The Aretalogy of Vanni Bossi by Stephen Minch
Review by Jamy Ian Swiss
Vanni Bossi was a member of the European magic cognoscenti, renowned in Italy and throughout the European magic world, albeit much less well known on this side of the Atlantic, and his untimely death in 2008 (from lung cancer) shocked his friends and left the world of magic wounded by the loss. I am one who had the great pleasure of knowing him, and I am extremely pleased that author Stephen Minch has now preserved Vanni’s legacy for magicians of the present day and the future—for those who knew Vanni or knew of his work, as well as for the many more who will first discover him by way of The Aretalogy of Vanni Bossi. Vanni was a cherished presence by those who knew him, and he was a significant creator who, among other achievements, routinely presented at the annual Escorial gathering in Spain (some of his limited edition contributions to that conference are now recorded in the volume at hand).
Roberto Giobbi, in the brief biography he provides in his affectionate introduction to the book, refers to his friend as a “Renaissance man,” acknowledging the term’s clichéd usage but nevertheless appropriately considering it a worthy description. Bossi was an innovative close-up magician, a skilled artisan, and an accomplished academic in our field. But to those who knew him, he was perhaps first and foremost delightful company: a quintessentially charming and sartorial Italian sophisticate who was rarely seen without a cigarette and a glass of wine at hand. With an impeccably genteel demeanor, he would gladly amaze you with some of his startling pet creations, now described in these pages.
One of those signature bits is the opening effect, “La Belle Captive,” in which a selected card is returned to the deck, which is then spread across the table. Retrieving an empty glass and turning its mouth downward, the performer sweeps the glass across the length of the ribbon spread, and when the glass comes to rest at the center, the selected card startlingly appears within. Words can’t do justice to the speed and surprise of this unusual feat of sleight-of-hand done with completely unprepared props.
The next piece in the book, “Framing the Sandman,” while not entirely impromptu, is similarly achieved with ordinary props and clever handling, a fact which came as a surprise to me the first time I saw Vanni perform and explain it. In this, a simple empty picture frame, along with its requisite piece of glass and the usual matting and backing board, is introduced, openly disassembled and reassembled, and set aside or handed to a spectator’s custody. A selected card is torn into pieces; with the spectator retaining one corner, the remaining pieces visibly disappear from the face of the pack. The frame is raised into view and the restored card is discovered locked within it, behind the glass. When the card is removed, the corner matches. You cannot ask for a more elegant, practical solution to this simple, direct, and memorable effect.
A few entries further into the book comes “The U.T.N. Card Fold,” one of two original card folds included. This one, however, was a favorite of Vanni’s, a utility tool that can be applied to many effects. But for magicians, the fact that the card had been folded at all was in itself an amazing effect, since “U.T.N.” stands for “Under Their Noses,” and this is as good a description as any for this crazily deceptive method, with which—I can assure you—Vanni would routinely fool well posted magi.
These three early items made me smile with the memories of having seen Vanni perform them. These are all clever and useable items, and there is much more of the same to be found in the ensuing pages. “The Money Card” is an unusual adaptation of the widely applied Bruno Hennig method for the folded card-to-impossible-location plot, in this case that location being within several bills contained in a commonplace type of billfold wallet, in which the bills (and hence, the card) are pinned under a stiff wire at the center. This is an eminently practical performance piece, a miracle trick with a prop that is perfectly appropriate to carry with you, and that also uses the above-mentioned UTN Fold to masterful purpose. How much more commercial, deceptive, easy-to-do material do you want from one book?
Well, there is still much more to be found within. In another novel application of the Hennig methodology, a folded card appears in a can of peanuts. When the lid is removed and the nuts poured out, the card is poured out as well, mixed amid the nuts, whence it is handed to the spectator, absent the traditional shuttle pass. There is a switch, but Bossi has added another element to the method that is bound to find favor and further application.
Vanni Bossi, like myself, loved the card-to-impossible-location plot, and we also shared an inclination to apply and vary the Bruno Hennig method. (Mr. Hennig, known by the stage name, Joro, and now in his 80s, is still alive and well and performing miracles in his native Germany.) Indeed, it was Bossi who designed and built the box with which Fred Kaps first brought the trick to the attention of the magic world. In “Bottom Feeder,” another version of the plot is described in which a signed and folded card arrives in a small jewelry box that is wrapped in rubber bands—and in this extremely fair handling, the Hennig method is not applied, and there is no switch; rather it is simply the actual card that appears within. In the ensuing piece, “The Folding Color Change,” the signed selection is removed, unfolded and revealed, whereupon it is refolded and then unfolded, magically transformed into a second signed selection, a mystifying kicker that builds upon the box revelation but eliminates any prop from the finale.
There are still more of such practical and commercial routines to be found in the book, tricks that rely on combinations of sleight-of-hand, clever principles, and sometime prop preparation. “The Case of Mistaken Identity” comes to mind, based on an old Frank Garcia revelation of a selected card that penetrates a cased deck and appears in the performer’s hand; in Vanni’s version, the card then changes into the second selection. I learned this trick decades ago from Garcia (and also fooled Frank with a reverse version of the effect, from a Larry Jennings lecture). The simplicity of the method belies the power of the effect, and Bossi’s expansion of that effect further improves on the original. And for classic card revelations, “Fresco” provides a clever new way to manage the technical necessities for the Card on Ceiling (yet another effect and area of invention dear to my heart; I discuss my own method in my currently available Penguin Live lecture).
There are also a few items requiring more ambitious preparation, which will not be readily put to use by many, but nevertheless have their place. One of these is “The Card in the Finger Ring,” in which a spectator removes and holds his finger ring behind his back, and a signed selected vanishes from the pack and appears rolled up within the ring. This is one of Hofzinser’s unsolved mysteries as described by Ottokar Fischer, and Vanni provides both an “all conditions met” solution as well as a somewhat simplified one. Neither is easily accomplished but the effect is genuine and inconceivably mysterious if achieved.
That piece, provided early in the book, was somehow not included a closing chapter of “Memorable Wonders,” which describes two routines. The first, “We’re Being Followed,” is an elaborately planned but apparently impromptu piece in which a deck is sprayed out the window of a moving car, and a signed selected card appears stuck outside the rear window. It’s worth reading this just for the insight into the workings of Bossi’s mind, as is the book’s closing entry, entitled “The Deep End,” which involves a signed selection and a swimming pool.
There are forty-four main entries, with a number of sub-entries that describe variations and technical elements (totaling fifty-six in the publisher’s count as advertised), of which I have so far only described an even dozen. There are still more commercial plots to be discovered in its pages, like “Stick-Stab,” an unusual approach to a card stabbed through a newspaper wrapped and in fact glued around the deck; and “The Secluded Card Rise,” an old-wine-in-new-bottles approach to the Rising Cards, in which the new bottle is now a transparent plastic bag, within which the effect takes place.
There are also utilitarian sleight-of-hand techniques and finesses, including a Four-as-Three display, a Buckle Fan Hideout, a tabled toss of one or two double cards (that perhaps precedes some of the work for which Howard Hamburg is now noted), and a nice finesse for concealing a palmed card at the table. There is also a sixty-plus-page section of coin magic methods and effects, including: a lengthy chunk of a dozen techniques with the Okito Coin Box, focused primarily on secret turnovers; a method for the paper coin fold vanish that will (as the saying goes) fool the wise ones; a multi-phase routine of penetrations with a ribbon and Chinese coin; and “Hangups,” Bossi’s handling of David Roth’s “Hanging Coins,” that vanishes all four coins rather than three (albeit with a radical alteration in method for the fourth), but that also streamlines the second and third coins in ways that can readily be adapted (particularly the second coin) to the standard handling. The book also includes a couple of non-card-or-coin items, including a penetration of a pencil through a bill with which Vanni fooled … well, just about everyone who saw it.
As I read and enjoyed the contents of The Aretalogy (a term that describes a kind of “sacred biography” or record of a “divine figure's miraculous deeds”), I was reminded of how Vanni’s work often reminded me of Scotty York’s. They both shared an inclination toward ingenious methods, skilled craftwork, and a fondness for deceptive approaches to clear, strong effects that laymen find memorable. There is an abundance of such material in this volume, but if your inclinations tilt more toward multi-phase routines with a lot of sleight-of-hand, neither of these innovators’ work would be ideally suited to your tastes. My own tastes flourish in both directions, and as with York’s creations, much of Bossi’s material greatly appeals to me.
Further regarding the comparison with Scotty York’s work, two items in the book bear particular note. “Under a Tack” is an unusual effect that Vanni, who was generally secretive about his material anyway, was particularly protective of, in which a signed selection ends up thumb-tacked to the underside of the table at which the performer and spectator are seated. This ingenious effect relies significantly on a method that is extremely close to Scotty York’s distinctive method for the Card On Ceiling, which never saw print although it was revealed, largely unnoticed, on commercial video. While I’m not certain if Vanni and Scotty ever met, they were possessed of similar creative minds and skill sets, and it seems very likely to me (and to Stephen Minch, whose attention I’ve now drawn to the similarities) that Scotty’s method inspired Vanni’s effect and handling. Also, Vanni’s “Card in the Head” (referring to the head on a glass of beer) is identical to Scotty’s Card In Drink, a trick Scotty used constantly behind the bar at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic in the early 1980s.
Any discussion of Vanni Bossi’s work would be remiss if I neglected to address his importance as a collector and researcher of vintage conjuring texts (along with his skills as an expert bookbinder). The Summer 2007 issue of Gibecière, the Journal of the Conjuring Arts Research Center (Vol. 2, No. 2), contained a complete English translation of a landmark Italian magic text published in 1583, Gallaso’s Gochi di carte bellisimi de regola, e di memoria. In that issue (the fourth of the journal’s publication), Stephen Minch recounted how in 1998, Bill Kalush and Daniel Rhod examined the only known edition of the book. However, Vanni Bossi was also chasing the mysterious work, and eventually came upon a second copy of the treasured rarity. In 2001 he produced a beautiful and now highly sought-after limited (to one hundred copies) edition facsimile, accompanied by his own expert commentary based on his research.
To further shorten a longer story, eventually forces were combined and the first complete English translation, beautifully produced in pages that mirrored those of the original Italian edition, was released in the 2007 Gibecière, accompanied by Vanni Bossi’s extensive essay. Therein, Vanni points out that Gallaso is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that it follows closely on the heels of Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft by a mere nine years. Half of the book’s contents consist of twenty-five entries utilizing playing cards, including tricks, methods, principles, and gambling exposé.
Remarkably, the book begins with the first printed description of a stacked deck system, presaging what in modern times would become known as the Si Stebbins system. Along with this principle is also described a multi-phase routine of effects which will be quite recognizable to memdeck enthusiasts, but which comprises the first known card routine recorded in the literature of conjuring. Gallaso includes split faces (later put to exquisite use by Hofzinser), and in the realm of cheating, descriptions of nail-nicking and punch work, marked cards, and shiners. Suffice to say it is a work of monumental historical importance, and Vanni Bossi’s name will forever be associated with its discovery and examination. (The Summer 2007 issue of Gibecière is obtainable from the Conjuring Arts Research Center.)
Yet another reason to mention Bossi’s connection with Gallaso is that Hermetic Press has produced The Aretalogy as a gorgeous volume that incorporates design elements and production features of the Gallaso period, including typefaces inspired by 15th century styles, a lush leather binding with gold stamping, cloth hardcovers, and substantial paper with untrimmed (decaled) edges, modeled on the 15th-century style. (It is in fact the second book to be produced by Hermetic Press since the imprint’s sale to Penguin Magic; the first is Standup Card Magic by Roberto Giobbi.) There are 400 quality line drawings by Tony Dunn, and the entire design and layout echoes the look and feel of an old and rare volume.
I was very fond of the man, Vanni Bossi, and of his magic, and I am extremely pleased that this book, many years in the works, has finally seen the light of print. There is material here that is well worth exploring and adapting for anyone looking for impactful close-up magic plots with deceptive methods that are often not too technically demanding. It should go without saying that, in the hands of Stephen Minch, the writing is simultaneously instructive and elegant, as is the design and production of the book, befitting not only its contents, but also the creator at its core.
The frustration of this book that must be acknowledged—and it cannot be considered a failing since the author mentions it forthrightly at the close of his preface—is that what is missing from this book is Vanni himself, in the form of his personal voice. As Stephen Minch writes wistfully, “He exited before he could be included. … And that makes me deeply sad.”
So while there is a lot of magic that has been rescued from obscurity, and for this we should all be very grateful, the creator’s personality is largely absent. There is little in the way of scripting and presentation; most of the time we don’t really know what he said. There are times when the author speculates as to ways to alter or adapt presentation, and frankly, I look upon these cautiously, and occasionally more as reflections of the writer’s inclinations than those necessarily of the creator. The Card In Drink doesn’t necessarily warrant attachment to a Card Under Glass routine, either in its creator’s opinion or in my own. Similarly, we are informed that “Vanni was very fond of the ‘magician fails’ gambit and did use it in ‘The Money Card’ and elsewhere, and I don’t think he needs any defense or excuse in this regard. Readers are welcome to do what they wish, but they needn’t be directed toward any correction or improvement based more on the author’s tastes than what we know to have been the creator’s. (And there is much to be said by real workers in defense of the strategy, albeit experienced performers like Vanni would never abuse it repeatedly in the same performance.)
Such quibbles aside (and they are minor quibbles indeed, which I mention as much for the consideration of other authors of future works than as critique in this particular case), the absence of the distinctive creator’s voice is one that is much felt in these pages, and like the author, it saddens me that readers lack the experience of Vanni Bossi’s presence, and his humble but stylish execution of his distinctive brand of magic. The Aretalogy of Vanni Bossi is a fitting tribute to a distinctive magical creator, who left a lasting mark on the world of magic. Ciao, mio bello amico.
The Aretalogy of Vanni Bossi by Stephen Minch, published by Hermetic Press. Deluxe, leather and cloth bound; 206 pages with 400 line drawings by Tony Dunn; foreword by Roberto Giobbi. Available from Penguin Magic • $65
A version of “Framing the Sandman” performed by Vanni, in Italian
Two coin routines, both included in Aretalogy