Writing Fire with Fire: Lomonosov as Pyrotechnician

Ian Chesley, Harvard University

In eighteenth-century Russia, fireworks displays constituted a visual genre. As opposed to present-day abstract fireworks, their early modern counterparts made use of text and image, and were closely connected with other forms of representation, visual and literary. The intersection of “cultural” and “scientific” discourses in the fireworks display took a political form. Consequently, the two individuals who most stand out as fireworkers of eighteenth-century Russia, Peter the Great and Lomonosov, were men whose activities spanned the disciplines of politics, chemistry, war, and letters.

Peter the Great brought the latest European technologies to Russia, among them the nascent science of chemistry. His successes on the battlefield, a result in great part of the increased and more efficient use of artillery, correlated to his brilliant domestic fireworks shows. In the first part of this paper, I will briefly examine engravings and narrative accounts of fireworks displays in order to introduce the political implications of converting the space of the city into a mock battlefield.

Later in the century, Lomonosov’s fireworks brought into contact his scientific study of fire with his poetic vision of political enlightenment. He belongs to a lost generation of chemists who subscribed to the theory of phlogiston, a substance that exists in all flammable matter (disproven by Lavoisier with his discovery of oxygen). In the second part of the paper, I will sample Lomonosov’s scientific and poetic texts (“Slovo o pol’ze Ximii,” odes, and other occasional pieces) to show his analogy between fire and language in the political context of its performance.