Born of upper class, intelligentsian stock, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti spent his youth in Alexandria, Egypt, before obtaining a baccalauréat at the Sorbonne, and training as a lawyer in his motherland of Italy. A passionate reader since childhood, he established a controversial literary review at seventeen, and eventually committed himself to a life of writing, experimenting widely with form and style. What we now know as his ‘Futurist Manifesto‘ was first published as ‘Il Futurismo’ in Bologna’s Gazzetta dell’Emilia on 5 February 1909, gracing the cover of significant French paper Le Figaro as ‘Le Futurisme’ two short weeks later, and provoking consternation across Western Europe. Widely regarded as the first artistic manifesto (historically a primarily political tool), it was a fundamental document in the development of modernist thought, not just capturing the automotive spirit of the era, but crystallising its fusion of criticism and creation, announcing the medium that would come to be regarded as prototypically Modern. Composed after a relatively serious car accident, from which Marinetti emerged physically unscathed but spiritually reborn, it calls for a corresponding cultural conversion, an awakening to the modern age; encouraging the glorification of masculinity and an enthusiastic embrace of the new century’s new technologies — of, in turn, the untold chaos and devastation they might bring.
We have been up all night, my friends and I, beneath mosque lamps whose brass cupolas are bright as our souls, because like them they were illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts.
From this amazing opening line there is already an intrinsic blurring of the biological and the mechanical; an empathy drawn between the modern body and the technology that surrounds it. The Futurist figure rejects all of society’s “natural” cycles, fighting the night’s darkness with man-made electric light and forgoing sleep, instead ‘discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing’. Called forth by the sounds of the wakening world, symbolised not by the traditional daybreak or birdsong but by ‘the rumbling of huge double decker trams that went leaping by … the hungry automobiles roar[ing] beneath our windows’, the group rushes to join the melee, taking to the streets in their own cars. The automobile is the key Futurist symbol of mechanical modernisation, figured by Marinetti, in the phrase of Marshall McLuhan, as ‘an extension of man that turns the rider into a superman’. Racing through the streets, Marinetti’s protagonist casts aspersion upon the simple human body with its easily threatened skin and painfully dilating ‘mathematical eyes’, celebrating the driver’s ability to harness chaos through technology, to become one with the power and force of his ‘mechanical bride’. ‘We drove on, crushing beneath our burning wheels, like shirt-collars under the iron, the watch dogs on the steps of the houses.’ The external world is metaphorically destroyed by the Futurist being’s ultimate gaze; his take on reality all that matters. Indeed, the Futurist glorification of technology isn’t centred around creation, the pride of innovation for innovation’s sake, but the potential such advancements offer for destruction. This embrace of brute force approximates the Futurist version of carpe diem, as the narrator urges his friends out into the streets, out into this new unknown terrain: ‘We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks!’
Marinetti goes on to set out eleven Futurist conditions — ‘our first will and testament to all the living men on earth’ — the central tenets of his prospective movement. ‘We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness,’ says the first. ‘The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt,’ the second. ‘We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,’ he extols in the fourth, and in the eighth: ‘We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible?’ So far, so exhilarating. But as we reach Marinetti’s ninth point we begin to taste a curdle in the milk; to perceive the real, more sinister driving forces at the heart of his impassioned argument.
9. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
Ah. We are of course unsurprised — in 1909 — always — to hear the misogynistic shoe drop. Drawn in the singular as ‘woman’, it’s not simply literal womankind but the symbolic ideal of the eternal feminine that is here figured as Futurism’s ideological opposite; yet another passive terrain to be commandeered by man. Though Marinetti’s ire is directed at abstract notions of essential femininity, the inherent misogyny of Futurist ideology is evident in the manifesto’s pointed lack of female presence. In keeping with his “leaving behind” of the mythologies of old, Marinetti rejects the traditional mythic homosocial motif in which a “band of brothers” bonds through battling for the favour (and/or in defence) of a wanted woman. As the men beetle through the streets in their cars en masse, they are blissfully uninterrupted, untempted, unfettered: ‘no ideal Mistress stretching her form up to the clouds, nor yet a cruel Queen to whom to offer our corpses twisted into the shape of Byzantine rings! No reason to die unless it is the desire to be rid of the too great weight of our courage!’ In Marinetti’s vision of male camaraderie there is no competition — in fact there is very nearly no ‘I’. The group of friends acts in almost thorough unison from the very first line, ‘hunt[ing], like young lions’. Even the manifesto’s eleven conditions are expressed in persistent terms of the ‘we’. But despite the lack of woman, this bonding is definitively homosocial as opposed to homoerotic. The men are sexually engaged with the Other, but for Marinetti the automobile — the technological item as opposed to any human being — is the ultimate sexualised object.
We went up to the three snorting machines to caress their breasts. I lay along mine like a corpse on its bier, but I suddenly revived again beneath the steering wheel — a guillotine knife — which threatened my stomach. A great sweep of madness brought us sharply back to ourselves and drove us through the streets, steep and deep, like dried up torrents.
By now this comparison seems intuitive, but it wouldn’t be until advertising’s “golden age” of the 1960s and 70s that luxury cars would become synonymous with the commercialisation of sexual fantasy and knowing sexist winks. The first automobiles proper had been produced in 1888 by Karl Benz in Germany, with mass production in place in France and the US by 1900. The ensuing flurry of technological experimentation in the field was dizzying, and this was reflected in contemporary car culture. Advertisements from the era trade in safety, reliability, beauty, and affordability, but in the days before driving tests, traffic management systems, or explicit anti-inebriation laws, driving was something of an extreme sport, with motor-vehicle deaths in the United States doubling from 1908 to 1910. ‘Death, tamed, went in front of me at each corner offering me his hand nicely,’ writes Marinetti, ‘and sometimes lay on the ground with a noise of creaking jaws giving me velvet glances from the bottom of puddles.’ This drive with death of course recalls the psychosexual notion of the death drive, le petit mort, the essential purgative quality of male sexuality. The ‘great sweep of madness’ that spurs the group to hypermasculine action also evokes the abandonment of the mind to the impulse of the body, the loss of rational processing, the doing-without-thinking of sexual craving. Indeed, the exhausting persistence of human desire — what Laura Riding calls ‘sex surviving the satisfaction of the appetite’ — is embodied in the easy restarting of the automobile. ‘We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins.’ Remembering its essential role as an extension of the self, the driver’s glorification of the automobile is an already an acute expression of narcissism. But further, the revival of the phallic car by a ‘single caress’ is reminiscent of masturbation (Riding’s ‘throwing the damned thing out’), reiterated in the absurd fervour of the narrator as his road race reaches its climax.
‘I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch. Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse!’
In Marinetti’s landscape, while technology offers sexual stimulation, nature — the motherland — provides the vital maternal nourishment. In a Futurist sketch of the coming century, all womankind is negated: there is simply no place, nor need, for the literal, embodied female. This steer toward the pleasures of posthuman sexuality and hedonistic masturbation, away from the biological impulse to procreate, reiterates the Futurists’ ideological favouring of destruction over creation/preservation/commemoration in wider culture. In closing his manifesto, Marinetti calls for the death of cultural and academic institutions that glorify the past: the museums, libraries, and academies that serve as Italy’s ‘innumerable cemeteries’.’To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?’ Not satisfied then with wreaking havoc upon the present and disrupting the procreative order (thus fundamentally threatening the future), Marinetti longs to violently sever all ties with the past.
To understand how truly radical this is in the context of Italian cultural history — what a profound act of destruction Marinetti is inciting — we must cast a long glance back to the first century BC and the earliest days of the Roman Empire, where deft, respected agricultural poet Publius Vergilius Maro was commissioned by the administration of inaugural Emperor Augustus to pen the founding myth of Roman Italy. Capitalising on the populist clout of an exceptional military career through the Gallic wars, Augustus’s adoptive father (and predecessor intended) Julius Caesar was instated in 44BC as the first and last dictator perpetuo, breaking from the constitutive tradition of year-long, curtailed-power consulships — an accolade that swiftly led to his bloody murder one short month later, a whole new spate of ensuing civil wars through 30BC, and the decisive disintegration of Rome’s five-hundred-year-old Republic. Wresting back power, emerging from this particularly tempestuous time in the nation’s generally turbulent history, Augustus worked to reinstate stability, prosperity, and (his unique interpretation of) traditional Roman values, ruling for forty-one fruitful years and credited with establishing Pax Romana: two centuries of (very much relative) peace and limited military expansion. Consolidating this cultural revolution, Vergil’s Aeneid traces an adamant lineage from the very settling of Rome in the wake of the Trojan War (13th century BC) down through mythic founders Romulus and Remus (8th century BC) to the Augustan period. Published shortly after the poet’s death c.19BC, it follows the events at Troy from the perspective of a minor character in Homer’s Iliad (c.850BC) — the apparently-charmed son of King Priam’s cousin and love goddess Venus-Aphrodite. Fleshing out Aeneas’s story from little more than a handful of Greek references, Vergil imbues his protagonist’s ideals and actions with Augustan ideology, and legitimates the authority of the Julio-Claudian dynasty by “foretelling” the Augustan emperorship. Beyond duty to the gods and submission to his fate, Aeneas pays due deference to the institution of the pater familias: the authoritative supremacy of a Roman household’s patriarch. As pater patriae — father of the fatherland — Augustus was morally responsible for the well-being of his citizens as well as the felicity of his nation, and knew only too well that the success of Rome as an international power depended upon its ability to produce fighting fit and zealous sons. As such, he introduced extensive marriage legislation, promoting a culture of familial stability and protected legacy. In his departure from Troy, Aeneas leads his young son Ascanius by the hand and carries upon his back his elderly father Anchises, who in turn carries the ash vessel of his ancestors, leaving wife Creusa to run along behind (and ultimately, spoiler, perish). ‘To waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past.’ In his escape to a brighter future, a brave new homeland in Latium, the hero’s symbolic priority is to ensure that both heir and sire survive; to preserve his lineage, his history.
It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries. Italy has been too long the great second-hand market.
With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD, Italy was divided and conquered by a rolling series of foreign powers, only officially unified as a kingdom in 1861 — less than fifty years before Marinetti’s manifesto. Nonetheless, the beginnings of a cohesive Italian culture came with the Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, when advances in publishing meant easier access to (and revived interest in) the key texts of classical civilisation, and the beginnings of linguistic standardisation thanks to the peninsula-wide popularity of Tuscan Dante Alighieri’s poetry. In the Divine Comedy (c.1308-21), Dante has Vergil act as mentor, protector, and tour guide through hell and into purgatory; honours him as a literary and spiritual father figure. Again, the emphasis is on carrying forward the past, respecting one’s roots and forebears. That the entire concept of literature is predicated on love-lettering the tales of yore is fair argument, but when Marinetti argues that art can progress only in severance from what has come before — when he doesn’t laud Dante’s Inferno but demands that one be made of Italy’s libraries, of Italy’s galleries, of Italy’s thriving cultural heritage — it is a call to violence far more symbolically devastating than if wielded in the majority of other countries. Greece and Italy, after all, are the twin roots of western civilisation as we know it.
Despite Marinetti’s outcry against indulging in Italy’s past glories, he would later attach himself to the country’s rising Fascist movement of the 1920s (though he would continue to dispute the party on this point). In a fitting echo of Augustan realpolitik, NFP founder Benito Mussolini harked back to ‘the Roman tradition’ just as long as it served his purpose — setting a prototype for the good citizen and legitimating Italy’s moral right to head a great international empire — while taking the liberty of synthesising his very own totalitarian brand of national leadership. In another, Italy’s leader was once again highly invested in his country’s birthrate, and in 1925 Il Duce launched the ‘Battle for Births‘: tightening abortion laws, banning contraceptives, and introducing a tax upon unmarried men. As we have seen, this celebration of heteronormative union and procreation is also quite at odds with the Futurist polemic, but the two schools did share a model of masculinity in which power, aggression, courage, and virility were fetishised, and where bodies were symbolised as machines, ‘illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts’ that beat to the clockwork march of patriotism. In the same year Marinetti crashed his own real car, Mussolini predicted a new breed of man [sic], ‘strengthened by war, a spirit equipped with a kind of sublime perversity’ — a description that certainly evokes the ‘vlan!’ mentality of ‘Il Futurismo”s fictionalised driver. Italian women under Fascism were dissuaded from education and employment, and were figured less as fully-fledged citizens than as a key asset to man and state, but they still did have their place in the movement’s private and public spheres — a significant step up from their complete eradication in the Futurist realm. Aeneas and his men sailing out from Troy in their ships, ‘hoisting their sails to fate’, is certainly reminiscent of Marinetti’s drive with death, but women are allowed aboard the Aenean fleet, and again Vergil gives the non-soldiering sex their place in the narrative — if only as vengeful goddesses, pep-talking ghosts, and connivers hell-bent on waylaying destiny.
It’s worth noting that the Trojan War narratives are key examples of the aforementioned “band of brothers” motif: fuelled by the “theft” of Greek beauty Helen, and the gathering of her once-suitors to help husband Menelaus, King of Sparta, fight for her return. This is perhaps what Marinetti had in mind when deriding those ‘ideal Mistresses’ and ‘cruel Queens’ — the women who would only serve to distract his friends from their havoc-for-havoc’s-sake ideals — but of course even Futurism in the end had its female players. In 1923 Marinetti would marry Benedetta Cappa, herself a bold and successful artist-writer, and the two collaborated on a series of mixed-media works branded Tactilism, before the man who once rallied ‘contempt for woman’ and deliverance from his country’s ‘gangrene of professors’ became in 1929 a full member of the Italian Academy. Hypocritical perhaps, but the manifesto is after all a slippery medium. Resting somewhere between a call to action and speculative fiction, its rhetoric is never quite intended as a moral promise, but as a fully realised alternate perspective — an advertisement, illustrating a happier alternative reality, if only. With 1909’s ‘Il Futurismo’, Marinetti sold his contemporaries a very modern utopia, substituting increasingly unruly ‘woman’ for the ego-propelling ‘mechanical bride’. In doing so he set the anarchistic tone for a dawning century that would come to be defined by technological anxiety, politicised artistic movements, and the creative manifesto concept.