In the early modern period, throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, elaborate fireworks displays were often put on by European courts, governments, and cities to celebrate a whole host of events: religious festivals, coronations, royal weddings and birthdays, triumphs, treaties, and the bringing in of the new year. These events were celebrations and opportunities for revelry but also an opportunity for those in power to show their might, and for this end fireworks were crucial, serving to manifest power by appearing to discipline the most dangerous of the elements and to transform nature itself. Contemporaries often commented that fireworks turned night into day and – being benign version of military pyrotechnics – transformed war into peace, or “marte” into “arte”.
As well as this general demonstration of power, displays also typically featured symbolic or allegorical decorations and scenery which were intended to present a more specific message to audiences. The figure of a lion might represent a powerful king, or the slaying of a dragon might signal the conquest of the king’s enemies. As such, it was important to states to make sure that everyone understood the message of fireworks, and so artists were commissioned to engrave large prints of displays for distribution to relevant audiences. Fireworks prints became something of a genre in their own right, and were made by artists across Europe for several hundred years. They are interesting because of the diverse ways they represented very fleeting episodes, playing with time, space, and visual techniques to commemorate pyrotechnic dramas.
It might be imagined that fireworks prints are pictures made after the event looking back, but this was not the case. It was typical for fireworks prints to actually be made before an event, so they do not depict a scene witnessed at all. They were not a record of history but rather an anticipation of its being remembered. The remembering of fireworks served many different purposes. In Russia, for example, large fireworks engravings were published along with explanations of their allegorical content in pamphlets that were distributed to courtly audiences during a display. These engravings were schematic, designed to make clear the iconography of the performance which was described and explained in the text. An event was turned into a storia, a narrative or history.
Prints were also included in festival books in Western Europe. Images were typically large, printed on paper, or sometimes silk, and distributed either at the display or as gifts to diplomats and other courts subsequently. Prints were not intended to capture the reality of a performance, like a photograph, but to serve as well-ordered representations of official events. Fireworks prints acted as a front-stage, sanitizing the messiness of the real event to leave only an idealized account. In fact many fireworks failed – displays often witnessed accidents, sometimes quite horrible, and there were frequently mistakes.
The early modern artists who made fireworks prints used many different techniques to capture the passing of time, the explosive effects of pyrotechnics, and the complex iconography of fireworks displays. Their work presents a remarkable ingenuity in developing so many different solutions to difficult problems of representation. This was in part owing to the peculiar demands of the fireworks print, made before the event, and depicting something which destroyed itself in a matter of minutes or even seconds. But it was also owing to the great skill of artists in imagining fireworks in an image, a skill which remained even after the grand symbolic fireworks of royal courts declined in the nineteenth century.
Adapted from Simon Werrett, Picturing Pyrotechnics @ 2014 by The Public Domain Review.
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