After watching the extravaganza of the Super Bowl half-time show, ending (of course) in fireworks, my Nerdy History mind naturally wandered off to these paintings by one of my favorite 18th c. painters, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797).
I've shared Wright's marvelously detailed and incisive portraits on the blog before (here, here, and here), but he was also known for his dramatically lit landscapes. He especially liked the contrast between night skies and fire, from a single candle to an erupting volcano. Fireworks, like these, must have been irresistible to him.
But these are no ordinary fireworks. These three paintings show the Girandola at the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome. Girandola - the Italian name derives from the spinning wheels that were part of the firing mechanisms (we'd call them pinwheels today) - were staged annually on Easter Monday and the Feast Day of SS Peter and Paul, and, more rarely, in honor of a new pope. This spectacular display was a must-see for English visitors on the Grand Tour, who wrote home in rhapsodies over what they'd seen: the perfect combination of gaudy explosions against the fabled cityscape of Rome.
This quote from Robert Adam about the Girandola of 1755 is typical:
"[The Girandola] exceeded for beauty, invention and grandeur anything I had ever seen...the grandest part...being thousands of rockets which were sent up one at a time, which spread out like a wheat sheaf in the air, each one of which gives a crack and sends out a dozen burning balls like stars, which fall gently downwards till they die out...."
Joseph Wright expressed his delight in the fireworks in these paintings. He was in Rome in February in 1775, and first viewed the Girandola for the inauguration of Pope Pius VI. He noted the correlation between the fireworks and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in Naples, another popular site for visiting Englishmen, and painted companion pieces of Vesuvius to go with these of the Girandola: "the one the greatest effect of Nature, the other of Art that I suppose can be."
Certainly these paintings convey the brilliance and excitement of the fireworks - you can practically hear the crackles and explosions as the rockets shoot into the night and the hiss of the sparks falling into the river. All that's missing is Katy Perry....
Top left: Firework Display at Castle Sant'Angelo, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1775, Birmingham Museums Trust. Right: The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1775-1776, National Museums, Liverpool. Bottom left: Firework Display at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1779, Hermitage Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.