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Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History

Fireworks:  Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History

by Simon Werrett
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2010
376 pp. illus. 33 b/w, 16 color, 36 halftones.  Trade, $45.00
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-89377-8.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Simon Werrett’s investigation of pyrotechnics from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries explores relationships among philosophical fireworks, art, and science as a significant expression of European beliefs, aspirations, and authority throughout the modern era.  Reflecting a timeless fascination with fire, its archaic divine and magical associations, and an identification of human potentiality with Prometheus, the embodiment of the archetypal hero who stole fire from heaven and presided over the human arts, Fireworks asserts the “status of the artificer” within a performative context.  As such, it purports to epitomize pyrotechnic artistry as a philosophical platform from which to view the interaction of art and science from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution.

The book takes a comparative approach to the history of fireworks, focusing on centers such as Paris, London, and St. Petersburg.  It examines distinctive aspects of the pyrotechnic histories of these cities, practices of knowledge, philosophical undercurrents and exchanges that contributed to identifiable and enduring traditions in each of these locales. In these centers, fireworks stimulated valuable conduits of scientific learning among such areas as meteorology and electrical physics, astronomy and navigation, utilizing techniques adapted from rhetoric, optics, mathematics, and alchemy.

Fireworks opens with a description of an Enlightenment spectacle staged on New Year’s Eve, 1748 in St. Petersburg in which wooden jetties, rockets, wheels, and fire fountains light up the night sky in the image of a Siberian pine tree in a garden of parterres and greenery.  As a literary frontispiece to the comprehensive study that follows, it is intended to illustrate the allegorical significance of pyrotechnical displays to eighteenth century aficionados, in this case representative of the growth in prosperity of the Russian state.

Werrett’s history of pyrotechnic arts and sciences sets out to document fireworks as a representative Enlightenment era phenomenon (with roots in the fifteenth century), intended primarily as a spectacular demonstration of temporal power.  Through displays staged amid elaborate architectural machine erected largely within the province of the Catholic Church and princely courts of Europe and Russia, artificers aspired to recreations of cosmic phenomena, allying earthly events with Providence and cosmic order.  But Werrett’s larger objective is to explore the reshaping of a military, alchemical craft into an ideological discourse, whereby pyrotechnical displays provided the focus for the progress of intellectualism and debates centered on politics, religion, economy, and history.   Fireworks and its broader rationalistic context, Werrett argues, in many ways emblematizes the transformation of Western society from a largely religious culture to a scientific one.   Indicative of this transition is the progression of alchemical chemistry (comprised of equal parts myth, metaphor, fantasy, and experimentation) towards the physical and mechanical sciences; and the evolution of belief structures from ones founded on faith and allegory to others governed by philosophical reason and acquired knowledge.   Comprised of the interdisciplinary arts of artillerymen, painters, architects, chemists, entrepreneurs, and natural philosophers, this text illustrates the manner in which pyrotechnical performances provided a metaphor for human knowledge at the dawn of the scientific era, igniting new interpretations of history and sovereign authority based on variable combinations of contraries as combustible elements.

Issues considered include the impact of regional geography on epistemology; the convergence of empirical science and artisanship; aspects of pyrotechny that contributed to the transformation of culture from an analogical foundation in allegory to one of empirical inquiry; contestations of warfare, artifice and philosophy; the design of pyrotechnical displays and their programmatic basis in the liberal arts; the propagandistic uses of theatricality in the service of political legitimacy and power; interrelationships between the arts of artillery production (gunnery) and the craft of spectacle (ingengno); transmission of technique and regionality; festival entertainment and boulevard commercialism.

Among the book’s many strengths are chapters dedicated to key centers of pyrotechnic science such as the Royal Society of London and the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences that not only showcase two of the most important centers of intellectualism during the eighteenth century beyond studies confined to France, Italy and the Hapsburg Empire, but offer crystallizing optics for the study of ideological polarities.  His examination of the relevance of the Frézier-Perrinet debates on the value of art and philosophical reflection to a scientific method, a crucial focus of Diderot & d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, critically anchors Werrett’s arguments.  But there are also other very interesting sections devoted to alchemy and the liberal arts, ephemeral architecture and the talented, itinerant artificers of Italy such as Giovanni Nicolo Servandoni, Giuseppe Sarti and the Ruggieri family, who not only designed princely spectacles for the courts of King George III of England, Louis XV of France and the heirs of Peter the Great, but contributed to the dissemination of Enlightenment ideals throughout Europe during the seventeenth century.  Stories of foundational archetypes (Prometheus) and vanquishers of evil (St. George and Perseus), flying dragons, volcanoes and girandolas enliven Werrett’s narrative with legendary tales of pyrotechnic lore and descriptions of its imaginative signs and emblemata.  His detailed accounts of controversies such as England’s Green Park Folly and Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonsov’s 1756 orations to the Russian Academy of Sciences on color and light surrounding introductions of secret, sensational “green fire” into Russian fireworks by Danilov and Marynov, provide a fascinating glimpse into pyrotechnic history.

Werrett’s view of the importance of pyrotechny to the history of ideas as a “seminal” basis of 18th century socio-political and philosophical debates tends at times to overstatement in light of similar claims that could be made for other branches of the “tree of knowledge” such as mathematics, physics and ontology.  Generalizing summaries tend at times to overshadow its wealth of historical documentation that could be better served in chronologies of events and personages, and appendices of festival book citations and chemical recipes.

At the same time, this book points up the need for further study in areas that relate the history of pyrotechny to fields of criticism and performance theory; political science; philosophy and religion; art history; theatre; anthropology and chemistry.   Further investigation into underlying questions of patronage; intersections of pageantry and military history; the ritualistic prehistory of fireworks; hermetic and esoteric traditions; design and iconography; and relationships to stagecraft will also prove fruitful.

Werrett’s Fireworks augments many treatments of the subject published previously, including technological studies and selective exhibitions of museum print collections, by offering a comprehensive, scholarly survey of events and ideas linked to the intellectual history of pyrotechny in Western European history.  Complete with illustrations, color plates and three introductory maps that identify locations described in the text, it is amply footnoted with an extensive bibliography, chapter summaries and an inclusive index.  As a “Geography of Art and Science,” it presents a formidable overview of one of the eighteenth century’s most spectacular paradigms, one whose complex interrelationships between artifice and philosophical speculation provide a conceptual framework for continuing associations between art, natural science and theatre.

Last Updated 16th August, 2010

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