Futurism and Fascism
Italy's Futurists - led by Filippo Marinetti - exploded onto the European cultural scene during and after the Great War with all the garishness and fizz of some of their founder's anarchic recipes. But was the menu taken up by Mussolini and his Fascists? Richard Jensen investigates.
It is particularly appropriate to re-examine the relationship between the rise of Fascism and the literary and artistic movement called Futurism, because in the last decade Futurism has once again been in the news. In 1986 the Italian car manufacturing giant FIAT together with an American high-tech conglomerate sponsored the largest and most comprehensive exhibition on Futurism ever mounted.
The renovated Palazzo Grassi in Venice groaned under the weight of 300 paintings and 1,200 other works, including a magnificent Bugatti automobile, all purportedly related to Futurism and its 'influence'.
So massive was this exhibition that the catalogue was said to weigh as much as a bomb. Henry Kissinger, the Aga Khan, Mme. Pompidou and other assorted luminaries came to see the show, as well as to lunch on such Futurist recipes as orange rice and lobster with green zabaglione sauce. Avoided were the more radical dishes to be found in Filippo Marinetti's 1931 Futurist cookbook, such as salami immersed in a bath hot black coffee flavoured with eau-de-Cologne or, for dessert, fresh pineapple with sardines.
With all the hoopla, it was easy to overlook the disturbing fact that Italy's most famous art movement of modern times was intimately involved with Fascism and indeed that Marinetti, Futurism's leading exponent, had helped Mussolini found the movement in 1919. Nonetheless, the stream of publications that has poured forth since the Palazzo Grassi exhibition, including the publication of Marinetti's diary-like notebooks from 1915-1921, has fuelled a new debate over the complex relationship between Futurism and Fascism, and over the nature of pre-Fascist Italian political culture.
Although Marinetti broke with Mussolini in 1920, he still supported the regime after the 1922 March on Rome, claiming that Fascism had at least fulfilled Futurism's minimum programme of demands, In 1929 Marinetti even became secretary of the Fascist Writers' Union, one of those official academic institutions he had earlier professed to abhor. Loyal to Mussolini until the end, Marinetti died in 1944, and with his death Futurism bowed out as well.
This close relationship between Fascism and Futurism has led many scholars to claim great political influence for Marinetti's movement. The Italian philosopher-historian Benedetto Croce saw the 'ideological origins' of Fascism in Futurism, in Futurism's 'determination to go down into the streets, to impose its own opinions ... not to fear riots or fights, in its eagerness to break with all traditions, [and] in its exaltation of youth'. In his controversial The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics, the political scientist A. James Gregor went even so far as to attribute much of Mussolini's success in seizing power to his adoption of 'Futurist political style' and Futurist 'histrionics and choreography of the streets', which served as a 'fundamental organizing and mobilizing instrument in the Fascist armarium'. With the assistance of the Futurists' 'intuitive appreciation of the psychology of displaced and restive masses', the Fascist movement was able to mobilize great numbers of people for revolutionary action, something the Italian Socialist party failed to accomplish.
Before agreeing that Futurist style and methods provided a model for Fascist action, it falls to us to look more closely at Futurism's pre-war origins and post-war activities. To a large extent, Futurism was the brain- child of a single man, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Marinetti was a rich Italian poet from Milan, well-connected with avant-garde literary circles in Paris and elsewhere. He had all the qualifications for being a successful artistic leader and showman: plenty of money (he was a millionaire), boundless energy, great personal charm and a large circle of acquaintances. He soon found kindred spirits and collaborators from amongst an extremely able group of artists and musicians, most notably Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini. The Futurist architect Sant'Elia was another follower and a figure of immense talent, although his career was cut short by an early death.
One evening in 1909 Marinetti brought together his friends and collaborators and proceeded to stay up all night writing a manifesto setting forth the principles of Futurism. Soon thereafter the manifesto was published on the front page of Le Figaro, a major Parisian newspaper, launching Futurism on the European cultural scene like a bolt from the blue. Even today this fascinating manifesto can cause a shock with its glorification of 'the contempt for women' and of ‘war, the only health giver of the world', and with its incitement to burn down libraries and flood museums. The major themes of the Futurist programme can be summarized as follows:
1. exaltation of speed and action
2. championing of violence and conflict
3. emphasis on youth
4. rebellion against the past and disgust with Italian cultural stagnation
5. championing of the industrial age, the machine and technology
6. espousal of fervent Italian nationalism and imperialism.
As this list suggests, Marinetti and his followers sought change of a radical and wide-ranging character. They applied their talents to transforming not only such artistic fields as painting, sculpture, architecture, typography, interior decoration, photography, literature, dance, film, theatre and fashion, but also morals, manners and politics. Because of this wide scope, Futurism has been described as the first authentic avant-garde movement in Europe. Since Marinetti's goal was nothing less than the radical transformation of culture and society, whenever possible he sought notoriety to spread the news of his art movement beyond the narrow confines of the aesthetes and intellectuals and into the population at large.
To this end he launched a series of extraordinarily successful publicity campaigns. One journalist referred to Marinetti as the 'caffeine of Europe', since he darted back and forth across the Continent, organizing, giving interviews, arranging meetings and dinners, and issuing dramatic telegrams. Vermilion posters printed with the word 'Futurism’ in huge block letters were plastered throughout Italy on factory walls, in dance halls, in cafes and public squares. Halls and theatres were retained for 'Futurist evenings' during which, as 'noise music' blared away, manifestos were read, poetry recited and paintings shown.
Typically the Futurists and members of the audience would exchange as many blows as ideas during the evening; shouts, whistles, acorns, beans, fruit, over-ripe vegetables and rancid spaghetti would fill the air as the Futurists announced their extravagant ideals. Marinetti loved to reply to the jeers of the crowd with some witty remark: once when a spectator continued to whistle while Marinetti was reading a poem, he shouted at him, 'Has your head sprung a leak?' to the delight of the audience.
All too often, the evening would end in a brawl and police intervention. But even this pleased Marinetti, since the commotion invariably attracted attention in local and national newspapers and periodicals. A champion of the 'grand tradition of being booed', Marinetti welcomed hostile reactions to his movement, viewing them as symptoms of its artistic vitality. It was much better for Futurist ideas to be booed than cheered, he claimed, since everything 'applauded immediately was certainly no better than the average intelligence and was something mediocre, dull, regurgitated or too well-digest- ed'.
The Futurists' taste for disruption and fisticuffs extended to their literary critics as well as their general audience. Irritated by the: Florentine journal La Voce's criticisms of their paintings, in 1911 the Futurists took the train from Milan to Florence. Finding Prezzolini, Papini; and Soffici, all writers for La Voce, at their favourite cafe, Le Giubbe Rosse, the Futurists attacked them with slaps, canes and punches. Later he Vociani staged a counter-attack at the train station when the Futurists tried to depart for Milan. After this violence, the bruised and bloodied Futurists and Vociani settled down to discuss their differences, discovering that their ideas were not so dissimilar after all. The two groups parted almost friends and in 1913 Soffici and Papini officially joined the Futurist movement, although only for about a year.
Marinetti soon involved himself in political as well as cultural battles. He boisterously supported the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912 and later brought all his talents as prankster and propagandist to the cause of Italy’s intervention in the First World War on the side of the Allies. The Futurists were probably ' the first group to organize public' protests against the policy of neutrality adopted by the government in August 1914. Ominously, at one of the last pro-war demonstrations: held in Rome during April 1915, Marinetti found himself by the side of that renegade, pro-war Socialist, Benito Mussolini. After the Futurists and the other interventionists had succeeded in pushing Italy into the European struggle, Marinetti volunteered for the front, where he found the anarchy and heroism of military life immensely enjoyable.
With the war drawing to a close, Marinetti re-entered Italian politics, this time plunging in deeper than ever before. In February 1918 he published a manifesto announcing the foundation of a Futurist political party, separate from the Futurist art movement. By early 1919 Futurist political groups existed in twenty Italian cities, including Florence, Ferrara, Venice, Genoa, Naples and Palermo, as well as the major centres of Rome and Milan. The membership of these groups remained small; Marinetti spoke of it in terms of 'hundreds' adhering to the editorial line of Roma Futurista, which soon after its founding in September 1918 became the major periodical of Futurism.
The Futurist political manifesto of 1918 called for both moderate and radical changes: the eight-hour day and equal pay for women, but also the expulsion of the pope from Italy, the extensive nationalization of land for distribution among veterans, compulsory gymnastics, heavy taxes on both acquired and inherited wealth, easy divorce and free love. An assembly of young industrialists, agriculturalists, engineers and tradesmen was to replace parliament. If this assembly functioned poorly, a government of twenty specialists responsible to an assembly of young men under thirty was to replace it. Soon after, Marinetti called for abolition of the Italian monarchy.
While this political programme was too extreme to attract widespread support, Marinetti did succeed in winning over many members of one key group, the arditi, literally the 'daredevils', the elite, black-shirted shock troops of the Italian army who had been known to rush into battle stripped to the waist, a grenade in each hand and a dagger between their teeth. Marinetti made his luxurious apartment in Milan available as a general meeting place for both the arditi and other old comrades-in- arms. In January 1919 the Futurist and former ardito, Mario Carli, founded in Rome the Arditi Association of Italy with Roma Futurista as its mouthpiece. Within a short time of its founding, the association claimed 10,000 members.
This connection with the arditi drew together once again Marinetti and Benito Mussolini. After the war, Mussolini, the brilliant newspaper editor and aspiring political leader, had been casting about for support from among the veterans; collaboration with the Futurists became a natural means of expanding his influence. Marinetti and Mussolini's first joint action came in January 1919 when they organized the disruption of a Socialist rally in Milan. During this episode the moderate Socialist Bissolati attempted to defend his programme for a 'just and durable' post- war peace settlement that included Italy's renunciation of Dalmatia (in modern Croatia) and other territories not inhabited preponderantly by Italian-speakers. Marinetti punctuated – and punctured – Bissolati's speech with cries of loud and sarcastic 'Aaa-men!'; other Futurists joined in with insistent whistling. Soon the Futurists, together with Mussolini's followers, came to blows with the audience, bringing the entire evening to an abrupt halt. This was the first planned political violence of post-war Italy.
In March 1919 Mussolini, Marinetti and 100 others, mostly ex-service- men, founded the Fascist movement. Although Marinetti sat on its central committee, quantitatively the Futurists contributed relatively few members to the new organization and they always remained isolated within the larger movement. In April 1919, Marinetti led Futurists, Fascists, and arditi in disrupting a mass Socialist demonstration – against the wishes of Mussolini who quite rightly considered the action premature. During this episode, Marinetti punched one young socialist, then seized him by the neck as he fell, yelling at him, 'At least shout Viva Serrati! [the editor of the Socialist party newspaper Avanti!] not Viva Lenin! you idiot!' But, Marinetti noted, his adversary did not understand this 'lesson' in 'European politics inculcated with fists', i.e., that one should prefer Italians of whatever political persuasion to foreigners.
Marinetti also battled with a sturdy worker, chasing him down and cornering him, but prevented the arditi from beating the poor fellow to death. In fact, entries for 1919 in Marinetti's notebooks show him intervening on other occasions to protect defenceless socialists or workers from the murderous blows of the arditi.
Subsequently the Fascist-Futurist gang went on to sack and burn the offices of Avanti!, although Marinetti claimed later to have had no part in this violent episode. The 'Battle of Via Mercanti', as this clash with the Socialists was dubbed, was Marinetti's last personal act of participation in a Fascist gang, although four months later he led a purely Futurist group in attacking a religious procession of 50,000 Catholics.
When the government called elections for November 1919, Marinetti again co-operated with the Fascists, helping to stage their electoral meetings. In order to attract he public, Marinetti organized, among other things, a fireworks display prior to the meetings.
Notwithstanding the Futurists' evident knack for grabbing publicity and their taste for rambunctious activities, it is still difficult to believe they provided the Fascists with a model for, or even very much assistance in, conquering political power. For example, despite its glorious place in Fascist mythology, the 'Battle of Via Mercanti' led to no gains for Mussolini. In protest against this act of hooliganism the Socialists called a general strike and raised a million lire to put Avanti! back on its feet. Moreover the Italian electorate showed itself singularly unimpressed by these urban guerrilla tactics and in the elections of November 1919 almost destroyed: he Fascist movement.
The only Fascist group in all of Italy that had been able to put together a list of candidates for these lections was that in Milan and this list, which included Mussolini, Marietti and two other Futurists, won less than 5,000 out of 270,000 votes.. So much for Marinetti's vaunted 'intuition' into the 'psychology' of the 'restive masses' and Futurism's ability to mobilize them for action. Mussolini was so depressed by this outcome that he seriously thought of abandoning politics altogether.
The key to the revival of Fascism and its ultimate conquest of power was not Futurist style, but the sudden emergence in 1920 of rural squadrismo, the Fascist paramilitary movement run by ex-officers that attacked foreigners, leftists and labour groups of all kinds, and the Fascists' forging of an alliance with landowners, businessmen and other elements on the right. To these developments Futurism contributed almost nothing.
Marinetti became so disgusted by Fascism's turn toward traditional conservative groups and by the refusal of the Fascist congress of May 1920 to support his proposal for exiling the king and the pope from Italy that he resigned from the party along with Mario Carli, Settimelli and other Futurists.
Whatever influence Futurism may have had on Fascism during 1919 was now lost. By the time of the March on Rome, ninety per cent of the original Fascists of 1919, dissident socialists, anarchists, syndicalists and republicans as well as Futurists, had left the movement and had been replaced by liberals, nationalists, agrarians, aristocrats and others. In Florence, as the historian Walter Adamson points out, the Futurists were replaced by 'a new and more sinister (often gangsterish) element typified by Amerigo Dumini', a war volunteer, leader of squadist attacks beginning in October 1920, and one of those responsible for the murder of the Socialist deputy Matteotti in 1924.
Mussolini hardly mourned Marinetti's departure from the Fascist movement, however, since he had had plenty of occasions on which to observe that the latter's goals and methods were recipes for political disaster. At the time of the break with the Futurists, il Duce exclaimed that Marinetti '[is] an eccentric buffoon who wants to play politics and whom no one in Italy, least of all me, takes seriously'.
But even if the Futurist leaders were gone, was the Futurist model for 'mass mobilization' and violent attacks used by the squadristi? There is little if any evidence to prove that it did. If we examine the history of squadrismo, we notice that the first squadist incident took place in July 1920. The youth of the Trieste fascio, (Fascist group) assaulted and burned down the headquarters of the local Slovene organization. Although he had not ordered this attack, Mussolini took advantage of it, and roundly congratulated the Trieste Fascists.
Marinetti and the Futurists were even less responsible than Mussolini for the attack against the Slovenes, despite the fact that Marinetti had spoken to the people of Trieste as early as 1909 and visited the city after the war. These efforts seem to have left little imprint, since no Futurist artistic group or branch of the Futurist political party subsequently sprang up in Trieste. On the other hand, in the Italian capital, where the Futurists developed one of their strongest centres and which had served as the focus for plenty of spectacular Futurist disruptions during the interventionist campaign of 1914-15, squadism and Fascism were almost unknown before the 1922 March on Rome.
The first really significant emergence of squadrismo and of the new conservative-Fascist alliance was in Bologna province during the summer and autumn of 1920. Actions here, and not the 'Battle of Via Mercanti', were what set the pattern for future Fascist activities. Crucial was a Fascist- provoked riot at the inauguration of the new Socialist mayor of Bologna in November 1920. This left several people dead and the new city administration suspended; a wave of violence soon swept the countryside directed against the Socialist-dominated peasant leagues. Fascist power mushroomed While Marinetti later claimed that the Futurist Nanni Leone Castelli played a significant role in these events, a recent definitive work by Anthony Cardoza on the rise of Fascism in Bologna does not even mention Leone Castelli's name.
An additional example or two of squad activity in Bologna will further illustrate its nature and suggest its stylistic differences from Futurism. Here the experiences of Emilio Avon, the Secretary of the Socialist section in Castenaso, and the peasants of Santa Maria in Duno, as described by Cardoza, may be considered characteristic:
At the end of March 1921 Avon received a threatening note from the local fascio. Late the following night a truckload of masked Fascists arrived at the home of the sleeping Avon. Breaking down the front door and brandishing pistols, the squadristi dragged Avon outside. Amid the screams of his wife and three children, the unfortunate official was clubbed into unconsciousness and 'invited to leave town within fifteen days on pain of death’, an offer that Avon found hard to refuse…
On other occasions, the fasci were not averse to the use of indiscriminate terror, as the socialist sharecroppers in Santa Maria in Duno discovered in April. During a meeting of peasants called to discuss the implementation of the new contracts, 'a group of masked men, brandishing dubs and pistols, suddenly broke into the hall ... and opened fire indiscriminately'. After killing one of the peasants and wounding nine others, the squad sacked the league offices and burned every portable object including the peasants' bicycles.
A millionaire dandy from Milan was hardly the best teacher for his kind of thoroughgoing brutality. For the veterans, who formed such a large share of the Fascist squads, personal experiences in the savage fighting of the First World War served as more than sufficient training for engaging in violent tactics and deadly ambushes during the postwar period.
Despite the post facto claims of Marinetti and later historians, there was no real continuity between Futurist evenings, interventionist demonstrations and the expeditions of the armed Fascist squads. Indeed, it only muddies our understanding of what went on in 1920-22 to put Futurists antics in the same category as squad brutality. While the actions of the Futurists were often childish and deplorable, they were m re akin to street or guerrilla theatre than to the militarised gangsterism of the squads, with its systematic campaigns of terror conducted along military lines and its pitting of overwhelming forces against defenceless victims. As has been made clear, the Futurist evenings, and even Marinetti's wild forays during 1919, were marked as much by intelligence and wit as by violence and brute force.
Marinetti had loved to car out a dialogue with the audience in which he appealed more to their intelligence than their fears. In the process he often won his listeners' bemused sympathies for his outrageous audacity and his courage in confronting overwhelming numbers of opponents. Moreover, much of the Futurists' violence was purely rhetorical. Their founding manifesto may have called for the incineration of libraries and the destruction of museums, but they never tried to put these savage ideas into practice.
Even when Marinetti and his followers resorted to their fists, mixed in was almost always an element of playful- ness and didacticism, as evident in the Florentine fight of 1911 and the 'Viva Serrati, not Lenin' incident. The 'style' of the squads, on the other hand, was never characterized by much wit, courage, or artistry. This was because the training of the squadristi had come, not in the theatre of Futurism, but in the combat zone.
Clearly, then, the violence of the Futurists was not in the same league as the violence of the Fascists and a distinction between these two kinds of violence deserves emphasis.
Why these distinctions have so often been ignored and such a vast influence on post-war Italian politics been attributed to Futurism poses an interesting question. A large part of the answer can be found in the brilliant success of the mirage concocted by Marinetti in his insatiable quest for publicity and promoted by those who would palm off Fascism – that unfortunate 'parenthesis' in Italian history, as Croce would label it – on a flaky art movement.
The sheer colourfulness of Futurism has blinded many historians, not to mention political scientists, to its basically superficial relationship to the Fascist conquest of power, a phenomenon built on more fundamental social, economic and political developments. Marinetti was a great artistic publicist, the P.T. Barnum of the Italian avant-garde, but his political recipes were eyen less successful than those of his famous cookbook.
Richard Bach Jensen is an associate professor at the Louisiana Scholar's College, Northwestern State University.
- Walter Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism (Cambridge, Mass, 1993)
- Anthony Cardoza, Agrarian Elites and Italian Fascism: Bologna 1901-26 (Princeton, 1982)
- Futurism and Futurisms, ed. Pontus Hulten (New York, 1986)
- A. James Gregor, The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics (Princeton, 1974)
- James Joll, Intellectuals in Politics (London, 1960)
- Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed R.W. Flint (New York, 1972)
- Jane Rye, Futurism (New York, 1972)
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