Of Madness and Metaphysics: Italian Futurism at the Dawn of the 20th Century


When Filippo Marinetti sat down to pen his polemical Founding Manifesto of Futurism (1909), the French language treatise that gave rise to the Italian Futurism avant-garde movement, the streets of Milan hung with electric lights, the Italian landscape was slashed with steel railway lines carrying double-decker train cars, the air crackled with early experimental wireless transmissions in ‘acoustic telegraphy’ and scientists could see inside the human body with X-ray technology. The rise of electrical and electromagnetic induction-powered machines and a network of mass media contributed to make Europe and North America a tightly interconnected organism, with scientific thought and cultural advancements coursing through new communicative veins. Europe, at the time Futurism was conceived, was in the midst of tectonic social and technological transition. The changes of the time were so great that the frenetic and noisy new urban world was often blamed by alienists and medical doctors for the rise in what was called neurasthenia, a condition of the nervous system which caused chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression (Sconce, 2011; Elder, 2017). Perhaps due to this buzzing hum of psycho-social anxiety, or the hubris of the scientific community, there was also, at this time, an intense desire for supernatural or supersensual breakthroughs in human communication at the dawn of the 20th century (Sconce, 2011; Peters, 1999). 

The yearning to communicate wordlessly, to see into the future, to commune with the dead was a prominent part of early in 1900 intellectual and popular cultural discourse (Chessa, 2012). Fascination with telepathy, psychometry, psionics and transmutation chewed around the edges of this era’s science. Indeed, some of these scientific explorations in these early days of the new century might have more in common with what might be understood today as spiritualism and even, occultism. Against this historical backdrop, then, I ask whether the avant-garde movement of Futurism that arose in the early 1900s embraced not the machine but magic – with the founding members drawing on occult, supernatural, supersensual and transcendental beliefs? Was Futurism, in part, a celebration of the metaphysical, of that which is seen through the mind’s eye and not with the “Corporeal or Vegetative Eye” per Blake (1795)? In this essay, I explore whether Futurism might be understood as an inevitable, even harmonious response to the technological and cultural changes happening across Europe and North America at the beginning of the 20th century. 

To answer these questions, I will look at the historical context that catalyzed and nurtured Italian Futurism, tugging at the threads of electromagnetism, X-rays, spiritualism, mental illness and eugenics to help make sense of aspects of Futurist art and thought. I will also look to some of the historical events that surrounded Marinetti and his founding members, and the analysis into the occult influences found in a historical study of the life and work of one of Futurism’s co-founders Luigi Russolo by Chessa (2012). I will return to selected original Futurism texts, specifically Marinetti’s (1909) Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, Russolo’s (1913) The Art of Noises and Marinetti’s (1924) Tactilism in a search for prevalent and recurring themes. Forming the theoretical foundation of this analysis, I shall rely on Barilli (2012) theory of homologies between the arts and scientific innovation, whereby one “nourishes the other in an infinite series of actions and reactions” (Kindle location 475). Barilli (2012) reveals the connective, communicative links between the symbolic and physical realms of human existence. He argues that there is an ability to “establish congruence” between the two levels of human society as defined by Marxist analysis, that of the base or means of production, and the superstructure or higher form symbolism and arts. In this, Barilli (2012) suggests that one can establish traceability between the art movements and symbolic innovations of culture, and the advancement of the sciences. (Kindle location 2758). 

Dawn of Electromagnetism

The world that ushered in Marinetti’s founding manifesto was a world of electromagnetic innovation, with breakthroughs in photographic, X-ray, vehicular and communication technologies. These technical achievements were breaking through previously insurmountable barriers of time, space and extending the limits of the human senses. At the tail end of the 1800s, Galileo Ferraris (1885) and Nicola Tesla (1886) created the two-stage electromagnetic induction engine, an innovation that would transform industry. The Tesla Coil invented in 1891 would be a harbinger of the wireless transmission of electricity. Tesla also experimented with X-rays to power a remote-controlled boat. In 1901, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi successfully sent and received signals across the Atlantic by aid of Tesla’s Wireless transmitter. Milan streets and those of major cities of the Europe and North America were lit by incandescent light bulbs. Advances in photography saw Kodak introduce the early point-and-shoot Brownie camera putting the ability to take photographs into the hands of the lay enthusiast. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s experiment with cathode radiation, which used electrical charge to run through metal plates in a tube filled with rarefied gas, gave scientists and medical professionals the ability to see inside the human body (Nobel Prize Organization).

X-rays and Spirit Transmissions

At the same time that these new innovations were being discovered, a strong undercurrent of spiritualism in mainstream culture and within the scientific community was enlisting these new technologies into the service of metaphysical aspirations. The X-ray was taken up as a technology used to stage public demonstrations of occult power, as was done in the Radiguet neo-occultism shows. This X-ray-based entertainment of 1897 lasted into the early 1900s was staged in cafes and other public gathering places. X-rays were used to illuminate fluorescent props and tell fortunes for paying customers. According to one U.S. report in the Lewiston Evening Journal from April 2, 1897, these X-rays would conjure up ghostly spectres. “The phantom advanced a few steps and then stopped. It was a tall woman. Her face had a greenish pallor… There were no eyes. We could only see two black holes under the eyelids.” (Lewiston Evening Journal, 1897). Photographic advancements were used to create spirit photographs, where phantasms appeared over the shoulders or hovering above the heads of the photographic subject. The purveyors of these psychic revelations, like William Hope who was active 1905 to the early 1920s, were simply using double exposures (Edmunds, 1966). Photographs were also being used to conjure ghosts during live performances. The activities of mediums like the French psychic Eva Carrière who conducted nude, erotic séances conjuring a spirit called “Bien Boa”, used magazine photographs on life-size cut-outs to bring to life recently-departed celebrities, royalty and politicians (Peters, 1999). During these sessions, ectoplasm flowed from Miss Eva C’s ears and sexual organs. Newspaper accounts through the early 1900s debunked Eva’s ectoplasm as being merely chewed paper (Akroyd, 2009).

Wireless communication technologies were also enlisted in the service of spiritualist seeking. Mainstream technical periodicals such as the Electrical Experimenter, English Mechanics, Popular Radio and Wireless World contained articles on the phenomenon of mental radiation, wireless conversations with the deceased and the psychic efforts of electricity (Noakes, 2016, p. 145). William Crookes, the English physicist (1832-1919), sought to prove that the human brain could, as in Marconi and Edison’s wireless experiments, send and receive vibrations in the “ether of space” conveying via radiating waves “thoughts and impressions” (Noakes, 2016, p. 144). Spiritualism was entrenched in the popular culture of Europe and North America with the journals Annali dello Spiritismo in Italy, and El Criterio Espiritista in Spain, and three dozen other monthly spiritualist journals available to subscribers around the world by the late 1800s (Harrison, 1880, p. 6). This interest in spiritualism at the dawn of the 20th century was not simply that of side-show barkers, hucksters and outsider artists, but of “physicists, neurologists, physicians and other prominent men of science who, in the hubris of modernity’s accelerating mastery of all knowledge, shared an interest in reconciling once and for all realms of physics and metaphysics.” (Sconce, 2011, p. 72). 

Neurastheniacs and Eugenicists

Futurism was born into an Italian culture that was becoming estranged from the Catholic Church and experiencing a disillusionment with established power structures (Chessa, 2012). In the grips of rapid technological change and cut adrift from paternalistic control of religious leaders, the turn of the century was a time of transitional anxiety for Europeans (Sconce, 2011). Those who were particularly sensitive to the sense of upheaval succumbed to nervous disorders. According to George Miller Beard (1881), the American neurologist who popularized the neurasthenia diagnosis, it was the sheer speed of urban society powered by new technologies that caused widespread nervousness. Beard (1881) wrote that men of the past had “incomparably fewer experiences wherein a delay of a few minutes might destroy the hopes of a lifetime.” The jittery men of this turn-of-the-century electrical era, Beard argued, had one eye constantly on their pocket watch, their busy, competitive and noisy lives timed down to the nerve-racked minute. As McLuhan (1964) noted, the advancement of electrical technology extended man’s power but also fuelled insecurity. “(M)an has extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. …the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism” (p. 83). 

Nerveforce. At the end of the 19th century, a carefully documented account of a nervous collapse was written by Judge Daniel Schreber. The Schreber (1893) book entitled Memoirs of My Nervous Illness discussed a “nerveforce” and “nervelanguage” that connected everyone like an electrical power grid. Schreber’s memoir circulated throughout Europe and was later further popularized in the writings of Freud. The German jurist Schreber believed an intelligent creator was capable of transmutations in the world through a network of nerves, adding that “in this capacity they are called rays; and herein lies the essence of divine creation” (as cited by Sconce, 1893, p. 75). Aspects of Schreber’s writing might have seemed prescient to the spiritualist thought that was to come, however, as Sconce writes, “equating telepathy with what would soon be known as wireless is perhaps less than remarkable; indeed, the arrival Marconi’s breakthrough in 1895 was, for many, simply confirmation of the telepathic potential perceived in radiant energy” (Sconce, p. 75). In language that might recall some of the later writings of the Futurists, Schreber’s perceptions existed beyond his human sense organs. “I receive light and sound sensations which are projected direct on to my inner nervous system by the rays, for their reception the external organ of seeing and hearing are not necessary…” (Schreber,1893, as cited by Sconce, p. 77). Schreber was able to capture in his journal an articulation of how the collective imagination of Europe was shifting (Sconce, 2011, p. 78). Sconce (2011) argues that it was the sensitive minds, like that of Schreber, were the “canaries in the coal mine” sensing the coming of widespread societal upheaval (p. 78). 

Eugenics. Futurists also had a troubling interest in what they perceived to be another form of weakness in European civilization, that of genetic and racial impurity. The study of eugenics and its practice had become entrenched in scientific, academic and medical communities in the early 1900s. In the summer of 1912, the The First International Eugenics Congress took place in London with Sir Winston Churchill as one of the keynote speakers, kicking off more than 400 conference presentations. The American Breeders Association was founded in 1903. The association’s Journal of Heredity, which is still in publication, was, at the time of the Italian Futurists, devoted to the question of optimal human breeding. Alexander Graham Bell, wrote one of the very first articles in the journal, entitled “How to Improve the Human Race” (Crow, 2004). The goal of eugenics research was to prune society of undesirables, a system of beliefs that informed practices which had a devastating impact on the lives of millions in Europe and North America in the years to come. Even the inventor Tesla predicted that by the year 2100, eugenics would be an established part of civilization, “to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct” (Novak, 2012, fourth paragraph). The Futurist movement was also underpinned by the theories of French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1809). Specifically, in Futurist writings there was an interest in Lamarck’s (1809) Second Law written in his Philosophie Zoologique which stated, “predominant use or constant disuse of an organ or part, is conserved through generation in the new individuals descending from them…” (p. 235). In this, altering oneself with the constant use of certain senses or muscles could not only change the individual but his or her offspring as the theory goes. 

Ghosts in the Machine: Occult in Futurism

Futurism’s Alchemical Birth. The turn of the 20st century saw the explosive rise of the Futurist avant-garde movement. After studying law at the Sorbonne, Marinetti published poetry and prose, and sought to have his work published by the L’Abbaye de Créteil artist group affiliated with the Symbolist movement (Barzun, 1912). L’Abbaye de Créteil was a so-called phalanstère, meant to act as a self-sustaining utopian community (Barzun, 1912). The L’Abbaye group of like-minded artists sought to create heroic art with a focus on day-to-day city living with images, people on the street, machines and buildings (Robbins, 1962).  A continued fascination with fast machines landed Marinetti in the ditch off of the Via Domodossola in Milan swerving in his automobile to avoid cyclists (Poggi, 2009, p. 7). While Marinetti emerged unscathed and his car was retrieved, he reports he was changed. As Marinetti described in the Futurist manifesto, he emerged reborn from that “(m)aternal ditch…I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse” and “felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through” his heart (1909, p. 186).

 This story of Marinetti’s purported rebirth is described in a way that bears more than a passing resemblance to the four-stage alchemical process (Elder, 2017). The first, critical stage of the alchemical process, called nigredo or the blackening, and occurs when the base substance is broken down, decomposed or putrefied, and readied for further transformation (Needham, 1974). As Chessa (2012) notes, …”scientific-alchemical themes never disappeared from Marinetti’s repertoire” (p. 9). Here, we find one early clue in support of Futurism’s more than passing interest in the occultism.  Indeed, in Marinetti’s Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, there are still more direct references to magic. Based on a content analysis of the 1909 manifesto, there are no less than 10 direct references to the divine, occult or supernatural, with the inclusion of words such as mythology, Mystic, angels, hellish, the Unknown, celestial, the Ideal, centaurs and specters.

The wealthy, charismatic and brash Marinetti influenced a stable of young Italian artists which included painters, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo (Caws, 2001). Marinetti was the magnetic North of the movement (Chessa, 2012). As Chessa (2012) notes, Marinetti was solidly in command, maintaining order among his Futurist apostles. Marinetti “like a good impresario … reserved the right to supervise the work” (p. 2). According to Chessa (2012), Marinetti directly encouraged his compatriots to carefully review Arnaldo Ginanni Corradini’s Method and New Life which were focused on the Madame Helena Blavatsky-founded strain of Theosophy and Eastern philosophies.

‘Victorious’ Vibratory Science

The technological and pseudoscientific trends at the dawn of the 20th century have been argued to be woven deep into the writing of Marinetti, Boccioni and Russolo (Chessa, 2012). Painters should, according to Futurism co-founder Boccioni, “support and glory in our day-to-day world, a world which is going to be continually and splendidly transformed by Victorious Science” (p. 184). This “Victorious science” of which Futurist founding member Umberto Boccioni wrote in his Futurist Painting Technical Manifesto, was not the science as we might now currently understand (Chessa, 2012; Elder, 2017; Boccioni, 1910, p. 180). The science that Boccioni celebrated was irrevocably “intertwined with psychical research” with Chessa (2012) writing “it has been maintained that interest in the occult arts and metapsychics can be attributed to the Futurists’ attraction to the then current understanding of science.” (p. 3). Boccioni was also interested in electromagnetism and movement. Boccioni’s paintings were filled with roiling motion of beasts, men and machines, and light, more often the new artificial, electrical lights of the city.  Boccioni (1910) writes of the “electric lamp, which with spasmodic starts, shrieks out the most heartrending expressions of colour” (p. 180). Cityscapes, riotous crowds, war horses and warriors came to vibratory, preternatural life in Boccioni’s hands. 

Spiritual Communion. Chessa (2012) draws a direct line to Futurism co-founder, painter, composer Russolo’s work and the metaphysical study conducted by Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater whereby thought-forms were captured in a series of color plates painted by various artists after they were said to be experiencing trances (p. 12). The Besant and Leadbeater book Thought-forms (1901) was read and avidly discussed by the artistic community of the early 20th century (Elder, 2008; Chessa, 2012). Thought-forms argued that the cosmos was unified, comprised of a singular matter that made up all things, and that vibrates (Elder, 2008, 24). In this influential book, Besant and Leadbeater were taking elements of Theosophy and attempting to argue that there was a perfect means of communication, with a need to resort to “semantic” reference (Elder, 2008, p. 25). It was argued that this understanding might afford enlightened people, and artists like the Futurists, the ability to communicate and understand reality in a new way. If reality is “energy in vibration, then sensation is humans’ response to reality’s vibratory dynamism.” (Elder, 2008, p. 26). 

Vital Energy and Fearlessness. Neurasthenia was a topic of ongoing interest for the Futurists, as evidenced by references throughout their writing and visual arts. Marinetti (1924)  referred to Europe as being in the grips of a “deep and mysterious ill …This illness displays, as symptoms, a sad listlessness, an excessively feminine neurasthenia, a hopeless pessimism, a feverish indecision of lost instincts, and an absolute lack of will…” (p. 174). A member of the Futurist movement and son of an Italian count, Corradini exhibited a painting entitled Neurasthenia in 1908.  Overall, unlike the jittery men that George Beard was diagnosing, Marinetti and his compatriots ran headlong toward the technological upheaval of the early 20st century. Marinetti pined not at all for slower, simpler times, instead, he advocated for a hypermasculine “love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness” (Marinetti, 1909, p. 187). Marinetti’s Futurism embraced violence, noise, machines, struggle, insomnia, speed, furious movement and war.  Based on his manifestos, it can be well understood that Marinetti disdained weakness of any kind (Marinetti, 1909). Russolo called for a new “noise sound” of the likes that only the men at the dawn of the 20th century could endure, writing that the “ear of an eighteenth-century man could never have endured the discordant intensity…” (p. 207). Russolo’s art of noises are the “NOISES OF TRAMS, BACKFIRING MOTORS, CARRIAGES AND BAWLING CROWDS” (caps in original, p. 207). Painter Boccioni wrote that the Futurist movement sought a new painting whose innovation should “proudly bear the smear of ‘madness’” (1910, p. 184). 

Supersensual X-rays. X-rays were believed by the Futurists to help uncover hitherto unseen aspects of reality, including auras, or the radiations from the human spirit (Chessa, 2012).  In Marinetti’s (1924) Tactilism, he posits that men could learn to see, and feel differently and that new “X-ray vision” might develop. Chessa (2012) writes of the program of the 1912 London exhibition showing Boccioni’s La risata (1911), noting that it read: “…(t)he personages are studied from all sides and both the objects in front and those at the back are to be seen, all those being present in the painter’s memory, so that the principle of the Roentgen rays is applied to the picture.” (2012, p. 31) This is one of many references to vibrational energy and X-ray technology in the Italian Futurist’s work. This idea of vibrational transformation was apparent in Marinetti (1933) La radia Futurist Manifesto. Chessa (2012) notes that Marinetti’s uses the feminine gender for the word “radia” is considered to be a reference to the “amplification and transformation of vibrations emitted by living beings by living or dead spirits, noisy dramas of states of mind without words.” (p. 6) 

Futurist Transmutation. Psychical research, spirit photography, ectoplasm and transmutation are referenced frequently in Italian Futurist writings (Chessa, 2012). Scholar Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco contends that both Marinetti and Boccioni were repeated observers of Neapolitan medium Eusapia Palladino’s ectoplasmic séances (Chessa, 2012) . There is a direct reference to ectoplasm and spirit photography in Boccioni’s “Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste,” where he writes about a fog or an “atmospheric plasticity, toward our physical transcendentalism …such as the perceptions of the luminous emanations of our body …which the photographic plate already reproduces.” (Boccioni, 1912, p. 173). This statement is made even more interesting still when you consider a qualitative analysis of Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture includes no less than 18 references to the word plastic, four references to the notion of barbarism or primitives and six references to transcendentalism, infinite, mysterious and sublime. In Marinetti’s Tactilism (1924) we see repeated reference to the notion of plasticity, with four references to the word plastic in this brief recap of Marinetti’s January 1921 exhibition of tactile tables. Human plasticity can be understood as a kind of transformation of the body and its senses (Chessa, 2012). As Chessa (2012) argues, some of the Italian Futurists work, particularly that of Russolo’s Art of Noises and his Intonarumori experimental symphonies, might be viewed as an kind of spiritual invocation or transformative ritual with the aim of effecting lasting change upon the viewer, listener or practitioner of Futurism. Overall, there are echoes of Lamarckism’s Second Law throughout the Italian Futurist’s writings. There is a recurring thought that by exposing men to new, even extreme sensations, the Futurists might cause new super-senses to develop, leading to a greater understanding of reality. 

Discussion & Conclusion

There have been those that have argued Futurism’s thought and art was not a seeking of an ethereal realm but was instead planted firmly on the smoke-filled, noisy streets of the city, and was entirely preoccupied with machines. Was Futurism merely a machine art? Chessa (2012) cites Calvesi (1967) as one of the first to dispute this notion, calling this idea entirely “reductive” (p. 14). Based the research of Chessa (2012), a look at the historical context that surrounded the Futurists and a return to the source texts of Marinetti, Boccioni, Russolo, there is evidence to suggest that it was not merely machines but occult magic that occupied a measure of Italian Futurist thought and art.Machines were merely a way to extend humanity senses, and transform it. Machines were but a means to an ultimately metaphysical end. Applying the theory of the homologies between science and art as argued by Barilli (2012), we can see clearly see connective tissue between the base and superstructure of early 20th century society through the thought and art of Italian Futurism. As this era’s science and society yearned for supernatural transformation, and the next-stage evolution of mankind through eugenics and Lamarckism thought, so too did Futurism attempt to create an art that would transmute the men of the era into new, fearless and supersensual beings. Futurism, it can be argued, was a celebration of the metaphysical, rather than the merely physical. Futurism was an attempt to see beyond the limits of everyday experience, for men to become more. Was Futurism an inevitable response to the changes in society at the time? Can it be argued that Marinetti and his co-founders of Futurism, like the institutionalized Schreber, were the early warning systems “the canaries in the coal mine” sensing the coming storm? (Sconce, 2011, p. 78) It is clear that the Futurists ran fearlessly into the coming storm of social, technological and political upheaval. It can be argued, based on the close linkage between the changes in science and the art of Futurism, that this avant-garde movement was a response to dramatic social and technological changes at that moment in history. It can be argued that the Futurists were screaming in the gaping maw of the chaos and upheaval that was to come, embracing and fanning the flames of the destructive forces that were present in society. As the changes in technology obsolesce and destroy old modes of production, so too do avant-garde movements attempt to tear down and reinvent superstructural aspects of human society. “All sons want to kill their fathers, even if only symbolically” (citing Freud, Barilli, 2012, Kindle location 811). In this both, science and the arts are essentially Oedipal. If there is a clear congruence and homologous link between the sciences and the arts, then there was a congruently dramatic destruction of the old technological modes of production and the approaches to art. In this, Italian Futurism was as explosive and destabilizing to the cultural landscape as electrical and electromagnetic technologies, born at the same moment in history, were to science and production.

Presentation (Including My Original Composition)


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