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The Franconi Dynasty

Excellent riders, first theater directors to institute and hold the privilege of equestrian exercises in France, the Franconi ensure their supremacy over the genre for more than a century and across four generations.

 

The number of years of "family business" are small compared to the longevity of the dynasty. It was not necessary for their name to be attached to their establisment: during the first half of the 19th century,  the Cirque Olympique was de facto associated with the Franconi and whether riding in the circle or not, their notoriety was such, they were - and stil are - the reference of the genre in France. It is not being propritor of an establishment that makes the Franconi the founding circus dynasty of the circus in France. It is their ability to obtain the privilege of the equestrian genre, to create and renew the canons of the aforesaid genre, as well as to integrate cultural innovations around the horse which place them at the top of the proponents of equestrian shows and entertainment in France.

 

No establishment bears the name of Franconi after 1807 and their shows, like the places they build are not transmitted from generation to generation. Antonio Franconi did not bequeath a theatre  to his sons, while Laurent and Henri, if they placed their son and nephew, Adolphe, at the head of the Cirque Olympique in 1826 to keep the privilege of exploitation within the family, saw the title escape them a few years later, taken over by Louis Dejean. Later, when Charles took over from his father, Victor, as director of the Cirque d'Hiver in 1897, this establishment  did not bear their name either, simply because it did not belong to them. In short, financial setbacks, such as the desire or the need to offer new forms of entertainment do not make any of them the formal heir of the previous Franconis.

 

There is no "one" Franconi type of show, nor is there a style that is unique to them. It is therefore no patrimonial heritage that weaves the dynasty of show riders, but the transmission of a profession in all of its facets, where each one develops recognized qualities with his share of personal distinction adorned with a common seal: the mere mention of their name imposes a signature, both a guarantee of know-how and a marker of reputation. With the name as a passport, each one has taken on its own challenges, proposed new forms or imposed himself through his own specificities, perpetuating the presence of the dynasty without having the weight of safeguarding an heritage since each generation worked to create its own space in the world of circus and equestrian shows.

A name that stands out

The name Franconi is therefore that of a dynasty of multi-faceted show equestrians. Their fame is both professional and personal: Laurent was famous as one of the best écuyers of his time, like his son Victor, author of two treatises on riding, or his grandson Charles who directs the Cirque d'Hiver, reputed to be an excellent horseman but who is no less renowned for... his dexterity with the sword. Henri is famous for his pantomimes which he writes mainly for the Cirque Olympique, but not exclusively, and because he is an excellent vaulter on horseback.

 

However, their notoriety is not based solely on their horsemanship.  As soon as there is some new equestrian show business arising, their name is closely or distantly associated with it, either as stakeholders or as a reference for their competitors. The Franconis were the first to exploit the manna imported by Astley and, from there, they relegated their competitors: Benoît Guerre, Bastien Gillet, Henri Lagoutte, as well as the families of horsemen such as Loisset, Lalanne, Lejars, Loyal, Cuzent, Bouthors were admired in their time but only really marked the Parisian annals because they "passed" through the ring and the stage of the Cirque Olympique, then of the Cirque d'Eté,  the Cirque d'Hiver or of the hippodromes, before, for some, establishing a local fame in the provinces or abroad. But the ones standing above all, were the Franconis.

 

It is therefore the institutions created by the Franconis and the fact that they were the first to obtain the privilege of exploiting the equestrian genre that placed them at the forefront of the profession of écuyers de spectacles and circus directors in 19th century France. The fact that from father to son, they taught riding to royal and imperial families, to the armies, to numerous personalities, as well as to the great names of equestrianism that they frequented or with whom they associated,  constituted the key to enter the circles of the most prominent and renowned equestrians among their contemporaries. If Antonio Franconi dug his furrow in the world of animal shows before becoming a good horseman, his grandson Victor took up the pen to write treatises that were highly regarded in the horse community, while Charles had is entry in the Bottin Mondain. The horse carried the success of their businesses, anchored their equestrian expertise and lined the path of their respectability and notability along with the symbols of their distinction.   

The Franconi dynasty is indeed a line of horsemen and circus directors, but it is not limited to men. Catherine Cousi, Laurent's wife, and Jeanne Lequien, Henri's wife, were themselves horsewomen and took part in the shows, among the first women acrobats on horseback in the footsteps of Mrs Astley. Elisa Franconi and Laurence Franconi, Henri's daughters, were reputed to be excellent horsewomen and appeared in the shows. It is also through them, through their alliances, that the Franconi family imposes itself as a dynasty and that the marriages illustrate the structuring of an entre-soi where the horse is the bound, even more so than the theater. 

 

Elisa married François Sergent, who wrote the music for the circus pantomimes. Laurence married François Laribeau (known as Paul Laribeau), also a famous horseman. Adrienne also appears as an equestrian and marries Sébastien Gillet, a famous equestrian. Euphrasie seems to be the only one of Henri Franconi's elders not to ride. However, she married Henri Villemot, a playwright, who wrote many plays for the circus. If Lionel made a military career in the army of Napoleon III as a rider and his brother Narcisse became a military doctor, all the children of Henri's first marriage and their husbands or wives - except Alfred whose occupation escapes us - are linked to the family business or have developed their career in connection with horseback riding or animals (Lionel and Narcisse).

The inheritance of the goods, even if Laurent and Henri are associates, passes nevertheless through the elders. Victor, Laurent's son, was only 15 years old in 1826, when the Cirque Olympique burned down. He was too young to replace his father and uncle who chose Adolphe, Henri's son, who was 24 years old and whom they would supervise. Adolphe went on to manage various establishments in partnership, but Victor seemed more enterprising. After traveling extensively in Europe, notably with the troupe of Sophie Kennebel, mother of his wife Virginie, a famous horsewoman, he became artistic director of the Cirque d'Eté and ventured into the creation of "hippodromes de spectacles" in Paris and New York before returning to head the Cirque d'Eté and Cirque d'Hiver in 1870.

Adolphe died in 1855, six years after his father and uncle. Victor died in 1897. He himself lived through the century and left his mark on the equestrian shows of the second half of the 19th century. He directed the two Parisian circuses for twenty-seven years, until his death, and his son Charles took over until his own death in 1907. Since Charles had no children and his sisters were not involved in horseback riding or the circus, and Henri's heirs were no longer included in the inheritance of the estate, the dynastic transmission of knowledge ended with Charles' death, as the Franconi name was no longer associated with the management of the Parisian circuses or riding in the circle.

Dynastie des Franconi (c) CHodak.jpg
Antonio Franconi Henri Laurent Virginie Kennebel Victor Franconi Emilie Lequiem Catherine Cousy Adolphe Franconi

Also about the Franconi...

Laurent and Henri Franconi, écuyers
The Franconis 
on the stage
of the Opera
The Franconi Tours
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