The Futurist Past

Futurismo & Futurismi October 12, 1986

catalog of an exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, May 3 to, organized by Pontus Hulten
Bompiani (Milan), 638 pp., 48,000 lire

It is ironic that the grandest exhibition of Futurism ever to be mounted has opened in Venice, for the Futurists held Venice in particular contempt. On the evening of July 8, 1910, Marinetti, the movement’s commander in chief, together with a group of Futurist painters, placed themselves in a strategic position on the Clock Tower overlooking the Piazza San Marco, armed with eighty thousand copies of their manifesto Contro Venezia Passatista. These they hurled at a crowd of astonished Venetians who had just alighted from the ferry from the Lido and were crossing the square on their way home to supper. The manifesto accused Venice, among other things, of being a “jeweled hip-bath for cosmopolitan courtesans” and “a great sewer of traditionalism.” “Let us fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering infected old palaces. Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots, and raise to the sky the majestic geometry of metal bridges and smoke-crowned factories, abolishing the sagging curves of ancient buildings.”

Timing was all-important, and Marinetti’s sense of timing was one of his greatest assets. One Sunday in that same year, as the faithful were leaving the Basilica after mass, trumpets blared from the summit of the Campanile, and there was Marinetti, megaphone in hand, to deliver a torrent of anti-Venetian and anticlerical abuse. His lecture at the Teatro La Fenice on August 1 caused a splendid scandal and was punctuated by the “resounding slaps” administered to the audience by the painters Boccioni, Russolo, and Carrà.

On the other hand it is entirely appropriate that Fiat should have chosen this exhibition to inaugurate its new center at the Palazzo Grassi because the Futurists worshiped machines and in particular “the racing automobile…more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” In the atrium of the palace, and visible from the Grand Canal, are placed a Fiat Model 1 car of 1908–1910, identical with the one owned by Marinetti in which it so pleased him to be photographed, and a Bugatti 13 of 1910–1923. The latter looks brave but vulnerable—a toy for adults. In the light well of the vast central hall are suspended two airplanes, a Blériot X and a Spad VII. Like the automobile the “gliding flight of airplanes with propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag” had been celebrated in the first and founding manifesto of Futurism, which appeared on February 20, 1909.

Automobiles and flight inspired two of Marinetti’s most famous poems, “A l’Automobile” of 1905, which was published three years later as A mon Pégase, and “L’Aviatore Futurista parla con suo Padre, il Vulcano,” which came out in L’Aeroplano del Papa in 1914. Airplanes figure in contemporary poems by his friends Libero Altomare, Paolo Buzzi, and Enrico Cavacchioli. The Futurist painters, who formed a more cohesive group than the Futurist poets, on the whole preferred their machines earthbound. And the entire movement itself was rather like a machine put together by inspired amateurs, at times showing great form and originality,…

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