The “Girandola” at the Castel Sant'Angelo

ROME. FESTIVALS. Brambilla, Ambrogio, artist (active 1579-99); Van Schoel, Hendrick, publisher (ca. 1565-1622)


Rome: Hendrick van Schoel, printed between 1614 and 1622


Single sheet etching. Dimensions: 375 x 488 mm. (plate), 416 x 545 mm. (sheet.)

THIRD STATE of “probably the earliest print of the Girandola”.

Single sheet etching by Ambrogio Brambilla (active 1579-99), after his own drawing. Signed and dated in the plate "Io. Ambr. Bram. Inv et fe. 1579". On laid paper with a watermark of an anchor in a circle with a star. The print was first published by Claudio Duchetti, whose name still appears at the foot of the plate. The second state bore the address of Giovanni Orlandi, which in this state has been abraded and replaced by that of Van Schoel. Light central crease where once folded. Early paper guard on verso.

Claudio Duchetti died in 1585; his heir Giacomo Gherardi continued to run the firm until the end of the 16th century, at which point the plates were sold to Giovanni Orlandi, who issued new impressions (almost all with the date 1602) up to 1614, at which point he sold the plates to Hendrick Van Schoel and moved to Naples. Van Schoel issued reimpressions until his death in 1622.

A fine copy of this marvelous print showing the spectacular fireworks display (la girandola) at Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo in 1579 on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul during the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572-1585). The scene is shown from a vantage point of an onlooker in what is now the Tor di Nona neighborhood on the near side of the Ponte Sant’Angelo.

From the fifteenth well into the nineteenth century, the Girandola at the Castel Sant'Angelo was Rome's most famous fireworks display. Two elements make it immediately recognizable: the massive cylinder of the castle and the explosion of rockets. The first documented exhibition of fireworks in Rome took place in 1410, but it was only in 1471, at the coronation of Sixtus IV, that fireworks began to be set off at the Castel Sant'Angelo, the fortress-like structure originally built as Hadrian's mausoleum.

The earliest published description of the Girandola was in 1540, in Vannoccio Biringuccio's Pirotechnia: "They make use of the whole castle, which is indeed a very pleasing shape.... They shoot many rockets that are a palmo [about nine inches] long and hold three to four ounces of powder each. These are constructed so that after they have moved upward with a long tail and seem to be finished they burst and each one sends forth anew six or eight rockets. Fire tubes are also made and small girandolas, flames, and lights, and even the coat of arms of the pope is composed in fire."

The etching by Brambilla, probably the earliest print of the Girandola, has an inscription describing the order of events, as enthusiastic as it is lengthy. It reports that "all the windows, bell towers, and balconies of the city are illuminated." At a sign from the papal palace the Girandola begins with mortars and artillery "such that the whole city trembles"; when the rockets are unleashed, "it seems as if the sky has opened, and that all the stars are falling to earth, a truly stupendous thing and most marvelous to see."…

This extraordinary sight was recreated every year at Easter and on June 28, the eve of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as for the election and coronation of a new pope. The Girandola remained a high point on the itinerary of visitors to Rome until the late 1800s, when it was feared that continuing the explosions could do irreparable damage to the fabric of the building. Many nineteenth-century English writers described it. Charles Dickens, in 1845, wrote not only of the spectacle but also of the aftermath: "The show began with a tremendous discharge of cannon; and then, for twenty minutes, or half an hour, the whole castle was one incessant sheet of fire, and labyrinth of blazing wheels of every color, size, and speed.... In half an hour afterwards, the immense concourse had dispersed; the moon was looking calmly down upon her wrinkled image in the river, and half a dozen men and boys, with bits of lighted candle in their hands, moving here and there, in search of anything worth having, that might have been dropped in the press, had the whole scene to themselves."(Suzanne Boorsch: Fireworks! Four Centuries of Pyrotechnics in Prints and Drawings, New York, Metropolitan Museum, 2000, exhibition cat., p 38-39)

The “Mirror of Roman Magnificence”

Although Duchetti published his “girandola” as a stand-alone print, it was also a new contribution to the organic, open-ended, decades-long project of producing souvenir prints of Roman subjects, which had first crystalized with the association made between two foreign-born publishers operating in Rome, Antonio Salamanca and Antonio Lafrèry.

During their Roman publishing career, Lafrèry and Salamanca - who worked together between 1553 and 1563 – produced a high number of engravings depicting Roman architecture (ancient and modern), statuary, inscriptions, views, and Roman ceremonies. The prints could be purchased individually by tourists and collectors, but were also bought in larger groups that were often brought together in bespoke albums. Sometime between 1573 and 1577, Lafrèry commissioned a title page for the series, with the title "Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae"(The “Mirror of Roman Magnificence”).

When Lafrery died in 1577, two thirds of his existing copper plates went to the Duchetti family (his son-in-law Stefano and Stefano’s son, Claudio). The rest of the plates were distributed among other publishers. The Duchetti appear to have standardized production, offering a more or less uniform version of the Speculum to their clients. The popularity of the prints also inspired other publishers in Rome to make copies however, and to add new prints to the corpus. When Claudio Duchetti died in 1585, the firm continued under his heir Giacomo Gherardi, who continued to run the firm until the end of the 16th century. The plates were subsequently used by various publishers, including Giovanni Orlandi and the Flemmings Nicolas van Aelst and Hendrik van Schoel.

Huelsen 127. Suzanne Boorsch: Fireworks! Four Centuries of Pyrotechnics in Prints and Drawings, exh. cat., New York, Metr.Mus., 2000