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Eighteenth-Century Life 30.2 (2006) 74-97

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Sparks for Sale:

The Culture and Commerce of Fireworks in Early Modern France

Agnes Scott College

In April of 1770, Marie Antoinette undertook a twenty-seven-day journey that would lead her to France, her marriage to the future Louis XVI, and to a disaster that eerily presaged the revolutionary events to come. Her trip began innocuously enough. As she traveled from Vienna to Versailles, where her wedding would take place, she stopped at a number of cities where she attended balls, banquets, and firework displays in her honor. The Elector of Bavaria, for example, threw a party for her that ended with a banquet and a display designed by Cuvilliés-le-Jeune. On May 8th the future queen stopped in Saverne at the home of the cardinal de Rohan, who put on fireworks for her benefit. In Nancy and, a few days later, in Châlons-sur-Marne, Marie Antoinette actually assisted in a show created by the royal pyrotechnic specialist Dominique Bray. She also took an active role in the display launched in her honor at Soissons, where the fireworks emanated from a temple dedicated to Hymen, the god of marriage.1 Fireworks played an equally prominent role in the celebrations held after the wedding. The nuptial display occurred at Versailles on the terrace near the Latona Fountain, so that the reflections of the fireworks appeared in both the Grand Canal and in the Hall of Mirrors. Costing approximately [End Page 74] 400,000 livres, the spectacle lasted nearly thirty minutes and included hundreds of rockets and thousands of explosions, along with 2000 Roman candles, turning stars, and jets of fire.2

The celebrations continued a few days later in Paris. Here, however, things did not turn out so well. City officials planned a grand fête for 9:00 P.M. on May 30th at the place Louis XV. Members of a famous family of fireworks specialists, the Ruggieri brothers, designed a spectacle that again included a large temple dedicated to Hymen, from which they launched the fireworks; in addition, statues of dolphins, rigged to emit sparks, surrounded the temple. The pièce de résistance was a small building that emitted a bouquet of fireworks during the finale. This would have gone off well, except that a rocket fell onto the building setting it off prematurely and causing a panic. At that point everybody tried to flee, but congestion, caused by carriages, by people who had fallen, as well as by the police who tried to maintain order, blocked the only escape route. Some rumors suggested that as many as 700 people died during the ensuing pandemonium, although official reports put the number at 133. Marie Antoinette expressed deep grief over the unfortunate events and apparently cried over the deaths of the victims. She and the dauphin donated their living expenses for the year, a sum of 2,000 écus, to the city of Paris to help the victim's families. This disaster would seem to be an ill omen for the future reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who, of course, would later be beheaded right here at the place Louis XV.3

The fiasco surrounding the wedding of Marie Antoinette occurred in the midst of a shift in the role of fireworks in French culture. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the state dominated in presenting pyrotechnical displays, using them both to entertain on a grand scale and to augment royal power. Fireworks used by Louis XIV, for example, glorified the monarch, astonished foreign visitors, and confirmed the majesty of the king over the nobles who constantly visited Versailles. What better way to recreate the position of Louis XIV in the universe than to bring the stars down to earth? When entrepreneurs later decided to put on fireworks for a popular audience, they often offered smaller versions of these earlier events, and charged for tickets. But what, if anything, did a popular audience take away from these...


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