Baroque Fireworks – “Fiery Dramas” with Political Content

Fireworks, which have been organized for the occasion of various celebrations in Europe for a few hundred years already, still have the same function today, which is to amaze and surprise those watching them. In the 15th century, the organising of fireworks made a transition from the military sphere to the work of secular entertainment, with these appearances of fire taking on special significance in the Baroque era. In the 17th century, fireworks became an inseparable part of estate celebrations. Usually fireworks were made the culmination of a celebration.

The “artificial fire”, which imitated flashes of lightening and cracking of thunder, created an impression of the power of the heavens.

Light was an important element of Baroque celebratory décor that provided a theatrical effect. It was also an archaic symbol of the divine, which is why fireworks were well-suited for a manor’s aim to create an image of greatness and brilliance. In the 18th century, fireworks in Europe not only became a form of entertainment for manors, but a grand public event that was watched by people of all classes of society.

Work for a military engineer during times of peace

Baroque fireworks were different than those of today: they didn’t appear like the multi-coloured flashes of life seen in the air but reminded one more of an appearance onstage. The fireworks were like an allegorical story or looked like a symbolic painting. They were often used to depict dramatic conflict – the confrontation of good and evil, as good inevitably wins. The allegorical content of the fireworks gradually become more complex and more difficult to understand, which is why starting in the 17th century special publications were issued in Europe that explained the meaning of these “firework dramas” for viewers.

Fireworks were designed by military engineers.

The creation of this “artificial fire” was a job that was expensive and demanded much time.

Engineers generally created the complex devices within a few weeks with the help of architects and sculptors. The basics for making fireworks were a part of an engineer’s education. They learned this art from artillery manuals. The book Artis Magnae Artilleriae prepared by GDL war engineer Kazimierz Siemienowicz was published in 1650. It was the primary manual for artillery for almost two centuries, with a separate chapter devoted to fireworks.

Kazimierz Siemienowicz mentioned four occasions when it was needed to make fireworks: the first was for the coronation of rulers, the arrival (ingresses) of high church and secular officials, and ceremonies honouring them; the second was for military victories; the third was for wedding celebrations; the fourth was for convivial feasts. Most of the information that has survived is devoted to the making of fireworks for the most important celebrations of the state.

Theatre in the sky

Baroque fireworks displays would last 3-4 hours. They were composed of a few acts like a drama, with different figures lit in each act. Rivers were often selected to be the site of the fireworks display. The fire reflecting in the water doubled the visual effect “creating the appearance of a second starry sky.” For example, fireworks were put on both sides of the River Neris opposite the Arsenal, as well as in the river for rulers’ name day ceremonies and the entering of the voivode into Vilnius.

Those watching appreciated well thought-out fireworks displays.

Often one can see praise in the descriptions of fireworks published in newspaper such as the following: “Wonderful, in the public’s opinion, a firework that had yet to be seen in our land.” The amount of “artificial fire” was important, along with the effect they gave off, imitating the powers of nature. Those describing it emphasized that while shooting the fireworks off at night “the sky became as light as midday” or “there was so much fire that it seemed like the entire Neris was on fire.” Greatness that was comparable to the forces of nature was strengthened by the figures of fireworks that depicted heavenly bodies.

As guests gathered in tents on the shore of the Neris to watch a “fire drama” in celebration of the ruler’s name day in 1751 , they first of all saw the “sun, moon, stars and ruler’s coat-of-arms with a crown” that was lit. A favourite of fireworks compositions was the depiction of mythological creatures that represented the natural elements of fire and water: dragons spitting fire (a project showing a figure of this kind of firework was provided by Kazimierz Siemienowicz in his book) or sirens floating in the river.

Symbol of power dominated among the many figures of fire, as the fireworks were most often devoted to the representation of authority. The signs of the ruler’s power were depicted (the crown, sword, and sceptre), along with allegories expressing the ideals of the state (justice, freedom, and glory). The usage of images of gods of Antiquity was also a favourite. The most often used figures were of Mars and Athena, the Roman and Greek gods of war. The figure of a ruler was used, most often as a knight or military leader. In this way, the duties of the ruler as the defender of the state were demonstrated.

A “press release” of fire

Do You Know?

Fireworks during the Baroque period were designed by military engineers together with sculptors and architects. The fundamentals of making fireworks were a part of an engineer’s education, with this art taught in artillery manuals. The book Artis Magnae Artilleriae written by GDL war engineer Kazimierz Siemienowicz was published in 1650 and was the primary manual for artillery for almost two centuries, with a separate chapter devoted to fireworks.

As in other kinds of celebratory décor, coats-of-arms occupied an important place in fireworks. The coats-of-arms of the state, ruler and officials were depicted, accompanied by slogans and inscriptions that express homage to them. The figures on the coats-of-arms were often used very creatively. For example, during a celebration organised by Józef Sollohub, a lion was depicted in his coat-of-arms “moving from the window of the Arsenal through the Neris, lighting the slogan Glory to Augustus III, the King of Poland.” The coats-of-arms and symbols in accompanying inscriptions, adapted for the event, often had motifs of fire and light. Emphasizing the peaceful rule of Augustus III, the following inscription adorned the ruler’s coat-of-arms in a fireworks display put on in 1743: “Though the world is burning with the flames of war from all sides, the stars protect Augustus with quiet flames.

Fireworks could also reflect real political events.

For example, while organising a celebration for Augustus III, Sapieha used the coats-of-arms of his allies in the Seven Years’ War together with inscriptions for the fireworks (Augustus participated in them as the ruler of Saxony, and not as the ruler of the Commonwealth), which spoke about the right and victorious fight: the symbol of the Austrian eagle was accompanied with the inscription “I will not stop until I win,” while that of Russia including the inscription “That who fought lawfully,” with Sweden’s accompanied by the phrase “The Crown is Faith, justice and courage.”

Though the fireworks were for crowds of people, they had more than just an entertainment function. The many descriptions of fireworks that were published, which were full of praise and emphasized the intentions of the organisers and reaction of those watching, plus the domination of state symbols reveal the political undertones of these events.

Lina Balaišytė