Claude Ruggieri: Master of Pyrotechnic Brilliance

Mar 27, 2024 0 comments

Fireworks have accompanied celebrations and festivities for at least a thousand years. They were first used in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279), and from there the knowledge of these explosive displays spread to the Middle East and Europe, where it became very popular among the royalty and the upper classes. Fireworks became a hallmark of grand occasions, from weddings to triumphant military victories. The first recorded royal fireworks display was reportedly organized by King Henry VII to commemorate his wedding in 1486. In 1685, James II's coronation presentation was so spectacular that it earned the pyrotechnician a knighthood.

Fireworks and illuminations in Whitehall and on the River Thames, for King George II of Great Britain, May 15, 1749.

Despite Europe's admiration for fireworks, they paled in comparison to the awe-inspiring showcases mastered by Chinese pyrotechnicians. Lev Izmailov, ambassador to Peter the Great, marveled at China's superiority, declaring, “They make such fireworks that no one in Europe has ever seen.”

French author Antoine Caillot, in 1818, echoed this sentiment, acknowledging the allure of Chinese pyrotechnics: “It is certain that the variety of colours which the Chinese have the secret of giving to flame is the greatest mystery of their fireworks.” Similarly, Sir John Barrow, an English geographer, marveled at China's artistry, noting in 1797, "The diversity of colours indeed with which the Chinese have the secret of cloathing fire seems to be the chief merit of their pyrotechny.”

The secret code of Chinese fireworks was first cracked by Claude Ruggieri, a French pyrotechnician who came from the renowned Ruggieri family of pyrotechnicians of the 18th century. The Ruggieri family consisted of five brothers and were originally from Bologna, Italy. Like many Italian pyrotechnicians of the time, they travelled around Europe showcasing their talents. In Italy, fireworks were closely connected to theatrical productions and were often used as intermezzi to both religious and secular dramas. In 1743, the Ruggieri brothers found themselves in Paris, accompanying the Comédie Italienne to furnish fireworks for their theatrical spectacles. These displays, known as "spectacles pyriques," graced the intervals between acts, showcasing an array of fixed and rotating fireworks mounted on iron axles. Their repertoire boasted an assortment of breathtaking transformations and shapes, ranging from pyramids and fountain jets to globes, crosses, polygons, and pointed stars.

A firework display, possibly given by Napoleon III on Queen Victoria's 1855 visit to Paris. Painting by British illustrator Ebenezer Landells.

These pyrotechnic marvels soon became entertainments in their own right, acquiring stage names like “Magical Combat,” “Gardens of Flowers,” “The Palace of Fairies,” and “The Forges of Vulcan.” The brothers also innovated new techniques where fire could jump from fixed to moving pieces in a variety of complex combinations. The Ruggieri’s spectacles pyriques were such a hit with the Parisian nobility that it earned the brothers an appointment with Louis XV making displays for the court and the city of Paris.

The Ruggieri family flourished as esteemed fireworks pyrotechnicians under the patronage of royalty. While the elder Ruggieri siblings basked in the patronage of Louis XV's court, Gaetano Ruggieri ventured to London, where his expertise illuminated the celebrations of King George II of Great Britain.

In France, the lineage of Petroni Ruggieri endured through his sons Michel-Marie and Claude-Fortuné, both born in Paris, who continued the family legacy designing and exploded elaborate fireworks displays for Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, and Charles X. Their sons in turn oversaw a new fireworks business until the 1890s. The Ruggieri company continues to thrive performing firework displays around the world. However, there was one unfortunate incident that cast a shadow over the company's future and threatened its very survival.

In May 1770, a fireworks planned by Petronio Ruggieri to celebrate the marriage of the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ended in a disastrous accident. An explosion caused the crowd to panic, and in the ensuing rush to escape the raining rockets, hundreds of people were trampled to death. The official government death toll was listed as 133, but many citizens felt that the true number of casualties was many times more. In response, the City of Paris slashed its budget for fireworks, cutting off the Ruggieri family's main source of income.

The disastrous fireworks at Louis XV Square on May 30, 1770, on the occasion of the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Claude Ruggieri wasn’t born at the time of the catastrophe, but he became instrumental in restoring his family's fallen honor and prominence. Using chemistry, Claude revolutionized pyrotechnics, forging novel chemical compositions that imbued fireworks displays with an unparalleled brilliance. Claude Ruggieri's ingenuity birthed a new era of pyrotechnic artistry that lit across European skies, solidifying the family’s enduring legacy and crucial contribution in the development of modern fireworks displays.

Before Ruggieri, the default color for fireworks was a brilliant "white fire". Practitioners sometimes attempted to color their fireworks, generally by adding materials of the target color, such as indigo for blue, achieving at best a faint coloration. Claude Ruggieri realized the trick lied in adding metallic salts to create colored flames. In one concoction, Ruggieri took four parts of verdigris (copper carbonate), two parts blue vitriol (copper sulphate) and one part sal-ammoniac (ammonium chloride), which he mixed together with alcohol, and then dipped cotton threads into the wet paste and hung them on the figure of a palm tree to make the leaves appear to burn green. The sal-ammoniac volatilized the metal salts to increase the intensity of the color.

By the early 1800s, Claude Ruggieri had established himself as a master pyrotechnician. He wrote a number of works, the first being Elémens De Pyrotechnie, which was published in 1801. He dedicated this book to Jean-Antoine Chaptal, the author of Elémens De Chimie, and a minister in Napoleon's government, whom Claude admired. Chaptal was a proponent in the application of the sciences, especially chemistry and mechanics, to artisanal skills, and Claude Ruggieri presented himself as an exemplary of Chaptal’s “new man”.

In Elémens De Pyrotechnie, Claude summarizes some of the special-effect techniques that had been in use in Paris for decades. For instance, the illusion of a burning building could be crafted by strategically placing small amounts of burning tow behind painted flames. More dramatic effects could be achieved through the combustion of lycopodium powder—derived from the dried spores of the lycopodium plant—which produces a bright flash when ignited. Claude also explains the captivating potential of Bengal Fire, a form of slow-burning firework or flare, capable of producing dazzling effects on stage. Furthermore, Claude collaborated with aeronaut André-Jacques Garnerin, intertwining the principles of "aerial philosophy" with fireworks, ascending fireworks with hot air balloons and them launching displays from above.

Pyrotechnicians today have honed the art and improved the precision and intensity of modern displays, but the fundamental recipe for fireworks remains largely unchanged since Ruggieri's era. Indeed, the Ruggieri family endures to this day, with their business still thriving in France, orchestrating shows that captivate audiences worldwide.

# Pamela H. Smith, Benjamin Schmidt, Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe
# Sky Flowers: The Explosive and Deadly History of Fireworks, Gizmodo


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