Tightrope walkers have fascinated through the ages, from Blondin crossing the Niagara to Napoleon’s favourite Madame Saqui. With the release of The Walk on Blu-Ray™ 3D and DVD, here is a look at the history of high-wire daredevils

The practice of rope walking for entertainment can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where performers were venerated, as they are now, and there was even debate as to whether or not the discipline should feature in the Olympic Games.

From there it spread to Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius, emperor from 161 to 180 AD, and became hugely popular during the Middle Ages, with acrobats dancing high above spectators at major public events throughout Europe – so much so the piqued French clergy banned shows close to churches in the 5th century, and for some time it was effectively banned.

With the release of The Walk, the fascination with rope walking will surely continue

By 1389 it was admired once more. As a feature of Queen Isabeau of Bavaria’s coronation that year, an acrobat carrying candles “walked along a rope suspended from the spires of the cathedral to the tallest house in [Paris]”, according to American author Barbara Tuchman.

Indeed, tightrope walkers performed when Edward VI ascended to the throne in Westminster in 1547. However, in the late 1600s tightrope walkers became associated with a disreputable element, including pickpockets, streetwalkers and conmen.

Ancient art: a fresco featuring two satyrs tightrope-walking from the villa of Cicero at Pompeii Credit: Corbis

Far from being shunned, and dismissed as mere jesters or circus acts, “funambulists” – as tightrope walkers are known, from the Latin funis (rope) and ambulare (to walk) – have been elevated to celebrity status in society again, with their record-breaking and daring stunts becoming ever-more awe-inspiring.

Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, a quarter of a mile from the ground, earned him overnight global fame in 1974, while another Frenchman, Jean-François Gravelet (more commonly known as “The Great Blondin”, his performance moniker), was the first funambulist to gain worldwide stardom.

Gravelet, Petit’s idol (he even played him in the 1986 film Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic), gained great acclaim and fortune following his first 340-metre crossing above the waters below the Niagara Gorge, in 1859, and would repeat the stunt a number of times, with increasingly bizarre variations: blindfolded; in a sack; trundling a wheelbarrow; on stilts; carrying his manager, Harry Colcord; standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope; and sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette, washing it down with a beer.

High star: The Great Blondin Credit: Getty Images

Earlier, in the 17th century, rope dancing had been prevalent in small theatres in Paris, and – after a post-revolution re-emergence of outdoor ascensions – Pierre Forioso, yet another Frenchman, was considered the master of his art, and was invited to walk atop a rope from the Pont de la Concorde to the Pont des Tuileries to celebrate Napoleon Bonaparte’s birthday in 1807.

Napoleon was an admirer of another rope dancer called Madame Saqui. She would often walk a wire while fireworks exploded around her, depicting battles won by her benefactor. During a performance to commemorate the birth of his heir, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles, she crossed between Notre-Dame cathedral’s towers. Saqui, who also performed at Vauxhall Gardens and is referenced in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, was named Première Acrobate de Sa Majesté l’Empereur et Roi, and Napoleon employed her to gee up his troops.

More recently high-wire walkers starred in circus shows, with The Flying Wallendas one of the most celebrated due to their seven-person chair pyramid, first devised in 1947. With no safety net below, their signature act led to tragedy on more than one occasion – the worst occurring in 1962 when three members of the troupe fell to their demise.

Magnificent seven: The Flying Wallendas performing their chair pyramid stunt Credit: REX Shutterstock

In the 21st century, funambulists continue to devise more incredible, death-defying tricks. Nik Wallenda – the great-grandson of founder of The Flying Wallendas Karl (who also fell to his death) – in a nod to Blondin, became the first person to walk directly over Niagara Falls, at the river’s widest point, in 2012. And with The Walk – the film about Petit's incredible achievement 42 years ago – the fascination with rope walking will surely continue.

The Walk, is released on Blu-ray™ 3D and DVD on 1 February 2016. Buy it now on Amazon