When one thinks of Circus, the first images that come to mind are usually those of laughing children, clowns and dancing-bears. Without much effort, vivid memories of childhood float to the surface and, for a moment, our adult cynicism is challenged by a little pang of nostalgia for our lost innocence. Such is the evocative power of Circus.

Yet, Circus hasn't always meant those things. Quite the contrary! About a century ago, to our great-grandparents, it evoked the most challenging, tantalizing and steamingly sexy show they could imagine. In a world where the hem-line was below the ankle, and honorable women mounted horses with their legs together sideways, the view of a scantily dressed female bobbing up and down, on a galloping horse was, to say the least, compelling... And that's without mentioning the impression left by beautiful young trapezists, as they flew through the air, hanging upside down, before the invention of the modern bra...

Not without reason, the Church had a dim opinion of Circuses and even today, in certain regions of southern Europe , it's not unusual to hear priests, from their pulpits, warn people of the moral dangers of Circus.

But sex was not the only subject that was upsetting for religion. Since the middle of the 19th. century the Bible's dogma of the Earth's creation had been rocked by Darwin and the advent of his new Evolutionist theory.. Zoos and botanical I gardens were being built everywhere, buoyed by the interest of a public opinion suddenly impassioned by debates on exotic species and unknown animals. With excellent business flair, Circus became the perfect medium to satisfy the thirst of scientific knowledge of a new audience: The urban industrial worker.

The boom of Circus was also the boom of the Great World Expositions, the building of the Eiffel Tower , Edison 's Electric bulb, African and Antarctic expeditions. Like a jules Verne novel, but in real, Circus offered the man in the street a first hand contact with the thrill and excitement of a brave new world of opportunity. A tangible proof that reality could change and it only depended on his will, determination, ingenuity and fantasy.

Apart from the clear political content of this last point - let's not forget that the heyday of Circus was contemporary, in fact, to the first trade unions and the beginning of the socialist movements - the new feeling of human empowerment that emerged from the 19th. century had another major consequence: Sports and gymnastics.

Pierre de Coubertin, in his inauguration speech for the rebirth of the Olympic Games summed up the spirit when he talked about sport as a road leading man out of slavery and oppression. To the average circus spectator of that era, it was obvious that when a juggler tossed his clubs or acrobats somersaulted across the ring it was in the name of progress, freedom and human dignity! You only have to look at old pictures of circus acts to see how serious and pompous their demeanors were: They knew they were missionaries heralding a new scientific Jerusalem .

Heavy stuff, all this, you might think. Too heavy, maybe, as your mind goes back to your own personal recollections of clowns and dancing-bears... Well, in fact, there were also clowns and dancing-bears for, just as now, people went to the Circus primarily to have a good time! They could be thrilled by the mathematical precision of the physical feats they saw, awed by the mysteries of nature they were shown, inspired by the technical wonders of their time - the sheer structure and size of the circus tent, was a show unto itself - yet when the clowns came in spreading joyous chaos in their path, the crowd had no doubt about who were the real stars of the show.

Quite naturally, people identified themselves in the clowns and their witty blunderings rather than in the perfection and discipline of the supermen they had just seen. And when for example the clowns ran in their puny little canon after the magnificent flight of the "Human Canon-Ball", the laughter that echoed around the ring was born from the pleasure of-n the face of witnessing, reenacted, their own feelings of inadequacy in the face of modern life's towering achievements.

On the other hand a show of just clowns would not have been conceivable. The mere suggestion of it would surely have sounded quite indecent and possibly taken as some kind of nihilist provocation ! There was no question that humor needed a serious counterpart to exist.

Here was the heart of the magic formula on which Circus was based: A celebration of Positivism tempered by 'humor's healthy doubting. For circus, like science is all about being clear and pushing back the limits of the unknown..... Until the clowns come and wreck any attempt of being too serious about life.

This is the spirit that has kept my Family, the Bassi, passionately obsessed by Circus for 130 years. Nevertheless today, at best, Circus is considered a light form of children's entertainment. What happened you may think ?

First Circus was overtaken by Technology. Films and later TV became the vehicles of Information. Mass public transport took away Circus's position as being the purveyor of dreams of foreign travel. The public broadcast of sport on radio and again, later, on TV channeled in it's favor the desire of physical action... Yet all these explanations are just elements in a broader more painful picture.

It is Society, itself, that has lost it's desire to celebrate. Gradually, under the joint weight of overpopulation, pollution, urban decay and all the other ills of our world, the simple naive belief in progress has gone. And without faith in a common sense of destiny and purpose, the jugglers, acrobats and clowns of Circus become quaint little symbols of past innocence. Ghosts of a time when Society was still young... The nostalgic reminder of our childhood.

So, is there any hope ? Yes, the InterNet !

For strange, complex reasons, the net has brought the future back into fashion... A 19th century innocence and scientific virginity has returned on the back of cyberspace and, once again, there's talk of the wonders of human inventiveness.

Another symptom of the 19th century is the "goldrush" mentality The "free for all" scramble that we are experiencing to stake out new claims on a new frontier. New land is the virtual land.

Fires our imagination with new vast amounts of virtual land for our cramped cities - to flee old power structures in a land where things are still free - maybe not true but who cares. Circus sp? have funů