Regenerating Life and Art: Futurism, Florentine Women, Irma Valeria

Article excerpt

"A more del pericolo," "giovani leoni," "automobili famelici," "eterna velocita onnipresente": these are some renowned expressions drawn from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "Fondazione e manifesto del Futurismo" of 1909 (7-10). I am mentioning these expressions because, through them, one can intuitively grasp the trait that has always struck me about this avant-garde movement: its euphoric, victorious and provocative sense of regeneration. What is commonly conceived as an end or as destruction does not seem to be so to Futurists. What I would like to explore here is this paradox, often connected to a desire to transcend human limits, through a gradually more restricted focus. At first I will examine it within the cultural context of Futurism; then, more specifically, in its Florentine branch, especially that of L'Italia futurista and its women; and finally in the work of one of its representatives, Irma Valeria. I will ask why the concept of perpetual renewal is so pervasive in the Futurist movement, how it returns in the Florentine local epistemological formation, and what its repercussions are in one of its women, particularly in her constructions of a new female identity. Proceeding with this analysis, I will assume that gender is an entity conditioned by power relations in society, and textual signs representing it reflect acceptance of, or resistance to, the dominant cultural practices in a specific place at a specific time. (1)

Futurists were always intrigued by the dual concept of art and life, both critically and creatively. According to them, the two elements should mutually nourish one other, thereby fostering a utopian plan that led individuals and the nation to an inexhaustible regenerative power. But, ultimately, more than aiming at utopia, the Futurists' project was pursued in the present to justify actions and thoughts, and to project desires, anxieties and repressed motives within a mythical dimension. Their grand dream of power, which often fueled a virile and imperialistic agenda, helped them control their fears of decline, death, and sexual and cultural diversity, in a historical moment that was characterized by a crisis of religious sentiment and by quick and astounding transformations in the scientific, political, social and economical spheres.

Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, in Italy as in the rest of Europe, a secular tendency deepened, as capitalism came to dominate the lives of nations and of individuals. An incredible variety of scientific discoveries followed each other, and numerous technological innovations accelerated the rhythm of production. (2) In 1895 alone, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovered the X-ray, Guglielmo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph, and the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Luis, showed moving images on a big screen for the first time. In 1905 Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity, and in 1927 Werner Heisenberg defined his principle of indeterminacy. Even the cataclysmic effects of the two world wars could not interrupt these innovations, and they in fact accelerated advancement of military technology. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud published his studies on the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams, and Rudolf Steiner created a new science, which he defined as anthroposophy, aimed at revealing the spiritual in human beings and in the universe.

In the same period, women's presence in the political and working sphere became more visible, as did that of the working classes. Numerous groups of suffragettes fought for women's emancipation, and trade unions flourished. Because of imperialistic thrusts, power axes between European and non-European countries changed, and a sense of a progressive decay pervaded those who identified themselves with the white race. It is not a coincidence that such studies as Oswald Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Gestalt und Wirklichkeit and Friedrich Nietzsche's Vom Nutzen and Nachteil der Historie fur das Leben appeared in this period. …