Italian Futurism: 9 Things You Should Know

Italian Futurism was a controversial 20th-century art movement that was also immensely popular.

Jul 22, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
italian futurism things


Italian Futurism was an immensely popular art movement. It represented the unstoppable force of modernity, and celebrated machines, speed, and technology. It connected artists like Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Gino Severini. Because of its ties to Italian Fascism, the movement is also quite controversial.  Here are nine facts about Italian Futurism that you should know.


1. Italian Futurism Began with a Traffic Accident

italian futurists photo 1910s
First-generation Italian Futurists, via Strife


Breaking away from the old ways and denouncing tradition is hardly a groundbreaking concept for progressive art movements of all time. However, Italian Futurism was perhaps the most radical attempt to burn down the legacy of the past. This intense and deeply controversial movement lasted for just about a decade, with several short revivals in the following years. Yet Futurism had a tremendous impact on modern art history.


In 1908, a 32-year-old wealthy, eccentric poet called Filippo Tommaso Marinetti drove his Fiat back home from a friend’s party outside of Milan. A fan of modern technology and its advances, Marinetti was speeding and almost hit two cyclists on the road. To avoid the collision, Marinetti had to send his car to a ditch, destroying the vehicle.


Most people would have been terrified by this accident, but not Marinetti. For him, this was an epiphany. The blood-curdling speed, the uncontrollable force of a mechanism, the risk, and the violence were all the definitive markers of a new era, a new world, and a new Italy. In 1909, he published his Manifesto of Futurism, officially starting a new art movement meant to transform the country.


2. Futurists Praised Modernity, Speed, and Violence

italian futurism carra funeral painting 1910
Funeral of the Anarchist Galli by Carlo Carrà, 1910-11, via Art History Project

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Motion, speed, and modern technology were fascinating to the Futurists. The Futurist artwork, although static itself, was supposed to convey a feeling of movement.  The use of various perspectives and points of view was a popular method for achieving this effect. But Futurism had a much more disturbing aspect behind its preoccupation with machinery. At the heart of the Futurist movement, confirmed by Marinetti’s writings, was a glorification of militarism, aggressive masculinity, and destruction.


The violent and loud Futurist masculinity did not leave much space in this imaginary new Italy for women. Marinetti paradoxically combined the fight for women’s suffrage with appeals to avoid women at all costs, so they would not undermine the new world order. Everything old, including concepts of love, family, and traditional culture, was supposed to disappear. The museums and libraries, seen as cemeteries of old knowledge, were to be demolished. Caring Italian mothers supposedly weakened the nation with their love and the remnants of Ancient Roman art stood in the way of progress.


3. Italian Futurism as Not Limited to Writing and Painting

italian futurism santelia new city sketch 1914
Antonio Sant’Elia, one of the sketches for The New City project, 1914, via Art History Project


In the three years from 1909 to 1912, the Futurists published dozens of manifestos on art, urban planning, marriage, cuisine, fashion, interior design, and almost every other aspect of human life. No wonder their ranks consisted not only of artists and writers. Among them was a composer named Luigi Russolo, who ditched traditional instruments in favor of squeaking, roaring, and howling machinery.


Umberto Boccioni, a young artist converted to Futurism by his teacher Giacomo Balla, was focused on sculpture. His multi-perspective compositions looked similar to those of analytical Cubism. Balla was not only an artist but a designer of Futurist menswear. He designed three-piece suits of simple silhouettes made of bright-colored fabrics with bold geometric prints.


An architect Antonio Sant’Elia designed cities for the future filled with tall intimidating skyscrapers connected by terraces and bridges. And if Sant’Elia’s work seems oddly familiar to you, it is probably because his designs were used to create the dystopian cityscapes in the 1927 film Metropolis and the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner.


4. Marinetti Wanted to Ban Pasta

futurist dinner photo 1930
A photo taken during a Futurist dinner, 1930s, via Der Spiegel


Marinetti and his group planned on making big changes. Not only were the Futurists preoccupied with art, technology, architecture, and design, but they were also concerned with the Italian diet. In his 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, accompanied by a Futurist cookbook, Marinetti denounced another enemy of his, responsible for making Italians lazy, heavy, and slow. The enemy was pasta!


However, banning pasta was not Marinetti’s idea. After Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s, the dictator became concerned with Italian dependence on imported wheat. Rice was much easier and cheaper to grow domestically, so the fascists started an anti-pasta and pro-rice campaign, which Marinetti readily joined.

However, switching to rice was insufficient for the Futurist gastronomic revolution. The Futurist ideologist believed that dining should be an experience and artistic performance, disconnected from its nutritional purpose. Marinetti proposed that the New Italians should get all their nutrients from tasteless pills and powders, reserving the act of dining for special occasions only. The Futurist recipes often consisted of weird product combinations. The meals were to be served in particular surroundings with sound and tactile effects.


5. They Welcomed World War I Until it Actually Happened

boccioni city painting 1910
The City Rises by Umberto Boccioni, 1910, via MoMA, New York


Along with speed, energy, and progress, the Futurists also glorified war and violence. Marinetti called war the world’s only hygiene. His fellow Futurists welcomed the beginning of World War I. Several young Futurists were killed in action, including the architect Antonio Sant’Elia.


One of the most dramatic losses was the death of Umberto Boccioni. Boccioni did not die in combat, though he fell and was trampled by his horse during military exercises in August 1916. Some witnesses said that Boccioni’s death was similar to his 1910 work The City Rises, which showed figures of startled horses and human bodies crashing into each other led by the horrific and unstoppable force of momentum.


As the war began, Marinetti volunteered to join the experimental cyclist unit stationed in the mountains of the Italo-Austrian border. The idea of cycling through mountain warfare turned out to be absurd pretty quickly. The unit was disbanded, so Marinetti turned to war journalism. Years later, he went to war again. This time it was World War II and he was serving on the Eastern Front against the USSR and the Allied powers. He was a rare Futurist whose perception of war did not change after he experienced combat firsthand.


6. Italian Futurism was Inseparably Tied to fascism 

severini armored train painting 1915
Armored Train in Action by Gino Severini, 1915, via Art History Project


Italian Futurism is a touchy subject. The story of its artistic innovations runs parallel with the history of Italian fascism. Although the beginning of Futurism precedes Mussolini’s regime, the aggressive nationalism and warmongering of Marinetti’s followers prepared the minds of the Italian intellectual elite for what was about to come. The Futurists’ aim to pronounce a new greater Italy coincided with the early ideas of Italian fascists.


After Mussolini rose to power, Marinetti spent years trying to make Futurism the official art of fascist Italy. The dictator, however, was not as enthusiastic about it, despite keeping close contact with some of the Futurists. Mussolini understood the ideological and political force held by artists, yet preferred to support all forms of art as long as they agreed to the government’s agenda.


However, other far-right regimes did not see Futurism as the art of the new age. The infamous German exhibition Degenerate Art, designed to condemn everything non-figurative and non-traditional, included Futurist works. Although Nazis saw these works as another example of the destruction of morals, Mussolini refused to organize the traveling exhibition in Italy.


7. There Were Women Futurists

italian futurism censi aerodance photo 1933
Giannina Censi during her Aerodance performance, 1933, via AWARE


Despite the aggressively misogynistic stance expressed in Marinetti’s manifestos, women artists participated in the movement. However, they belonged to later generations of Futurists and their input did not receive as much attention. At some point, Marinetti decided to clarify his earlier ideas on women. Perhaps it was because he ended up marrying one of the women Futurists called Benedetta Cappa. What he apparently meant to say was that there was a need to destroy the traditional fragile femininity and make room for smart and independent women.


Cappa indeed was a smart and independent artist. Although less aggressive and less inclined to make bold claims, Cappa was a true intellectual. Working with paint and ceramics, Cappa paid attention to texture, combining the visual experience with the physical one.


Another futurista was the dancer Giannina Censi. Although trained in the classical French tradition, she invented her own type of dancing called aerodance during which her body imitated the movement of the airplane. It’s interesting to know that Censi was the niece of the first-ever Italian woman pilot.


8. After the Initial Excitement Came the Disillusionment

ambrosi mussolini painting 1930
Aeroportrait of Mussolini the Aviator by Alfredo Ambrosi, 1930, via Wikipedia


Italian Futurism was short-lived because of the intensity of its ideology. Most first-generation Futurists parted ways after the war. There were several attempts at revival, yet the momentum was gone and Mussolini’s government was not ready to follow Marinetti’s instructions on improving Italian society. Over the years, the Italian government started to favor figuration over abstraction. Some artists like Giacomo Balla were able to adapt to new demands. During the 1930s Balla became the official Italian artist, expressing the fascist ideology in his works and creating several portraits of Mussolini.


Unlike Marinetti, who carried his warmongering beliefs with him for the rest of his life, many other Futurists either quit the movement or readapted their art into something less violent. Carlo Carra was so shocked by military action he had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a hospital. There he met another artist who was assigned to work as a nurse. The artist’s name was Giorgio de Chirico. The two of them would find a new art movement called Pittura metafisica.


9. There’s Irony in the Legacy of Italian Futurism 

boccioni unique forms sculpture 1913
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni, 1913, via MoMA, New York


The Futurists wanted museums to be destroyed, but their artworks found their place in those same dusty institutions. Moreover, some were reshaped and transformed to a point where they became barely recognizable. Umberto Boccioni made his sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space in plaster. The goal was to make the composition as lightweight and dynamic as possible while also facilitating its destruction. However, after the artist’s death in 1916, his heirs ordered several bronze casts of the sculpture. Over the years, they made more casts with copies of the copies diverting further and further from the original. Even though the Futurists never used bronze, proclaiming it an outdated material, it is now the bronze copies that the public recognizes as the original Futurist works of Boccioni.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.