The Pleasure Garden(1750-1950)
Innovations in the squares introduced by the Industrial Revolution
The steam engine, an 18th century invention that would change history. Trams are no longer pulled by horses but take the form of steam-powered carriages.
The traditional Fair of merchants, acrobats and charlatans evolved into something new under the pressure of new forms of energy (steam, electricity) and new technological achievements. The Fair of goods and travelling artists was transformed into a new reality dominated by the machine. The creation of new means of transport, such as the steam train, and the emergence of emporiums and shops made the fairs a less attractive site for commerce, as the Industrial Revolution offered faster channels for the marketing and exchange of goods. The Fair thus lost its market connotation, taking on more and more the aspect of an entertainment park as a ritual theatre.
These “mechanical pianos” , with their cheerful or heartfelt rhythms, entered the new century as the advent of a new style, the success of which was immediately met by popular enthusiasm, because they represented a mind-blowing novelty for a world illuminated by gas lamps and traversed by horse-drawn trams. These nomadic instruments led a wanderer’s life on wagons pulled by hand or by an old nag along dusty, cobbled streets, off to cheer people up and ensure the survival of those who took them on tour. Folk festivals were the most frequented places.
Great news for streets and squares: here come the “mechanical pianos”.
The Rise of the Carousels
Here are the first travelling carousels on a vintage postcard:
boats in patriotic colours, tended by gallant attendants
in livery. There’s also the festive sound of a mechanical organ.
Games, shows, accordions and the first mechanical devices began to appear in the squares, occupying all the spaces that were once full of goods for sale at the market. The performances at the fairs gradually changed their appearance, acquiring new technologies to attract and entertain the public. But among the innovations of the square, the ones that achieved the greatest success were the “Swings” that eventually became the “Carousels” of the Amusement Park, travelling from the middle of the 19th century.
A vertical Russian swing, a popular contraption operated by hand by three men, at the St. Petersburg Fair in 1804, the predecessor of the Giant Ferris Wheel.
From iconographic documents, it seems that the Giant Ferris Wheel originated in Russia, where groups of peasants had for centuries traditionally organised spring games to usher in the new season of the year under the best auspices for their crops. The most important attraction, because it had a propitiatory nature, was the ritual Russian Swings. Large wooden wheels, operated by hand, formed gigantic crossed arms, at the ends of which were placed little swinging ships. Peasants climbed onto the little ships to perform a magic ritual, in the popular belief that the higher they climbed on the wheel, the more they helped the harvest to grow in the fields. It was a ritual of pagan origin that had been passed down through time.
The Giant Russian Ferris Wheel as it appeared in Italy at the end of the 19th century.
The Russian swing, a quasi-Ferris wheel, spread throughout Europe as a means of public entertainment, losing its original religious ritual significance in the West.
Alessandro Adalio's Toboggan at Casale Monferrato Park at the end of the 19th century.
The father of all future slides, this was a wooden tower with an impressive diameter of seven metres. In the early days, the ascent to the top of the Toboggan was on foot, along a slanted platform. A conveyor belt, driven by means of a steam engine, was later put into operation. Thrill-seekers descended a wooden slide which spiralled down from the top on thin carpets like human whirlwinds. An early example of the hair-raising amusement rides we have today.
The Ring Ride in Germany, 1843: derived from medieval jousts and tournaments that eventually gave rise to the traditional horse carousel.
This ring ride has already taken on the structure and appearance of the horse carousel. Symbols of the Belle Epoque, horse carousels have their distant origins in the jousts and tournaments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which two opposing knights would fight on horseback. These challenges between knights are still alive today in the traditional historical re-enactments of the Giostra del Saracino or the Giostra della Quintana which take place in various cities in central Italy.
The horse carousel, therefore, has an aristocratic origin, as a symbolic representation of the medieval and renaissance jousts, just without their competitive nature.
The “Peter” horse carousel, powered by a steam engine, at the “Fiera del Santo” in Prato della Valle in Padua in 1908: a real moving room.
In the early years of the 20th century, the arrival in Italy of the fabulous horse carousel named “Peter”, named after the German traveller who imported it, caused a real sensation. This steam-powered merry-go-round left the Italians quite literally speechless, as at the time they could only build modest rides. The large, majestic horses, grouped three by three, appeared to gallop along in such a lifelike manner that they left their riders truly enchanted.
In contrast to all other past horse carousels and those that were to come, the pavilion in “Peter” remained stationary, and only the platform rotated, so that it appeared to be covered by a huge decorated umbrella. Only the floor turned, with all the galloping horses, along two small rails underneath.
For those times it was truly out-of-this-world. It was a real moving room: small receptions were held when it arrived, with flowers and sweets being distributed to the ladies. It was the last monument that the Belle Epoque erected to celebrate the horse.
Racetracks and bumper cars
Electricity enters the scene in the 1920s: a real revolution for the pleasure garden.
These were the years of futurism, the myth of the hero, the machine and speed. The automobile, motor racing and the competitions of the great race car drivers truly thrilled their audiences. Race car drivers were the idols of the time. The most beloved in Italy were Tazio Nuvolari, Antonio and Alberto Ascari, who were world-famous in this new sport.
Even merry-go-rounds, which have always mirrored a society and its times, could not remain indifferent to such enthusiasm. It was in the 1920s that the first car tracks were created.
Autoballo, another novelty that appeared in Italy in 1928 and later took the more appropriate name of “bumper cars”, was a very successful game, still very popular today especially with young people, as the merry and lively atmosphere seems to mimic that of a disco.
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The Pleasure Garden, a centre for cultural dissemination
In addition to offering rides and shows, the Fair and the Pleasure Garden had cultural and didactic functions, consisting in the dissemination of science to a mostly illiterate public: to fully understand the extent of this phenomenon, one must consider not only the almost non-existent level of education of most of the public, but also the poor circulation of images and newspapers, whose circulation was in fact limited to the intellectual elite.
This hub of knowledge, which always included something of the spectacular, could include various types of performance, including: Wax museums, which exhibited wax figures representing celebrities and famous people from the past and present.
In the 19th century, “magic lanterns” and storytellers, and in the 20th century, travelling cinemas made news, history, science, inventions and discoveries visible through images, bringing fragments of culture to distant and isolated communities that had no other means of exchanging information.
The Anatomical Exhibitions partly exploited the public’s taste for the macabre and murky, but they also performed an undeniable scientific function, presenting figures in wax or other materials reproducing parts of the human body, deformities, and diseases.
The 19th century was the golden age of the Puppet and Marionette Theatre. Italy boasted 700 companies, with puppetry forming part of its immense cultural tradition. Designed for an adult audience, it expressed the feelings, aspirations and disappointments of the people and satirically criticised the powerful, to such an extent that the puppeteers often ended up in prison and were persecuted by the authorities. In the 20th century, theatres faced fierce competition from cinema and television. (See section “The Market Fair”)
The 19th century was also the golden age of the equestrian circus, the most fascinating spectacle of all time. (See section “The Market Fair”)
In a world without the means of communication and information that we have today, the Fair or the Pleasure Garden was not only the most important centre for social gathering, but it was also the only opportunity most people had for cultural experiences and to learn new and surprising things.
Today it is very easy to know how educated or cultured a person is: just ask him what his qualifications are. In that time of widespread illiteracy, though, we might have asked him how many fairs he had attended.