Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti at War

From an article by Selena Daly

Prior to Italy's entry into the First World War in May 1915, poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), author of the Futurist Manifesto, and a number of other prominent Futurists had enrolled in the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists. Alongside Marinetti were the painters Umberto Boccioni, Luigi Russolo, Ugo Piatti, Mario Sironi, and the architect Antonio Sant'Elia. In the summer months of 1915, the Volunteer Cyclists received training in Gallarate, near Milan, before leaving for Peschiera on the southern shores of Lake Garda at the end of July. In mid-October the battalion was sent to the Italian-Austrian front line and stationed at Malcesine, on the eastern side of Lake Garda. The Volunteer Cyclists' principal experience of combat was in the capture of Dosso Casina in October when they fought alongside the elite Alpine soldiers. 

Futurists in the First World War, from Left to Right:
Volunteer Cyclists Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Achille Funi, and Antonio Sant'Elia

The Lombard Battalion was held in very high esteem by the people of Milan; when the cyclists travelled through the city on their way to Lake Garda in July 1915 the streets were crowded with supporters. As well as a military plane flying over them dropping leaflets in the Italian colours, the crowd "applauded them, covered them with flowers, good wishes, and kisses" (Codara 1915a). A member of the battalion, Angeluccio Giudici, recalled many years later that it was regarded as a "forge of patriotism, they were the crucible of irredentist passion" (Giudici in Sansone 2008, 16). While Italy was still neutral, many young irredentists from Trentino, Trieste, and Dalmatia succeeded in crossing the border and they joined the Battalions of Volunteer Cyclists in various northern Italian cities. In turn, many of the battalions participated in interventionist demonstrations in 1915. As Marinetti commented, the Lombard Battalion contained the same men:

…students, monarchists, revolutionary workers, law-abiding lawyers…persecuted anarchists, Freemasons and clericalists, poor and wealthy, traditional painters and poets, avant-gardists, Futurists and semi-Futurists, who had already met in the Piazza del Duomo and in the Galleria, almost every evening, during the winter and spring, to punch and chase away the neutralists. 

As a Volunteer Cyclist, Marinetti served as an ordinary soldier and so endured the same hardships as those experienced by the majority of Italian soldiers on the front lines. Both in his diary and in letters, he frequently complained of cold, hunger, lack of sleep, and lack of supplies. The only time when Marinetti appears to have contemplated his own mortality with the experience of combat, was immediately before and during the battle of Dosso Casina in October 1915. The night before the assault began, Marinetti wrote a letter to Paolo Buzzi and Francesco Balilla Pratella, in which his fear of death is evident:

The battle will be serious, I am happy to give my life to our great, strong and glorious Italy…I hope I am not killed tomorrow so that I can continue to slaughter Austrians and to see the undoing of passéist Austria, most hated enemy. I hope I am not killed tomorrow so that I can take up again with you the great futurist struggle. 

While fighting in Trentino served Marinetti's ideological purposes very well, there were aspects of the Alpine combat environment that were absolutely antithetical to Futurist ideals, and thus communicating his mountain combat experience to fellow Futurists was not unproblematic for him. Futurism was a resolutely urban movement, he described his experiences on the Monte Altissimo, in explicitly urban terms, writing that on the mountain top:

… above our heads, the big grenades of our 149s are leaving like heavy trains that scrape along the tracks of great, curved bridges. They all converge on the other side of the lake, perfectly punctual, as if at a station at that Austrian trench of Colle del Bal.

Marinetti deemed nature to be incomplete without war and stated that it was war which endowed a new purpose on the mountainous landscape. In Marinetti's view, the natural environment was only a valid space when it had been affected by human intervention. According to the associationist principle, "nature is not appreciable until it is 'humanised' or 'consecrated' by some human deed, either actual or imaginary…"

Today the aggressive shapes of the high mountains have a reason to exist, all covered by thick trajectories, by the curved hisses and roars of the cannons. The rivers — natural trenches — today have a logical life. They interrupt the strength of the enemy and empty the battlefields of the bodies which they drag to the sea. 

Après la Marne, Joffre Visita le Front en Auto”

This is Marinetti's most famous war poem as it was published. It's in what one writer called a "down with the old style" and I could not find a verbatim translation, but this is how the Getty Museum described it for a show:

This poem celebrates the Battle of the Marne, in which the Allies stopped the German conquest of Europe and established the Western Front. Fashioned like a military map, Marinetti's poem portrays General Joseph Joffre's victorious tour of the troops after battle.

The general follows winding roads in spirals that evoke his reversals in military strategy. The letter M simultaneously refers to the word "Marne," renders the outline of mountains, and is the first letter of the words the general speaks: "Mon ami" and "Ma petite." The troops respond, "Vive la France" and "Mort aux boches" (Death to the Germans), while the "ta ta ta ta" and "toumb toum" of gunfire continues, at least in memory.

Later in the War as an
Artillery Officer
The Futurists' experience of fighting on the front line was destined to be short-lived, however. By the beginning of December, the Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists had been disbanded. So the Futurist volunteer cyclists returned, at least temporarily, to their pre-wartime pursuits in Milan, although they "anxiously await[ed] the pleasure of returning to battle."

Marinetti commented that the commanding sergeant of their battalion "rightly demanded, but did not receive, absolute discipline, which we wanted to be relative" and he acknowledged the very difficult task of commanding the "intellectuals’ platoon…because in it, all together, were the brightest and strangest brains that had never been subject to military discipline." In the light of these comments by Francioli and Marinetti, it is perhaps reasonable to conclude that the Army Command's reasons for disbanding the Volunteer Cyclists were not motivated solely by military tactics.

De-mobilized, Marinetti spent most of 1916 engaged in cultural and theatrical pursuits on the home front, Marinetti returned to the army as an officer in the autumn of that year, where his experiences would differ markedly from those first months on the front line in Trentino. As an officer, he was permitted to "move in and out of the war zone more or less as it pleased him" serving with an artillery battalion, he was wounded in 1917, but recovered in time to participate in the final battle of Vittorio Veneto.

Source: "The Futurist Mountains," Modern Italy, June 2013


  1. A wonderful post, thanks very much!

  2. Fascinating -- I never realized that Lake Garda was the site of WWI fighting. Are there war memorials or sites to visit related to the war?