Malta Diary 13: Painting the Mediterranean skies
Fireworks in Malta have a long tradition stretching back to the arrival of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem from Rhodes in the late 15th Century. Besides its invaluable and essential use in the art of war, gunpowder also had its joyful and entertainment uses such as the “feu de joie” for gun salutes, the “musketterija” in the form of simultaneously firing of muskets and the “solfarelli d’aria” in the form of St Catherine’s Wheels known in Maltese as “irdieden”.
These and other forms of fireworks were used on special occasions such as the election of a new Grandmaster of the Order, the election of a new Pope or to celebrate or commemorate victories over the invading Ottomans. With the arrival of the British in the early 19th Century these traditions were maintained but many became oriented to British events and these in turn were the catalyst for massive fireworks displays in all village and town festas mainly during the Summer period.
These are manufactured by unpaid Maltese and Gozitan tradesmen mainly motivated by the pique to entertain and get one over neighbouring villages. Most localities have their own “fireworks factory” some of which have grown to attract sub-contracts from the smaller parishes who find it more economically expedient to outsource.
Displays fall into two categories. The “giochi di fuochi” (corrupted into “gigifogo” in Maltese) are terrestrial displays of circular shapes revolving on poles and aerial displays fired into the skies from numerous imitation cannons firing petards skywards. These open in spectacular colourful fashion with a bang and can be individual petards or a rapid succession that provides an unbroken display that can stretch to over 15 minutes.
Controversy is never far away. Malta and Gozo are small islands and factories are normally near housing and inhabitants. Manufacturing accidents are frequent, sometimes indirectly caused by weather conditions of high humidity and heat and sometimes by oversight. Enormous eruptions result in mangled deaths, life threatening injuries and loss of various limbs to the victim manufacturers. For every fallen soldier, two young and fresh recruits willingly step into the breach – that is the extent of the craze to participate under constant danger.
The exploding petards are also a source of controversy, insensitive as they are to the elderly, the sick and most household pets. The use of powerful gelignite has now been banned and a National Board regulates strict safety standards, but … boys will be boys.
Admittedly, the end result is heavenly as night skies are painted with a wonderful panorama of colours, shooting stars and rapidly opening concentric circles. Despite the dangers, many have to admit the upside of beauty and pleasure eclipses the downside of dying and being maimed.
On Friday, Saturday and Wednesday, 25th, 26th, and 30th April the Ministry for Tourism and the Malta Tourism Authority will be organising the 13th International Fireworks Festival which has become the piece de resistance for competing manufacturers, including this year international participants from France, Italy, Austria and the UK. This will be overseen by an international judging board of recognised pyrotechnical experts who will award the final prizes. It will include an International Pyromusical Competition.
This year the first session will take place in Marsaxlokk, in Bugibba the following day and the final session and award giving over the Valletta Grand Harbour, all displays being over water.
Many, many thousands of spectators are attracted and competition and pique are frantic, the enthralled “ooohs” and “aaahs” being the real prize for the manufacturers, as well as that of smugly lording it over rival manufacturers.