiastically welcomed it the moment it appeared on the cultural scene. Today, it has become a destination for ever-expanding tourism on an international scale. The museum has proved so popular because it was created for everyone. The story it tells is not only about the rides, but of all the games and shows that have enlivened fairs and amusement parks from the Middle Ages to the present day, a centuries-long story that involves us all and touches all of our lives.
This is without a doubt a museum with its roots in the regional socio-economic situation, but it immediately places the local reality in the larger historical context of the Fair, starting in the grand markets of the Medieval period and arriving at the present day by way of the great Italian tradition of street theatre. Stops along the journey include:
- the Commedia dell'Arte or Theatre of Masks, which was born in the 1500s,
- the Puppet and Marionette Theatre, which put on its first shows in 1600,
- the Equestrian Circus, which in the 1700s put on grand performances by bringing together horses and travelling fairground performers,
- the Travelling Cinematograph, which started out as a travelling exhibition at Fairs and then became Cinema, i.e. an art and an industry,
- and finally, almost at the end of the centuries-long journey, in the second half of the 19th century, the first merry-go-rounds appeared at fairs. At first, they were simple games of hand swings with distant ritual origins, and then later became increasingly complex technological machines like the one the two bicycle mechanics from Bergantino were lucky enough to encounter in the 1920s.
(See “Museum Itinerary”)
The centuries-long history of the Fair is concluded in the final part of the museum itinerary as a modern-day narrative, a story that explains why the extraordinary activities of “carousel operators” were established and tells the stories of inventors of rides in Bergantino and Polesine, heirs and continuers of a long tradition of fairs and travelling showmen.
A clear line emerges on the ground dividing two contrasting environments: on one side of the line is a vast cultivated field, representative of a rural society, and on the other side is an area of intense industrial activity. Towering over both sides is the shadow of a colossal merry-go-round. Its image takes on an artistic and metaphorical significance, becoming the point of synthesis of a historical evolution concerning Alto Polesine’s socio-economic situation. An industrial activity was born in a rural context and became successful, bringing well-being and an end to poverty for entire communities.
In conclusion, this is a museum worth visiting. It needs to be seen and enjoyed with the eyes, the mind and the heart; a museum to be seen again and again, because it never fails to offer new ideas, new surprises and new emotions to even the most “experienced” visitor.
This is how journalist and writer Devis Bellucci expresses his impressions of the life and poetry of the Polesine lands in an article entitled: Bergantino, the town of the Carousel.
In winter these Polesine lands, made up of poplar groves and endless fields,
become sparse shadows in the fog. The Po flows slowly between banks
that look like walls and break a flat, melancholic horizon,
embracing old farmhouses and churches, all alike in their warm-coloured
facades. And yet, just when winter turns the plains grey,
people here unleash their imagination and get to work in the workshops.
New dreams must be created before the summer season arrives:
spaceships, rocking horses, trains and castles to enchant
and excite children. Because in this anonymous corner
of the Polesine, on the border between the provinces of Mantua and Rovigo,
the architects of Toyland are hiding.
So, next time you get on a merry-go-round,
know that it may have been them who designed and manufactured it:
the artisans of tiny Bergantino.
a brilliant character, inventor of new and exciting fairground rides.
The history of Bergantino's travelling show is undoubtedly linked to two men, Umberto Bacchiega and Umberto Favalli, two bicycle mechanics with extraordinary creative skills and a good knowledge of engineering that they learned when studying at a School of Arts and Trades. But there was a third character who, from the 1950s onwards, formed an explosive mixture with the first two: Albino Protti.
A peek inside one of the rooms of the Museum
Here, the visitor enters a museum that is not dusty and static, but alive and interactive; a Museum that talks, plays, surprises and excites, where you can turn the cranks of mechanical musical instruments, interact with computers, and play fairground organs.
The museum provides educational services for schools of all levels, folk high schools, families and tourists, with a variety of cultural itineraries tailored to the ages and needs of visitors.
We leave the last word in this section to a learned journalist:
“Bergantino has its historical descendants, men and women full of passion who have been able to keep the tradition and culture of the carousel alive, spreading it everywhere. Mine is a sincere invitation to all of you to allow yourselves to be immersed in a visit to the National Carousel and Street Theatre Museum in Bergantino, where you can be swept away by things you are curious to learn: the history of man, his creativity, his desire for happiness, his eagerness to know the future, his need to survive by overcoming the daily difficulties of life, his innate need to transcend reality.
The Museum is a jewel of the Veneto Region, one of the 20 precious pieces of the Italian mosaic, where History, Art, Traditions and Culture intertwine to communicate pure excitement.”
(Vincenzo Parlavecchio, Honorary Member of the Diplomatic Mission of Italian Knowledge and Flavours for Italia&friends).