Ancient vs Modern Magic

Judging from the accounts which history has preserved for us of the marvels performed by the magicians of antiquity, it is evident that these men were very skillful in practicing their art. It cannot be said, however, that the ancients were more proficient in their art than modern magicians are. Robert Houdin, the greatest of the early modern conjurers, has said, "Antiquity was the cradle of magic -- but only because the art was yet in its infancy."

The explanation then, for the seemingly greater miracles that were produced in ancient times, is that people believed in the supernatural powers of the magicians. The effects these magicians produced were believed to come from inspiration from higher or lower powers and thus took on a tremendous significance for the people. The effects assumed the proportions of miracles in their minds.

Today, these effects, while still mystifying and startling, are not regarded as produced by gods or demons. Thus has arisen the idea that something of the art of conjuring has been lost. Nothing, however, has been lost and very much has been gained in the art of sleight of hand. It is merely that the attitude of people has changed with the enlightenment of modern civilization regarding the supernatural, and now they regard Magic as an Art -- and the most entertaining of all Arts.

The Romans Versed in Conjuring

Conjuring exhibitions date way back to the Roman Empire, showing that even then the art was regarded as one for entertainment. The favorite feat at these regular events was that of the "cups and balls." The cups were called by the Latin word, acetabula, and the performers were called acetabularii. Records show that the balls that were used were round white pebbles instead of the light cork balls used today by conjurers. This, it seems, must have made the performance of the trick a great deal more difficult.

Sleight of Hand in the Middle Ages

The Fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A. D. marks the beginning of the Middle or Dark Ages, which ended with the revival of learning in the Fifteenth Century. These centuries of ignorance naturally were the time for the flourishing of the Black Art. Magic in all its phases and sleight of hand had a widespread influence in the lives of the people.

Forerunners of the Modern School

Emerging from the Dark Ages, we find that the earliest exponents of the modern school were Italians. The foremost were Jonas, Androletti, and Antonio Carlotti. We know little about them and their art however, as the secrets of legerdemain were jealously guarded.

In 1793 we get the first written word on sleight of hand. A book entitled "Testament de Jerome Sharpe, Professor de Physique Amusante," was printed in Paris. The author, M. Decremps, gives an account of some of the methods then in vogue.

In 1840 Dobler, a German physicist, devised an entertainment which is the beginning of the whole modern development of the art of sleight of hand. This was, in effect, the same as the conjuring entertainments which have since become so popular and familiar to everyone.

The names of the most eminent conjurers of a more recent school of magic should be familiar to you. They are Wiljalba Frikell, Hermann, Bautier de Kolta, and J. E. Robert-Houdin.

Modern School of Legerdemain

Robert-Houdin, a Frenchman, is regarded as the actual founder of the modern school of legerdemain. This celebrated conjurer, originally a watchmaker and mechanician, was an inventive genius. When he was young, he turned his attention to legerdemain and bent all his energies to the development and improvement of the art. He discarded the clumsy tricks of what he called the "false-bottomed school" and the gaudy paraphernalia with which his predecessors encumbered their stages.

He produced in 1845 a number of entirely new illusions at a little theater in the Palais Royal, combining the resources of mechanical and electrical science with dexterity of the hands and effective presentation.

His entertainments were a great sensation in Paris and placed Robert-Houdin at once at the head of his profession. His skill and success were so great that the French government sent him on a roving expedition to Algeria. The purpose of this was to have him destroy, by his exhibitions of natural magic, the influence of the "marabouts"—wonder-workers who had gained a dangerous power over the Arabs by their pretended miracles.

A little later on we will begin the study of actual sleight of hand. The tricks and moves you are learning now, begin to give you some manual dexterity, that is, skill in the use of your hands. These tricks do not depend entirely on this dexterity but are the foundation for the more difficult aspect of Magic, the art of sleight of hand.

This art requires practice and study. Robert-Houdin sums it up in this way:

"To succeed as a conjurer, three things are essential; first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity."

This is not a mere trick of language—the hand must be trained, the eye must be trained, and the tongue must be trained.

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