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In the Library: Pageantry and Pyrotechnics in the European Fete Book

The exact origins of fireworks remain unknown. They probably originated in Asia sometime around the ninth century and are most often attributed to China, although pyrotechnics were known to have been used in ancient India as well. At some point in the Middle Ages the technology found its way to Europe, but sources vary on when they arrived and who brought them. The Italians were the first to manufacture fireworks in Europe, and they were well established features of religious festivals and public entertainment by the fourteenth century. So-called fire masters were tasked with creating ever more complex displays, and pyrotechnic schools were established throughout Europe during the Renaissance. Written descriptions of fireworks displays at festivals and events are found in sources dating into the sixteenth century. But it was in the seventeenth century that artists began attempting to capture these ephemeral events visually. This coincides with both the rise of the fete book and of etching and engraving as the primary media for fine book illustration.

A fete book, or festival book, is a volume devoted to recording the apparatus, participants, and events planned around things such as religious festivals, state visits, aristocratic marriages, military victories, coronations, and royal birthdays. These publications are meant to celebrate and promote the power of those taking part in or sponsoring the event in question. They are usually illustrated with etchings and engravings, which offered seventeenth-century artists more flexibility than the woodcut for rendering these fantastic spectacles.

This exhibition presents technical manuals and festival books drawn from the Special Collections of the National Gallery of Art Library, which describe and depict an array of techniques and strategies. Representing many different times and places, they show how the technology and artistry of fireworks displays and the methods for recording them evolved in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, as rulers projected their power and prestige through pyrotechnic delights.

Special note: This exhibition is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. It is not open on weekends.

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