Behind the Curtain: An Inside Look at the International Circus Festival

Like his wife Princess Grace, Prince Rainier III was a great supporter of the performing arts. He was particularly passionate about circus arts, and in 1974, he created the Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo to honor premier circus performers, and bring families together under the big top. The Festival quickly grew to become the world’s largest and most prestigious circus event—and an important cultural tradition in Monaco. The renowned circus festival turns 50 this year, and starts on January 19th. It promises to be more modern and magical than ever with additions like live music concerts, photo exhibitions and more. But first, let’s remember how it all began.

Festival Facts

Think of the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo as the Olympics meets the Oscars. Each January the very best circus performers—jugglers, clowns, magicians, tightrope walkers, and acrobats—are invited to Monaco to compete for awards over the course of a festive 10-day period of celebration. There are typically 25 acts who perform, and a jury of circus professionals and journalists (presided over by Prince Rainier III until his passing in 2005) judge the performances. Golden, Silver, and Bronze Clown statuettes (which look a little like Oscars) are presented to the winners at a special gala show.

History of the Circus Event

In 1974, Prince Rainier III chose to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his reign by establishing a festival to support and recognize circus performers. This first International Circus Festival was held under a big top installed at the base of the Prince’s palace. Prince Rainier III awarded the first Golden Clown to a Spanish circus clown named Charlie Rivel. (Back then, there were only Golden and Silver Clown statuettes awarded; in 2002, the principality decided to offer a Bronze Crown as a way to honor additional talent.)

One of the most memorable Festivals occurred in 2006. As a tribute to Prince Rainier III’s incredible life, the Festival included a spectacular five-hour show that showcased famous past Golden and Silver awardees, some of whom performed together to the delight of audiences. 

This Year’s Celebration

The International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo will take place from January 19th-January 28th in 2024 under the permanent big top at Espace Fontvieille. There will be a variety of special events leading up to the Festival to honor Prince Rainier III and celebrate the Festival’s 50th anniversary. An exhibit called the Commemoration of the Centenary of Prince Rainier III (1923-2023) captures the history of the Festival and includes paintings, posters, photos, costumes and even a replica of Prince Rainier’s office. The exhibit opened in November 2023, and it will close on the last day of the Festival, on January 28th.

Additionally, there will be a Grand Circus Parade held on January 13th and a professional soccer match on January 22nd. On the 17th, there will be a concert for children, dedicated to Prince Rainier III, at the Auditorium Rainier III. The concert features nine musicians as well as actor Joan Mompart and sand artist Marina Sosnina. Members of the royal family always take part in the awards gala, and they also attend various other festival performances

Prince Rainier III Legacy

In 1974, he added a heartfelt forward to the circus program, writing: “This International Circus Festival was created thinking of the circus community, of this family of underestimated people, so that you, attentive spectators of their efforts and of their work, could know them better, and celebrate them better.” These words show his deep respect for circus performers, and the Festival he created continues to help shape the lives of talented circus artists—and entertain and inspire audiences from around the world.

Photo Credit: Monte-Carlo Festival