7 October 2017

Tightrope Walking – The Great Mid-Air Gamble

Did you know that the proper term for tightrope walking is funambulism? The first syllable says it all really – fun – but perhaps only for those who participate in this dangerous activity. It is definitely a gamble walking the tightrope. However, as you can see from many of these photos, those who take that gamble and walk across the wide open spaces on only a rope seem to enjoy the experience very much.

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Of course, that leaves the rest of us on the ground looking up, emotions a strange mix of awe and dread, as these brave souls traverse the distance from one point of safety to another.  People have been doing this for thousands of years – in fact the term funambulism is Latin in its roots.  However, it was never considered enough of a sport to be considered as an Olympic event – neither in the way back when or in modern times (which is something of a shame, don’t you think?).

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There have also been periods in history when rope-walkers were actively discriminated against.  In Post-Roman France they were forbidden to tightrope in the vicinity of churches.  This doesn’t seem much of a loss until you realise that traveling fairgrounds always pitched up as near to the largest building in a town or village as possible and this was almost inevitably the local church.  So, this was effectively a ban on the activity.

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However, there were times in history when tightrope walkers received the acclaim that they deserved and often became famous.  There were rope walkers at the coronations of many European monarchs including one at the investiture of Queen Isabeau of France in 1389.  This particular rope walker went from the spires of the cathedral to the tallest house in the city.  One can only imagine what was going through his mind as he traversed his dizzying route – what sort of bad omen would it have been, in the minds of the medieval onlookers, had he fallen?

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Yet tightrope walkers persevered and there was even a tradition at the Venice Carnival for an acrobat to walk between Saint Mark’s bell tower and the Piazza.  Yet it wasn’t long before they were once again associated with a criminal element and in the England of the 1700s they were looked upon with some suspicion (although it has to be said that most of those involved in the performing arts were considered immoral by the very choice of their profession).

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Swings and roundabouts – by the 19th and 20th centuries the reputation of tightrope walkers was once again untainted and they were able to pursue fame in their own inimitable if breath-taking way.   They would often appear in casinos, walking the rope high above the gamblers below – one can only wonder if there was any irony intended…

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Entire families would emerge as tightrope stars, including the Wallandas (above) who continue to this very day – in to the seventh generation of tightrope walkers.  Although this intergenerational gambling with the lives of an entire family might seem to be risk-taking taken to a ridiculous degree, the fact that they have persevered through seven generations says an awful lot about their natural or even innate skills.  As you can see from these pictures, bravery can often be associated with a sense of fun and perhaps therein lies the secret of the tightrope walker.  They really do keep the fun in funambulism!

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