Sepia Saturday (on Sunday) – An Italian Family Circus

Sepia Sat April 27, 2013

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images.

When Alan posted this week’s prompt picture, one of his suggestions to fit the theme was the newspaper headlines. The headlines were Greek to me, but as I looked closely at the photograph for ideas, the poster behind the readers caught my eye. I don’t speak the language, but I could understand “Italiaans Nationaal” and recognize it as a circus poster.

Italiaans Nationaal Circus

















This detail caught my attention because my husband, daughter, and I had recently attended a circus – an Italian family circus. My husband, ever vigilant to seek out events with an Italian connection, purchased tickets for the Zoppe Family Circus.

Zoppe circus ticket

It was held on the grounds of the Long Center in Austin on a lovely April evening.

As we walked up the hill toward the tent, we heard music and applause and noticed that people were crowded in front of the tent rather than entering. We had missed most of the pre-show entertainment, but Giovanni Zoppe was talking to the crowd.


Giovanni explained a little of the history of this small family circus and the great meaning the circus has for this family. He set the stage so that the audience knew from the beginning what to expect (or not to expect) from this circus. No Ringling Brothers here. No Cirque du Soleil. Instead, this circus seeks to preserve the traditional Italian Family circus.

The website for the Zoppe Family Circus provides this account of the family’s circus roots:

“In 1842, a young French street performer named Napoline Zoppè wandered into a plaza in Budapest, Hungary, looking for work. There, his eyes glanced upon a beautiful equestrian ballerina named Ermenegilda, who captured the hearts and minds of the crowd with her grace and showmanship. More important, this talented beauty captured Napoline’s heart.

However, since Napoline was a clown, Ermenegilda’s father saw him as beneath her and disapproved of their relationship. The two ran away to Venice, Italy, and founded the circus that still bears their name. Over the generations, the circus survived wars and political upheaval in Italy and the rest of Europe.”

Cecil B. DeMille brought Alberto Zoppe, Napoline’s grandson and Giovanni’s father, to the U.S. from Italy in 1948. Alberto was running the Zoppe Circus in Italy and was famous for his backwards, flat somersault off the back of a running horse onto the back of a second running horse. He appeared in the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” performing this trick in the background. During filming, Alberto performed his trick over and over and over again as the speaking character repeatedly flubbed lines.

In 2007, Alberto was inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame in Sarasota, Fla. Alberto’s first wife was from the famous Wallenda family. Their son, Tino Wallenda Zoppe spoke about his father in the tribute video below. It contains some old footage (including his famous lateral somersault) as well as circus and family photos.

Following is a clip of Alberto in “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

And now back to my family trip to the circus….. Most of the performers in this circus are related. Giovanni and his wife, his sister Tosca and her husband, and his sister Carla and her husband are all performers. I did not anticipate blogging about this, so our pictures are few and, frankly, not that great. It didn’t help that we were using our phones and flash was not allowed. If you visit the Zoppe Family Circus website, you can see photographs of a much higher quality. Now … on with the show.

After some more banter with the crowd and a tarantella played on accordion by the “white clown”, we were finally told that we could enter the tent and find a place to sit.

Zoppe bleachersThe bleachers looked a little iffy – like boards held together with bungee cords. Parents kept a hold on their kids until everyone became comfortable with the seating arrangements. The bleachers weren’t very high, so we weren’t in much danger even if someone slipped through. The green sections were the aisles.

A transformed Giovanni entered the ring as Nino the Clown and the circus opened with all of the performers in the ring at once.

Here are the rest of our pictures from inside the tent.

Zoppe5Zoppe6Zoppe8Zoppe Nino 2Zoppe NinoZoppe MartinZoppe9Zoppe Nino high wireZoppe10Zoppe12Zoppe11Zoppe White clown 2Zoppe White Clown

A couple of comments regarding the circus:

Nino the clown is great. Not only is his performance as a clown engaging, but it seems that he can do everything in the circus. He rides bareback; he walks the tight rope, he does trapeze – and all while in character as a clown. It reminded me of the saying about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did only backwards and in heels. He has suffered some serious injuries in the past, but you wouldn’t know it.

I have so many relatives that are heavily into animal rescue, animal rights, and such that I wondered if I should feel uncomfortable about the animal performances. The only animals in this circus are horses and dogs. The horses are all used for equestrian trick riding except for a pony. I wish I had a decent picture of the palomino – it had the most beautiful, velvety coat I have ever seen.

Not everything goes perfectly in a circus like this. The family that does acrobatics (not part of the Zoppe family) were great. But one young girl was unable to successfully pull off a new trick. She tried three times and was never successful. Not a good day for her.

The act that stole the show was Little Nino. I think he is Giovanni’s son. He was maybe three years old and came out dressed just like Nino the Clown, only he had a pacifier in his mouth. Big Nino slipped the pacifier out of little Nino’s mouth at the first opportunity and without a problem. The little guy was so cute. He already had comic timing and performed a rather a lengthy routine with Nino. The next generation in training at a very young age.

Another nice thing about this little circus was that all of the performers left the ring through the same exit as the audience, so they were outside to thank everyone for coming and pose for pictures. The Zoppe Family has a mission statement that reads:

Zoppé an Italian Family Circus is a performing arts troupe dedicated to the celebration of life, love and family. We are committed to the preservation of traditional Italian family circus. Our vision is a modern day presentation that has deep roots in both history and heritage. The goal of each performance is an entertainment and educational experience that sends the audience home with a happy heart and enchanting memories.

I would say that they are succeeding in their mission.

Zoppe 1

You can view more historical photos of the Zoppe family here.

Now stay seated and read what others have prepared for Sepia Saturday.


23 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday (on Sunday) – An Italian Family Circus

    • I felt like I must have attended a similarly small circus when I was a little kid. Something about it really took me back.

  1. A clever pickup on a detail in the theme. The circus traditions are always an interesting mix of family and entertainer histories. Looks like it was a terrific show, too.

    • I took me way back too – to some dim memory in the recesses of my childhood! You should go again when you have the opportunity.

  2. Thank you for all these pictures! I had never really thought of the concept of a “family circus” before. I had been thinking of “circus troupe.” But this sounds so friendly and “just like home” — a loving tradition to preserve.

    • I thought so too. Here we are trying to preserve our family histories with pictures and stories and records, but they do so by living their family history. I admired their dedication.

  3. I would never have thought of homing in on the poster. I’ve never attended a circus, only seen one on TV, but your excellent description makes me feel as though I was there.

    • I watched Cirque du Soleil on TV before seeing a performance in person. Some things just don’t translate as well to the small – or even the fairly large – screen. Thanks for stopping by!

    • I was too lazy to find a translation of the newspaper headlines!. 🙂 Although now that I know what the headlines were about, I could have gone with a personal story for that too. Thanks for you comments!

  4. Well, at least, you went to the circus, and stuck with the idea.
    Me, I got diverted along the way…
    Great post!!

      • No one,
        My research sure took me somewhere I didn’t expect to explore.
        That’s the fun of it I guess. The War of 1812,
        talk about stepping off topic!!

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