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Welcome to the wonderful world of traditional Italian fireworks!
Written by Marcel Hanse & Leendert van Buren

Italian fireworks are very special and well known for two main reasons: their exemplary quality and the intensity of their colors.

Around 1292, when Marco Polo was alive and actively trading European goods for Eastern merchandise, he brought back with him a mysterious black powder. This powder could somehow miraculously explode when ignited, so (as you might expect) it was immediately put to military use throughout Europe. The Italians, however, found a much more creative use for this extraordinary powder and created the first European fireworks with it. During Europe’s Renaissance (approximately 1400–1500 AD), the Italians further improved and developed their fireworks and turned chemical explosions into a consummate art form.

In 1830, advances in science and a much better understanding of chemistry in southern Italy made it possible to create flammable powders that would burn in different colors. For the first time, fireworks could be red, green, blue or even yellow! Ongoing research during the 19th century by both the Italians and Germans made newer and more vibrant colors possible, and it has continued ever since. During the last decade, pyrotechnic chemists have even gone one step further: they have managed to make pyrotechnic chemical reacts so they explode in colors as unusual as magenta, orange, aquamarine, lemon-yellow and even turquoise!

As for the shells that deliver these chemical wonders: In Italy the cylindrical shell is the most popular. (The Chinese and Japanese prefer spherical shells). Unlike spherical shells, however, cylindrical shells don’t have to be categorized as multi–break shells, even though they may contain a single-effect, like a willow, peony or a peony with reports.

Reports and salutes play a very important role in Italian culture–particularly during their religious festivals. Unlike may other parts of the world, daylight shows are very popular there, and they are filled with single-effect and/or multi-break shells. Color, of course, plays a much more important role during the evening displays; whereas the daylight displays are all about rhythm, and those rhythms are created using a variety of salutes, reports and colored smoke shells.

Italian shows generally contains three parts: the opening (apertura), the show itself (with the “fermata” shells), and a pré–final (the “giapponesata”) with the final happening immediately afterwards. Timing is critical for both the evening and daylight displays. The final is somewhat comparable to the way a train starts off slowly but increasingly gains speed, power and intensity.

As you might expect, most of the major competitions and displays are fired during religious feasts and festivals to honor local saints who protect the villages, towns and people living in each city. Generally, most of the larger competitions and festivals take place in southern Italy.

Some locations and dates of some of the bigger festivals:

  • Cicciano in the province of Naples, Sant’ Antonio Abate, in January .
  • Cimitile in the province of Naples, San Felice in Pincis, in January .
  • Rapallo in the province of Genua, Santa Maria Del Campo, in July .
  • Scorrano in the province of Lecce, Santa Domenica, in July .
  • Vibonati in the province of Salerno, Sant’ Antonio Abate, in January .
  • Adelfia in the province of Bari, San Trifone Martire, in November .
  • Trecastagni in the province of Sicily, Festa di Sant’ Alfio Filadelfo e Cirino, in May.

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During these fireworks competitions and religious festivals, several different companies (sometimes six or more) compete in the daylight festivities and then again during the evening competitions.

If you want to see large multi-break shells and admire professionalism and exquisite artistic technique–southern Italy is the place to see it! Of course, there are a myriad of other magnificent shells (particularly characteristic of Italy’s pyrotechnic arts) displayed here as well.

 

The Italian Shells

Photo1 copyNo.1 – Bomba da tiro: Perhaps the most special shell in Italy. Fired at the start of a display after the “apertura” (opening).

During the larger daylight competitions like Adelfia (on the 10th of November) or Diso (on the 1st of May) the participating companies will ignite up to 6 of these special shells–fired separately–to showoff their craftsmanship and professionalism. It requires a high level of expertise to manufacture such a shell–especially the multi-breaks, which are often very complicated to produce.

The diameter of these shells are generally a standard 16cm (6.3”), 21cm (8.3”) and 23cm (9”), and each consist of a maximum of 7 or 8 breaks for a daylight display and up to 12 breaks for an evening display. It takes an amazing amount of skill and craftsmanship to manufacture shells like these with “intrecci”, “riprese”, “controbombe”, and “controcolpo” and time perfectly so they will continue exploding without interruption and without exploding at the ground level.

One of the most special daylight shells is called the “scala a 41”. It has 5 breaks in each of 8-salute shells. Every salute shell is expertly timed all the way to the end bottom-shot. Properly it is five times ( breaks ) a “scala a 8” ( stairway with 8 stairs).

Another very special daylight shell is the “21 riprese”. This is a shell containing 7 breaks, with in each break occurring 3 times a ripresa. A “ripresa” is like an “intreccio” shell shot during the evening. The “ripresa” salute shells (or bombettes) are used and in an “intreccio” of colored stars.

For evening, a “12 controbombe”–a shell with 12 breaks–with large bouquets filled with round and cilindrical stars is the shell of choice. The first manufacturer of this type of shell was probably Carmelo Di Candia from the province of Salerno. (Of course it can occur that the last or the last two breaks explode on the ground ) .

Photo2 copyNo.2 – Bomba da tiro – stutata : The last shell is normally called a “stutata”. This shell is larger in diameter as compared to the longer multi-break break shells used in many competitions. This cylindrical shell-of-shells is generally created in diameters of 21cm (6.3”), 24cm (9.4”), 26cm (10.2”) or 28 cm (11”). They contain three breaks and after the initial opening of the shells, there appears as if there is some kind of firing delay.

Much to the audience’s chagrin, it takes at least 4 seconds (sometimes even longer) for all the smaller shells to begin opening up. The reward, however, of waiting those few extra seconds is a virtual plethora of colored stars completely filling up the nighttime sky.

The smaller shells are called “sfera” in Italian, and the effect that the small shells initiate–breaking open simultaneously–the Italians call “intreccio”. Normally this intreccio effect is followed by a “controbomba”, or large bouquet and closed by a bottom-shot (“controcolpo”). There is only a slight difference between “intreccio” and the “stutata” effect. It has to do with the delay of the “sfere”. Basically, the delay is short for the “intreccio” effect and longfor the “stutata” effect.

The “controbomba” in this bomba da tiro (as part of the stutata) is normally filled with round stars at the center of it accompanied by rings of cylindrical stars called “cannoli” in Italian. Additionally, a Maltese cross (“Croce di Malta”) or even double cross may be added to the mix. The Italian word for this effect is “stutata con spacco a croce “. This combination was first developed and used by the Bartolomeo Bruscella company from Modugno in theprovince of Bari. It is important to note that the “controbomba” breaks after the “intreccio” is finished, and must be placed in the middle of the picture of the preceding “intreccio”.

Photo3 copyNo.3 – Intreccio: the effect of a group of colored shells (bombettes) the Italians call “sfere”. These bombettes are all ignited simultaneously and are filled with cylindrical stars: three layers of 6 stars each, for a grand total of 18 stars or three layers of 7 stars each, totaling 21 stars. Sometimes there are even bombettes filled with three layers of 8 cylindrical stars creating a more expansive effect. It is similar to a mikado effect because the stars from each of the different bombettes crisscross each other. The sign printed on each shell created by the manufacturer is a definitive “*”. Therefore, 3* means a break with three times the intreccio.

Photo4 copyNo.4 – Ripresa: the simultaneous ignition of a group of salute shells (bombettes). These may be titanium salute shells, red or green or yellow flash salute shells, or even small salute shells: “colpetti”. The repetitions are the most instrumental part of the composition of the daylight “bombe da tiro”. They are also used during the evening “bombe da tiro”, too, especially in the beginning or in between a series of “intrecci “, or after the preceding.

Photo5 copyNo.5 – Controbomba: a cylindrical shell with round stars in the center and cylindrical stars (“cannoli”) in the outer ring. A fantastic bouquet that has cylindrical stars burning all the way until they reach the ground. A “controbomba” is in combination of multiple effects in a multi-break shell. A good example of that example would be : “4 botti + intreccio + controbomba”. This means a shell with 3 breaks. In the first break there are 4 (titanium) salute bombettes, in the second break a group of color effect bombettes (the mosaic effect) and in the third break, the “controbomba”.

When a shell is in a series of “controbombe”, the real art involved is to create a perfect rhythm using breaks. It cannot be too fast or too slow. It has to be precise and the bouquets cannot overlap one another.

During the past several years we have personally witnessed competitions in the south of Italy where shells using 10 to12 “controbombe” (meaning 10 to 12 breaks) were used for this feat. { A special note: Michele Bruscella fired a shell in Burgio (Sicily) that had 14 controbombe! An incredible accomplishment! } To put things in perspective, normally shells have only 3 to 5 breaks . Carmelo Di Candia, on the other hand, fires very long ones. It is risky, of course, and sometimes the last break (or even two breaks) explode at ground level . Michele Bruscella is also a master of producing this type of shell. His shell performed flawlessly in November 2009 at the festival of Rotello .

A special note : Michele Bruscella fired a shell in Burgio ( Sicily ) that had 14 controbombe ! An incredible accomplishment !

No.6 – Fermata or “bomba di fermata”: These shells are truly the heart of the traditional display. 40 to 60 of these are usually set off during a large show. Similar to the “bombe da tiro”, these shells contain “intrecci”, “riprese” and “controbombe”. The complexity and difficulty of these “fermata” beig the center of a display oftentimes makes the biggest difference. They tend to show both the technical proficiency, as well as the artistic creativity level of the manufacturer.

Artists like Amodio Di Matteo, Carmelo Di Candia, Michele Bruscella, Carmine Lieto,

Giovanni Pannella, Carmine Ruocco, Salvatore Romano, Ciro Novellino and Gabriele Vallefuoco are true masters of timing and rhythm using such a series of special shells. Sometimes these jewels are even as good as the preceding “bombe da tiro”!

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No.7- Palla stutata coda di cavallo: the horsetail shell, sferical, is made in a large diameter 300mm (11.8”) or 400mm (15.7”). These shells are filled with many cylindrical bombettes like a cylindrical “stutata”. The difference is that a cylindrical “stutata” have a break at a lower level. The shell is considered to be at “full speed” when it opens to spread the bombettes over a wide area. The sferical horsetail shell (“palla stutata”) opens at its highest point like a “normal” sferical shell. The effect is like a gold rain (kamuro sometimes) or a silver rain, and it is very beautiful to behold. Luigi Di Matteo did it as a gold rain once with a strobe tip, and it was truly an awesome sight!

No.8 – Bomba a scala: literally translated–a shell with (or in) stairs. It is a cylindrical shell with a series of salutes or colored bombette. Short interruptions–one second or less–between each bombette makes it sound and look like a staircase.

Like a Swiss watch, the timing is critically important to create the correct musical rhythm. Frequently used with this is the “scala a otto” (and eventually a “controcolpo”). So, after the break of the shell occurs (which happens at high speed with up to 8 bombettes spread out and exploding with interruptions of 1 second each, one after another. Then at the end, the bottom-shot, which is louder than all the preceding bombettes.

During the daylight displays it is not unusual to have a massive increase in the volume of the sound as the shells go off in succession. Since the shells range in diameter of 13cm to 16cm to 21cm, it makes perfect sense that the larger shells would be louder–VERY loud, in fact, if done correctly. This increase in volume is called “progressione di 8 botti”. Also during these daylight displays, it is possible to make and shoot multi-break “scala” shells. A “scala a 16” has two breaks, and within each break 8 salute bombettes that eventually close with a bottom-shot (“controcolpo”).

It is also possible to see a “scala a 24” sometimes, with three breaks and 8 salute bombettes in each break. We have even seen a “scala a 40” with 5 breaks and 8 salute bombettes in each break + a bottom-shot! The Romano brothers fired one perfectly during San Trifone, in 2010. Michele Bruscella, uses a “scala a 30″+bottom-shot regularly. This shell has 3 breaks, and within each break are 10 salute bombettes .

The most common large size during the evening displays are generally the “scala a 8”. I am not certain why larger shells ones are not used, but I was told once that with the larger shells it is difficult to see the bouquets because they are too high in the sky.