The Market Fair

From 1000 to 1750

Among the various theatrical features in the Hall of the Fair are a suspended ceiling representing an enormous and colourful circus tent and, on the back wall, a giant blow-up image of Jacques Callot’s “La Fiera dell’Impruneta”. This famous painting, dated 1620, depicts a great fair in Florence and is the Museum’s symbol of all the pre-industrial market fairs that brought to life countless town squares over a period of seven hundred years. The tradition began in the 11th century and continued until the Industrial Revolution, changing the way people worked and enjoyed themselves. 

Here, a friendly and welcoming guide tells you that after the year 1000, in a climate of economic revival after the end of the Germanic migrations and invasions, large-scale commerce regained vitality: merchants filled the churchyards with their most varied goods during religious festivals dedicated to patron saints. Each urban centre had its own festival, hence its own “feria” (the origin of the term Fair), where crowds of pilgrims came to venerate precious relics and pray for miracles. Travelling performers put on shows and games at these fairs, seeking an audience and often resorting to a whirlwind of inventions in an attempt to “make ends meet” in the midst of economic crises.
Jacques Callot included no less than 1500 figures in this work, but who are they? Here are the common people, wandering around enchanted by the merchants’ spectacular goods. There are the imaginative, vociferous barkers putting on a show, charlatan healers and fortune tellers, theatrical performers, jugglers, acrobats, storytellers, fakirs, magicians and soothsayers; in the midst of all this raucous bustle are fortune-tellers reading the future in palms or cards or the stars, peddlers of elixirs and ointments, and sellers of miraculous relics and images of saints: in short, it is a world of varied humanity, which has only recently attracted the serious attention of scholars.

Another glimpse of the Sala della Fiera which presents on the wall and on the monitor various stories relating to the Commedia dell'Arte or mask theatre, the puppet and marionette theatre and the most curious fairground characters. Here are some of them.

The juggler

Jugglers performed public shows in the town squares, showing off their physical dexterity, balance and manipulation. Here, an organ grinder plays beside the juggler, and behind him is a small pavilion for “magic lantern” projections. 


With snakes wrapped around their arms, symbols of the medical science they claimed to represent. 

The charlatans, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, were the true kings of the square and the masters of the subtle art of deception. After bombastic declamations that aroused delirious enthusiasm among the crowd, they peddled miraculous potions they claimed would cure all the world's ills.
They were often poor wandering devils, skilled at pretending to be herbalists, physicians, alchemists, and conjurers, and doing all sorts of quack medical “treatments” to scrape together a living.

Market huckster and storyteller

Above all the characters that enlivened the medieval fair, the market hucksters stood out as genuine showmen and sellers of goods and words. Gifted with formidable speech and mimicry and great powers of persuasion, they knew how to make people buy what they wanted them to or send them where they wanted them to go. Gifted with limitless imagination, they created gags, sketches, and short pantomimes, and often improvised skits and hilarious jokes in order to outshine their competitors and hold the audience’s attention. They were the first to put on a show and incorporate the element of entertainment into the fairs as a commercial ploy. In those days, advertising was only by word of mouth.

Actors in the Commedia dell'Arte or Theatre of Masks

In the 16th century, during the Renaissance, organised groups of actors were formed in the town squares. They travelled from town to town on carts with their clothes and props together with the necessary baggage for everyday life, performing on crude wooden stages in the squares of many Italian and European cities. Each actor wore a mask to identify their character. They were truly extraordinary: they knew how to be actors, mimes, singers, musicians, and acrobats who told stories based on the daily life of the time. Brighella, Harlequin, Pantalone and Dr Balanzone were all caricatures of archetypal personalities of the era. It was a theatre of popular satire against the powerful, of the poor against the rich, a theatre that delighted the common people, but was often opposed by the authorities for obvious reasons.
After three centuries of success, the Commedia dell'Arte saw its decline at the end of the 18th century with Carlo Goldoni's Reform of the theatre, based on the ideals of the new emerging middle class. 

The puppet theatre in a square in Rome

Beginning in the 17th century and continuing for 400 years, the puppet and marionette theatres served the same function as television does today: they provided information, entertainment, and fun. In the 19th century, more than 700 puppet companies performed in Italy. Only when cinema and television stole their audience were puppet and marionette theatres forced to adapt their repertoires to children’s entertainment in order to survive. Yet the Puppet and Marionette Theatre is a great piece of Italian cultural heritage that deserves to be rediscovered and revitalised. The Museum tells the story to its visitors through entertaining slideshows on wall monitors and large screens.

Pantalone and Harlequin

For a long time after the crisis, Pantalone and Harlequin, like other Commedia dell'Arte characters, survived only as carnival masks. Today they belong to the history of a bygone era

The Museum has reconstructed the history of all these eclectic characters. Beginning as court jesters in medieval castles, they eventually migrated to the fairgrounds, putting on public shows to make a living. The shows created at the Fair, from the Commedia dell'Arte to the puppet and marionette theatre, reflect the socio-cultural reality of the time. These shows not only provided entertainment, but played an important cultural role, exploring themes that reflected the problems of the common people: justice, peace, happiness, and health.  

The flying trapeze in the world's greatest show: 

the Circus, the star attraction of the pre-industrial fair.

The birth of the Equestrian Circus is such a fantastical adventure that it can be told like a fairytale. Once upon a time, towards the end of the 18th century, there was an English boy named Philip Astley. At the age of 17, he enlisted in a regiment of His Majesty's Royal Cavalry in London, with the task of training horses. His military exploits immediately earned the admiration of his fellow soldiers and gained him a reputation as a skilled horseman. He also took part in the Seven Years' War, winning honour and glory, but one day fate had it that he met a beautiful lady horseback rider and fell madly in love. He left the army and married the beautiful rider, the daughter of a vaulter. Thus, he happily entered a world that fascinated him: the world of acrobats. 

Philip Astley created a “Riding School” in London in 1777, the prelude to the Circus

This is the indoor arena of Philip Astley's Riding School in London, considered to be the first modern circus venue. It is equipped with grandstands for the audience, and is considered to be the cradle of the future equestrian circus ring. In the middle of the track there is a barrier for jumping obstacles. London, 31 July 1777.
Astley had noticed from his early military career that he could stand up better on his horse when it galloped along a circular path, so he used a circle-shaped arena for his shows. The first Circus ring was born.
(Engraving by W. Capon, Cambridge, collection of H.R.Beard in “Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo”, Volume 1, UNEDI, Rome, 1954. 

Astley’s Amphitheatre of the Arts (1794), fixed, not mobile 

After the Riding School, Astley founded the first Amphitheatre in London featuring horses and street performers. Thus, in 1794, the show that would later become known as the Circus was born.
Astley was the first ringmaster to conceive the possibility of a new show with the horse as its central attraction, around which revolved the Fair's comedians, acrobats, tightrope walkers, theatrical performers, charlatans, trained dogs and monkeys, and fascinating circus pantomimes.
At the end of the 18th century, in fact, these travelling performers, subjected to a new and strict discipline, moved from the Fairs to the Circus, enriching it with their skilled performances.
(Engraving by Pugin and Rowlandson - Cambridge, collection of H.R.Beard in “Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo”, Volume 3, UNEDI, Rome, 1954. 

Historians remember that when Astley took to the stage, wearing the uniform of his regiment and riding his warhorse Gibraltar, he excited the crowds and earned the attention of many ardent female admirers: he was handsome and elegant, and an exceptional dancer. He wore his military uniform when he presented the shows, which involved 150 people.
The acrobatic rider was the backbone of the circus for a long time: he would “charge” like a warrior and vault, gallop, pass from one horse to another, ride on a horse that fell as if dead at a rifle shot, or on another that sat like a dog, and on and on and on.

Finally the big top lets the Circus travel 

Around 1850

The big tents supported by central masts, the iconic image of the Circus today, were invented around 1850 in the United States by pharmacist Gilbert Spaulding, who had taken up the Circus life. These giant tents increased the capacity of the pavilions to include 10,000 spectators and allowed the Circus itself to be mobile, becoming a travelling spectacle and the biggest show in the world.
Over time, the Circus, the kingdom of horses, riders and clowns, was radically transformed according to the needs of the market, until it eventually fell into a period of crisis. We can only hope that it manages to survive and re-emerge in all its exciting glory. 

The marquee in the false ceiling of the Hall of the Fair is not only decorative, but also has a precise symbolic meaning: all of the travelling performers we have encountered in the Hall put on their shows using only their own human virtuosity, that is, their words and physical abilities: they did not yet have any mechanical aids.  

In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution began to introduce amusement mechanisms into the town square, including the first fairground games. The Fair's street performers were only able to keep showing off their skills in the traditional Circus, and it was there that they found their new home. Our tent, therefore, symbolically represents the great embrace of the Circus, welcoming all the artists of the Fair and becoming their new home, when the star of the town square became the machine and no longer the man. (see “Pleasure Garden”)                

Do you want to know more?

Read more

Pilgrims and pilgrimages at the origins of the Medieval Fair

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The cultural role of the Storyteller in social life throughout the centuries

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The character of the “charlatan”, for centuries the king of the square, as interpreted by the Italian poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli 

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The route continues in the

Amusement Park Hall