FIREWORK DISPLAYS, FIREWORK DRAMAS AND ILLUMINATIONS - PRECURSORS OF CINEMA?

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  • German Life and Letters 48:3 July 1995 001%3777

    FIREWORK DISPLAYS, FIREWORK DRAMAS AND ILLUMINATIONS - PRECURSORS OF CINEMA?

    HELEN WATANABE-OKELLY

    However one defines cinema, its ability to create a moving image by means of light and colour, its capacity for dramatic presentation and the typical experience of the audience in which a large number of people congregate in the dark and look up at a magnified image glowing in front of and above them must emerge as important characteristics. Since all these features are to be found in the firework display in the the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they have as much claim to be cited as forerunners of cinema as the mechanical devices of the early nineteenth century more frequently mentioned. This contention is illustrated in what follows by means of German examples.

    1. Fireworks

    Fireworks are explosives let off from a fixed position to create light and sound effects for purposes of entertainment. They have their origin in military explosives and throughout the early modern period were designed and operated by gunners and artillery specialists using the same technical expertise and the same materials. The technical treatises on fireworks underline this connection, for, with the exception of Johann Schmidlaps pyrotechnic manual of 1560 which is devoted entirely to fireworks, instruc- tions as to the manufacture, design and letting off of fireworks throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are to be found in works on artillery and explosives. Typical examples are Leonhart Fronspergers Von Geschiitz und Fewemerck of 1557, Joseph Furttenbachs Halinitro-Pyrobolia of 1627 and Caspar Simienowiczs Artis magnae artilleriae pars prima ( 1650), translated into German by Daniel Elrich in 1676 as Geschiitz-Feuemerck- und Biichsenmeisterey- Kunst.

    The first firework display in the Empire of which we have actual records took place in Nurernberg at the Carnival procession, the so-called Schem- bartlaufen, as early as 1493 and continued to form part of these celebrations until they were forbidden in 1539. Fireworks were also let off in Nuremberg for many occasions of public rejoicing - the visits of the Emperor Charles V in 1535 and 1541, his victory over the Turks at Tunis in 1535, the planned visit of Philip I1 of Spain in 1550 and the visit of Emperor Maximilian I1 in 1570. Augsburg let off fireworks to mark the election of Charles V as Emperor in 1519 and the coronation of Emperor Ferdinand I in 1559. Frankfurt staged a firework display in honour of the same coronation in 1558, the year it actually took place, as it did for the election of Maximilian I1 in 1562 and the coronation of Matthias I in 1612. 0 Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1995. Published b Blackwell Publishers. 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 IJF. UK and 238 Main Street. Cambridge. MA M142, GSA.

  • FIREWORKS AND ILLUMINATIONS - PRECURSORS OF CINEMA? 339

    In the second half of the century we see the firework display becoming more and more important within the framework of court festivals. The weddings of Hedwig of Brandenburg and Julius of Braunschweig in Berlin in 1560, of Wilhelm of Bavaria and Renata of Lorraine in Munich in 1568, of Archduke Charles of Austria and Maria of Bavaria in 1571, of Christian of Saxony and Sophie of Brandenburg in Dresden in 1582, of Johann Wilhelm of Jiilich, Cleve and Berg and Jacoba of Baden in Diisseldorf in 1585, of Johann Friedrich of Wiirttemberg and Barbara Sophia of Branden- burg in Stuttgart in 1609 and of Frederick of the Palatinate and Elizabeth of England in Heidelberg in 1613 were all celebrated with firework displays. A princely christening was another of the occasions on which fireworks were almost invariably let off. Examples are the christenings of Christian of Brandenburg in Berlin in 1581, of Sophie of Saxony in Dresden in 1587, of Johann Georg of Brandenburg in Co11n on the Spree in 1592, of Elisabeth and Moritz of Hessen-Kassel in Kassel in 1596 and 1600 respectively and of Friedrich of Wiirttemberg in Stuttgart in 1616 (Fig. 1). This is not to say that the towns ceased to organise firework displays. Nuremberg, Augsburg, Frankfurt am Main, Konigsberg, Breslau, Danzig, Hamburg, Bremen and other towns put on firework displays on occasion to honour a visiting prince, commemorate some important happening or mark an event in the imperial or local princely family. Simienowicz lists the occasions on which fireworks are to be let off: investitures, coronations and ceremonies of allegiance to popes, emperors, kings, princes and high military or municipal officials, victories and military triumphs, saints feast days and canonis- ations, weddings, banquets and other rejoicings among friends ( 1676, p.195).

    Up to the end of the seventeenth century, firework displays still bear the mark of their military origins by including a combat on land or sea. The focus of the combat is usually a castle or fortress, made of wood and painted cloth, which is besieged, bombarded, taken and finally blown up in the firework display. Often the fortress is set in or near the water, so that the attack can be mounted from the sea as well as from the land. The firework combat in Graz for the homecoming of Charles of Austria and Maria of Bavaria after their wedding in Vienna in 1571 simulates the sea round the fortress by means of blue cloth, through which the oarsmen propel the boats by walking (invisibly), while their oars flash with fireworks. The fortress often represents an enemy such as the Turks, as in Bratislava in 1563, in Graz in 1571 and in Halle in 1616. We still find the fortress being used as the centre-piece of the firework display in Dresden in 1637, in Nuremberg and Dresden in 1650, in Bremen in 1668 and in Dresden in 1709. Tournaments were also often combined with fireworks, for instance in the wedding celebrations in Diisseldorf in 1585 where there was jousting with lances containing fireworks, the tilt barrier exploded, the foot tourna- ment was brought to an end by the very earth bursting into flames on both sides of the barrier and a tournament on hobby horses was held by night, culminating in the explosion of fireworks out of the mouth, nose and

    0 BlacheU Publishers Ltd 1995.

  • 340 FIREWORKS AND ILLUMINATIONS - PRECURSORS OF CINEMA?

    from under the tail of the horses and in the bursting into flames of a huge globe (Fig. 2). Here the military aspect of the firework display contains a considerable admixture of pure entertainment.

    But the manuals also give detailed instructions on how to construct and explode fireworks solely for entertainment. There are technical descriptions of every kind of rocket, Catherine wheel, squib, fire cracker and Roman candle and instructions on how to make such objects as shields, spears, fountains, dragons and statues give off sparks and light. These figures could also be illuminated from within, fireworks could be set off from a distance by means of fuses, and letters of fire could be made to glow in the sky, for instance the initials of a bridal couple, the name of a prince, a word or a motto. The exploding sparks, puffs of smoke, bangs, flames, glowing and fading letters and other representations could all be said to constitute moving images.

    In addition, however, firework manuals also show how to make figures move by means of rocket propulsion - the so-called Schnurfeuerwerk. This technique enabled the firework designer to send a fiery dragon hissing across the sky or float an angel or dove of peace over the onlookers (Fig. 3). We see how this might have looked in action in a description of the fireworks held in Danzig in 1646 in honour of the visit of Ludovica Maria Gonzaga on her way to Warsaw to marry Vladislav IV, king of Poland and Sweden. The display began with two eagles, one black, one white, which flew towards one another from different buildings at opposite sides of the square before landing in a tree on a stage in the middle.

    2. The Firework Display as Drama

    At this point it becomes clear that the firework display was capable of providing a dramatic andlor narrative content. The wedding celebrations held in Diisseldorf in 1585, just mentioned, already illustrate the tendency for firework displays to employ a dramatic framework. There were, for instance, three different types of sea combat held on the Rhine in the middle of the city, each on a different evening. On the first evening a fully- rigged sailing ship bombarded the city from the water and was attacked and blown up in its turn. On the second, Hercules vanquished the many- headed Hydra, and a boarding party stormed and destroyed the floating fortress of Hell. On the third there was a battle between a whale and a sea monster. Each of these combats was framed by a plot or story-line which the festival account explained.

    This tendency towards dramatic presentation becomes more and more marked in the course of the seventeenth century. An example is the firework display staged in Stuttgart in 1605 as part of the celebrations to commemor- ate James 1s conferring of the Order of the Garter on Friedrich of Wiirttem- berg in 1603. The significance for the German Protestant cause of this mark of favour towards one of its main adherents is heavily emphasised in the entire festival, but the firework display really hammers the sectarian 0 Blackwell Publishen Lld 1995.

  • FIREWORKS AND ILLUMINATIONS - PRECURSORS OF CINEMA? 341

    message home. As a finale it presents a monastery on a wheel of fortune. A monk and a Jesuit, holding the monastery at either side, each tries to pull it towards himself, As they cling to it, the wheel of fortune turns. Each contestant is holding a Bible, which shoots fireworks at the opponent, the monastery bursts into flames and the monk and the Jesuit are incinerated with it. It is a nun who has set this