French Renaissance Paleography


The Netherlands, 1599
Composition de toutes sortes de feux artificiels
Toronto, University of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, MSS 03105


This compilation of instructions on how to make fireworks was a gift of the family of the Canadian historian of science Stillman Drake (1910-1993) to the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto. Drake, renowned for his many publications on Galileo Galilei, led a distinguished career as a professor at the university’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. By the time this manuscript was created, around the year 1600, the Chinese had been making fireworks for some 800 years and Europeans for some 300 years. In France, the development of fireworks was strongly influenced by Italian theatrical directors and pyrotechnicians. Prior to the middle of the seventeenth century, throughout Europe it was often difficult to separate the military use of fireworks (“pour la guerre”) from their peaceful use (“pour la joie”). Information about recreative fireworks often appears in sections inserted into early books on warfare and artillery.

By the end of the sixteenth century fireworks had become associated with many aspects of intellectual and courtly life, including alchemy (the creation of artificial stars and of seemingly animate beings), the liberal arts (via associations with geometry, natural philosophy, and the idea of ingenious invention), and theatrical performance (the development of allegorical content for displays). The texts included in the Drake manuscript are addressed to would-be gunners who wish to make recreative fireworks (“artifices de joieuseté, et de plaisir”), or simply learned readers who want to understand how pyrotechnics are made.

The manuscript opens with a short treatise in French and continues with a longer treatise in Dutch, which includes numerous drawings in the margins. This is followed by a compilation (in French again) of information drawn from a half-dozen different texts, whose authors are identified by initials in the margins and, in a few instances, chapter numbers. Finally, the anthology concludes with a short printed set of instructions in Dutch. Once a complete transcription of the manuscript has been produced, the texts and drawings might be profitably compared with Schorndorff Schmidlap’s Künstliche und rechtschaffene fewerwerick zum schimpff (Nuremberg, 1560), the first German work on fireworks and earliest published work devoted to fireworks for entertainment, which was reprinted several times and translated into Dutch in the seventeenth century.

The scribe who prepared the manuscript tends to flourishes, which, for instance, sometimes make words look like they are plural, with an S, when in fact they are not. A catchword is included at the bottom of each recto page, to ensure that the leaves of the compilation would be kept in the correct order.

-Carla Zecher


-Béhar, Pierre and Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, eds. Spectaculum europaeum: Theatre and Spectacle in Europe / Histoire du spectacle en Europe 1580-1750. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999. -Philip, Chris. A Bibliography of Firework Books: Works on Recreative Fireworks from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. Winchester: C. Philip, in association with St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1985. -Werrett, Simon. Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.