In Search of Lost Fireworks

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July Fourth is one of those Rorschach holidays—it’s pretty much whatever you want to make it. If you’re patriotic, bless your heart, you can celebrate it that way. If you want to go to a party and drink beer and grill, there’s plenty of opportunity for that. You can just kick back and enjoy the long weekend, or enjoy the romantic Love American Style-style backdrop of fireworks, or—if like me, you’re the owner of a pyrotechnophobic dog—you can secretly, Grinch-like, wish for rain.

So far it looks like we dog owners are winning, at least on the east coast. But there’s always the consolation of fireworks past… and in fact, visual and written documentation of fireworks displays has a long and distinguished history. The Public Domain Review recently put up an interesting essay by Simon Werrett, Picturing Pyrotechnics, about the art of documenting the rockets’ red (and yellow, green, blue, purple, and white) glare.

While the whole idea of commemorative artwork implies a record of past events, Werrett points out that the earliest prints of firework shows—particularly the state-sponsored events put on as displays of power and technological prowess—were actually published as programs, in advance of the celebrations. This was necessary, at least in part, to fully explain the allegorical content of the most elaborate displays, so that any implied imagery wouldn’t be lost on the masses:

One such engraving shows a fireworks temple … for the anniversary of the coronation of Empress Catherine II in June 1763. The accompanying description explained how the display centred on the Island of Pallas represented in fireworks, which carried a temple, in front of which Pallas sat on a dark cloud casting out bolts of lightning. Subsequent decorations appeared, including palm trees, garlands, and the figure of the goddess Minerva holding a cornucopia. These decorations were all meant to signal the wisdom and power of the Empress Catherine and the happiness of the empire under her reign.

But there was another reason as well: fireworks were a messy, dangerous bit of business, and the performances didn’t always go off as planned—or go off at all. In 1730, French artist Dumont le Romain produced an elaborate etching of the display orchestrated by Philip V of Spain in honor of Louis XV’s new infant son. The pyrotechnic representations included a rainbow stretching between two 80-foot Pyrenean mountains, to symbolize the two countries’ friendship, and a rising sun representing the baby dauphin. According to an observer, though,

the Rising sun was omitted for Want of Time; and the Rainbow, when made, was too unwieldy and unmanageable; and therefore could not appear; nor the Goddess Iris… these should have been describ’d as designed only, and not executed.

So take heart if your Fourth is rained out, or you don’t have the heart to brave traffic, or you’re stuck at home comforting the dog. Sometimes the idea of fireworks is better than the real thing. And if that’s the case, at least you’re in good company.

And if you don’t already subscribe to The Public Domain Review‘s eclectic essay series, you really should.

(Image showing fireworks at The Hague, June 14, 1713 on the occasion of the “Peace of Utrecht”, found in Klebeband 10 of the Fürstlich Waldecksche Hofbibliothek, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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