The figures employed in portraying these legends were usually of heroic size, sometimes gigantic. They were fashioned of plaster, covering a wooden frame which was afterward removed. There was provided, also, a high platform to serve as pedestal for each figure. These platforms were mounted on wheels, so that their positions could be shifted by means of ropes and pulleys, to suit the action of the story. In addition, the scene was embellished by a system of pipes, arranged for the purpose of throwing forth either balls of colored fire, or streams of flame. The figures themselves were so equipped that fire might issue from mouth or eyes or nostrils, and that the blades of swords, spears, battle-axes, or other weapons, which were brandished, might be of living flame. Especially imposing fiery pageants were characteristic in celebration of the Feast of the Assumption, and, too, that in honor of St. John. These were conspicuous during a period of a full century or more.
Then, gradually, for some reason not wholly clear, the Italian enthusiasm for this species of religious entertainment waned. It finally died out altogether. There remained, nevertheless, a degree of devotion to fireworks as a spectacular method of entertainment, and elaborate displays continued to be given on the occasion of various state festivities. These were particularly prominent as a part of the popular rejoicings over the election of a Pope, and again at the time of his coronation.
But, while Italy tended toward abandonment of the art, a new impulse drove it to increased activity in the more northern nations, in Germany, and more especially in France and England.
In these two countries, the fifteenth century witnessed a remarkable growth of pyrotechny for scenic effects, and this activity continued and increased during the centuries that followed.
It is interesting to note that the Eve of St. John was celebrated with ornate splendor of fire in the British Isles, and in France as well, just as it had been in Italy. But these celebrations in the northern countries were continued long after the passing of the Italian. Indeed, this festival, as distinguished by fire display, still shows some traces of survival to-day in the more remote portions of the British Isles.
The coming of gunpowder brought in its train a considerable interest as to the composition and operation of various combustible substances. The ordnance department of the Government of Great Britain, for example, early took over the active work in pyrotechny. Experiments were made in the manufacture of fireworks, and the successful results of these were offered to the public by the Government on various occasions for general rejoicing. Under the new auspices, displays of fireworks served for secular, rather than religious, festivities. Both in France and in England, pyrotechnic productions enjoyed the approval of the court as well as of the people. They were made a prominent part in many of the masques and in the presentation of historical panoramas. On the occasion of a royal marriage, the gaiety of the people was enhanced by the setting off of fireworks in great quantities. The formal pieces arranged for such productions were often most elaborate. National legends were drawn on to afford material that might be effectively interpreted in terms of fire. The artisans displayed remarkable cunning in contriving means to heighten the illusions. The arts of the Italians were appropriated and applied by the workers in other countries. The method of constructing figures of plaster on wooden frames was commonly used, and complicated mechanical appliances were devised, to give to the various persons and monsters of the scene movements having a semblance of life. Considerable attention was given also to the setting in which the events of the drama were presented. Romantic and fantastic tales of enchanted castles - wherein uncouth beasts threatened to consume hero or heroine, or both, with fiery breath - were common subjects for the exercise of the fireworkers' skill. On the Continent especially, classical myths were frequently made the theme of such spectacles. There was, of course, no end to the possibilities for pyrotechnic treatment in these fabulous stories. They gave the producer choice between the glories amid which the gods disported themselves on Olympus, or the uncanny horrors of mysterious caverns in infernal regions. Thus, the opportunity for extravagant scenes was limited only by the ingenuity and imagination of the designer. Naturally, at the outset, the effects secured were not only bizarre: they were lamentably crude. In the course of time, however, an artistic sense developed, and this kept pace with progress in the art of aerial fire.
The French were particularly devoted to Greek mythology in the subjects chosen for intricate pageants. But the British always remained especially interested in their own national narratives of heroic exploits. St. George and the Dragon were a never-failing delight, alike to the builder of the show and to the assembly regaled by its production. Boadicea, too, had her place as the central figure of martial achievements pictured in flame. In similar fashion, those giants of Flemish legend, whose grotesque effigies are still carried in procession through the towns of Belgium, were favorite characters for presentation by the pyrotechnist in Liego and Antwerp. There was also, in some instances on the Continent, a clever intermingling of pagan stories and Christian doctrines, by which the fables of the ancients were diverted into allegories to illustrate church teachings, and were thus set forth as fiery spectacles for the entertainment and instruction of the people.
The development of pyrotechny was continued, in the various countries, under Government auspices and control down to our own times. Many and great improvements were made, both in the matter of the materials employed and in the effects secured, until the displays came to be marked by beauty, rather than by the grotesqueness of former days. The popular liking for entertainments of this character increased in proportion to the improvement manifested in the productions. But the Government limited its entertainments to occasions for general rejoicing, such as a royal marriage, or a state triumph to celebrate some notable victory in war. The liking of the populace for these shows was unsatisfied by the number of the festivals. Private enterprise realized the opportunity here offered for the commercial exploitation of pyrotechny. About the middle of the nineteenth century, companies were capitalized in England and other countries for the manufacture of fireworks, and also for their regular display at certain times and places. Resorts to which admission was charged thus sprang into being, and their immediate popularity justified the highest hopes of the producers. In England, Vauxhall early attained an extraordinary vogue, which it maintained unabated for years. Ranelagh, too, was successful in the same sort of entertainment. The fame of the Crystal Palace, for both the beauty and variety of its exhibitions, is familiar to the present generation. Similarly, in the United States, private enterprise has been both active and successful in developing this form of entertainment. Numerous summer resorts depend on the art of aerial fire as a principal means toward the pleasure of their patrons. Such displays are also often offered by civic authorities on special occasions. Thus, the Fourth of July is celebrated throughout the land, alike in tiniest hamlet and mightiest city, by pyrotechnic splendors for the delighting of the people.