In early modern Europe (1500–1800), festivals enlivened civic spaces with a frequency, scale, and magnificence unrecognizable to us today. Festivals marked ritual moments, praised political agendas, and provided public entertainment. Europe’s papal court, sovereign powers, civic governments, and high aristocracy sponsored festivals for all sorts of occasions, staging joyous entry processions when foreign dignitaries entered a city, celebrating coronations, marriages, royal births, and funerals, and honoring saint’s days and carnival season.
Well-funded by the ruling classes, festivals mobilized all of the artists in cities such as Rome, Antwerp, and Paris, providing them with steady work and a large audience. These artists collaborated on architectural displays and decorations that were largely ephemeral. As festival culture reached its zenith in the 18th century, sustained by the centralized power of absolutist regimes, each monarch employed his or her own precision team of artists, architects, theater designers, and pyrotechnicians to produce ever more extraordinary and astonishing spectacles.
The books on view in these galleries were made to accompany festivals. Such books ensured that the grandeur and significance of ephemeral festivals extended beyond their immediate moment and locality. Expensive to produce, festival books were given by the sponsor to advantageous connections at foreign European courts and city governments or purchased for private libraries by wealthy collectors. The experience of paging through such weighty volumes and opening their large, fold-out plates was interactive and immersive, an event enjoyed in groups while reading aloud. Single-leaf festival prints, also on view, were made more quickly to document important political events. Both provided sought-after information, with their visual and textual inventories of every firework and piece of velvet clothing, and enumeration of every structure, its size, and materials. The products of unified, collective effort, the splendid works in these galleries represent European cities at the pinnacle of collaborative artistic production.
The Festive City is part of 2013, Year of Italian Culture in the United States.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity of Vincent J. Buonanno, Patrick and Elsie Wilmerding, and the Brown University Library.