Back to the Futurists: Italy's First Avant-Garde Turns 100

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Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
June 30 2009 6:56 AM

Back to the Futurists: Italy's First Avant-Garde Turns 100

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Click here to launch day 2 of the Futurists slide show.

"Proto-Fascist art kids," says Rattawut.

"Boring," says June.

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It's February, and I've persuaded four friends to join me in Italy for the 100th anniversary of the Futurist movement. Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a Thai-American writer, and June Glasson, an American portraitist, live together in Berlin; Karen Azoulay is a New York-based Canadian artist; and Michael Cobb is an American author and professor in the English department at the University of Toronto. To inaugurate our first night together, we've embarked on a walking snack tour of Rome.

"Bunch of ranting loudmouths," adds Karen.

Michael, an avowed Futurist-hater, indifferently flicks a crumb from his scarf.

We've just left our first stop, a bakery called Forno Campo dei Fiore, armed with slices of pizza bianca—flat squares of bread drizzled with olive oil and salt, tucked neatly into paper sleeves. Scrumptious. Strolling, we pool our collective Futurist knowledge, which is rather one-sided and not quite as mesmerizing as that spinach ricotta tart in the window.

I'm the only one of us to have recently read Marinetti's founding manifesto, which debuted Feb. 20, 1909, on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro, so suddenly I'm the resident expert. I decide to leap onto a nearby pedestal and recount the document's cinematic opening, Dead Poets Society-style:

We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass. … Arguing up to the last confines of logic and blackening many reams of paper with our frenzied scribblings.

But I can't find a pedestal. So instead I gesture lamely at the nearest villa and adopt my best radio announcer baritone. "Can't you see it? From afar: Lone windows ablaze above a darkened Roman piazza. From within: A handful of wild-eyed young men in shirtsleeves, chugging Chianti, stomping their feet, shouting in Italian. 'Friends, away!' 'We must shake the gates of life, test the bolts and hinges.' 'Let's go!' "

And off they race, on a great, metaphorical car chase—"Hurling watchdogs against doorsteps, curling them under our burning tires like collars under a flatiron"—that culminates in an orgasmic crash, itself a retelling of an actual accident Marinetti had survived the year before. Huzzah!

But read on a little further, and things take a more pernicious turn. No. 9 of the manifesto's 11 proclamations announces that the movement "will glorify war—the world's only hygiene," as Marinetti chillingly puts it—"and scorn for women."

"Pouah!" Karen, June, and I scoff in unison. (Pouah was a favored Futurist expletive, French for ugh.)

"Harbingers of violence," Rattawut interjects. "Extollers of technological destruction. Crass aestheticizers of war and politics." He's on a roll.

We all munch thoughtfully.

Proclamation No. 10 demands the destruction of all museums, libraries, and academies. "We establish Futurism because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, ciceroni [guides] and antiquarians. … From the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards."

The irony, of course, is that it's the professors and antiquarians who are celebrating the movement's centennial—and not, as my friends and I were surprised to discover, with a mere symposium or two in stuffy academic conference halls but all year long, all over the world, with lavish exhibits in … museums. (Marinetti never did succeed in razing these so-called "cemeteries.") Over the course of our weeklong trip, we'll see hundreds of Futurist artworks all carefully annotated by scholars and curators and lovingly displayed in some of the country's most important venues, themselves thronged with curious onlookers. The very buildings the Futurists considered "public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings" are now their resurrection.

Michael rolls his eyes, as if to say, "You see? Need we even go on?" Granted, he's a professor, though with no detectable signs of gangrene.

For me, the final insult is the phallic thrust (forgive me) of the manifesto's closing line: "Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!" Finally, I just feel: Yuck. With that one metaphor, what had initially seemed a scene of great vigor and hilarity, a wild rhetorical call to abolish history, crumbles into a boys-only clubhouse of blustery young misogynists drunk on the sound of their own voices. This impression is confirmed by the disclosure—not once, but twice—that the oldest of them is 30. Twice? Isn't that sort of … weirdly strategic? Like a boy band's press man positioning his pop ensemble for its intended tween audience? Besides, Marinetti was born in 1876; wouldn't that mean that by 1909 he was 33? These guys weren't brave revolutionaries. They were New Kids on the Block, with a Christ complex.

My companions nod energetically.

But I'm not yet ready to write off the Futurists. What if we're being too literal? How seriously are we supposed to take the Futurists' posturing and provocations?

"Nobody really knows the answer to this question," Italian art history professor Ara H. Merjian admitted when I phoned him a few weeks later. This spring, he helped to organize the "Futurism at 100" conference at Harvard. "It's very possible that Marinetti was far more tongue-in-cheek than his brash arrogance would lead us to believe. The fact that the jury is still out on this is actually one of the more interesting aspects of the movement."

So I called art historian Mary Ann Caws to see where she fell. In her amazingly comprehensive book Manifesto: A Century of Isms, she awards Marinetti an "all-time Oscar" for his "ur-manifesto." That sounded slightly tongue-in-cheek to me—did this mean she thought him facetious? "Not at all!" she cried. "To suspect the Futurists of irony is a Postmodern response. They took themselves desperately seriously," she explained. "I agree that they seem like little boys—the Dadaists do, too—but there's not a chuckle to it as far as I can see. The Futurists wanted to be very loud, and very big. They were Italian macho men!"

Or, as Michael puts it, "snotty adolescents." By this point we've reached our next stop, a trendy chain called Obika ("history's first mozzarella bar"). After polishing off a few silken mounds of mozzarella, we graduate to those rich spinach tarts from the corner pastry shop, before finding our way to a little cafe billed by a friend—rightly, it turns out—as "that quintessential Roman trattoria experience we're all looking for." The pasta carbonara is incredible: delicate and savory. The tablecloths are checkered. So far, Rome is so good at being exactly what we expected.

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