13 December 2022

Enrico Rastelli – juggler

Performer whose juggling record has never been surpassed

Enrico Rastelli practised until he had skills that set him apart
Enrico Rastelli practised until he
had skills that set him apart
Enrico Rastelli, who is thought to have been the greatest juggler of all time, died on this day in 1931 in Bergamo in Lombardy.

Rastelli began his career in the circus ring and practised his juggling skills constantly until he was able to achieve levels of skill beyond those of any of his contemporaries. By the 1920s he had become a star, touring Europe and America, amazing audiences with his skill and amassing large earnings.

Eventually he made the move to performing in vaudeville shows in theatres where he would appear in full football strip and juggle up to five footballs at a time.

Rastelli had been born in Russia in 1896, into a circus family originally from the Bergamo area of Lombardy. Both his parents were performers and trained him in circus disciplines including acrobatics, balancing, and aerial skills. He made his debut at the age of 13 as part of his parents’ aerial act.

He practised juggling diligently and by the age of 19 was performing his own solo juggling act. He started by manipulating sticks and balls in Japanese style. While many jugglers at the time would throw and catch plates, hats, and canes, Rastelli restricted himself to working with balls and sticks and achieved higher technical skills than any other juggler of this period.

In 1917, Rastelli married Harriet Price, a highwire artist, and they had three children. They frequently toured Europe with his act and established a permanent home in Italy, building a large Liberty style villa in Bergamo, 

Rastelli's routine often involved performing with footballs
Rastelli's routine often involved
performing with footballs
While on tour in Europe in 1931, Rastelli contracted pneumonia and had to return home to Bergamo quickly. Sadly, his condition worsened and he died in the early hours of the morning of 13 December of anaemia, aged 34.

When his funeral took place in Bergamo, it was attended by thousands of people. He was buried in the Cimitero Monumentale in Bergamo and a life-sized statue of him was erected at his tomb, showing him spinning a ball on his raised finger.

The February 1932 edition of Vanity Fair magazine included a full-page photograph of Rastelli, captioned: ‘One of the most sensational attractions in the international world of vaudeville.’ The magazine said Rastelli had elevated juggling to an art, ‘due not only to the amazing agility and complexity of the juggling itself,’ but also ‘to the incredible ease of his execution, and the visual impression made on the audience.’

The Juggling Hall of Fame website says Rastelli was ‘the most famous and in the opinion of many, the greatest juggler who ever lived.’ They say that as well as his work with large balls, he could also juggle up to ten small balls, which is generally considered to be the record.   

The beautiful Piazza Vecchia is the focal point of Bergamo's mediaeval Città Alta
The beautiful Piazza Vecchia is the focal point
of Bergamo's mediaeval Città Alta
Travel tip:

The Lombardy city of Bergamo, where Enrico Rastelli’s family had their roots and where Rastelli himself built a house for his family, can be found approximately 50km (31 miles) northwest of Milan. It is a beautiful city with an upper and lower town that are separated by impressive fortifications. The magical upper town - the Città Alta - has gems of mediaeval and Renaissance architecture surrounded by the impressive 16th century walls, which were built during the time the city belonged to Venice. Outside the walls, the elegant Città Bassa, which grew up on the plain below, has some buildings that date back to the 15th century as well as imposing architecture added in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the Città Alta, with the enchanting Piazza Vecchia at its heart, is the draw for many tourists, the lower town also has art galleries, churches and theatres and a wealth of good restaurants and smart shops to enjoy.

No 9 Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, the former home of juggler Enrico Rastelli and his family
No 9 Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, the former home
of juggler Enrico Rastelli and his family
Travel tip

Enrico Rastelli’s home in Bergamo was a beautiful villa on the edge of the Santa Lucia neighbourhood of the Città Bassa, at No 9 Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, where it can still be admired. He had it built in Stile Liberty, the Italian variation of Art Nouveau that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which had influences of the Baroque architectural style but also incorporated elements that had their roots in Japanese and Far Eastern art. With ornate arches over the upper floor windows, balconies and an extra floor forming a tower in one corner, it is a good example of the style. The villa is thought to be owned now by the Praderio family, well known locally for their historic fabric shop in nearby Via XX Settembre, one of Bergamo’s main shopping streets.

Also on this day:

1466: The death of Renaissance sculptor Donatello

1521: The birth of Pope Sixtus V

1720: The birth of playwright Carlo Gozzi

La Festa di Santa Lucia



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