As we have previously written, the first human cannonball was Zazel (Rosa Richter), who was launched out of spring operated “cannons” devised by The Great Farini starting in 1877. The Zacchinis were the ones who perfected the effect, made it more spectacular, and proliferated widely.
It all begins with the patriarch Ildebrando Zacchini (1868-1948) an ethnic Italian from the island of Malta. Zacchini was a painter and inventor but primarily a gymnast and acrobat. Around the turn of the century, he founded the Circus Olympia, which would come to employ all of his nine children: Edmondo, Hugo, Bruno, Vittorio (Victor), Mario, Jolanda, Olga, Emanuele and Teobaldo. For a time, they seem to have lived in South America and to have been based there. Hugo (1898-1975), who would be central to the cannonball act, was born in Peru; his younger brother Mario (1912-1999) was known for his gaucho routines during the early phase of his career, suggesting contact with Argentina. The siblings all specialized in different skills, allowing them to present an entire circus show from within the family: Edmondo (1894-1981) was a trapeze artist and clown, nicknamed “Pagnotta”, a holdover from lean times in Italy when he was paid in loaves of bread. Bruno (1900-1993) worked with horses. Jolanda was a contortionist. Olga walked a tightrope and did other balance related acrobatics.
Ildebrando devised the cannonball act in 1922. It is said that he got the inspiration when he learned that the Italian army was experimenting with launching soldiers into battle from platforms using compressed air. The technique proved impractical for military uses, but was perfect for the human cannonball act. The compressed air shot an acrobat much farther and faster (90 m.p.h.) than the old spring technique that the Great Farini had devised. The acrobats landed in a net, of course. (The Italian army had originally intended to soften the landings with parachutes). A small amount of gunpowder was ignited for the sound effect, implying that the daredevils were being shot out of a gun in the same manner as bullets and cannonballs, a method which would have been prohibitively lethal!
The cannonball act debuted while the family was performing in Cairo in 1922 and was a smash success. The principal performers in the act came to be Hugo and Edmondo, billed as the Zachinni Brothers, with Hugo as the primary daredevil. Edmondo made the ride a few times but reportedly shied away from it after several accidents resulted in broken bones. Instead he contributed by studying mechanical engineering, working on refining the effect for spectacle and safety, and in launching his own version of the act with his own family in later years. In the end, five of the Zacchini Brothers would play some role in the original incarnation of the cannonball act: Hugo, Edmondo, Bruno, Vittorio and Mario. (Of these, Mario was the last to take the ride: in 1991, at the age of 69!)
In 1928 the Zacchinis were recruited for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus while performing at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen. They came to America and joined the big show the following year. In 1932 the family moved to Tampa, Florida, where they were based for many years. The family remained with Ringling Bros. for around a decade. Along the way there were new variations on the act. For example, in 1934, Hugo and Vittorio introduced a double version, where each were shot at the same time from opposite sides of the tent. After leaving RBBB in the late ’30s they continued to perform with other circus and carnivals and special events like the 1939 World’s Fair.
In the ensuing decades, many of the siblings branched off and started their own shows and acts, all bearing the Zacchini Family name. At one point in the mid ’60s there were no less than five separate Zacchini cannonball acts crisscrossing the U.S. Mario operated his own carnival starting in the 1940s. A version of the Zacchinis starred with Ringling again from 1958 through 1963. Several of Edmondo’s children did the cannonball act, including his son Hugo, named after his famous uncle, and his daughters Duina and Victoria, who were billed as the Zacchini Sisters. Hugo died in 2016.