Ildebrando Zacchini (1868-1948) was a Maltese-born painter, inventor and circus owner. Zacchini contrived an idea of a cannon that could be used to propel parachutes. He took his plan to the Italian government as a military maneuver, however the proposal was rejected. Zacchini then looked to use the technique as part of an entertainment act. With the help of his sons Hugo and Bruno, Ildebrando designed a firing-cannon that used compressed air instead of explosives. The cannon blasts were sound effects achieved by igniting half a cup of black gunpowder. And, so, the human cannonball act was born.
Hugo was the first human cannonball – a test pilot of the 1922 invention. He also attended the Rome Arts Academy and later graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the Jamestown Academy in New York. The daredevil also taught art in college and served as an interpreter for as many as 11 languages. Hugo died on his birthday (Oct. 20) in 1975 at the age of 77 in San Bernardino, CA.
Papa Ildebrando created the travelling Circus Olympia premiering his human cannonball act in Egypt. In Copenhagen (1928), John Ringling spotted the act and contracted to make the Zacchini Super Repeating Cannon part of his “Ringling Greatest Show on Earth.” The cannon could shoot two performers 140 feet into the air at speeds up to 125 miles an hour. Over the years, many Zacchinis took their turn as human cannonballs. Silvana Zacchini described her flights as “feeling like flying like a bird.” Mario Zacchini, one of five of the seven of Ildebrando’s sons who were launched at a speed of 90 mph, three times a day, flew hundreds of times. He said “flying wasn’t the hard part; landing in the net was.” Mario was also a renowned gaucho who could back somersault through a lasso and was ranked amongst the world’s finest rope twirlers.
In the 1930s, the contract between the Zacchini’s and Ringling’s ended and Mario took the cannonball act on the circus and carnival circuit and to the New York World’s Fair. In New York, the human cannonball blasted over two Ferris wheels before landing in the net. In the early 1940s, Mario retired from cannoneering and the next generation of the Zacchini’s took to flying.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that has entertained millions of fans over its 146-year history comes to an end in May and becomes a part of the Sarasota, FL Circus Heritage Trail. Bruno Zacchini’s Super Repeating Cannon will be on exhibit at the Sarasota art and circus museums of John and Mabel Ringling. The Zacchini’s are a part of the Ringling Brothers’ Circus Hall of Fame.