Benito Mussolini addresses the crowd at a Fascist rally in Genoa in 1938. The charismatic leader's chiseled features and aggressive swagger personified Futurism's "new man." wikimedia.org photo
The new art's new man
How Mussolini became a Futurist icon
By Roger Griffin
A number of art experts have treated Italian futurism as a primarily aesthetic phenomenon, its liaison with the Fascist regime of post-war Italy a superficial one largely based on mutual misunderstanding. But an analysis of futurism founder F.T. Marinetti’s 12-page paean to Italy’s new prime minister, Benito Mussolini, and to futurism’s (allegedly) crucial role in the spectacular rise to power of his movement, shows this evaluation to be a simplistic one. The piece was included as an appendix to Antonio Beltramelli’s biography of Mussolini, L’Uomo nuovo, published in 1919, a few months after the National Fascist Party’s “March on Rome.” Beltramelli introduced it with the laconic words that “any presentation would be injurious,” and thus limited himself to thanking “his dearest friend F. T. Marinetti for having agreed to make my work more complete.”
Despite its brevity, the eulogy offers insights into aspects both of Marinetti’s conception of futurism’s political agenda and of the deep personal kinship he felt with Mussolini, which are easily obscured by orthodox art history’s tendency to focus narrowly on Italian futurism as an aesthetic phenomenon, reducing the high-profile commitment to fascism of some of its most significant artists to an epiphenomenon. When this relationship is stressed by historians, its nature has all too often been obfuscated by a failure to recognize the deep affinity between, but separate identity of, radical experiments in creativity, innovation and regeneration in both the artistic and socio-political spheres in the early 20th century, and the need to expand our understanding of “modernism” to embrace both.
L’uomo nuovo was written some two years before the Fascist dictatorship was declared in January 1925, and well before the “duce cult” and “cult of the littorio” took off in earnest as a popular phenomenon. It represents the very first of the numerous bibliographies of Mussolini that have continued to appear to this day. Antonio Beltramelli was a prolific man of letters: travel writer, novelist, poet, journalist, cultural commentator and, with the rise of fascism, a political pundit. In this role, he was a typical representative of the crisis of Italian identity and culture that from the turn of the century had produced not just the communist avant-garde hoped for by the neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, but an anti-communist avant-garde imbued with an insistence on the need for a total revolution in the national spirit and the Italian character, combined with the ardent embrace of modernity’s dynamism and technological innovation so that a new Italy could emerge.
Writers such as D’Annunzio, Prezzolini, the Voce Circle, Beltramelli and Marinetti himself saw the primary function of literature and art as forging the cultural and mythic premises needed for Italy to complete the spiritual and political mission of the Risorgimento to bring about not just geographical and political, but spiritual and national unity. They were convinced that only when the shackles of a corrupt and spiritually bankrupt liberalism had been removed would it be able to fulfill its potential for national greatness that had been thwarted time after time by different constellations of historical and political circumstances, ever since the Middle Ages.
In this context, both Beltramelli and Marinetti can be seen in Gramscian terms as “organic intellectuals,” representing a counter-hegemonic, nationalist intelligentsia in Giolittian Italy. Though made up of a highly disparate group of individuals, this self-appointed elite was destined to play a key role in supplying the ideological legitimacy of the Fascist regime, and in guaranteeing the impressive outpouring of highly variegated cultural production in all creative spheres which promoted the Fascist revolution for the next 20 years.
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