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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. Festivals shaped the public spaces of European cities. Buildings, plazas, stairways, and roadways were constructed specifically with festivals in mind. Likewise, festivals put the social structure of the city on public display. Priests, heads of state, royal retinues, merchants, soldiers, commoners, peasants, and servants all took part. Some festivals, such as processions, reinforced social hierarchies in real and symbolic ways, while others invited release from social norms through terrifying explosions of fire, public combats, bullfights, and offerings of free food and wine for the populace.

Well-funded by the ruling classes, festivals mobilized artists and designers in cities such as Rome, Antwerp, and Paris, providing them with steady work and a large audience. 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 painters, architects, scenographers, and pyro- technicians to produce ever more extraordinary and astonishing spectacles. Many of the architectural displays and decorations made for festivals were ephemeral. Far from sloppy in appearance or construction, these structures, though temporary, displayed some of the finest inventions by the best artistic talents of the day. Festival architecture persuaded its audience of the wealth, power, or legitimacy of the sponsor, so much so that sponsors sought to record their largesse for posterity through festival books and prints that rivaled the festivals themselves in magnificence.

The advantages of print were clear: not only were lavish festival books and single-sheet prints long-lasting, they provided wide distribution, a fixed, unambiguous message, and an ideal record of events, unencumbered by accidents of weather, stubborn animals, errant fireworks, uncooperative participants, or drunken crowds. Festival books mirrored the scale and ingenuity of each event with such features as pages that unfold to four times the size of the book to show scenes packed with crowds and action. As papermaking and printmaking technologies advanced, festival books grew into oversize folios with even larger foldout plates made by printing individual illustrations from multiple copperplates upon several sheets of paper pasted together. In the 16th century festival books often emphasized the architectural specifications for the ephemeral architecture and presented complex political arguments, often in Latin, for a highly learned audience. By the 18th century, festival books proudly detailed every firework, identified every noble participant with descriptions of their clothing, and illustrated every structure, its size, and materials, all in the vernacular. Audiences throughout Europe read the books like today’s celebrity magazines, soaking in their magnificence and envisioning the colors, sights, sounds, smells, and wonders of the event.

Such books, expensive to produce, were given by the event’s sponsor to advantageous connections at foreign European courts and city governments or purchased by wealthy collectors, some of whom went to the effort and expense of commissioning hand coloring and personalized gold-stamped bindings. The experience of paging through such weighty volumes and opening their foldout plates featuring vast city views was interactive and immersive, an event enjoyed in groups while reading aloud. Single-leaf prints for festivals had a somewhat different path. The Chinea (pronounced Key-nay-ah) prints in this exhibition were printed in large editions months in advance, to be distributed on the day of the event and also sent abroad; other prints in the exhibition were produced quickly in order to spread information about events far away, somewhat akin to newspapers today; still others appealed to print collectors for their relationship to particular artists as well as to festivals. The prints and books on view in The Festive City are among our only traces of these staggeringly expensive but fleeting events. Drawn primarily from the private collection of Vincent J. Buonanno, Brown University Library’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, and the RISD Museum, they present early modern festivals in all their forms—from processions to fireworks displays to banquets and Carnival races.

Publication Date

Winter 12-1-2012

Document Type

Exhibition Catalog


Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design


Providence, Rhode Island


exhibitions, Evelyn Lincoln, Emily J. Peters, Buonanno, Vincent J., Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Festival books, Festival architecture, Fireworks in art, Processions in art, Carnivals in art, European Prints, 17th century, 18th century


Art and Design

The Festive City