I still don’t quite understand why I suddenly became obsessed with Marinetti. What made me track down even the obscurest of his writings? First editions that had ended up in the far corners of libraries, soon to be deposited into some bunker in the mountains. Sour-smelling volumes, from which decades-old, handwritten borrower’s tickets fell. An edition of all Marinetti’s futurist tracts in a series of Italian classics; as well as his diaries, but only those from 1915–21, in an annotated edition. The thick book lay heavy in my hand. It looked as if it hadn’t been touched by anyone since it was first bought.
Standing in the way of a serious approach was my inadequate Italian. But this only occurred to me after a while, for I had only ever encountered Marinetti’s most well-known text, the futurist manifesto, in its French version. Strangely enough this didn’t surprise me until later. Perhaps because I understand French.
Language is the main protagonist in the futurist sound poems, but the problem of translation disappears when the principle is ZangTumbTuuum. Happy linguistic fragmentation, chains of association, playing around. Later I found out that the translation of Marinetti’s works into German favored his manifesto on futurist cuisine, from 1930. In this pamphlet Marinetti worked through his compatriots’ pasta obsession. But it doesn’t need much insight into human nature to predict that a struggle against the noodle to bring forth a streamlined futurist racial corpus would be futile. As futile as any aesthetically founded attempt to educate the people. In this respect the cooking tract manifests a basic problem of every avant-garde struggle. Or was Marinetti just too far ahead of his time? Self-optimization through correct diet has recently taken a wide hold. And isn’t today’s cult of the body the answer to the actual futurism of the twentieth century, the disappearance of everything physical into the immateriality of digitalization?
I came upon Marinetti’s novel Venezianella e Studentacchio—not by chance considering the work’s title and content—in the Venetian bookshop Toletta, which I look into every time I go to Venice, and every time it has a few less rooms. The work was published from Marinetti’s estate more than a century after the futurist big bang of the manifesto. Marinetti’s youngest daughter and final executor, Luce Marinetti Barbi, sent it to the editor Antonio Riccardi at Mondadori in 2002, a few years before her death in 2009. Even the opening sentences create a pull, while reading as if their author had thrown whole dictionaries into a mixer, turned it up to maximum, and troweled the result onto paper. I laboriously deduced the content from the extensive foreword and afterword, as even friends who spoke Italian, whom I asked for help, swiftly capitulated. The tone was that of an uninterrupted delirium. Was this Marinetti’s last revolt, a final attempt to realize his aesthetic of unfettered words, parole in libertà? There are also indications that it was a roundabout attempt to retrieve his honor, a closing sleight of hand to readjust the tense relationship between futurism and fascism.
At least as remarkable as the novel itself, it seemed to me, was the story of how it was written, which I tried to gather from the commentaries. Marinetti dictated it in 1943, alternately to his wife, Benedetta, and daughters. He and his family had cleared out of Rome to Venice, where they found accommodation in the Casa Ravà, a palazzo near the Rialto with a view of the Canal Grande whose previous Jewish owner had been dispossessed. We shouldn’t draw premature conclusions from this: Marinetti had given over his own house in Rome to friends, a Jewish family from Egypt. The fascist regime, with which Marinetti had been variously but ultimately symbiotically connected since his early days, was close to collapse. Mussolini had been deposed by his last ministers. The Americans were preparing to liberate Rome. Marinetti remained in Venice for almost a year, offered refuge by the very city whose self-regarding decadence he had railed against as a futurist at the turn of the century. For Venice belonged to the Republic of Salò, the last enclave of the fascists.
Three decades previously Marinetti had made bold suggestions to the Venetians about the possible development of their city. Demolish the decaying palazzi, fill the canals with their rubble, lay tramlines, build a naval base: that was the futurist kill or cure, taken from modernizers like Haussmann in Paris. Following a polemical lecture at La Fenice, Marinetti had a Venice-related pamphlet thrown from the campanile onto the Piazza San Marco on July 8, 1910, part of a campaign in which he also blew the horn of modernization in Rome and Florence. Its success was modest. Perhaps because of the adverse genius loci.
For the campanile was a symbol of the will to persist. After its collapse in 1902 it had been rebuilt in its old form, although progressive architects like Otto Wagner advised against it. The Venetians were shrewd. They knew better than Marinetti that they had to live from their grandiose, sullen history. Their future lay neither in a cautious modernization nor in a brutal makeover with uncertain outcome, but in the touristic exploitation of faded glory. Even if just a few decades later this was to attain dimensions no one could possibly have imagined.
Even the tireless Marinetti seems to have admitted the absurdity of his youthful schemes in his last book. For, perhaps inspired by the daily view of the Canal Grande, it contains a hymn by the ailing author to a new Venice, which as far as I was able to understand was allegorically conflated with Venezianella, the novel’s female figure, and described as a hybrid architectural model in Murano glass on the Riva degli Schiavoni. Should we call it a literary glass-blowing orgy, a singular work of art produced by the now outdated avant-garde stratagem of linguistic fragmentation? That would be Marinetti in essence: contradiction and switchbacks at high cadence.
The manuscript lay in a drawer for sixty years. Or under lock and key? Although they certainly championed his legacy, Marinetti’s widow and three daughters probably had little interest in the novel’s publication. Understandably. For the Marinetti mythos was associated with his early work and with futurism, and would only be disturbed by a somewhat bizarre old-age romanzo. The book was first published in 2014, by Oscar Mondadori in a modest paperback edition—though its extensive academic padding gave it the air of something special, in need of interpretation. Marinetti had always been linked to the Mondadori publishing empire, or vice versa. What does it mean in this context that Mondadori is now one of the properties of an ex-prime minister called Berlusconi? In 1941 the Italian writers’ guild had planned a collected edition of Marinetti’s writings, I read in the annotated edition of Marinetti’s Critical Writings, edited by Günter Berghaus in 2006. But the time to erect a philological memorial around him had definitely passed.
After a year in Salò-Venice and the move to Salò, Marinetti wanted to try to enter Switzerland with his family. He must have suspected that the noose was tightening around his neck, that a future in Italy, however it looked after the foreseeable end of fascism, could turn nasty for him. Support for the plan was offered by a friend, the Japanese ambassador to Italy, Shinrokuro Hidaka—who, by the way, ensured the preservation of many of Marinetti’s manuscripts and documents when the family moved from Venice to Salò. The German ambassador in Rome, Rudolf Rahn, a Nazi from day one, was approached. The Axis, once forged as an alliance of convenience between Italy, Germany, and Japan, was still functioning. But why should Switzerland take Marinetti in? While Italy and Europe were being liberated from fascist rule in a battle with many thousands of casualties, the futureless futurist died on December 2, 1944, in the Hotel Splendid in the smart holiday resort of Bellagio on Lake Como. The saving passage to Menaggio, with a short drive to Lugano, was forestalled by Marinetti’s heart attack. He didn’t live to witness the capitulation of the puppet Republic of Salò.
Mussolini ensured that after a discreet family burial Marinetti’s body was exhumed and reburied with all ceremony in the Cimitero Centrale in Milan. A few months later, in late April 1945, Mussolini was shot. Would Marinetti have shared a similar fate? Would he have had to account for his complicity with Mussolini, whom he had occasionally criticized—by condemning his anti-Semitism, for example—but never distanced himself from? Perhaps Marinetti had become a maneuverer, tired of always having to bounce back. Did he guess that his martial visions of the future, which coupled an overcoming of the ossified Novecento with a glorification of war and violence, were finally over and done with? That the go-ahead futurist spirit, despite its positive elements, was compromised for all time by its sinister closeness to fascist politics? Was this a reason for his heart failure? Or was it actually, as the biographical texts suggest, a delayed effect of his enthusiastic military service as a veteran, traveling aged over sixty to the eastern front near Stalingrad, even though he completed this service as an observer at a safe distance from the front line.
Marinetti chose the worst possible time for his escape attempt. The Swiss had long realized that their carefully nurtured image of neutrality during the Nazi years would no longer protect their reputation in a Europe devastated by war. Offering asylum to such a prominent pamphleteer and fascist affiliate would have been a very bad move at this point in time. Did the relevant agencies, if they received any applications at all, know that just before his death Marinetti was working on a cycle of poems in praise of the tenth squadron of the Italian royal navy—an elite unit still under the control of the fascists? Difficult to figure the man out.
Wait. More than by Marinetti—whose bleating futurism I increasingly began to interpret as an attempt by the spoilt son of an Italian lawyer grown rich in the colonial service in Egypt to make a name for himself and hide his problems of identity and integration—I had been seduced by the mythos of futurism. The energy, the assertive force, the utopian demands that propelled it. The mystery of the first of several avant-gardes that gave modernism its impetus. Not necessarily the most productive, in terms of art. What an absurd idea to want to shake up painting and sculpture at a time when the cinema was already overtaking them. Was it coincidence that the best futurist artists, such as Fortunato Depero, soon ended up in advertising? Campari Soda posters—that was futurism for all. Who isn’t to say that art and life weren’t best merged in an uncomplicated lifestyle Italianità?
Futurist poetry was powerful as an experimental gesture, but it primarily displayed its glory in performance. On paper it tended to tire. And its provocative force could hardly be appreciated at the time, as the turgid late-symbolist poetry it opposed had taken care of itself. The architects claimed or inspired, according to interpretation, by futurism—Antonio de Sant’Elia and above all Giuseppe Terragni—became casualties of the war Marinetti had glamorized. But despite this, futurism was the most defiant, the boldest, loudest avant-garde—and as a midwife of fascism also the most significant to the relationship between culture and politics. After futurism their proximity could no longer be innocent.
For a while Marinetti’s futurism looked to me like the ingenious hay collector I had seen at one of those open-air art exhibitions that still reach the most remote Alpine valleys. The device, invented by an artist, consisted of a spherical, many-strutted steel structure the size of a hay bale. The artist rolled this sphere down into the valley across meadows and paths. Grass, roots, and scattered twigs were caught up inside the sphere, which rolled pretty much on its own in places. Then the artist who had devised the thing ran to his opening performance beside it, shouting with glee like a child, and giving it shove where necessary, followed by a gaggle of overenthusiastic spectators. This hay collector was completely impractical, of course, being thoroughly bound to an aesthetic concept of indifferent enjoyment. So it never went into production, except as a miniature pendant. Limited edition in silver.
How could the dazzling itinerant preacher Marinetti, who like all idealists nonetheless lacked a sense of humor, make such an impression on me? It must have been due to a growing disquiet about art that had gradually taken hold of me, and I didn’t know whether it was in the air or something personal, whether it was permanent or a temporary attack. For most people this wouldn’t have been a real problem, of course. No more than being stung by a mosquito or discovering a spot on one’s nose.
Different for me. No wonder. For art had become an important part of my life well before my first encounter with Marinetti. It had originally crept in on velvet paws, but now it was a big fat cat that was always stroking at my legs for something to eat. Without being particularly fond of cats, I have learned a few things about them through watching the ones around me. They are singular. If you woo them, they make themselves scarce. The same if they don’t like something. On the other hand, they always ingratiate themselves just at the moment you’ve written them off, pressing against your calves, giving you the feeling of being indispensable and important. In this they’re like art.
Not that I wanted to get rid of this creeping, ingratiating creature, art. But a certain dissatisfaction it increasingly awakened in me was making me nervous. I began to think about this. At first it seemed as if it had to do with a weakness of art. Or in me. At any rate I suddenly began to ask what art was good for. Formulae like “extending the gaze,” “art as experience,” or even the “power of art,” which you could take from the philosophers, started to sound pretty hollow. One day I came to the conclusion that this difficulty of justification, this odd weakness, must be a delayed effect of futurism. Didn’t it want to be the first at all costs to push through the idea of weaving art and life and sundry hopes into a complete tangle? No wonder futurism looked to me like the root of all contemporary-art evil.
For more than any of the other avant-gardes it was based on a brilliant trick. It whisked the idea of art into the idea of the future. Not any kind of future, but a better one. One that had to do with progress. Enriched with this promise, art had then been able to lure everyone in. Me too. Like in a lottery, the promise was a big one. Who wouldn’t be susceptible? But like in any lottery, it was also vague and uncertain, and above all entirely independent of your stake. I had realized this too late. Marinetti as the ringleader of the giant art lottery with its proclivity for Ponzi schemes.
It was only in the middle of my research that I began to wonder when I had encountered Marinetti for the first time. It must have happened during my earlier encounters with art history. According to the first introductions to it that I read, there were key moments in the history of modern art. The famous avant-gardes. The vanguard, the pioneers. Mantra-like, futurism was named as one of them, and as its most important exponent, Marinetti. I liked the name at once, I seem to remember. Marinetti—did it have something to do with marine? It made you think of oceans, mariners, pirates and adventurers. It was easy to remember as well. Perhaps the name was half the secret.
The art-historical compendia that had once come my way, and that after many relocations I no longer possessed, had big-talked with due brevity, describing contemporary art as something that had emerged from modernism, which at some point had exhausted itself. At the same time contemporary art was rooted in modernism, and therefore significantly and fatefully related to it. The era of modernism, the compendium writers were certain, had been very special, indeed extraordinary, not only artistically but in general. Contemporary art would be inconceivable without it. Before it, art had been dominated by academic painting, and sculpture oriented to the so-called classical period. Both must have become impossible in time, suggested the compendia. Brush and chisel shackled by rules, conventions and supervision. So all the artists (none of them women) who were fed up with academic art and its associated power games tried something new. I’ve forgotten to say that when I heard about this, I had no idea of these systematically disqualified works of academicism. It didn’t even occur to me that I had no idea of them, because as a result of their downgrading they could no longer be seen in the museums. For those institutions that Marinetti wanted to do away with had meanwhile modernized themselves in such a way that they had hardly anything in common left with the institutions Marinetti wanted to do away with.
The short version of a story in which breaks were continually being made with the status quo went something like this: First the compendia celebrated the impressionists, because they were the first to question academic painting. For this they left their studios and took to the fresh air. Then the protest and clearing away went merrily onward. There had obviously been a great need to overpaint, whitewash, and push aside everything that was already there. There were the Fauves, as wild as their name. Picasso and Braque, who broke up perspective with cubism to present views of a splintered world, shortly before war overtook art in this respect. The frantic nonsense liturgy of the dadaists, while the constructivists wanted to make sure of a new order. The huge restive experimental field opened up by surrealism. The strong defiance of expressionism. Until the Nazis pulled the plug on everything and stirred up their war. Here they could take the fascists in tow. They were close after all: both had drawn on socialism and adjusted it to their own requirements. Fatal for modernism, which was absorbed. Or ditched: degenerate art!
But it was precisely for this reason that it was able to bounce back after the war, with the support of progressively minded forces in the West. Also as a cultural weapon in the Cold War, because the Soviet Union didn’t want to have much more to do with its progressive avant-gardes since Stalin. Then at some point postmodernism sneaked in. No one really knew how this could have happened. Exhaustion of modernism, went the diagnosis. Only when modernism had been finished off, playfully and almost in passing, did it become clear how seriously the avant-gardes had meant what they said—and how tragically they had failed. The great tsunami called modernism drew most of its momentum from futurism, the compendia suggested. It had been the most aggressive of the avant-gardes. A particularly expansive, particularly disruptive startup, if I translate into terms that have been rattling around for a while. Marinetti as a self-declared CEO.
If my memory is correct, I was excited by this history, these stories, when I heard them for the first time and then in all manner of variations. They sounded compelling. They sounded good. Like all compartmentalization they were extremely reassuring. Order at last! So initially I had no further questions. Later I learned that the matter of history and the many stories that comprise it wasn’t quite so simple. When it sounds really good, there’s usually something fishy about it. History is often a particularly clever construction, an accumulation of blind spots proliferating into a black hole. The very latest history books that came my way issued a warning here. I had probably even read too many of them and was therefore angry with the old compendia for telling me these fairy tales of avant-garde and modernism. Or angry with myself for falling for them. But my credibility wasn’t just my fault. Many people had believed the story of the avant-garde, and then contributed to it. It had been simple and entirely logical for as long as it remained the success story of victors. But now doubts had arisen as to the quality of the victory, and its consequences and cost had become visible. The old glamor was gone. And anyway no one believed in the logic of continual progress and the promise of glorious futures any more. Somehow it was a pity. I could understand Marinetti looking mournfully onto the Canal Grande at the end of his life, concocting something postfuturist in adversity.
I seemed to remember that one of the wonderful fairy godfathers of modernism, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had lovingly drawn its family tree with branches that got thinner as they reached the top, but with increasing amounts of leaves. The leaves sometimes took away each other’s light, and of course they cast shadows. At some point the tree became worn with age. To me this seemed the right kind of image for a decrepit modernism. Until I looked it up and saw my mistake: Barr hadn’t drawn a tree but a diagram-like model of a many-circuited switchboard. Much was linked with much else, and futurism was pretty much in the center, but according to Barr it had been sucked in by Dadaism and was therefore done and dusted. Perhaps this was how self-fulfilling art historiography worked. I often thought of Marinetti. Went on his trail here and there. Found him in Saint Petersburg Japan Turin California Zurich Genoa Paris and wherever. More on this another time perhaps. At some point I noticed that Marinetti had drawn me into a labyrinth. There are different kinds of labyrinth. We imagine them as being full of blind alleys where the Minotaur lurks. One day I remembered the one in Chartres Cathedral that had delighted me as a child. It actually isn’t really a labyrinth. It’s the maximum extension of a path from the periphery to the center in a minimum of space. At the center, it says somewhere, there was originally the image of a duel. This has been lost over time.