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Caution, Futurist Approaching

Marinetti, World War I, and why he ended up in Rijeka in 1919

Marinetti and the Futurists played a leading role in the campaign for Italy to enter World War I. They also played significant parts in the period of post-war chaos that saw street violence in Italy, the birth of the fascist movement, and Gabriele D’Annunzio’s military takeover of the Adriatic city of Fiume.

Oh what a lovely war? Well it ought to have been if you were a Futurist. It was after all the Futurist Manifesto, penned by the movement’s founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, that famously glorified war as the “sole hygiene of the world”.

Published on the front page of Le Figaro on February 20 1909, the manifesto was an early (and extraordinarily successful) exercise in modern art as media hype, launching a movement that at the time only had one member. Marinetti, who was known primarily as a Symbolist poet, went on to gather painters, architects and prose writers to what initially seemed an unlikely banner.

Right from the start, the aestheticization of violence was central to a Futurist creed that also eulogized speed, technology, and the age of the machine. Futurism was profoundly nationalistic too, hailing Italy as home to a particular kind of Latin genius, while at the same time calling for the cleansing of the country from passatismo or “past-ism”, the cult of the antique that supposedly stifled creativity and progress.

No surprise therefore that Marinetti and the Futurists played a leading role in the campaign for Italy to enter the conflagration that broke out in August 1914. It was also no surprise that a large body of Futurists joined up at the same time, volunteering for the Lombardy Cycle Battalion in May 1915 and being sent to the front near Lake Garda in October the same year – quite possibly the first and only time in military history that an art movement went collectively into action on the same day.

Many futurists also played significant parts in what might be termed the war after the war, the period of chaos that saw street violence in Italy, the birth of the fascist movement, and Gabriele D’Annunzio’s military takeover of the Adriatic city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia).

Zang Tumb Tumb

Futurism is nowadays associated with the paintings and sculptures of Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, the architectural drawings of Antonio Sant’Elia, or the musical experiments of Luigi Russolo – all of which have proven enduringly robust as sources of creative inspiration. Futurism ultimately failed to achieve Marinetti’s ambitious revolutionary goals, but it did end up being the most frequently plundered art movement of the late twentieth century.

It was Marinetti’s force of personality and talent for self-promotion that initially brought these disparate elements together, and provided them with the publicity that kept them going. “Part clown part prophet” is the in-a-nutshell portrait of the poet provided by leading historian of the Italian avant-garde Claudia Salaris. A bit more detail came from the pen of Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, who met Marinetti before World War I and described him as “half Italian half French, with the exoticism of the African-Oriental, the boastful cynicism of the Parisian and the comedy of the Neapolitan” 

Oh what a lovely war? Well it ought to have been if you were a Futurist.

Marinetti’s fascination with the technology of conflict was something he was able to indulge at first hand during the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. The experience of observing artillery bombardments did nothing to change his enthusiasm for carnage. It was the siege of Adrianople by the Bulgarian army in 1913 that produced the book Zang Tumb Tumb, an exercise in what he called parole in liberta (“words in freedom”). Full of invented words inspired by the sounds of artillery shells, the text was scattered across the page like shrapnel bursts. It is sobering to reflect that what many people remember as the funny name of a 1980s record label actually started out as a hymn to the mechanized meat-grinder of modern warfare. 

When World War I broke out in 1914 Italy initially remained neutral. The country was nominally an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but a vociferous body of “interventionists” felt that Italy might gain more from the conflict by joining the Entente powers instead. Marinetti formed the Futurist Action Theatre to promote the interventionist cause, although this largely limited itself to disrupting other peoples’ events – shouting-down pro-neutrality lecturers, or on one occasion attending the opening night of a Puccini opera to wave Italian flags and shout nationalist slogans. Marinetti claimed that he was instrumental in persuading then-socialist Benito Mussolini to cross over to the interventionist camp, although it was the fiery oratory of nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio that grabbed most of the headlines. Ultimately it wasn’t so much interventionist agitation that led to Italy’s declaration of war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915 as the Treaty of London, the secret deal with the French and the British obtained thanks to the behind-the-scenes opportunism of premier Antonio Salandra and foreign minister Sidney Sonnino.

rain + speed + roller coaster

With war on the horizon, the Lombardy Battalion of the Voluntary Cyclists and Automobilists was formed with the precise aim of attracting nationalist and Futurist volunteers. Auxiliary bicycle units were something of a tradition in the Italian army - all you needed to join were your own two wheels. Marinetti, Boccioni, Sant’Elia and Russolo were among the first to volunteer, along with painters Anselmo Bucci, Achille Funi, Ugo Piatti, Carlo Erba and Mario Sironi. As a paramilitary battalion it was not subject to the same medical tests as regular units, which probably explains why so many pallid bohemians were able to join up.

The first, indeed only, action seen by the Lombardy Volunteer Battalion was in October 1915 at the battle of Dosso Casina, a wooded ridge high above the eastern shores of Lake Garda. The terrain was hardly ideal for bicycles; the battalion wasn’t expected to do much except support the elite mountain troops of the Verona Alpine Battalion.

War, Sole Hygiene of the World (Wikimedia Commons)

Both Marinetti and Boccioni started keeping diaries as their unit moved up towards the front line, aware that their historical moment was about to arrive and it would be wise to put it down in writing. It’s difficult to tell whether Boccioni was conducting experiments in Futurist literary style or simply taking notes in a rush, but his entries make for electrifying reading: “Find a motorcycle impression of heroic delight beneath rain + speed + roller coaster road lake tension towards the battle, greetings from friends strung out along the road volunteers guards sailors artillery Boldrine Patrese ciao ciao all the best” is what he wrote on October 13. 

It was quite possibly the first and only time in military history that an art movement went collectively into action on the same day.

Marinetti’s diaries contained drawings, maps, and pictographic poems in the style of the parole in liberta already aired in Zang Tumb Tumb.  Shrapnel fire is described with his typical appetite for word play: “pum-poom/zivizinoon/mmsrrrrrrrrr/ppaak o pingg” reads his entry for October 26-27.

What emerges from both diaries is how poorly equipped the volunteers were, spending night after night on a bitterly cold mountain without proper clothing or supplies. “Woken at 2.30am. No water, no coffee, no food” wrote Boccioni on October 22. The next day he and Marinetti shared half a bottle of wine and three eggs provided by men from another unit, but still found it impossible to sleep: “the cold here is an indescribable torment”.

Despite some scrapes and near misses, the Futurists were spared any real front-line fighting. Even so, Both Marinetti and Boccioni made much of the prestige that came from serving alongside the Alpini. Boccioni hailed the heroism of volunteers who had been “living the same life [as the Alpini] but without the equipment, the training, or the adapted physique. In fact we could only lead this life thanks to a constant and rather inspiring force of will. Among us were youngsters of 18 and men of 54!”

After six largely sleepless days and nights marching up and down the mountain in the wake of the Alpini (who took Dosso Casina on their own on October 25), the volunteers were finally withdrawn back to base camp on the shores of Lake Garda. “Sleep. Bed. Food” were the last three words Boccioni recorded.

mud slop like chocolate shit

Considered somewhat surplus to military requirements, the Volunteer Cycle Battalion was disbanded in late November and the volunteers reassigned to other units - or sent back to civvy street. Boccioni died when thrown from his horse during an exercise in August 1916; Sant’Elia and Carlo Erba were killed in action in October 1916 and June 1917 respectively.

After undertaking a theatre tour and penning a couple of bellicose Futurist manifestos, Marinetti was recalled to the army just short of his fortieth birthday in December 1916. He resumed his diaries too, providing characteristically colourful comment on life both at the front and in the rear. “Bowels intestines of earth mud slop like chocolate shit” is how he escaped the trench-riven landscape near Gorizia in March 1917. 

Marinetti: fine and dandy (Wikimedia Commons)

Marinetti led a life more privileged than that of his fellow soldiers. When stationed in Gorizia he was given a house all to himself, and was frequently invited to dinner by the top brass. They saw his speeches and poetry recitals as a useful morale booster, but also enjoyed his appetite for lively, unpredictable conversation.

Marinetti was also a frequent visitor to the brothels that served soldiers waiting to go to the front, while at the same time conducting affairs with everyone from concert girls to countesses. “I can’t live for more than one day with a woman!” was his thought for the day on April 19 1917. “I am the man for fast, violent coitus.”

Democrazia Futurista

Marinetti was convinced that war had changed Italian society irrevocably and that he was one of the figures who would mould its revolutionary future. The defeat at Caporetto in October 1917 threw these feelings into sharp relief, making it all the more necessary to overthrow the tired old Italy of defeatism and retreat. Marinetti spent much of 1917 and 1918 pondering what Futurism would look like as a political movement, and founded the periodical Roma Futurista (together with fellow Futurists Emilio Settimeli and Mario Carli) in summer 1918 to serve as its organ.

The emergence of the elite shock troops known as the Arditi (“Daring Ones”) was another factor that changed the picture for Marinetti. Trained to launch lightning raids on the enemy line, they were more self-sufficient and more capable of improvisation than regular troops. Marinetti saw the Arditi as the vanguard of political change once the war was over. Speaking to a group of Arditi on September 15, in the lead up to the victorious battle of Vittorio Veneto, he described them as “the best part of the Italian race”, imbued with a “love for revolutionary nationalism, love for the violence of war, and the conquest of women by means of the heroic gesture”. Above all Marinetti saw the Arditi as the embodiment of Futurism – a view that politically radicalized Arditi like Mario Carli and Ferruccio Vecchi were more than happy to share.

The political wing of Futurism would be “ultra-violent, anti-clerical, anti-socialist and anti-traditionalist”.

Published in Milan in early 1919, Marinetti’s book Democrazia Futurista was in many ways the first coherent manifesto of a radical, anti-socialist, nationalist movement that saw the uniformed men of the trenches as the vanguard of a new political order. The political wing of Futurism would be “ultra-violent, anti-clerical, anti-socialist and anti-traditionalist”, dedicated to “the systematic denigration of the antique, the old, the slow, the erudite and the professorial”. Marinetti’s programme foresaw the abolition of marriage, the expulsion of the Pope from Rome, the replacement of the army with a militarized populace trained from school-age upwards, and a government of ‘young directors’ unencumbered by parliament. He was adamant that the war had changed the rules of European society, “hygienically liberating the word from all forms of medievalism” and sweeping away the authority of the liberal political system. “Only we Futurists were truly present in the conflagration; we foresaw it, we understood it and we received its secret confidences”. Like many proto-Fascist dreamers, Marinetti borrowed the language of revolutionary syndicalism in proposing a future in which people would be organized according to their trades and professions rather than represented by political parties.

Politics taught with fists

Marinetti had dismissed Benito Mussolini as a “Napoleonic authoritarian” in a diary entry for December 1918, but by March 1919 was standing side by side with Mussolini at the launch of the Fascist movement at Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan. Marinetti dismissed the San Sepolcro meeting as the “Mussolini Gathering” in his diaries, devoting much more space to the success of the Grand Futurist Exhibition, which had opened the day before. Marinetti clearly saw himself as the rising star of the radical right, and regarded Mussolini as an organizationally useful auxiliary.

Indeed it was the “Arditofuturism” of Marinetti, Vecchi and Carli that provided early Fascism with much of its tone. One of the mythical events in the early history of the movement was the clash between Fascists and left wing demonstrators in Milan on April 15 1919, subsequently known as

the “Battle of Via Mercanti”. With the socialists organizing a general strike in Milan, nationalists grouped around Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia spoke of organizing resistance – according to them, the strike was simply the overture to a full-blown Bolshevik revolution. Mussolini himself advised caution and didn’t actually turn up on the day: Marinetti, Vecchi, Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo, on the other hand, were there in person. According to Marinetti’s account it was the Arditi and the Futurists who formed the right-wing demonstrators into a column, marched them through the city and then gathered to chase the socialists off. Led by Vecchi, a group of about forty Arditi and Futurists then went off to trash the offices of socialist newspaper Avanti.

April 15 has always been regarded by historians of Fascism as one of the key moments in defining the movement’s essentially violent nature. Participants in the Milan events, Marinetti included, mythologized April 15 as the day on which they defeated a ‘Bolshevik revolution’ and paved the way for Fascism’s rise to power.  Writing about it later for the Milan newspaper L’Ambrosiano, Marinetti remembered finding a young socialist cowering at his feet. “My adversary, stupified, didn’t understand, perhaps never will understand, this lesson of mine in European politics taught with fists”.

The renegade city

“The new Giornale arrives. Jaw-dropping news. D’Annunzio has occupied Fiume! I contain my emotions… I decide to set off tomorrow for Fiume” wrote Marinetti on September 13 1919. And set off he did, going first to Florence to meet up with travelling companions before proceeding by train to Trieste.

The question of Fiume (Rijeka to its Croatian inhabitants) was one of the issues that agitated Italian society the most in the summer of 1919. The ethnically mixed port on the eastern Adriatic had not been listed by 1915’s Treaty of London as one of the cities to be offered to Italy after the war’s end, and was earmarked instead as part of the nascent Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (also known as Yugoslavia). However Fiume’s Italian community had thrown the Yugoslav authorities out in late 1918, and were agitating for inclusion in the Italian state.

Fiume came to dominate Italian debate during the course of 1919; liberal and socialist politicians who called for restraint and international arbitration were branded as traitors by their nationalist opponents, the more radical of whom (Marinetti and Mussolini included) called for the overthrow of the parliamentary order and its replacement with a nationalist dictatorship. Nationalist elements from Fiume itself had spent the summer of 1919 casting around for a figurehead who might lead an armed expedition to the city, an act which – they hoped – would spark a nationwide uprising against the government in Rome. The figurehead that emerged was Gabriele D’Annunzio, the flamboyant writer and poet who had campaigned for intervention in 1915 before joining the airforce during the war itself, when he became famous for flying daredevil missions behind enemy lines.  D’Annunzio marched into Fiume on September 12 at the head of 300 volunteers (a number soon swelled by thousands of deserters from the regular army) and, installed as the leader of a renegade city, sat back to see how the politicians of Europe would react.

Marinetti didn’t much like D’Annunzio’s poetry and had only a grudging respect for his war record. The fact that it was D’Annunzio who had struck the first serious blow of the nationalist revolution came as an unpleasant shock to the Futurist leader, and he was determined not to be left out.

Fantastical monsters

Marinetti arrived in a city that was in tumult. The streets were full of young Italian soldiers who had deserted their units to join D’Annunzio’s escapade, and a festival atmosphere had enveloped the streets. Marinetti’s diary entries are full of references to café life and nocturnal revelry. On September 16 he was at the Café Redenzione with a Futurist colleague Barbesti, who paid for “numerous bottles of champagne” and used explosive fuses to slap the behind of a chanteuse, who playfully raised her skirts to take the blows.

D’Annunzio with volunteers in Fiume/Rijeka (Wikimedia Commons)

Marinetti’s main aim was to present D’Annunzio with an action plan in which Fiume would serve as a springboard for an Italy-wide revolution, starting with a march on Trieste. They met each other on September 17 but the Futurist leader was not impressed, noting that D’Annunzio “doesn’t see the decisive revolutionary greatness of his own undertaking”. D’Annunzio had surrounded himself with orthodox nationalists who were suspicious of Marinetti’s radicalism, or with capable organizers like future Fascist minister Giovanni Giurati, who had no desire to see his leader led astray by hare-brained schemes.   

Marinetti did his best to impose his personality on the city, addressing soldier-volunteers at the Teatro Fenice on September 19 – although this was at a time when the Fenice was giving free film shows to those in uniform, and it’s not clear whether Marinetti was the main attraction or just a support act.

On September 20 D’Annunzio celebrated his take-over with a troop review. Marinetti was genuinely impressed by the parade of armoured cars, which pointed their machine guns in D’Annunzio’s direction as they passed. “A most original military salute” Marinetti noted, “given by the menacing antennae of fantastical monsters”. Marinetti somehow succeeded in getting to the head of the crowd that flowed uphill to the Govenor’s Palace, where he was implored upon to give a speech. Fiume’s “volcano of heroic patriotism will overflow onto the beautiful peninsula” he declared, “cleansing it and rejuvenating it forever with its revolutionary tide”.

In the evening, a procession of “Futurists, Arditi and girls” headed for the Café Apollo, where Marinetti jumped on a table to address Bersaglieri cyclist officers with the improbable (but, for Marinetti, hardly untypical) words “I thank you, dear and marvellous cyclists. Never forget that the vulva is the drinking-trough of heroes. “

Magic flutes

Marinetti had two key meetings with D’Annunzio on September 21 and again came back disappointed by D’Annunzio’s unwillingness to become enmeshed in radical plans. The growing awareness of dashed hopes did not, however, prevent Marinetti from continuing to enjoy himself. He spent the evening with Ferruccio Vecchi at the Café Budai, where he met a “beautiful elegant Croat lady with velvety black eyes” and took her back to his hotel afterwards.  Marinetti’s attitude to Adriatic politics could be summed up in his final diary note of the day: “Body of sweet muscles of a beautiful animal. Most beautiful little breasts. I take her twice with fury. I kiss her profoundly. But she prefers hard coitus. After sex I ask her about Dalmatia and the Croats.”

On September 25 Marinetti wrote “I am beginning to understand the style of D’Annunzio, who with his magic flute of proclamations has tamed all these ugly illiterates. He’s an enchanter who is at base cynical, with a pederastic infantile vanity and a frightful force of ambition”.  He considered D’Annunzio’s chief of staff Giurati to be too much the bureaucrat, “without future and without intelligence”.

Subsequent meetings with the leader proved fruitless, and Marinetti left Fiume disguised as a railway worker on September 30. And with that, Marinetti’s participation in the “long” First World War finally came to a close.

The Italian elections of November 1919 were a fiasco for the Fascist movement, tempting Mussolini to move away from anti-royalism and anti-clericalism in order to appeal to more traditional conservatives. Marinetti demonstratively resigned from the movement in 1920 but was back in the fold four years later, by which time Mussolini was already in power and the Futurist leader had more or less given up on any political ambitions of his own.

Futurism continued to be moderately influential in Fiume thanks to the activities of Mario Carli, whose newspaper Testa di Ferro gave Arditist and Futurist ideas an increasingly left-wing slant. Perhaps because of this, he was persuaded to relocate to Milan in mid 1920. D’Annunzio himself was kicked out of Fiume by the Italian regular army in December 1920. The city briefly survived as a free state, before succumbing to a Fascist putsch in 1922.   

© Jonathan Bousfield