Book Review Vol. V – No. 7

The Canestrelli Family’s World-Wide Trek

The Grand Gypsy, A Memoir by Ottavio Canestrelli and Ottavio Gesmundo, published 2016 by Lulu Publishing Services.

The problem with many show business memoirs, in particular those that fail to find a commercial publisher, is that they become little more than a series of statements that usually read something like this: ”and then I played (fill in the name of the venue) to great acclaim…after which I played…” From such writing we learn little about the artist’s personality, temperament or inner life, which are the most interesting parts of any person, whether an artist or not.

In part The Grand Gypsy manages to avoid falling into that trap during a fairly lengthy section in which Ottavio Canestrelli (1896-1977) not only names the cities he plays  but muses about the cultural  and historic events he observes and sometimes takes part in.  This section of the book, dealing with his tour of the Middle and Far East and India is not only the most fascinating, but also it is the most revealing part of the book insofar as what we learn about the author and his family, and the world he finds himself in at the time.

In these passages Ottavio Canestrelli, Ottavio Gesmundo’s grandfather, talks in depth and with great sensitivity and sympathy of his relationships with the members of the great circus family into which he has been born and raised, so we learn a great deal about the culture of circus life. At the same time we watch, as he does, the castration of infant boys about to be sold into slavery as Eunuchs.  We see the Great Sphinx of Egypt being excavated.  He is especially fascinated by the market places of the cities he plays and takes special effort to observe them in action.  He explores the ritual of Hindu burials, in which it is expected that a surviving wife will join her husband on his funeral pyre.  We see a Buddhist priest’s burial in the tree tops. Most notable of all he takes us along to hear Mahatma Gandhi speak to a vast audience without the aid of mechanical sound amplification.

Once Casestrelli is booked by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to spend almost of the rest of his life in America, the tone of the book changes considerably. No doubt that may be because there were long stretches between when the various sections of the book were written.  We see and hear almost nothing about the culture of either the United States or the Greatest Show on Earth.  This is a great disappointment, as the text becomes the sort of thin show business biography I noted at the beginning.

The most interesting section of the remainder of the book involves the discussion of La Tosca Canestrelli whom we are never allowed to forget was once dubbed the Queen of the Circus.  Her career has many highs but is eventually disappointing because of the refusal of her father (Ottavio Canestrelli) to allow her to explore possibilities as an artist outside of the circus.  In this section Gesmundo, who is La Tosca’s son,  provides a good deal of the material that fills out the story, but he, too, shies away from discussing in any depth the paternalistic culture of the circus that left La Tosca obedient and disappointed.

Ottavio Canestrelli had many children and when they begin to marry the family tree intertwines with many of the most notable circus families who pass through the book with jolting regularity. The roster of names dropped along the way, along with an expansive collection of photographs from every period covered in the book,  should provide a good deal of pleasure for circus fans despite the diminishing discussion of what could have been even more rewarding.