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The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism

by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

THE LITERARY WORK

A manifesto set in the first decade of the twentieth century; published in French (as Le Futurisme) in 1909, in Italian and English later in 1909.

SYNOPSIS

The manifesto proclaims the program and ideology of Futurism—the first European avantgarde movement—which shuns tradition and embraces technology, war, and aggressive action.

Events in History at the Time of the Manifesto

The Manifesto in Focus

For More Information

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was born December 22, 1876, to Italian parents in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father amassed a fortune through speculation and service as a lawyer to the Egyptian ruler. At home, young Filippo spoke Italian, but he received a French education at a Jesuit school. The school ultimately expelled him because of his deep admiration for the writings of Émile Zola, which were banned by the Church. Marinetti went on to study literature in Paris, France. After receiving his baccalaureate in 1894, he studied law in Pavia and in Genoa, Italy, but then pursued a literary career. Marinetti commuted between Paris and Milan, writing, and publishing the journal Poesia (Poetry), which served as a forum for such other important writers of his day as France’s Alfred Jarry and Germany’s Arno Holz. A versatile writer as well as a publisher, Marinetti generated poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. His first long work, a novel about a cruel African leader—Marfarka the Futurist (1909)—was banned in Italy because of the work’s pornographic details. That same year, having established himself as a prominent artist and intellectual, Marinetti produced The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (more commonly known as The Futurist Manifesto). The manifesto became the foundational document of a new artistic movement—Futurism—which called for a rejection of the past and a celebration of modern innovation and aggressive action. Living up to his precepts, Marinetti became involved in several military campaigns in the 1910s (in the Turkish-Italian war in Libya and as a war correspondent in the Balkans). His Futurist movement meanwhile flourished, especially between 1909 and 1916, when its members declaimed their program throughout Europe. The first manifesto was followed by more than two dozen other manifestos over several decades, on everything from painting to literature, theater, marriage, fashion, cuisine, and architecture. Fusing the arts with the rest of society instead of adopting the traditional perception of them as part of a separate sphere, the Futurist movement gained for Marinetti a reputation as the “caffeine of Europe,” though there were many in Italy who took him less than seriously.

Events in History at the Time of the Manifesto

Futurism and the industrial revolution

Formulated at the beginning of the twentieth century, Italian Futurism glorified industrial and technological progress. Automobiles, trains, airplanes, and all the different usages of electricity—from street lighting to telegraphy—surfaced in works of art as symbols for the advent of modern times.

Industrial development climaxed on the Italian peninsula in the first half of the nineteenth century; in the second half, the steel and coal industries were already declining but there were advances in the chemical and electrical sciences to compensate. This latter half of the century was the era of multiple inventions—from the internal combustion engine, to the gramophone, cinema, x-ray technology, and the use of electricity as a public source of light and power. People everywhere celebrated the inventions, which promised to irrevocably change daily life. Especially lauded were transport-related landmarks—the completion of the Trans-Siberian railroad in 1902, the Paris-Madrid car race of 1903, the Peking-Paris car race of 1907, all associated with a quickening of life, with the element of speed.

Communication too benefited from all the developments. The nineteenth century had seen an increase in the flow of printed news through journals and newspapers, a development greatly hastened by the invention of the rapid linotype press in 1886 (it was in fact the linotype press that would make possible the vast manifesto production of the Futurists). Along with the growth of print into mass media, came revolutionary developments in long-distance communication. In Italy, the engineer Guglielmo Marconi made wireless communication possible by inventing the Marconi antenna; already in 1901 Marconi proved that radio signals could be transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean. The invention of wireless transmission gave rise to a host of innovations in long-distance communication, including the birth of the radio, which enabled simultaneous mass communication.

The radio was not the only new machine used to broaden communication. In 1911 the liquor distiller Cinzano employed an airplane to distribute the first real “flyers” over Milan, and other enterprising entrepreneurs followed suit. The Futurists embraced first the automobile, then the airplane, as their symbol of speed. Along with combat or aggressive action, rapidity became the highest of values. Speed, combat, youth, the machine—Futurism esteemed whatever propelled humanity forward and dismissed the past as debilitating, especially in Italy, a country seen as “infested with professors, archeologists, guides, and antique dealers” (Del Antonelli, p. 79). Surrounded by all the inventions of the age, The Futurist Manifesto declared that time and space died yesterday; they no longer mattered. In such a world, art ought to be fused with, not separate from, society and politics—hence the writing of manifestoes on food, women, and family’s as well as literature, painting, and theater. It was the artists’ job, the Futurists taught, to adopt a revolutionary mentality, to overcome the status quo and introduce a dream, an ideal. In order to do so, one had to defeat impediments posed by the existing social order, which explains the esteem for combat. It also explains the alignment of Futurism with other philosophies and iconoclastic movements of the day.

From positivism to heroism

In the late nineteenth century, positivism held sway in much of Europe. A philosophy formulated in France by Auguste Comte (1798-1857), positivism differed from traditional systems of thought. Instead of focusing on the essences of things, for example, it held that the only valid objects of study were facts that could be tested and the relations between such facts. The philosophy was adopted by some Italians, for example, Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), whose studies led him to conclude that the societies of the world should always be run by an elite. But others rejected the philosophy. In Italy, unlike much of Europe, the response to positivism was lukewarm at best. The beginning of the twentieth century even saw a reaction against it, a revival of more speculative approaches to life. Champions of this more speculative approach started the journal La Critica (The Critique) in 1903. Founded by idealist thinkers Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) and Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the journal would establish itself as the most distinguished expression of Italian philosophy for the next four decades.

Two prominent philosophers of the day who caused a stir among European intellectuals and also countered the positive approach were Germany’s Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and France’s Henri Louis Bergson (1859–1941). The two formulated ideas that Marinetti may or may not have read directly (probably he encountered them through the works of others—the ideas enjoyed vigorous circulation at the time). Most prominently, in his major work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche developed the concept of the “Superman.” The Superman forges his own individuality, liberating himself from Western tradition and morality; he formulates his own values, basing them completely on earthly life without any anticipation of transcendence. At the core of Bergson’s philosophy stands the élan vital, or life force, an explanation for alteration and innovation in the evolution of civilization. Bergson pits his organic conception of growth against the merely mechanical idea of progress, taking more fully into account the element of artistic creativity than his predecessors had.

Nietzsche and Bergson generated ideas that, however indirectly, probably provided impetus for the launching of the Futurist movement. Another such personality is Georges Sorel (1847-1922), a French engineer whose writings were instrumental in the formation of syndicalism, a movement that advocated sabotage, general strikes, and other forms of direct action to bring industry and government under the control of federations of labor unions. Marinetti is known to have read Sorel’s political manifestoes and essays, which spoke of heroic combat as a key condition of life, necessary for the well-being of society. Rejecting reform and evolution as too mild, Sorel argued that workers had to trust their ability to fight for power, that they needed to take the initiative to shape their own future through revolutionary action. He and others like him had little faith in democracy or capitalism and dismissed the idea of joining a socialist political party. Showing a cynicism born of past experience, they decided that such a party, forced to participate in a bourgeois government, would become corrupt and could accomplish little in a sea of political parties.

Italian political disarray at the turn of the twentieth century

The political climate in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century was marked by a frequent change of conservative and liberal governments. The two most important politicians of the era were Francesco Crispi and Giovanni Giolitti, both liberals. Crispi, who became prime minister in 1887, was an eloquent, passionate patriot who fought in the mid-nineteenth-century Risorgimento for the unification of Italy. His administration instituted strong policies and reforms: the state gained new powers to regulate public health and charitable institutions; it supported the monarchy; and it established Italian colonies in northeast Africa. Financial matters led to Crispi’s fall in 1891 and for a brief year, in 1892, the less progressive Giolitti came to power. He was the first major politician of the era not to have participated in the Risorgimento and throughout his career, his refusal to engage in patriotic bombast made him vulnerable to the accusation that he lacked ideals. He belonged to the Liberal Party (a moderate group). His premiership was ended by a bank scandal, and Crispi returned to power in 1893, only to lose it three years later when a catastrophic colonial expedition to Abyssinia aborted his political career.

Giolitti regained political power in 1903, opening a dialogue with the labor movement and in 1912 introducing universal male suffrage. Italy meanwhile competed with European nations for “a place in the sun,” waging war against Turkey in 1911–12 and gaining Libya as a colony in the process. Yet these achievements are overshadowed by what was not done. Giolitti did not try to remedy the social injustice that was pushing the peasants and workers ever closer to revolutionary ideologies. Nor did he use state power to guarantee the privileges of the wealthy. The Giolittian system of politics was a skillful balancing act that required Giolitti to cooperate with radicals, republicans, moderate socialists, and finally Catholics in his governing coalitions. His system of politics succeeded in balancing the most powerful groups in Italy but did not secure the peace. Moreover, corruption raged during Giolitti’s tenure—votes were bought and sold, electors manipulated, and elections rigged.

Sorel, among others, sought to overthrow democracy and capitalism, not, in his case, through terrorist bloodshed but by way of a general strike. For Marinetti and Futurist ideology, on the other hand, war and violence were central. The Futurists thought of these forces as tools that could be used to “clean” out the residue of outworn traditions, paving the way for new possibilities, as articulated in the Futurist manifesto “La Guerra, sola igiene del mondo” (“War, the sole hygiene of the world”). Far from a pessimistic worldview, the movement promoted the idea that humanity—through an exercise of will on the part of some forward-thinking individuals—could achieve anything.

THE NEWLY MANUFACTURED AUTOMOBILE—FRIEND OR FOE?

Although automobile production energized the Italian economy, Fiat and Lancia produced cars mainly for very rich buyers. This made the automobile drivers of Marinetti’s day a popular attraction; reports about speed records and spectacular accidents filled the newspapers. Was the car a friend or foe in the eyes of the Futurists? In these early days, cars did not offer much comfort. Their combustion engines were relatively dangerous; uncontrolled explosions occurred haphazardly and often. This hardly discouraged the Futurists: it was precisely the chaotic, risky nature of the combustion engine that so attracted them. “All three attributes [of engines]—power, danger, and unreliability—are advantageous from Marinetti’s viewpoint since they permit the development of a body/machine complex founded on notions of struggle, sacrifice, feverish effort, and expenditure” (Schnapp, Propeller Talk, p. 161). The Futurists, despite their attraction to it, conceived of the automobile as adversary. Technology was an enemy to be bested or at least disciplined. In keeping with such ideas, the Futurist Manifesto used combative imagery in connection with the automobile; “I stretched out on my car like a corpse on Its bier”, says the narrator, “but revived at once under the steering wheel, a guillotine blade that threatened my stomach” (Marinetti, Futurist Manifesto, p. 40). In general, a Futurist such as Marinetti saw himself neither as just a mechanical supplement to the machine nor as a master in absolute control of it. There was an ambivalent lovehate relationship at work: on the one hand, the Futurists admired the precise mechanics of machines; on the other hand, they regarded such a mechanism as a powerful and dangerous adversary that they must try to control.

Italian economic disparity at the dawn of the twentieth century

At the turn of the twentieth century, Italy was still an agricultural country, despite its industrial progress over the past hundred years; in 1911, the majority—59 per cent of all employed adults—still worked in the countryside (Clark, p. 127). Still, the first decade of the new century saw enormous growth in the Italian economy. Between 1899 and 1907 the national income rose by nearly 38 per cent (Lyttelton, p. 18), and the North was more fully industrialized, becoming home to the typewriter manufacturing of the Olivetti company and the automobile manufacturing of Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo. These new industries contributed to a worldwide economic boom at the time, yet many in Italy benefited little from this boom.

The ability to harness hydroelectric power from the water of the Alps promoted modernization in northern Italian cities, particularly in Milan, where Marinetti lived. In 1893 Milan became the second city in the world with electric street lighting and an electric tram, innovations that encouraged urban expansion. The population in Milan soared, exceeding a half million inhabitants by 1911 (Clark, p. 164). But the economic growth was concentrated in northern Italy and in the Po Valley. The gap between the industrialized North and rural South became ever more apparent, as the economic boom bypassed the mezzogiorno (Italian South). Many southerners reacted by emigrating from the country to America and elsewhere. Such was the state of Italy when The Futurist Manifesto was written.

Italian cultural evolution by the turn of the twentieth century

The cultural landscape of Italy at the end of the nineteenth century was marked by great diversity. The Risorgimento was a period of upheaval. Establishing an economic base for Italy was regarded as more important than developing a new artistic tradition to represent the fledgling nation. Art created in the second half of the nineteenth century reflected bourgeois preferences. The dominant voices looked for their new country’s cultural foundation to the previous glories of the Italian peninsula—to ancient Roman aesthetic traditions and to long-established authors such as Dante and Petrarch: “In social terms, this reliance on ancient models and ideas was important, because it invoked symbols and notions with which everybody was familiar, particularly through the ubiquitous Roman monuments and ruins which littered most Italian cities” (Beales and Biagini, p. 9). There emerged a number of intellectual groups whose members objected to this tendency, criticizing the admiration of past ideals and advocating the construction of a fresh artistic identity for Italy. Two of the most important art movements of the day were scapigliatura and verismo. A literary movement of the 1860s, scapigliatura (means “disheveled” or “unkempt”) showed disdain for piety and the established values of bourgeois and upper-class culture. The movement denigrated the conservative lifestyle and praised drug use and promiscuity. The other movement, verismo, flourished from 1878 to 1890. Related to French naturalism, it featured writers who attempted, through precise observation and stylistic impersonality, to depict social reality, especially that of the rural South. Highlighting the inequity between North and South, verist writers also exposed discontent among members of the new urban working class.

Along with these movements, it must be noted that not all late-nineteenth-century writing in Italy came packaged with a prescriptive type of social consciousness. Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote “Decadent” novels that are anything but critical of their aristocratic protagonists from a moral or sociological angle. Decadent, a term for the literary culture of late-nineteenth-century Italy, has also been used to designate literature of the era that highlighted the insincere, politically cynical, and superficial, all part of an outer display cloaking an inner emptiness in upper-class society. To writers like D’Annunzio, this condition of emptiness was not a negative facet; rather they celebrated it as a sign of the aristocratic, antibourgeois lifestyle.

Within this cultural mix, the Futurist movement became another player in literary efforts to define Italy, offering the still new country a nationalistic program of strength and force that opposed classical tradition and embraced the modern. In northern cities like Genoa and Milan, says one cultural historian, “modernity was powerfully experienced as the everyday clash of cultural tradition with … industrial innovation. Marinetti’s basic insight was that such a struggle was relentless, unpitying, and weighted in favour of the modern” (Nicholls, p. 85). Not only an artistic movement, Futurism also styled itself as a social and political force. Again, the Futurists set out to overhaul a society riven by disarray and disparity. Such a revolutionary goal, they taught, demanded a violent rejection of the past, including the overthrow of old rules and themes in favor of the modern.

The Manifesto in Focus

Contents summary

The overall intent of the manifesto is to proclaim its principles in simple, outline form for a general audience. Nonetheless, the text constitutes a complex artistic document. It includes an introductory narrative; eleven statements that compose the programmatic agenda of Futurism; and a concluding polemic against Italian society.

The introduction. At the outset, a first-person narrator, presumably Marinetti, situates himself and his companions within an exotic environment. On soft oriental rugs under lamps with “electric hearts” they discuss the night away in a narcotic, half-conscious state that teeters on the “borders of logic” (Futurist Manifesto, p. 39). However fantastic it seems, the setting can be understood as a concrete place (Marinetti’s apartment in Milan, decorated with souvenirs from his time in Egypt). Identifying with workers operating powerful industrial machines, the narrator and his guests consider themselves the only fully awake individuals in the modern world. They think of themselves as an avant-garde contingent of humanity, as forerunners of a new era.

FUTURISM AND WOMEN

The Futurist Manifesto declares scorn for woman and a war on feminism. Does this mean that hatred of women was a characteristic of Futurism? It has been argued that we need to look beyond the words of the Manifesto. First, Marinetti repudiated his phrase “scorn for woman” as an inexact way of describing his dislike of “’the ideal woman in works of the Imagination’” and also qualified his remarks in a new preface to the work in 1910 that says his real opposition is to ‘“the sentimental significance’ attributed to women” (Marinetti in Nicholls, p. 89). Secondly Futurism embraced social reforms (divorce, universal suffrage, equal pay) favorable to women (Nicholls, p. 88). Thirdly, though Futurism at first remained closed to women, there were notable exceptions and ultimately its policy changed. One of the exceptions was Valentine de Saint-Point (1875-1953), Mariner’s friend and lover, who wrote her own Manifesto of the Futurist Woman (1912), and followed it up with a second Futurist work—the Manifesto of Lust (1913).

Suddenly the city awakens, the noise of a morning tram interrupting the private scene. A train passes; then another sound intrudes, the roaring of “hungry cars” (Futurist Manifesto, p. 39). Calling for action, the narrator proclaims a new mythology, that of the machine, which will triumph over the memory of the old Western world. But first there is work to be done—it is time now, says the narrator, to chase Death.

The Futurists jump up, leave the house, and with erotic desire approach the automobiles. (“We went up to the snorting beasts, to lay amorous hands on their torrid breasts” [Futurist Manifesto, p. 40].) The narrator climbs into a car and starts driving, or rather racing recklessly, down a road. Forced to stop for two bicycle riders, he loses control of his car, and it lands in a ditch full of industrial waste, with blackened mud. Bystanders haul out the car. Up it comes, but without its body or upholstery. The crowd deems it “dead,” but no problem—Marinetti can revive it easily enough. Even though the car has been destroyed, he can start the engine.

The basic manifesto. Laying out the Futurist agenda, the manifesto sets forth eleven programmatic points through a succession of aphorisms.

1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.

2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.

3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action….

4. We say that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing car … is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth….

6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.

7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces….

8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! … Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.

9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.

10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals … and [of] the sleek flight of planes whose propellers … seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

(Futurist Manifesto, pp. 41-42)

First comes the love of danger and the fearlessness of Futurist men. Secondly courage and rebellion are touted as elements of Futurist poetry. The ten remaining elements echo the love of danger and denigrate traditional forms of culture, art, and memory. Central to the manifesto is Marinetti’s aesthetic program, which holds that beauty was, is, and will always exist only as struggle. In battle, there is beauty, implies the manifesto when it lauds war as the only “hygiene” of the world. Speed, the fourth point, is beauty too. The modern works of engineering, a racecar, for instance, contain more splendor than the “Victory of Samothrace,” a classical sculpture of the goddess Nike (victory) that was discovered just a few decades earlier (in 1863) on the Greek isle of Samothrace. The manifesto’s declaration that time and space are dead suggests that the velocity of modern transport and communication has put Marinetti’s era into an a-historical dimension, separating it from all other ages (“we have created eternal, omnipresent speed” [Futurist Manifesto, p. 41]). Incorporating the human dimension, the Manifesto glorifies the representative of modern society, the automobile driver, then praises the phenomena of industrialized urban life, from city crowds to electric lighting.

In the last point of the manifesto, Marinetti again praises the symbols of the modern world. He applauds the great crowds, the metropolis, the war, trains, and automobiles. Emphatically he regards these symbols as the promise for an even faster, more complex and more technological Futurist world to come.

The conclusion. The end of the manifesto addresses what it sees as an Italy entrapped in an ideology of the past, a country that seems to the writer to be in dire need of wresting itself free. He argues against the traditionalist society of Italy in 1909, characterizing it as a land governed by traditionalism in a culturally codified way. Professors, archeologists, antiquarians are passatista (traditionalists) to the detriment of the country; by preserving Italian traditions, they retard or countermand any orientation towards future. Museums are graveyards, and visits to these memorial sites are debilitating to modern men. One ought to visit museums only once a year and then to place a funeral wreath on paintings such as the Mona Lisa. Energy must be redirected onto the present and future.

After this polemic, the narrator reflects on the future of Futurism itself. If the movement is correct in its glorification of eternal progress, the passage of years condemns it to becoming passatistic, or traditional too. In the future, other, younger artists will bristle against the Futurist ideals of art. The narrator gives himself and his coworkers a decade to achieve change before being replaced by younger men. He welcomes the challenge, declaring that this antagonism constitutes the true dynamic of every art. “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice,” or the climax of conflict (Futurist Manifesto, p. 43).

DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER

Apolemical tone runs through the entire Manifesto. The text strategically defies social taboos, assailing treasured sites of cultural memory and openly exhibiting misogyny, or hatred of women, In a prefatory comment, the work’s first publisher, the French newspaper Le Figaro, distances itself from the Manifesto, calling it a collection of new and radical ideas

The Figaro, which has already provided a rostrum for a number of these schools, and by no means minor ones, today offers its readers the Manifesto of the “Futurists”. Is it necessary to say that we assign to the author himself full responsibility for his singularly audacious ideas and his frequently unwarranted extravagances in the face of things that are eminently respectable and, happily, everywhere respected?

(Perloff, p. 82)

The manifesto closes by addressing an imaginary audience. Yelling at any possible objection, the narrator says the Futurists are not interested in it. They stand erect at the top of the world, hurling their forceful “defiance to the stars!” (Futurist Manifesto, p. 44).

A revolution in literature?

“Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry” promises The Futurist Manifesto. Three years later, in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, the movement attempted to prescribe procedures for writers to use as tools for conducting the literary revolt and training the sensibility of modern man. Marinetti prescribed a new type of Futurist poetry, “Parole in liberta” (words in freedom), in this Manifesto of Literature. This poetry abolished traditional syntax, punctuation, and parts of speech such as adjectives. The poetry featured fragmented language, which resembled a message transmitted by the telegraph. In addition to this telegraphic style, Futurist poetry employed modern varieties of typography, several fonts in different sizes, for instance. These strategies in many ways reflected contemporary experiences. On the one hand, they testified to the accelerated

OTHER FUTURIST MANIFESTOES

The Futurist manifestoes covered almost every aspect of life and culture. First came texts such as the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (1910) and the Technical Manifesto of the Futurist Sculpture (1912), which called for innovative ways of representing dynamic forms and events. Next came the Technical Manifesto on Futurist Literature (1912), the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (1914), and The Futurist Cinema (1916) as well as manifestoes on aspects of daily life, like clothing and cooking. The manifesto on Futurist fashion (1914, written by the Futurist painter Balla) called for radical new styles: “WE MUST DESTROY ALL PASSAEIST [Traditionalist] CLOTHES, and everything about them which is tight fitting, colourless, funereal, decadent, boring and unhygienic. As far as materials are concerned, we must abolish: wishy washy, pretty-pretty, gloomy, and neutral colours, along with patterns composed of lines, checks and spots…. WE MUST INVENT FUTURIST CLOTHES, hap-hap-hap-hap-happy clothes, daring clothes with brilliant colours and dynamic lines” (Osborn) Marinetti’s attack on pasta in his manifesto of Futurist cooking (1930) is probably the baldest example of the ideology’s opposition to all things traditional:

Above all we believe necessary:

a) The abolition of pastaciutta, an absurd Italian gastronomic religion. It may be that a diet of cod, roast beef and steamed pudding is beneficial to the English, cold cuts and cheese to the Dutch, and sauerkraut, smoked [salt] pork and sausages to the Germans, but pasta is not beneficial to the Italians …

(Osborn)

communication of modern electronic media; on the other hand, they drew on modes of typesetting in everyday culture, in, for example, commercial posters and newspaper advertisements. The inclusion of facets of everyday culture became an innovative aspect of Futurist art in general.

One of the most prominent texts of Futurist writing was Marinetti’s novel Zang Tumb Tumb (1914), which describes the battle of Adrianopolis in 1912. Already on the title page, Marinetti plays with the graphic dimension of the printed words Zang Tumb Tumb in such a way that they resemble a canon on the battlefield. The text on the cover is a complex mix of graphic design, onomatopoetic expressions, and seemingly endless rows of juxtaposed words smattered on the page without syntactic order.

Futurist poems were published in the movement’s own magazines, and were also translated and printed in important literary and artistic journals all over Europe. Marinetti aimed for an international revolution of poetic language; he wrote a collection of French poems “Les mots en liberté futuristes” (1919; The Futurist Words in Freedom) explicitly to target an international audience; to be sure, the poetry provoked energetic discussions among European intellectuals. One of the most prominent critics, the German author Alfred Döblin, accused Marinetti of producing senseless juxtapositions of unrelated words. In contrast, Marinetti’s poetics inspired August Stramm, a prominent German expressionistic poet, to develop his famous telegram style. A more ambivalent response came from the Dada movement, an artistic experiment with sound poems and textual collages. Founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916, the Dada movement adopted poetic strategies from the Futurists but strongly opposed their commitment to violence, power, and war.

Sources and literary context

Some of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto harks back to real-life experience. The car crash at the start of the manifesto recalls a key moment in Marinetti’s life. Just a few months before writing the piece, Marinetti had a similar experience. On the morning of October 15, 1908, he was driving his car when a bicyclist suddenly appeared, Marinetti lost control of the vehicle, and it flipped into a ditch. The writer survived without injury.

Less obviously, The Futurist Manifesto was influenced by developments of the age in which it was written, but to speak about particular influences on Futurism is a controversial topic. On the one hand, Futurism absorbed major currents of its age, and on the other hand, it claimed to be born out of the absolute and thus to be without history or tradition. Some intellectuals such as Germany’s Karl Vossler recognized in Futurism the end and not the beginning of an art movement: “But you [Marinetti] will surely be disappointed because it [Vossler’s book] treats Futurism … as the final expression of a movement that starts with Romanticism” (Schnapp, Gorilla Art, p. 669). Indeed, the Futurist Manifesto itself alludes to prior literary traditions, such as symbolism and Decadentism, both of which it views as forceless.

Futurism distinguished itself as the first artistic avant-garde movement. Avant-garde, a term that by then referred to the cultural/artistic elite, has been applied to several early-twentieth-century artistic movements, from Futurism to Dadaism, expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. Perhaps most influential on these later movements was the Futurist effort to capture elements of modern life even as it was being shaped. Italian Futurism especially influenced German expressionism. The impact on the Dada movement in Switzerland has already been noted. In France, surrealism showed the effect of Futurist techniques—the surrealist strategy of automatic writing can be traced back to Futurist concepts. Another avant-garde art movement emerged in Russia in 1912. Also called Futurism, its members quickly claimed independence from the Italian avant-garde.

Publication and reception

The Futurists, especially Marinetti, actively and eagerly informed the public about their new vision of modern life. They toured Italy and Europe, making proclamations that elicited public outrage in capital cities on the continent. These proclamations were staged events, serate, or evenings of public performances of Futurist art. The performers presented poems, music, pictures, and the manifestoes themselves. So belligerent was the attitude of the performers that they riled the spectators into a frenzy, which led to angry riots. Crowds threw old vegetables and entered into fistfights with the Futurists. In fact, the Futurist performances became renowned as chaotic events rather than as exhibitions of modern art, a development that the Futurist performers anticipated.

A number of Italian intellectuals welcomed the Futurist call for movement, speed, and aggressive action. Benedetto Croce, the foremost Italian literary critic of the day, was not one. His disdain for Futurism dominated the literary response in Italy. One reaction, to a serata at the Teatro Lirico in Milan, is particularly telling. Marinetti and his companions had by this time become laughingstocks in his hometown. There was a cartoon of the group that showed them at the police station, with an accompanying caption that read: “’I’ve seen them led away, just when they reached the climax. I don’t know if they were taken to the jail, or directly to the madhouse’” (Berghaus, p. 49).

Given all this notoriety, it is hardly surprising that the Futurists influenced European avant-garde movements, even those that denied inspiration from or sympathies for Italian Futurism. In retrospect, 42 years after Futurism appeared, the German poet Gottfried Benn delivered a speech (Problems of Lyric/Probleme der Lyrik [1951]), in which he acknowledged the fundamental impact of the movement: “The founding moment of modern art in Europe was the publication of the Futurist Manifesto by Marinetti, which was released on February 20, 1909, in Paris by Le Figaro” (Benn, p. 508; trans. A. Niebisch).

—Arndt Niebisch

For More Information

Beales, Derek, and Eugenio F. Biagini. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. New York: Longman, 2002.

Benn, Gottfried. “Probleme der Lyrik.” In Gottfried Benn: Essays und Reden. Ed. Bruno Hillebrand. Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag, 1989.

Berghaus, Günter. Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909-1944. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1996.

Clark, Martin. Modern Italy 1871-1995. New York: Longman, 1996.

Del Antonelli, Karen. “Marinetti: From Manifesto to Machine Gun: A Study of the Works of F. T. Marinetti from 1909 to 1916.” PhD diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979.

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Changes 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Lyttelton, Adrian, ed. Liberal and Fascist Italy: 1900-1945. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Futurist Manifesto. In Marinetti: Selected Writings. Ed. R. W. Flint. Trans. R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

Nicholls, Peter. Modernisms: A Literary Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Osborn, Bob. Futurism and the Futurists. http://www.futurism,org.uk,futurism.htm.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Schnapp, T. Jeffery. “’Gorilla Art’: On an Unpublished Letter from Karl Vossler to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.” Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 4 (2002): 667-73.

_____. “Propeller Talk.” Modernism/Modernity 1, no. 3 (1994): 153-78.

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