“In my own village,” the filmmaker Luis Buñuel said of his birthplace in rural Spain, “the Middle Ages lasted until World War I.” Buñuel would escape the dead hand of the past through surrealism. But the Italian writer FT Marinetti went one better: he invented futurism, launched like a political movement through a manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro on 20 February 1909.
When Marinetti wrote the manifesto, he was futurism’s sole adherent. But his very words wllled into being the movement he wrote about. Art became life. Other manifestos would follow, covering everything from architecture, cinema and menswear to music hall, syntax and lust.
At its core, futurism was the idea that modernity and its rampant scientific advances changed what it meant to be human. People who used these new technologies, Marinetti would later write, “are not aware of the decisive influence that these various forms of communication, transportation, and information have on their psyches”.
For Marinetti, this new human sensibility required the creative destruction of all institutions. Respect for the past was mere passéism. Museums, libraries, academies: all mere varieties of graveyard. Youth, speed and technology were the thing now; futurist artist Giacomo Balla was so enamoured of the latter he named his daughters Elica and Luce, Propeller and Light.
As his use of Le Figaro showed, Marinetti understood the value of the mass media. He also understood the value of outrage. He was delighted to be prosecuted for obscenity for his 1910 novel Mafarka futurista, the eponymous hero of which has an 11-metre penis. Futurist evenings, which took place in cities across Italy, mixed poetry recitals and manifesto readings with extended invectives against the audience. Their success was measured, Marinetti said, in abuse rather than applause.
Another distinctive quality of futurism is its celebration of violence as a moral virtue. In this Marinetti followed the kind of anarchist thought vividly expressed by the turn-of-the-century French poet Laurent Tailhade: “What do the victims matter, if the gesture be beautiful?”
Marinetti would ultimately be seduced by that other totalitarian movement in early 20th-century Italy, fascism. He saw no contradiction between anarchism and nationalism; the exultant self-expression that anarchism allowed the individual, nationalism allowed a people. The idea, he wrote, was an “enormous shock for those brains, so-called political, nourished on commonplaces and bookish ideologies, absolutely unable to understand life, race, crowds, individuals”.
Marinetti didn’t live to see the beautiful gesture the Italian people made with his rival Mussolini at the end of the war; he died of a heart attack in the fascist rump state of Salò in December 1944.
This piece first appeared in the February 2021 Months Past column in History Today.