PROVIDENCE — In Europe before the Enlightenment, wine flowed from fountains, fireworks illuminated the skies, and master artists such as Peter Paul Rubens designed elaborate set pieces for the public to enjoy.
“The Festive City,” at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, an exhibition stoked with juicy historical detail, documents the elaborate festivals staged by monarchs, city governments, and other powers in Europe between 1500 and 1800. The festivals celebrated coronations and royal marriages; they honored the dead; they marked seasonal rituals such as Carnival.
Their sponsors commissioned printmakers to illustrate the festivals in impressive, oversized books and on single-sheet prints. They’re the only visual record left of the theatrical celebrations, and “Festive City,” gathering prints from the RISD museum’s collection, from the John Hay Library at Brown University, and from private collector Vincent J. Buonanno, draws a picture of events rarely equal-ed today; perhaps the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton comes close.
The prints functioned as a kind of propaganda. Monarchs, nobles, and papal courts distributed them as gifts to foreign nobility to advertise their largesse. Unlike, say, a YouTube video of a big event, these documents glossed over the mishaps, such as the fiasco for which George Frideric Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” was composed in 1749. Curators Evelyn Lincoln and Emily J. Peters report in their succinct catalog essay that fog interrupted the fireworks, a set piece burst into flames, and the Italian designer Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, the maestro behind the proceedings, got into a brawl.
More illustration than art but technically impressive, these prints sport lush detail, though display only occasional visual inventiveness.
Theodoor van Thulden’s 1642 “The Rejoicing Over the Arrival of the Most Serene Prince, or, The Stage of Welcome,” depicts Rubens’s 1635 stage — one of several theatrical sets erected — for welcoming to Antwerp the Spanish king’s brother, who would be the city’s new governor. Van Thulden delineates the splendor of Rubens’s work, from the archway made of timber and painted to look like marble, to the dancing putti atop its outer columns. It conveys how ornate the construction was, but it has no magic or liveliness.
These prints aimed for precision. The printmakers packed in as much detail as possible, social as well as architectural. Teodoro Vercruysse’s 1717 etching “The Entry Into Parma of Cardinal Gozzadini on 15 September 1714” stacks hundreds of tiny figures proceeding in rows back and forth across the page; text at the bottom identifies some of them.
Jan Punt’s “The Four Corners of the Pall” is one of 40 plates in a book that elaborately re-creates the 7-mile funeral procession for William IV of Orange and Nassau in 1752. Hand-colored in watercolor and gold, this page depicts mostly men in black accompanying the late king’s velvet-canopied, horse-drawn hearse. Even the horses are cloaked in black.
The processions and festivals, clearly, were not always intended as parties. Johann Martin Lerch’s 1680 print “Design for the Extension of the Distinguished Plaatz named the Graben in the Imperial Capital and Residential City of Vienna” depicts pyramidal fountains and a column erected to garner deliverance from the bubonic plague. These pieces, built as ephemeral monuments, were eventually made permanent, and can still be seen today.
Mostly, though, these events were over-the-top displays of wealth and power. The Italian designer Servandoni, for whom things went awry in London, apparently had terrific success in Paris the year before, at least according to Jacques-François Blon-del’s “Plan and Geometric Elevation of the Music Temple.” The design is said to be “after Salley,” but the fireworks are Servandoni’s.
The print has us looking down the Seine, with the Louvre on one side, a massive fireworks explosion on the horizon, and waterspouts dancing on the river’s surface. An orchestra played in the temporary, floating Music Temple. Imagine sitting along the riverbank to witness such a spectacle! Very likely, sponsors of these events saw them as gifts to the public.
Yet these things could go too far. Giuseppe Vasi’s 1749 etching of designer Vincenzo dal Re’s “Cuccagna Placed in the Piazza of the Royal Palace,” offers a royal’s-eye view of a festival intended to evoke a land of plenty, commissioned by the king of Naples. Beggars were released into a scene that included wine fountains and a garden made of food. They would clamber in and gorge themselves, and from there they would tear apart the live animals grazing just past the garden, amid manufactured mountains. They probably weren’t being barbaric — they just saw more food to take away.
Call it an 18th-century version of “The Hunger Games.” Forty years on, during the French Revolution, the people arose and revolted against the monarchy, and awareness of social inequity reverberated throughout Europe. State-sponsored extravaganzas on the scale illustrated in “The Festive City” were not seen again.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified William IV of Orange and Nassau. Also, because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, a wrong year was given for the composition of Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.” It was 1749.