Friday, June 28, 2013

The Theatre of Gunpowder

"They in the fort shoting agayn and casting out divers fyers,
terrible to those that have not bene in like experiences
...and in dede straunge to them
that understood it not; for the wildfyre
falling into the ryver Aven, wold for a tyme lye still,
and then agayn rise and flye abrode,
casting furth many flashes and flambes,
whereat the Quene’s Majesty took great pleasure."

['The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth..' 1823 by J Nichols] {pic}

"That the electric "spark of life" figured prominently in debates over the nature of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is well known. Less well known is the fact that prior to this period, gunpowder was often identified with the substances that were necessary to life, if not as a vitalistic spirit, then as an essential element in the animation of the body. The idea of a spark of life went back to ancient times, likening living beings to the glowing embers of a fire. In the Old Testament, for example, the wise woman of Tekoah begs for the life of her son, pleading "they will stamp out my last live ember." But from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, this vital flame was often equated with gunpowder. There was fire in the blood: not electric, but pyrotechnic fire."
['Sparks of Life' by Simon Werrett* IN: Cabinet Magazine Issue 32 Winter 2008/09]

The images below come from an enormous hand-painted and hand-written gunsmithing and fireworks manuscript by Friedrich Meyer from 1594. 'Büchsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch' is owned and hosted by BSB. It is one of the most comprehensive Early Modern tomes that I've seen on the broad subject of fireworks, encompassing as it does, in text and picture, the many facets of production and deployment of gunpowder and the pyrotechnical arts. The lack of web citations to this manuscript is presumably due to it's being a secondary compilation based on earlier works. There are two single full-page views below; the rest are mostly 2 or 4 pages spliced into single images, together with a couple of cropped miniatures. Background spots and staining have been mildly reduced.

Feuerwerksbuch 289

Feuerwerksbuch 8, 21, 24 + 32

Feuerwerksbuch 53, 82, 96 + 125

Feuerwerksbuch 91 + 95

Feuerwerksbuch 111 + 139

Feuerwerksbuch 250

Feuerwerksbuch 291

"The origins of fireworks lay in China, but European fireworks followed a distinctive development after their introduction from the east in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Early European fireworks were used for war, with rockets, bombs, fire tubes, and grenades being hurled against enemies through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

There were also peaceful fireworks, adding drama to church plays and festivals with squibs attached to flying angels or pyrotechnics made to represent the fiery mouth of Hell.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the fireworks of the battlefield and the church slowly merged into peaceful displays of military pyrotechnics, first in religious plays for the courts, and then in secular triumphs and performances based on classical allegories. By the close of the sixteenth century, many European courts employed gunner artificers to stage grand fireworks marking royal occasions, military victories, and the new year."
[by Simon Werrett (& others), from Werrett's essay, 'Watching the Fireworks' IN: Science in Context 24(2), 167–182 (2011), Cambridge University Press]

Feuerwerksbuch 389 + 410

Feuerwerksbuch 512 + 514

Feuerwerksbuch 448 + 483

Feuerwerksbuch 253 + 465

Feuerwerksbuch 486 + 490

Feuerwerksbuch 492 + 497

Feuerwerksbuch 376

Feuerwerksbuch 246 + 384

Feuerwerksbuch 605 + 609

Feuerwerksbuch 276 + 277

Feuerwerksbuch 173 + 175

Feuerwerksbuch 146 + 150

Feuerwerksbuch 299 + 305

Feuerwerksbuch 585 + 597

Feuerwerksbuch 538-539

Feuerwerksbuch 565 + 573

Feuerwerksbuch 563 + 571

Feuerwerksbuch 293 + 295

Feuerwerksbuch 617 + 633

"Fireworks of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries [.] amounted to a form of artificial nature, showing suns, stars, comets, fiery exhalations, snow, rain, thunder and lightning. These effects were considered extremely powerful and deeply impressed the princely patrons and courtiers who used them as tools of political distinction. This distinction hinged on knowledge or experience of pyrotechnics. The gentleman or courtier was expected to be virtuous, partly by the habit of reading, and numerous new books on fireworks were published in the sixteenth century to offer instruction in the creation of pyrotechnic effects. Those who understood or had familiarity with fireworks then experienced them as pleasing diversions, while those who did not were imagined to be terrified as if by natural portents."
[Simon Werrett's essay, 'Watching the Fireworks' IN: Science in Context 24(2), 167–182 (2011), Cambridge University Press]

I've always enjoyed the whole genre of gunpowder and pyrotechnics books and manuscripts from the Renaissance and Early Modern eras - see combat posts for previous related - despite my general ignorance for how the concepts of fireworks spectacle and artifice operated in the world hundreds of years ago. The illustrations are always colourful and attractive and make for good posting fodder on basic terms, of course. I mean, I had some inkling that fireworks way back then were fairly different, but I wasn't particularly aware of the breadth or meaning of their application nor (especially) how they were regarded by people.

Many reference commentaries on the early fireworks publications have tended towards narrow approaches: the chemistry, the manufacturers, various histories, the people involved etc. So the lack of references surrounding Meyer's manuscript featured above quickly (fortuitously) pointed me towards a few recent publications by historian Dr Simon Werrett. I don't pretend I've just become enlightened or even much smarter, but Werrett (and at least one other that he references, and no doubt a few others) considers the subject matter through a wider lens, involving social history, philosophy, physiology, alchemy, magic, religion and metaphorical systems (among other considerations no doubt), giving this esoteric material a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation. Hence, the Werrett-derived quotes dominating above.


Ray Girvan said...

Very interesting. MetaFilter just had a modern analogue: Bang Bang, a link to Sabine Pearlman's cross-section photos of ammunition.

peacay said...

Hi Ray and thanks for the link. Long time no speaky! I hope and trust all is well mate.

Gregory said...

Fascinating, and very artful. It never ceases to amaze me, the quality of technical art in the Renaissance and Age of Reason.

I, too, have always been fascinated by gunpowder and fireworks. It still seems magical, somehow.

Suezan said...

peacay - WOW - my guy will love this! Is it available for download like the antique "German Horse Bit" book? AND How did you come to find this great art work?
Thanx, Suezan

peacay said...

Suezan, you see the links at the end of the post (the first word is Büchsenmeister..? Well, THAT first link takes you to the 600+ pages of book scans at the hosting site (BSB). I can't strictly comment about downloading - that's a matter for you & your guy to work out & depends on licensing terms at BSB and intended use etc.
I have been doing this bloggy thing for 8 years. I am reasonably plugged into what book/print culture is available online, including following feeds of great libraries and universities, so I have 'pot-luck' glances at some of the material that streams past my screen, et voila! I regularly find visual materia obscura that seems appropriate for BibliOdyssey.

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