In 1668, Versailles anticipated fireworks. Although Louis XIV had ordered preparations to be made in secret, word had spread and ‘tout le monde’ knew that something was about to happen. The court chronicler André Félibien described events on the night, when Louis’s courtiers were led into a horseshoe-shaped arena. His account continues, ‘…as everyone was looking for the place where the fireworks were to appear, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by them, appearing not only in the bowls of the fountains but also in the wide avenues around the parterre; and on all sides thousands of flames emerged from the ground…This surprise caused a pleasurable disorder amongst the court, who not knowing where to withdraw, hid in the shrubbery and threw themselves against the ground’.
Thankfully, no fireworks were used to ambush participants in the Transformations workshop in June 2014. Quite the contrary: we were in the safe hands of pyrotechnician Matthew Tosh, who warned us about the bright, white flashes of light; loud, screeching noises and sometimes unpleasant smells produced during his demonstrations of pyrotechnical effects. And yet, even in this carefully regulated environment, with fair warning, my fingers in my ears and a layer of Plexiglas, I still felt somewhat ambivalent about fireworks. Although by no means the surreally unsettled mood of Félibien’s narrative, something, however diluted, of his ‘pleasurable disorder’ remains. Here, after all, are devices that produce real explosions and, as occasional grisly news stories attest, can have devastating effects.
Matthew’s insights into the practicalities of his job testified to the extent to which successfully realising fireworks displays involves balancing calculated risks with choreographing effective experiential design. I was struck by the notion that the only person not permitted to get excited about the fireworks during the display is the pyrotechnician, or, indeed, the unpopularity of rockets with professionals as, with their long staves, they have the potential to get blown off course; a potential hazard and, during competitions, the difference between a virtuoso display and second place. After participating in the workshop, I am even more in awe of the skill of the pyrotechnician, his or her adept combinations of colour, light, sound, smell and scale, all enhanced by the deliberate use of location and environment.
As an historian of design, my research excavates social and political meanings from the materiality of early modern festivals. In this instance we might ask: who was responsible for making fireworks? How and where were they deployed? How were they regulated and what were the implications of their misuse? How, indeed, did fireworks mean for early moderns? Here, the relationship between military and display explosives feels particularly useful. In London in the late seventeenth century, for example, most major fireworks displays were the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance, the same government office that coordinated supplies for the army and navy. In this context, it does not seem inconceivable that fireworks, as well as being a source of awe and wonder, could be construed as demonstrations of the resources at the disposal of the state.
That fireworks were a strategy for representing power is redolent, too, in Félibien’s spin on events in Versailles in 1668. Although official records of festivals are notoriously tricky documents – produced before performances or intended to enhance occasions, often at the cost of verisimilitude – the deployment of the fireworks on this occasion was intended to say something about Louis’s royal power: a message that still reads loud and clear.