Claude Ruggieri: Master of Pyrotechnic Brilliance

 Fireworks have accompanied celebrations and celebrations for at least a thousand years. They were first used in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279), and from there knowledge of these explosive demonstrations spread to the Middle East and Europe, where it became very popular among royalty and the upper classes. From weddings to triumphant military victories, fireworks became the hallmark of grand occasions. The first recorded royal fireworks display was reportedly organized by King Henry VII to commemorate his wedding in 1486. In 1685, the coronation presentation of James II was so spectacular that it earned the pyrotechnician a knighthood.

Fireworks and illuminations over Whitehall and the River Thames in honor of King George II of Great Britain on 15 May 1749.

Despite Europe's admiration for fireworks, they paled in comparison to the awe-inspiring displays masterfully mastered by Chinese pyrotechnicians. Lev Izmailov, Peter the Great's ambassador, expressed surprise at China's superiority, declaring, "They make such fireworks that no one in Europe has ever seen."

The French writer Antoine Callot echoed this sentiment in 1818, acknowledging the charm of Chinese pyrotechnic art: "It is certain that the variety of colors which the Chinese have the secret of giving to the flame is the greatest mystery of their fireworks." Similarly, Sir John Barrow, an English geographer, marveled at the artistry of China in 1797, saying, "The variety of colors with which the Chinese have the secret of concealing fire, appears to be the chief merit of their pyrotechnics."

The secret code of Chinese fireworks was first discovered by Claude Ruggieri, a French pyrotechnic technician who came from the famous Ruggieri family of 18th-century pyrotechnic makers. The Ruggieri family consisted of five brothers and were originally from Bologna, Italy. Like many Italian pyrotechnicians of the time, he traveled across Europe showcasing his talents. In Italy, fireworks were closely associated with theatrical productions and were often used as interludes for both religious and secular plays. In 1743, the Ruggieri brothers found themselves in Paris, having to arrange fireworks for their dramatic performances with the Comédie Italien. These displays, known as "spectacle pyrotechnics", feature a series of stationary and rotating fireworks mounted on an iron axis, extending the interval between acts. His repertoire featured an assortment of intriguing transformations and shapes, from pyramids and fountain jets to globes, crosses, polygons and pointed stars.

These pyrotechnic wonders soon became entertainment in their own right, and received stage names such as "Magical Combat," "Garden of Flowers," "The Palace of Fairies," and "The Forges of Vulcan." The brothers also invented new techniques where the fire could jump from static to dynamic pieces in various complex combinations. Ruggieri's Pyrrhic spectacles were so popular among the Parisian elite that it earned the brothers an appointment to perform for the court of Louis XV and the city of Paris.

The Ruggieri family flourished as distinguished pyrotechnic fireworks technicians under the patronage of the royal family. While the elder Ruggieri siblings were under the protection of the court of Louis XV, Gaetano Ruggieri moved to London, where his expertise illuminated the ceremonies of King George II of Great Britain.

In France, Petroni Ruggieri's lineage continued through his sons Michel-Marie and Claude-Fortuné, born in Paris, who continued the family legacy of designing and producing elaborate fireworks for Napoleon I, Louis XVIII and Charles Performed. By the 1890s he oversaw a new fireworks business. The Ruggieri company continues to produce fireworks displays around the world. However, an unfortunate event occurred that eclipsed the company's fortunes and threatened its very existence.

In May 1770, fireworks planned by Petronio Ruggieri to celebrate the wedding of the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ended in a disastrous accident. An explosion sent the crowd into a panic and hundreds were crushed to death as they tried to escape the raining rockets. The official death toll was reported at 133, but many civilians felt that the actual number of casualties was several times higher. In response, the city of Paris reduced its budget for fireworks, cutting off the Ruggieri family's main source of income.

Claude Ruggieri was not born at the time of the disaster, but he was instrumental in restoring his family's fallen honor and prominence. Using chemistry, Claude revolutionized pyrotechnics, creating innovative chemical compositions that filled firework displays with a unique brilliance. Claude Ruggieri's ingenuity sparked a new era of pyrotechnic art that lit up across European skies, cementing the family's enduring legacy and making a significant contribution to the development of modern pyrotechnic displays.

Before Ruggieri, the default color for fireworks was brilliant "white fire". Practitioners sometimes attempt to color their fireworks, usually by adding ingredients of the target color, such as indigo for blue, to achieve the best color. Claude Ruggieri realized the trick of adding metallic salts to create colored flames. In a mixture, Ruggieri took four parts verdigris (copper carbonate), two parts blue vitriol (copper sulphate) and one part sal-ammoniac (ammonium chloride), which he mixed with alcohol, and then dipped cotton thread into the wet paste. . And hung them on the palm tree motif so that the leaves appeared burning green. Sal-ammonia destabilizes metal salts to increase color intensity.

By the early 1800s, Claude Ruggieri had established himself as a master pyrotechnician. He wrote several works, the first of which is Éléments de Pyrotechnique, published in 1801. He dedicated the book to Jean-Antoine Chaptal, author of Éléments de Chimy and a minister in Napoleon's government, whom Claude admired. Chaptal was a proponent of applying science, especially chemistry and mechanics, to artisan skills, and Claude Ruggieri presented himself as exemplary of Chaptal's "new man".

In Éléments de pyrotechnique, Claude summarizes some of the special-effects techniques that were in use in Paris for decades. For example, the illusion of a burning building can be created by strategically placing a small amount of burning rope behind the depicted flames. A more dramatic effect can be achieved through the combustion of Lycopodium powder – derived from the dried spores of the Lycopodium plant – which produces a bright glow when ignited. Claude also spoke about the captivating potential of Bengal Fire, a form of slow-burning firework or flare, capable of creating a dazzling effect on stage. In addition, Claude collaborated with aeronaut André-Jacques Garnerin, combining the principles of "aerial philosophy" with fireworks, ascending fireworks with hot air balloons and launching displays from above.

Pyrotechnics today have perfected the art and improved the precision and intensity of modern displays, but the basic recipe for pyrotechnics remains largely unchanged since Ruggieri's era. In fact, the Ruggieri family is still alive today, their business is still thriving in France, they put on shows that captivate audiences around the world.

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