F is for Flea Master
By BERTOLOTTO, [Louis] , 1834

Signor Bertolotto's Extraordinary Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas Patronised by Her Royal Highness the Princess Augusta; Their Majesties the King and Queen of The French; the King and Queen of the Belgians; the Nobility and Gentry &c. &c.

  • Author: BERTOLOTTO, [Louis]
  • Publication place: [London]
  • Publisher: At the Cosmorama Rooms, 209, Regent Street
  • Publication date: 1834.
  • Physical description: Engraved advertisement.
  • Dimensions: 250 by 95mm (9.75 by 3.75 inches).
  • Inventory reference: 17967


Although fleas had historically been used by watchmakers to demonstrate the intricate workings of their horology, Louis Bertolotto still made a splash in London during the 1820s by advertising his “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas”. It is believed that the Italian Bertolotto had displayed his fantastic fleas in Paris before showcasing them in London, where crowds were amazed by the tiny creatures “dancing, playing on musical instruments, flirting, fighting, pulling a bucket from a well”.

They had been trained to do this with a refined technique: first the fleas were sorted into two groups according to whether they appeared more disposed to walk and jump. They were then harnessed with thin golden wire that remained around them for the rest of their lives. The wires, attached to fine chains, could then be manipulated to encourage the fleas to perform certain movements and routines, which they would eventually be trained into doing independently. Bertolotto, the undeniable expert on all things fleas, even published ‘The History of the Flea with Notes and Observations’ in 1834.

Berlotollo’s industrious fleas appear to have performed not only throughout England, where they were seen in Bognor, Wiltshire and Birmingham in 1837, and later in Plymouth, London again and Cambridge, but also across the world, with performances recorded in the United States and Canada. These claims may not be entirely truthful, however, since a number of other flea circuses popped up during the mid-nineteenth century using Bertolotto’s name as a selling-point. Likewise, Bertolotto’s own announcement that his show had been “patronized by Her Royal Highness the Princess Augusta; Their Majesties the King and Queen of The French; the King and Queen of the Belgians” cannot be corroborated by other evidence.

The Cosmorama Rooms on Regent Street seem to have been a hub of weird and wonderful exhibitions during the early Victorian period, with posters advertising appearances such as that of the word’s smallest man and another of a man covered in multicoloured hair. Tickets for Bertolotto’s exhibition of 1834 at the venue were priced at one shillling each, with admittance “from 10 till Dusk”. The advertisement, printed by E & J Thomas of the Strand, is dominated by extensive text and illustrated at the top with an image of two fleas fighting in a ring.

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