By Dominique Jando
The Circus Gymnasticus (Gymnastischer Zirkel) was one of the earliest permanent circuses built in continental Europe. It had been designed by the fashionable Austrian architect Joseph Kornhäusel for the Latvian equestrian Christoph de Bach (1768-1834), who had settled in Austria around 1805. The Circus Gymnasticus’s elegant building was erected in 1808 on the Prater—the old Imperial hunting ground that had become Vienna’s favorite park, and a focal point for fairgrounds amusements.
It was a large structure shaped as a sixteen-sided polygon, built of stone on a heavy wooden frame. Its roof was supported by two circular rows of fourteen columns, and topped by a cupola above the ring, with large glass windows around its drum wich provided sunlight—since the performances had to be given in matinee only, so as not to compete with Vienna’s patented theaters. Its façade fronted an extension containing the foyer, with stairs leading to the Imperial box and eighteen private boxes on the balcony facing the ring entrance. Another extension at the back of the building contained the stables, which expanded under the seating at each side of the ring entrance.
The circus was said to accommodate 3,000 spectators—most of them no doubt packed on the bleachers and in the promenoir running behind them on the balcony level. A platform for the orchestra was set over the ring entrance. The entire design was reminiscent of Astley’s old Royal Grove in London, and didn’t follow the more modern concept of the amphitheaters with a ring and a stage, such as those used by Charles Hughes, the Franconis, and by Astley himself.
There is a good reason for this choice: Christoph de Bach was first and foremost an equestrian and riding master, and the Circus Gymnasticus was used for riding lessons in the morning (as Astley had done with his first Riding School) and for performances with an emphasis on equestrianism in the afternoon. De Bach didn’t have the theatrical ambitions of a Charles Dibdin, Hughes’s partner—which forced their competitor, Philip Astley, to follow suit. Furthermore, de Bach, who had been a pupil of Pierre Mahyeu, belonged to the tradition of the Spanish riding masters whose influence defined circus arts in Germany and Austria—and not to the English tradition of Hughes and Astley (and by extension, the Franconis).
De Bach and his company performed six months each year at the Circus Gymnasticus in Vienna, and spent the rest of the year touring the Austrian Empire, the German states and the Italian kingdoms, with an occasional foray into Russia. During Christoph de Bach’s reign, the Circus Gymnasticus had one of Europe’s finest companies of performers, including at a time or another such luminaries as the superb equestrian Alessandro Guerra (who was de Bach’s son-in-law); the ropedancer Ravel; the clown and tumbler Ludovico Viool; the equestrienneA female equestrian, or horse trainer, horse presenter, or acrobat on horseback. Virginie Kennebel; and de Bach’s second wife, the ballerina on horseback Laura de Bach.
Upon the death of Christoph de Bach in 1834, the Circus Gymnasticus passed into the capable hands of his widow, Laura de Bach. It lasted another eighteen years, and the equestrian circus’s greatest names continued to grace its ring—among which the peripathetic French director, Louis Soullier, who eventually married Laura de Bach. But the building was never really maintained or improved, and by 1852, when it was sold at auction for 6,000 florins, it was in sorry state of disrepair. It was then demolished and, sadly, never repalced—although in subsequent years, traveling circus companies erected temporary constructions on its site.