It is particularly appropriate to re-examine the relationship between the rise of Fascism and the literary and artistic movement called Futurism, because in the last decade Futurism has once again been in the news. In 1986 the Italian car manufacturing giant FL4.T together with an American high-tech conglomerate sponsored the largest and most comprehensive exhibition on Futurism ever mounted.
The renovated Palazzo Grassi in Venice groaned under the weight of 300 paintings and 1,200 other works, including a magnificent Bugatti automobile, all purportedly related to Futurism and its `influence'.
So massive was this exhibition that the catalogue was said to weigh as much as a bomb. Henry Kissinger, the Aga Khan, Mme. Pompidou and other assorted luminaries came to see the show, as well as to lunch on such Futurist recipes as orange rice and lobster with green zabaglione sauce. Avoided were the more radical dishes to be found in Filippo Marinetti's 1931 Futurist cookbook, such as salami immersed in a bath of hot black coffee flavoured with eau-de-Cologne or, for dessert, fresh pineapple with sardines .
With all the hoopla, it was easy to overlook the disturbing fact that Italy's most famous art movement of modern times was intimately involved with Fascism and indeed that Marinetti, Futurism's leading exponent, had helped Mussolini found the movement in 1919. Nonetheless, the stream of publications that has poured forth since the Palazzo Grassi exhibition, including the publication of Marinetti's diary-like notebooks from 1915-1921, has fuelled a new debate over the complex relationship between Futurism and Fascism, and over the nature of pre-Fascist Italian political culture.
Although Marinetti broke with Mussolini in 1920, he still supported the regime after the 1922 March on Rome, claiming that Fascism had at least fulfilled Futurism's minimum programme of demands. In 1929 Marinetti even became secretary of the Fascist Writers, Union, one of those official academic institutions he had earlier professed to abhor. Loyal to Mussolini until the end, Marinetti died in 1944, and with his death Futurism bowed out as well.
This close relationship between Fascism and Futurism has led many scholars to claim great political influence for Marinetti's movement. The Italian philosopher-historian Benedetto Croce saw the `ideological origins, of Fascism in Futurism, in Futurism's `determination to go down into the streets, to impose its own opinions ... not to fear riots or fights, in its eagerness to break with all traditions, [and] in its exaltation of youth'. In his controversial The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics, the political scientist A. James Gregor went even so far as to attribute much of Mussolini's success in seizing power to his adoption of `Futurist political style' and Futurist `histrionics and choreography of the streets', which served as a `fundamental organizing and mobilizing instrument in the Fascist armarium'. With the assistance of the Futurists' `intuitive appreciation of the psychology of displaced and restive masses', the Fascist movement was able to mobilize great numbers of people for revolutionary action, something the Italian Socialist party failed to accomplish.
Before agreeing that Futurist style and methods provided a model for Fascist action, it falls to us to look more closely at Futurism's pre-war origins and post-war activities. To a large extent, Futurism was the brainchild of a single man, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Marinetti was a rich Italian poet from Milan, well-connected with avant-garde literary circles in Paris and elsewhere. He had all the qualifications for being a successful artistic leader and showman: plenty of money (he was a millionaire), boundless energy, great personal charm and a large circle of acquaintances. He soon found kindred spirits and collaborators from amongst an extremely able group of artists and musicians, most notably Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini. …