Another subject of many plaisanteries was Isadora’s passionate interest in a small Bugatti and its handsome Italian driver. She had seen this little red racing car outside La Mère Tetue’s…. From that moment the car and its driver became the one subject in her mind. She even went the length of discussing the purchase of the Bugatti with her friend. An arrangement was made with Benoît Falchetto, the young Italian, who also kept a garage, to come on Wednesday night, September 14th, and take the prospective client for a drive, and show her how it ran.1

It was to be a fateful ride for Isadora Duncan, and it remains tempting to see it as perhaps a destined ride as well, so apt was her death by the instrumentality of a painted scarf with one end around her neck and the other caught in the rear wheel of a car designed and built by Ettore Arco Isadoro Bugatti. The fatedness was no matter of names or horoscopes, however; it was more to do with the spirit of the times, even the history of art.

Born in 1878 and 1881 respectively, Duncan and Bugatti were both members of the generation hung over from the culture of art nouveau into the age of the Ballet mécanique, Coco Chanel, Mondrian, and the Bauhaus. Bugatti, as the designer of some of the most elegant and successful machines in the history of motor sport, remains as much a legend as Duncan, and his cars, at their aesthetic and aristocratic best, deserve a place in the history of culture, among the most telling monuments to that “significant pause” between art nouveau and functionalism that now goes by the name of art deco. But he was also a direct influence on the functionalist generation—he coincidentally shared a pavilion with Walter Gropius at the celebrated exposition at Cologne in 1914, and Le Corbusier was to illustrate his admiration for Bugatti in publications of the Twenties.

What separates the case of Bugatti from that of Duncan, however, is that whereas she epitomized in her own person and work the modernist regress from art nouveau fame to art deco doom, Bugatti has to be taken together with two, even three, other members of his remarkable clan before the whole picture can be seen. Leaving aside his son Jean for the moment, one sees his father Carlo Bugatti, and his brother Rembrandt, the sculptor, as most immediately revealing. The father was perhaps the most extreme of all designers of art nouveau furniture, not just in Milan, but anywhere at all. Practicing neither the curvy, sexy mode that usually typifies art nouveau, nor Charles Renie Mackintosh’s spindly, prissy version of it, he concocted an unprecedented conflation of Egyptian revival with the more awkward aspects of English Ruskinian, to produce work of an elaborate ugliness that is remarkable even in the history of what is cynically referred to as il buon gusto Milanese.

The lavish book by Philip Dejean offers some ninety relentless pages of this amazing stuff. These pages could have had the effect of bringing the art nouveau revival to a virtual halt, worldwide, in spite of the previous wide acceptance of the style, and so turned off potential reviewers and literary-page editors that the book has gone almost unnoticed in the three years since it appeared. This is regrettable, for the rest of the book has more appeal. Rembrandt Bugatti, for instance, was one of the better conservative animaliers of the first two decades of the present century (he committed suicide in 1916 at the age of thirty-one). His work is more in the tradition of Barye than, say, the horse studies of Degas; nor does he show much awareness of the light-and-motion effects of the buried genius of Milanese modernism, Medardo Rosso. Where art nouveau affects Rembrandt’s work is in giving proto-art-deco stylization to a well-observed naturalism that reminds one of Rodin (as transmitted through the portrait work of Rembrandt’s mentor, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy). The only two works of his which I have seen in real life struck me as good enough to make me wonder what might have become of him had he lived into the Twenties and Thirties. Would he have become a superior Jacob Epstein, would he have succumbed to the Fascist appetite for novocento equestrian monuments, or would he have sculpted his way into decent obscurity as artist-in-residence to the zoo at Antwerp, where most of his best work was done? This time the publishers provide nearly a hundred pages of illustrations, good enough to justify serious speculation of this sort.

The ultimate justification for such speculation, however, would be the light it might throw upon the case of Ettore Bugatti, for the two brothers were role-reversed doppelgängers for each other, Ettore having proposed originally to be an artist—or so he claimed—and Rembrandt having been intended for engineering. Such interchangeable ambitions should be traced to their father, in all probability: not only did he have some mechanical aptitudes—he designed and built an original bicycle that was considerably better looking than his furniture—but he insured that both brothers had an approved moral and manual training in the crafts. An avowed follower of Ruskin and Morris could hardly do otherwise.


However, this leaves us with the startling situation that Ettore Bugatti, one of the most highly regarded automotive engineers of his generation, had no engineering training. He acquired engineering knowledge by what he himself termed “observation,” which other, less well-disposed, engineers were inclined to call plagiarism—though even they could admit that it was copying of an order that was close to genius at times. The ability to be such a “quick read” of machinery seems to have derived in part from his thorough grounding in the crafts, which gave him a good sense of materials, and his artistic background, which gave him a well-trained (though far from infallible) “eye” As an inventor he was prolific, with hundreds of patents to his name, but hardly original. His work is commonly described as “conservative” by his admirers, but admirers and detractors alike are still prepared to excuse his faults because his automobiles were often so beautiful.

There were one or two dissenters from this opinion. The radical French automotive designer J-A Gregoire, for instance, singled out Bugatti’s engines “with their straight sides and polished surfaces behind which manifolds and accessories lay hidden” as being less beautiful “than many American engines surrounded as they are with forests of wires and bits and pieces and designed without thought for line.” Gregoire’s attempt to épater les ingénieurs was partly the ill temper of a disappointed man, but it also had a kernel of functionalist truth in it—hidden manifolds and accessories make servicing and repair very difficult.

Bugatti’s reputation clearly benefited from the circumstance that he came fresh to the automobile business around 1900 when the basic inventions were safely done, but everything else remained to be worked out and fixed in canonical forms that were to continue virtually undisturbed until the emergence of a new kind of genius, typified by Ferdinand Porsche, with his Volkswagen and his Auto Union racing cars, in the mid-Thirties. So wide open was the situation that Bugatti had his first contract as a designer—for De Dietrich at Niederbronn in Alsace—before he was twenty-one (Carlo signed the contract; Ettore was still a legal minor). Not all things in his early career worked out as intended, but most were to his advantage; by 1908 he was in Cologne as consultant designer for the established firm of Deutz Gasmotoren (which is how his work came to the pavilion designed by Walter Gropius). He was still only twenty-six, but three years later he was out on his own as an independent manufacturer, back in Alsace, at Molsheim, which was to be his headquarters for the rest of his life.

Not only was his home base—with its grand seigniorial style of housekeeping—now fixed, but so was the pattern of his life and the style of his engineering. The Type 10 with which he began independent manufacturing has always been recognized as the first true Bugatti pur sang, “unmistakably a Bugatti.” That was another way of saying that it was much like all other Bugattis, and more like the very last “real” Bugattis of the late Thirties than, say, Henry Ford’s Model T was like the equally “real” Fords of that decade, such as the V-8.

As Hugh Conway pointed out in his essay on Ettore in The Amazing Bugattis—a vastly better book than the one by Dejean—the clutch mechanism of the Type 10 continued in use in Bugattis almost unmodified until 1935. It was a good clutch—it should have been, since it had been “observed” from Deutz, just as the style of the Bugatti radiator badge had been, and the whole concept of the Type 10 had been “observed” from Isotta-Fraschini. These overt plagiarisms raise their own questions; in a world tied up in enforceable patents, they should have been actionable offenses, but they never led to wars of litigation like those which George Baldwin Selden of Rochester, New York, conducted against everyone in the US who offered to make any kind of automobile at all.

If, however, one thinks of “art” rather than “industry,” the issue vanishes; Ettore’s debts to Deutz or Isotta-Fraschini become more like those of his brother to Barye and Rodin, or Leonardo da Vinci’s to Verrocchio, or any great artist to his masters. But was Bugatti a “great” artist? For a man of such temperament, who relied so heavily on his “eye,” he had a strangely fallible aesthetic sense at times. The bodywork of his earlier cars, it was often observed, could be mean and unattractive in design, and the spectacular later carrosseries were all the work of his son Jean. Long before Jean entered the business, however, there had been a significant change in Bugatti body styling, beginning with the Type 35 of 1924.


This was the car on which his reputation was really built; enormously successful in competition, it was also the first to catch the art deco flavor of the times, the first to be awarded the inevitable accolade of “the most beautiful racing car ever built.” For my money, it wasn’t even the most beautiful Bugatti (that would surely be Jean’s Type 59 of 1933), but the point about the visual improvement was well taken, since the improvement itself had been “taken”—almost straight from the bodywork of the Type 805 Fiat of the previous year, as Conway has persuasively argued. However, the Bugatti was still the better-looking car, chiefly because of its more refined detailing and “polished surfaces behind which manifolds and accessories lay hidden.”

Such painstaking and craftsmanly refinement was Bugatti’s real competitive margin, both on the race track and on the showroom floor—as Isadora’s response testifies. Effectively, Bugatti went on designing and improving the same cars over and over again, and finally got to be very, very good at them. They were indeed beautiful and well made (not always the same thing: not for nothing is the Rolls-Royce known as the triumph of craftsmanship over design), and the factory at Molsheim, in its best years, was probably nearer to the Ruskinian dream of a community of dedicated craftsmen than even the workshops of William Morris had been. (Apparently the competitive urge to win auto races was a more powerful spur to craftsmanly cooperation and altruism than any amount of socialist doctrine.)

In a period of comparative stagnation in racing-car design, incremental improvement of reliable components and a sustained high level of quality control were what brought competitive success—that, plus the sheer numbers built—over 300—which guaranteed that Bugattis would effectively outnumber all opposition over the decade between 1924 and 1934.

When stagnation ended, with the 1934 formula for Grand Prix racing which brought in Porsche’s sensational rearengined Auto Unions, the Bugatti tradition of aesthetic refinement became something of a liability. The ripely handsome Type 59—and, having seen one once, I can testify that it really was a gorgeous brute—was no longer “the class” of car racing. Indeed, Jean Bugatti’s masterpiece was an antique almost before it set wheel to road, but it has its place in cultural history as the perfect demonstration of Le Corbusier’s idealized picture of progress in design as the “product of selection applied to a standard…. In order to win you must do better than your rival in every minute point, in the run of the whole thing and in all the details. Thus we get the study of minute points pushed to its limits. Progress.”

“The study of minute points pushed to its limits”—it is difficult to think of a better anticipation of la méthode Bugatti, from Type 35 to Type 59. On the page, however, Le Corbusier used a comparison of the Basilica at Paestum and the Parthenon of Athens at the top, and matched a 1907 Humber against a 1921 Delage below. Had the book been written later (it came out the year before the Type 35), he could have told the whole story with Molsheim products—and probably would have done so, since he liked to use pictures of Bugattis to prove other points.

Ettore was a deceptive mentor for Le Corbusier, but an almost inevitable one, since the two men were so alike in formation and training. Corbu was, in fact, five years younger, but had received a similar Ruskin/Morris indoctrination in his native Switzerland, had been exposed to German industry and design in the Teens. Like Bugatti, he finally decided to settle in France, and had revolted against the organic curves, hand-wrought surfaces, and polychromy of his early training in favor of a purified geometry of straight lines, cylinders, and slick, highly finished surfaces.

Much of the argument in Le Corbusier’s early polemics was over the superiority in design of engineers who were “not in pursuit of an architectural idea, but guided only by the results of calculation.” But when he looked upon or illustrated the work of Bugatti he saw, not one of his idealized objective calculators, but something more like “son semblable, son frère.” A masterly, cunning, and magnificent assembly of forms, no doubt. But of engineering? No.

When one has said that much, however, one has said too much already, and fallen into a trap that often awaits unwary intellectuals—or “humanities people” as some call them, now that the battle for campus funding is everywhere joined in the form of “computer engineering versus the rest.” It is the trap of defending non-engineering activities by setting up an exaggerated straw man labeled “the Engineer” as a scapegoat for everything one doesn’t like, and then forgetting that he is merely a polemical device, not someone having actual existence.

The classic case of this misprision of rhetoric is the well-known notional engineer who can’t start work until he has assembled all the “raw materials and tools expressely conceived and procured for the purposes of the project.” This engineer has no existence in the real world, only in the preamble to La Pensée sauvage, and in simple-minded texts by humanities people too dumb to see that this is not an anthropological description of engineers, but an expository device advanced by Lévi-Strauss to set off his (equally notional) bricoleur who, on the contrary, won’t wait for the right components to come in, but cobbles his creations together out of whatever he finds lying around the shop and adapts his project to their limitations.

All engineers that I know bricolate most of the time, conceptually at least. They use components, procedures, and concepts that are already to hand; they don’t reinvent the wheel four times over every time they work on a car; nor do they design their own nuts and bolts, spark plugs, switches, or other everyday devices which are already available off the shelf. Also, most engineers that I know have some well-nourished aesthetic preferences and, like Bugatti, pride themselves on having “a good eye.” Le Corbusier knew all this well enough to coin the phrase “The Aesthetic of the Engineer,” and yet the lure of these brain-saving polemical polarities was so powerful that he could not help insisting, in another argument in a different book, that “the engineer” should keep out of aesthetics and “stay fixed and remain a calculator, for his particular justification is to remain within the confines of pure reason.”

Another case of this kind of polemical and polarized rhetoric, applied to the case of Bugatti himself, came to light when I looked up his entry in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. The peroration reads:

il Modus Cogitandi et Operandi del B…. lo esclude dal filone della problematica del sviluppo aziendale e delle organizazzione industriale, che negli stessi anni aveva in H. Ford il massimo attore. Il B. appartiene piutosto a questa filone della storia della cultura che, partendo delle ardente polemiche di J. Ruskin e W. Morris per una rinascitá dell’artigianato di qualitá, attraverso l’Art Nouveau arrive all’Industrial Design precedente la seconda guerra mondiale. Tipico in questo senso, perche si contrappone alla caracteristica forma di schema illuministica e a tabula rasa della mentalita del tecnico e dell’industriale, era il valore da lui attribuito al passato: “Il nous serait possible d’advancer beaucoup plus rapidement dans tous les domaines si notre suffisance ne nous faisait oublier et dédaigner ce qui c’est fait avant nous.2

At first blush this is vastly more intelligent and well informed than most of what usually gets written for or against heroes of technology, but the old standard “humanities” shortcut thinking still shows through. Just because Henry Ford said (once) “History is bunk” it does not mean that he was any more averse to learning from other people’s earlier experience than was Bugatti. Both bricolated “observations” from other designers’ works, but Ford also offered judgments on History with a capital H, a topic on which I do not believe we have the views of Il B. at all.

Notice, however, the way in which Ford and Bugatti have here been set up on opposite sides of some mythical divide between culture on the one hand, and business and industry on the other, as if Ford was never an intuitive, or Bugatti a smart, businessman. Conway, still on the subject of the “most beautiful” Type 35, drew attention to a letter in which Bugatti explained that he had abandoned his previous body styles “simply with the object of obtaining a more elegant shape to facilitate sales.” Since the total sales of the Type 35 and its direct derivatives are supposed to have exceeded 350—an astonishing figure for a specialist manufacturer in the small market of the time—this was as smart a styling decision as was ever made by any sales manager in Detroit.

Ford and Bugatti are not opposites, but simply occupy different positions along a scale that might extend in theory from one pole to another, but clusters the pioneers of the automobile somewhere on the artist/bricoleur side of center. Where the Dizionario is right, for the wrong reasons and in spite of what has just been said, is in associating Bugatti and “culture”—though not quite in the sense intended there. Henry Ford was not part of fashionable culture as Europe understood it in those Train Bleu days, and his views on History are about par for someone who didn’t much care if he wasn’t.

Bugatti emphatically was. The lordly ménage at Molsheim and its royal visitors are pefectly appropriate to the man who tried to beat Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suiza at their own game by building the monstrous Type 41 Royale—the “car of kings which no king ever bought” but which the Swedish art impresario Pontus Hultén included (of course, being a member of fashionable culture himself) in the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Machine” exhibition of 1968.3 Bugatti was an inhabitant of that world, as well as a purveyor of vehicles to it. He shared its aristocratic values and pandered (better than it deserved, no doubt) to its passions for expensive custom-made elegance.

That was Isadora Duncan’s world as well, Soviet adventures notwithstanding. One cannot imagine her lusting after a Ford, and for her to have died in one would have been less significant than messy. But to announce, as she did, “Je vais à la gloire!” and then go straight out and get garroted by a Bugatti, was so appropriate that it must stand as an example of that very epitome of Western culture, tragic death in the grand manner. We may deplore the loss of her life, but we may find ourselves tempted to applaud the immaculate sense of style shown in the choice of a racing Bugatti as the vehicle of her doom.

This Issue

November 7, 1985