UW–Madison Libraries Services during COVID–19

COVID–19 Library Dashboard
Learn more about updates to library services

Blasting Publications: The Books of Futurism (1909-1920)

October 22, 2014
In their first and most famous group picture, Italian Futurists were photographed in Paris on February 1912 during the opening of the international exhibition Les Peintres futuristes italiens at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. This show is regarded by art historians as the culmination of the shift from Italian Divisionism to the Avant-Garde painting. From left to right: Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini. © Didier Ottinger (ed.), Futurism. Milano: 5 Continents Editions, 2009, p. 84.

Exhibit dates: October 24th – December 12th, 2014

Story by ~ Ernesto Livorni – Professor, Italian

On May 2014, Matteo Billeri, PhD student in Italian Literature, came to Paloma Celis to call her attention on the 29 first editions of Italian Futurism books held at Memorial Library that he found while preparing for his prelims. The edition include the play Prigionieri e Vulcani: Teatro Futurista (1927) by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder and inventor of Futurism, with an authograph inscription which reads: “A Thomas H. Dickinson / con simpatia / futurista / FT Marinetti / Piazza Adriana 30 / Roma” [Thomas H. Dickinson was an American historian of theatre]. It is also included Futurist author Paolo Buzzi’s poetry collection Poema di radio-onde (1933-1938) (1940), with the following autograph inscription: «Con memore gratitudine / per l’attenzione antica / benaugurando alla Cultura italiana / Paolo Buzzi».

After the “Founding Manifesto of Futurism” was published in 1909 in French and Italian, the interest in that avant-garde movement grew quickly both out of curiosity for the phenomenon that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had cleverly invented and out of the frenzy that it generated. Soon the entire old continent was talking about “the caffeine of Europe” who was about to renew the arts on the eve of World War I. In fact, in many respects some of the tenets of Futurism may be read as the war cry that was soon to burn down that continent and the entire world. After World War I, Futurism had exhausted its revolutionary role in the arts so that it then turned to a reactionary function of support for one of the worst dictatorships that Europe experienced in the twentieth century: Fascism.

Giacomo Balla, Street Light, c. 1910-11 (dated on painting 1909). ­­­© Giovanni Lista, Futurism. Paris: Terrail, 2001, p. 40.

Futurism also had the merit of capturing one factor of modern life: technology as the second nature of humankind. In the years 1909-1910, Marinetti elaborated in the manifestoes and in his novel Mafarka the Futurist the ineluctably invasive presence of the machine in everyday life to an extent that would condition and determine the modern life that we still live.

The exhibition of books gathered by the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin – Madison focuses on the first decade of Futurism: 1909-1920. These are indeed the years in which Futurism expressed its most propulsive impetus for the renovation of the arts.  Foremost are literature and the figurative arts (soon to be overtaken by abstract art thanks to the exchange of reflections among the avant-garde movements in Paris in the years before World War I), but also included are theater and music, not to mention architecture and social issues. The Memorial Library owns about 30 Futurist books in their original first edition or in a later edition that have become valuable because of their enriching inscriptions. Worthy of mention here are two books that are not included only because they do not fall within the chronological frame that governs the exhibition: Prigionieri e Vulcani: Teatro Futurista, the 1927 play by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, with an autographed inscription to Thomas H. Dickinson, a scholar of the history of theater; the 1940 collection of poems by Paolo Buzzi, Poema di Radio-Onde (1933-1938), also including an autographed inscription.

Futurism Exhibit in Memorial Library
Futurism Exhibit in Memorial Library

The selection focuses on what is conventionally considered the first phase of Futurism that entered its decline when one of its protagonists, the leading painter Umberto Boccioni, died in 1916, during the Great War. That first phase concluded with a bang, so to speak, with Aldo Palazzeschi’s 1920 edition of his novel Il Codice di Perelà. This is a programmatic work that is emblematic of the parabola of Futurism. First published in 1911, Palazzeschi’s novel summarizes what Futurism was in the years that preceded World War I, especially in the Florentine elaboration that developed in the journal Lacerba. The 1920 edition of Il Codice di Perelà shows the distance that Palazzeschi himself took from Futurism. The movement, in turn, opened up to the new second phase, developing daring experimentation in theater already present in the first phase (the Futurist synthetic theater, springing out of the variety theater, arose during the years of war) and, unfortunately, in politics.

The exhibition is organized in four cases that reflect an approach to Futurism that wants to be both chronological and thematic.

The first case includes books published in the 1909-1914 years and focus especially on the manifestoes: there is continuity between the “Founding Manifesto of Futurism” and the 1914 I Manifesti del Futurismo (items 1 and 4), between the anthology I Poeti Futuristi and Luciano Folgore’s book of poems Ponti sull’Oceano (items 3 and 5). The book by Aldo Palazzeschi, L’Incendiario (item 2), significantly opens the first phase of Futurism and it ideally announces its end in the aforementioned second edition of the book by the same author, Il Codice di Perelà (case 4, item 4).

The second case focuses on Futurism in Florence with books by one of the leaders of that trend, Giovanni Papini, who was also one of the prominent figures animating Lacerba, the journal that played such a major role in the few years in which Futurism had invaded Florence.

The third case covers the years of World War I and focuses on the full-blown period of the first phase of the avant-garde movement, with the book of poems Baionette by Auro D’Alba (item 1: it ideally recalls the one by Luciano Folgore in case 1, item 5, and the different title is already very telling of the change in spirit in light of the Great War), the two novels by Bruno Corra (… Sam Dunn È Morto: item 2) and especially Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (Distruzione, item 4: it is the Italian translation of Mafarka le Futuriste), to which the book by Emilio Settimelli directly relates (tem 3), as it is the collection gathering the material of the trials the novel by Marinetti suffered.

Gino Severini, Armored Train in Action, 1915. © Anne Coffin Hanson, Severini futurista (1912-1917). New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 110.

The fourth and last case gathers some of the most representative authors of the Florentine Futurism: if Giovanni Papini’s book L’Esperienza Futurista (item 1) wants to recount the hot years of the affirmation of Futurism in Florence, Ardengo Sofffici’s books of poems and theory (items 2 and 3) present some of the most accomplished experiments of those years, whereas Aldo Palazzeschi’s books (items 4 and 5), as already mentioned, ideally closes that period.

An exhibit on Futurism would not be complete without a visual component. Each case is accompanied by images that relate to the content of the case in question. Therefore, photographs of the protagonists of the avant-garde movement as well as of some of the most significant paintings are presented in each case, highlighting even the graphic composition of the texts, which is perhaps one more and lasting contribution Futurism bequeathed to us.