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Vatican fireworks: A 500-year-old tradition for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

According to the MET, the Vatican held the fireworks show each year in celebration of Easter, the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, and whenever a new pope was elected.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has in its collection this 17th-century sketch of the fireworks display by Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi. Credit: Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who gave us the fountains in Piazza Navona, the baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, and the sculpture of St. Teresa in Ecstasy, also designed fireworks in his spare time.

“A producer of plays amid his many other activities, Bernini loved the movement that fire, water, light, and air could bring to art,” Lev said.

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Bernini designed fireworks in 1641 inspired by the eruption of the Stromboli volcano off the north coast of Sicily, indicating the number of rockets and colors that would achieve the best effect, she explained.

Sketch of the Girandola fireworks over Castel Sant’Angelo by Adrien Manglard c. 1750-1752. Credit: Adrien Manglard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“With his fiery personality and passionate love for dramatic effects, it would be safe to say that the Girandola was made for Bernini and Bernini was made for the Girnadola,” Lev added.

Charles Dickens later witnessed the Vatican fireworks show during his 1844–45 visit to Italy in which he stayed in Rome during Holy Week.

Dickens described the “great display of fireworks from Castle of St. Angelo” in his 1846 book “Pictures from Italy.”

“The show began with a tremendous discharge of cannon; and then, for 20 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: while rockets streamed into the sky, not by ones or twos, or scores, but hundreds at a time,” he wrote.

“The concluding burst — the Girandola — was like the blowing up into the air of the whole massive castle, without smoke or dust,” Dickens said.

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The seventh edition of the Pinwheel of Castel Sant’Angelo on the occasion of the celebration of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron of the city of Rome. Credit: Salvatore Micillo/Shutterstock

The Roman tradition continued through the end of the 19th century, when it was decided to suspend it due to extensive damage done to the historic rooms within Castel Sant’Angelo. However, the fireworks show was revived in 2008 and now lights up the Eternal City each year as it celebrates its patron saints.

The firework show will take place this year at 9:30 p.m. on June 29 and will last about 20 minutes to conclude a day of festivities, prayers, and processions in Rome.

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