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Louis Jean Desprez & Francesco Piranesi

(1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm and 1756 Rome – 1810 Paris)

Fuoco Artificiale detto la Girandola (The Fireworks above Castel Sant’Angelo). Coloured etching in black, several shades of grey and orange-red. 76.6 x 51 cm. Circa 1783. Wollin 3 II (of III).

This is a depiction of the Girandola, the fireworks display at Castel Sant’Angelo. First staged in 1471, it was regarded for centuries as the most spectacular display of its kind in Europe. Girandola is the term for a great burst of fire triggered by a combination of rockets with flares, golden rain and other pyrotechnical features. The fireworks display was held twice a year at Easter and on 28 June, the eve of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as during the coronation of a new pope. The fantastic spectacle was popular with both Romans and visitors to the city and attracted huge crowds.

The composition shows the display from a slightly raised vantage point on the other side of the River Tiber almost opposite the Ponte Sant’Angelo. An enormous number of spectators have gathered in the street. The better situated among them are following the proceedings from splendid carriages or a cano­pied viewing stand, while others throng in front of the windows of the Palazzo on the left. A dense, chaotic mass of people has also congregated on the Ponte Sant’Angelo itself, some of whom have clambered up onto Bernini’s Baroque statues of angels to get a better view. The upper half of the picture, by contrast, is filled with the blinding light of exploding fireworks, which is in dramatic contrast to the black night-time sky. Demonstrat­ing a keen eye for dramatic staging, the author of the compo­sition, Louis Jean Desprez, has chosen to depict the climax of the event, the impressive finale, in which a spectacular range of fireworks is fired off simultaneously causing a deafening noise. Francesco Piranesi has brilliantly transferred Desprez’ original to the printmaking medium and produced a coloured etching which is a technical masterpiece. The orange-red fire stands out almost like a relief from the surface of the paper, while the yellowish-white paper tone within the ball of fire is highly effective in visual terms. The contrast between the exuberant explosion of the fireworks and the night-time hustle and bustle is depicted in an extremely evocative and enthralling manner. A very fine, nuanced and contrasting impression with the full margins. Minor ageing, otherwise in perfect condition.

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