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  • Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History
  • Giovanna L. Costantini
Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History by Simon Werrett. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2010. 376 pp. illus. Trade. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-89377-8.

Simon Werrett's investigation of pyrotechnics from the 14th through the 19th 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 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, 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 lit 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 18th 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 15th century), intended primarily as a spectacular demonstration of temporal power. Through displays staged amid elaborate architectural machines 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. However, 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 emblematize the transformation of Western society from a largely religious culture to a scientific one. Indicative of this transition is the progression of alchemical chemistry (composed of equal parts myth, metaphor, fantasy and experimentation) toward the physical and mechanical sciences and the evolution of belief structures from those founded on faith and allegory to others [End Page 183] governed by philosophical reason and acquired knowledge. Composed 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; and 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, which not only showcase two of the most important centers of intellectualism during the 18th century beyond the purview...


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pp. 183-184
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