Between the 18th and 19th century, life for the inhabitants of our valleys, especially those lying between the Emilia, Liguria and Tuscany regions, was not easy. Food and primary necessities were scarce; the population basically worked in order to eat, and payment of produce or labour was conducted through barter. Some products, such as corn or salt, which were imported from the lowland, were exchanged for local cheese or chestnuts, of which there was an abundance. It was a difficult life, and people were not always happy with their lot.
Although there were apparently no alternatives to this state of poverty, let it not be said that Italians are lacking in imagination – as the old saying goes, “where there is a will there is a way”, and our people were certainly very strong-willed!
Up until 1733, bears lived in the woods of our area, and local men were used to dealing with, and even taming them. They began to work together in groups, putting their experience with the animals to good use, and teaming up with other groups encountered during their early steps away from home. So it was that the first travelling artists began their journeys, these bear tamers called “Orsanti” – from the word “orso” which means bear. They went far abroad, and to give a vague idea of how widely spread the phenomenom became in the middle of the nineteenth century, suffice it to say that there were approximately six hundred “street artists” in London alone, almost all from the Parma Appenine region; the place of origin of all these artists was considered to be the Mount Pelpi area, between Bedonia and Compiano, and specifically Cavignaga. Only minutes away from Bedonia, a village whose inhabitants, at the end of the nineteenth century, was essentially composed of women – white widows; wives, mothers, sisters and daughters whose men had been robbed of them by …..bears. In that period, Cavignaga counted 60 bear trainers out of a population of 200!
And they didn’t stop at bears; many of them, building on the success of their activities, engaged in rather more exotic animal training. Upper Val Taro municipal and Parma State archives preserve documents which prove that the travelling artists purchased parrots, monkeys, porcupines and camels. Posters and show permits from the time written in Danish and French, declare that a certain Antonio Alpi from Compiano performed in France with three reindeer, whilst in Denmark his performances included lions, zebras, panthers, deer and baboons – an authentic circus animal trainer.
In the 19th century, several travelling companies left Cavignaga and surrounding villages to seek their fortune in Prussia, passing through Hamburg (a month of walking), which was a sort of re-routing centre, from which they would then head (still walking) towards important European cities with their shows. The men would often take their sons along with them, even at an early age; the art of taming bears was difficult to accomplish, the fruit of years of experience, so it was necessary to begin tutoring the youngsters as soon as possible.
Some actually did make their fortune and became famous; one of these was a certain Antonio Bernabò (of whom there are still many decendants in the area) who, after a series of adventures, purchased a small circus in 1888 with the inheritance left him upon the death of his father – 25.000 lire. (Nowadays that would be no more than $120, but at the time it was a small fortune.) He began travelling alone at first, then with his eldest son Roberto, visiting Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. He heard that they were selling camels cheaply in Crimea, and with no idea where that was, he went there, bought 57 camels, and then sold them on the German market! With the earnings he set up his own company of Orsanti, and travelled all over Europe, Egypt and the Turkish Empire. He was able to express himself in almost any European language, as well as Arabian and Turkish, and ended up owning four big circuses. His enormous success took the Royal Italian Circus all over north Africa, and when in 1903, he performed before the Sultan Habdul Hamid II at Constantinopoli, the sultan was so impressed, he decided to purchase the whole of Antonio’s circus for an exorbitant amount, as well as awarding him a prestigious Turkish title. The “Bear Tamer” bought even more camels and set up an even bigger circus…..8 train wagons were necessary at that point in order to travel around! He became a very rich man, and made all his dreams come true – from poverty stricken Cavignaga to honours at the court of Constantinopoli!