Joseph Pinetti (1750-1800) was the principal figure in European magic during the second half of the eighteenth century. At the time, most conjurers were sleight-of-hand men who worked outside as buskers performing card tricks, shell games and the like. Pinetti’s illusions were mostly mechanical in nature. A Tuscan native, he was an actual science professor who began doing entertaining demonstrations for his students in Rome. These grew so popular that he began doing them for his friends, and then for the public, becoming one of the first performers to exploit the art of advertising to promote his engagements. His illusions included the famous growing orange tree, a bird which he decapitated by cutting off the head of its shadow, and a pen that could write with any color ink. By the early 1780s he was the toast of Paris. In 1784 his momentum was thwarted when a rival published a book purporting to contain all his secrets. In response, Pinetti published his own book, then worked up an entirely new act, and brought his show to London. Subsequently his career would take him to Portugal, Prussia, and eventually Russia, where he made a fortune and then lost it in financing a series of balloon ascensions. He died of an illness there in 1800.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.