Less than six years after the Wright brothers’ successful flight, a gathering of airplane enthusiasts was organized in Italy and we have footage of this remarkable event.
Up, up and away
If one word could sum up the early twentieth century, it is movement. Automobiles, locomotives, submarines, motorboats, motorcycles and airships had all been invented before the turn of the century but daredevils and stuntmen were making full use of these innovations. However, one 1900s form of transportation had taken the world by storm: the airplane.
In September of 1909, a group of airplane enthusiasts gathered in Brescia, Italy to show off their airplanes and show off their capabilities. Motion picture cameras were on hand to capture all the excitement, speed, hats and monkeys.
Brescia had already hosted automobile races and bicycle races and so building an airfield and hosting a showcase of these newfangled airplanes seemed like the next obvious step. (It helped that Italian authorities were starting to take a dim view of the Brescia automobile races as both dusty and destructive and there were competing events in Milan and Bologna.) The airshow attracted some of the biggest names in aviation, including Louis Blériot who had accomplish the first heavier than air flight across the English Channel in June of that same year.
Yes, I know the heavier than air descriptor is awkward but I would like to clarify a small pet peeve. When people talk about “first flights” they often mean first heavier than air flights. I don’t mean to be pedantic—well, maybe I do—but I absolutely insist that we give hot air balloons and other lighter than air craft their due. The Wright brothers accomplished something at Kittyhawk, as did Blériot at Dover, but it wasn’t the first flight or crossing and I’d also like to talk about the Montgolfier brothers and Henri Giffard, please and thank you.
(And you thought I was only prickly about a certain racist film director stealing everybody else’s laurels. Honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet.)
The footage of the event dutifully lists off the celebrity pilots who were present: Blériot; New York-born inventor Glenn Curtiss, one of the founders of the American aviation industry and the winner of the grand prize; Mario Calderara, who won four out of eight of the event’s prizes; French sportsman Henri Rougier; and Italian Mario Cobianchi, who showcased a combination helicopter/airplane of his own design (it didn’t work too well). Cobianchi’s monkey, on the other hand, was obviously a great success.
Prizes were offered for pilots who traveled both fifty kilometers and one kilometer in the shortest time, pilots who reached the highest altitude, pilots who had the best time while carrying passengers and so forth. Prices ranged from two lire (one-day pass to a ground level enclosure) all the way up to two-hundred lire for an all-access pass.
After introducing the pilots, we are shown footage of the flights and then the film ends rather anticlimactically with officials checking wind speed. Still seeing those old airplanes in flight is undeniably exciting. They’re not graceful exactly but they have this paper airplane quality to them, so fragile and awkward, and it doesn’t look like they will be able to lift off at all when they suddenly take to the air. I can only imagine how amazing it must have been in person.
This picture doesn’t really have a plot or narrative but it does combine two industries that were coming of age and would change the course of the twentieth century: airplanes and motion pictures. The equipment for both may appear to be primitive on the surface but what the pioneers managed to do with it remains impressive to this day.
The event drew current and future celebrities from non-aviation fields as well. Assorted royalty and nobility were present, Giacomo Puccini was there, as were Franz Kafka and Max Brod, who were vacationing in Italy with Brod’s brother Otto. Kafka penned an article detailing the show, its fifty thousand spectators and the excitement and terror of the event.
“Now here comes the plane in which Blériot flew across the Channel; no one says it, all know it. A long pause, and Blériot has taken to the air, we see his straight upper body protruding above the wings, his legs are hanging about among the undercarriage somewhere. The sun has moved lover, and under the canopy of the stands it lights the floating wings. All look up at him adoringly, no heart has room for another. He flies a small circuit, and then almost vertically over our heads. And everyone watches, craning their necks, as the monoplane wobbles, is controlled again by Blériot, and climbs higher. What is going on? Maybe twenty metres above the ground, there is a man in a wooden cage, fighting off an invisible danger, freely engaged with. And we stand down below, penned in and inessential, to watch him.”
Don’t worry, folks, he lives.
(If you’d like more details than this film can provide, I recommend The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 by Peter Demetz, which covers the entire airshow. It also has heavy coverage of Kafka and Brod brothers. You can read Kafka’s piece in its original German here. An English translation is included in this collection.)
First International Competition for Airplanes at Brescia is very much in keeping with other actualities of the time: there is no particular attempt to tell a story, we are just shown collections of footage taken of interesting events or places. In fact, the camera crew seems to keep missing liftoffs, landings and crashes, the bread and butter of any airshow film but since airshows themselves were so new, we can forgive the oversight. Further, there is some missing and damaged material so this short is not going to run as smoothly as it should.
Still, it’s perfectly fascinating to see the wonders of this early aviation showcase and marvel at the fragility of the airplanes; I don’t know about you but nobody could pay me enough to go up in one of those things! I would, however, like to wear the hats and play with the monkey and maybe hang out with some dour Bohemians.
Where can I see it?
Included in the Kafka Goes to the Movies box set with a piano score by Richard Siedhoff.
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