Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Fire, and the Origin of Fireworks.

In the Memoirs of the French Academy, a little essay on this subject is sufficiently curious; the following contains the facts:—

FIREWORKS were not known to antiquity. — It is certainly a modern invention. If ever the ancients employed fires at their festivals, it was only for religious purposes.

Fire, in primæval ages, was a symbol of respect, or an instrument of terror. In both these ways God manifested himself to man. In the holy writings he compares himself sometimes to an ardent fire, to display his holiness and his purity; sometimes he renders himself visible under the form of a burning bush, to express himself to be as formidable as a devouring fire: again, he rains sulphur; and often, before he speaks, he attracts the attention of the multitude by flashes of lightning.

Fire was worshipped as a divinity by several idolaters: the Platonists confounded it with the heavens, and considered it as the divine intelligence. Sometimes it is a symbol of majesty. — God walked (if we may so express ourselves) with his people, preceded by a pillar of fire; and the monarchs of Asia, according to Herodotus, commanded that such ensigns of their majesty should be carried before them. These fires, according to Quintus Curtius, were considered as holy and eternal, and were carried at the head of their armies on little altars of silver, in the midst of the magi who accompanied them and sang their hymns.

Fire was also a symbol of majesty amongst the Romans; and if it was used by them in their festivals, it was rather employed for the ceremonies of religion than for a peculiar mark of their rejoicings. Fare was always held to be most proper and holy for sacrifices; in this the Pagans imitated the Hebrews. The fire so carefully preserved by the Vestals was probably an imitation of that which fell from heaven on the victim offered by Aaron, and long afterwards religiously kept up by the priests. Servius, one of the seven kings of Rome, commanded a great fire of straw to be kindled in the public place of every town in Italy to consecrate for repose a certain day in seed-time, or sowing.

The Greeks lighted lamps at a certain feast held in honour of Minerva, who gave them oil; of Vulcan, who was the inventor of lamps; and of Prometheus, who had rendered them service by the fire which he had stolen from heaven. Another feast to Bacchus was celebrated by a grand nocturnal illumination, in which wine was poured forth profusely to all passengers. A feast in memory of Ceres, who sought so long in the darkness of hell for her daughter, was kept by burning a number of torches.

Great illuminations were made in various other meetings; particularly in the Secular Games, which lasted three whole nights; and so carefully were they kept up, that these nights had no darkness.

In all their rejoicings the ancients indeed used fires; but they were intended merely to burn their sacrifices, and, as the generality of them were performed at night, the illuminations served to give light to the ceremonies.

Artificial fires were indeed frequently used by them, but not in public rejoicings; like us, they employed them for military purposes; but we use them likewise successfully for our decorations and amusement.

From the latest times of paganism to the early ages of Christianity, we can but rarely quote instances of fire lighted up for other purposes, in a public form, than for the ceremonies of religion; illuminations were made at the baptism of princes, as a symbol of that life of light in which they were going to enter by faith; or at the tombs of martyrs, to light them during the watchings of the night. All these were abolished, from the various abuses they introduced.

We only trace the rise of feux-de-joie, or fireworks, given merely for amusing spectacles to delight the eye, to the epocha of the invention of powder and cannon, at the close of the thirteenth century. It was these two inventions, doubtless, whose effects furnished the ideas of all those machines and artifices which form the charms of these fires.

To the Florentines and the Siennese are we indebted not only for the preparation of powder with other ingredients to amuse the eyes, but also for the invention of elevated machines and decorations adapted to augment the pleasure of the spectacle. They began their attempts at the feasts of Saint John the Baptist and the Assumption, on wooden edifices, which they adorned with painted statues, from whose mouth and eyes issued a beautiful fire. Callot has engraven numerous specimens of the pageants, triumphs, and processions, under a great variety of grotesque forms:— dragons, swans, eagles, &c., which were built up large enough to carry many persons, while they vomited forth the most amusing firework.

This use passed from Florence to Rome, where, at the creation of the popes, they displayed illuminations of hand-grenadoes, thrown from the height of a castle. Pyrotechnics from that time have become an art, which, in the degree the inventors have displayed ability in combining the powers of architecture, sculpture, and painting, have produced a number of beautiful effects, which even give pleasure to those who read the descriptions without having beheld them.1

A pleasing account of decorated fireworks is given in the Secret Memoirs of France. In August, 1764, Torré, an Italian artist, obtained permission to exhibit a pyrotechnic operation. — The Parisians admired the variety of the colours, and the ingenious forms of his fire. But his first exhibition was disturbed by the populace, as well as by the apparent danger of the fire, although it was displayed on the Boulevards. In October it was repeated; and proper precautions having been taken, they admired the beauty of the fire, without fearing it. These artificial fires are described as having been rapidly and splendidly executed. The exhibition closed with a transparent triumphal arch, and a curtain illuminated by the same fire, admirably exhibiting the palace of Pluto. Around the columns, stanzas were inscribed, supported by Cupids, with other fanciful embellishments. Among these little pieces of poetry appeared the following one, which ingeniously announced a more perfect exhibition:

Les vents, les frimats, les orages,

Eteindront ces FEUX, pour un tems;

Mais, ainsi que les FLEURS, avec plus d’avautage,

Ils renaîtront dans le printems.


The icy gale, the falling snow,

Extinction to these FIRES shall bring;

But, like the FLOWERS, with brighter glow,

They shall renew their charms in spring.

The exhibition was greatly improved, according to this promise of the artist. His subject was chosen with much felicity; it was a representation of the forges of Vulcan under Mount Ætna. The interior of the mount discovered Vulcan and his Cyclops. Venus was seen to descend, and demand of her consort armour for Æneas. Opposite to this was seen the palace of Vulcan, which presented a deep and brilliant perspective. The labours of the Cyclops produced numberless very happy combinations of artificial fires. The public with pleasing astonishment beheld the effects of the volcano, so admirably adapted to the nature of these fires. At another entertainment he gratified the public with a representation of Orpheus and Eurydice in hell; many striking circumstances occasioned a marvellous illusion. What subjects indeed could be more analogous to this kind of fire? Such scenical fireworks display more brilliant effects than our stars, wheels, and rockets.

1 The great exhibition of fireworks at Rome, at the castle of St. Angelo, during the festivities of the Holy Week, preserve the character of the displays of fireworks adopted on great occasions in the seventeenth century. An enormous explosion of squibs, crackers, and rockets was the tour de force in such celebrations. The volume describing the entry of Louis XIII. to Lyons in 1624, contains an engraving of the fireworks constructed on barges in the river on that occasion; a blazing crowned sun, surrounded by a wheel of stars, squibs, star-rockets, and water-serpents flying about it, composed the feu d’artifice. In the volume descriptive of the rejoicings in the same city on the ratification of peace between France and Spain in 1660, are several engravings in which fireworks are shown, but they exhibit no novelties, being restricted to rockets and pots of fire bursting into coloured stars. Henry Van Etten’s “Mathematical Recreations,” 1633, notes the principal “artificial fireworks” then in use, and gives engravings of several, and instructions to make them. Rockets, fire-balls, stars, golden-rain, serpents, and Catharine wheels are the principal noted. “Fierie dragons combatant” running on lines, and filled with fireworks, were the greatest stretch of invention at this time; and our author says they may be made “to meete one another, having lights placed in the concavity of their bodies, which will give great grace to the action.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53