Venice is dead, it just doesn’t know it yet. Everyone knows it should have sunk into the sea long ago — forced underwater by the sheer weight of millions of middlebrow tourists, belching out of gargantuan pleasure ships — a fevered swarm of selfie-snatching locusts, lost in a medieval maze, in search of Chinese-made gimcrack souvenirs and a Disneyfied Old World experience. Venice is dead, a victim of its own easy virtue — its tawdry, promiscuous beauty. And yet it lives on, the quintessential zombie-city, both dead and alive — suspended in time, bathed in the light of an insolent moon.
In the early years of the last century, the Venice Biennale had become, according to the American press, “one of the most important artistic events in the world.”1”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16. Then, as now, the Biennale was an important stop in the peregrinations of the international art world. In 1910, the year of the ninth Biennale, a band of Milanese avant-gardists planned to shock the stodgy art crowd with announcements of the arrival of a new aesthetic ideology — Italian Futurism. The Biennale had been open for a little over two months when Futurist kingpin, Filippo Marinetti, along with his comrades, began a series of guerrilla performances. On July 8, Marinetti and company claimed they climbed to the top of the clock tower in the piazza di San Marco, and tossed 200,000 multicolored mini-manifestos onto the “howling agitation of the enormous crowd” in the famous square below.2 See Scappettone, Jennifer. Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Scappettone devotes Chapter 3 to the Italian Futurists’ Venetian efforts of 1910.
Some weeks later, an English version of the manifesto would appear in the pages of the New York Times:
We repudiate the ancient Venice extenuated by morbid secular voluptuousness, though we have loved it long and possessed it in the anguish of a great delightful dream.
We repudiate the ancient Venice of strangers, market to fraudulent antiquaries, magnetical pole for all the snobs and imbeciles of the world, the sunk in bed of innumerable caravans of lovers, precious gemed tubs of cosmopolitan adventuresses.
We want to cure and cicatrize this rotting town, magnificent wound of the past. We want to enliven and ennoble the Venetian people declined from its former grandeur, morphinised by a disgusting cowardice and abased by a small dishonest traffic. We want to prepare the birth of a commercial and military Venice, able to brave and affront on the Adriatic Sea our eternal enemy — Austria.
Hasten to fill its small fetid canals with the ruins of its tumbling and leprous palaces.
Burn the gondoles, those swings for fools and erect up to the sky the rigid geometry of large metallic bridges and manufactories with waving hair of smoke, abolish everywhere the languishing curves of old architecture!
May the dazzling reign of divine Electrical Light at last free Venice from her venal fournished room’s moonshine.3”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16. Link to the full article here.
The Futurists continued their assault on Venice, leafletting the halls of the Biennale itself. On August 1, 1910, Marinetti and company staged an evening performance at the Teatro La Fenice, in which they exhorted the audience to annihilate romanticism, sentimentalism, and nostalgia — enfeeblements which only served to attract an army of foreign dandies to the lagoon, to bask, like cultural vampires, under the licentious light of the Venetian moon. The Futurists had the answer — “Let’s murder the moonlight!,” they cried. The audience, reportedly, rioted.4 Rainey, Lawrence, Poggi, C., Wittman, L., eds. Futurism: an Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. Full text of A Speech to the Venetians, 68-70.
On the ruins of Venice, the Futurists envisioned a modern, masculinized, industrialized, and militarized city. Professor Jennifer Scappettone writes, “At the dawn of the century, Marinetti and his colleagues insist that the moonlight ambience that made the site of the fallen republic darling to foreign Romantics and their languorous progeny, the Decadents and the aesthetes, must be dissolved in favor of a military-industrial complex to serve the lagging nation-state.”5Scappettone, 142. But this vision of Venice is nothing new at all. The Futurists, like so many others who lay claim to progress and the future, looked back with their own militant nostalgia, conjuring the thousand-year history of La Serenissima — Venice before its decline, when it was indeed a military and industrial power — building warships, ruling the seas, plundering its enemies, and raking in the ducats. Here Marinetti is explicit — he hoped to restore Venice to its “former grandeur.” In other words, he wanted to Make Venezia Great Again.
Marinetti would go on to other obvious avant-garde targets — the Catholic Church, and the Academy. At one point, he called for the abolition of pasta, of all things, because, as art historian Romy Golan writes, “pasta stood behind everything the Futurists had been battling ever since the appearance of their initial manifesto in 1909.” 6See Golan, Romy. “Ingestion/Anti-pasta.” Cabinet, Spring 2003. Available here. Marinetti and the Futurists famously glorified war, calling it “the only hygiene of the world.”7The ninth declaration in Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism reads: “We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.” See Rainey, et al. 51. Marinetti would infamously align himself with Benito Mussolini, becoming close to Il Duce, acting as a sort-of Fascist philosopher, writing Mussolini’s propaganda until the end of his life, which occurred on the shores of Lake Como, from a heart attack, in December, 1944. Marinetti would not live to see Mussolini’s corpse strung up by its ankles, from the rafters of a gas station canopy, left to the predations of the mob, in the Piazzale Loreto, in Milan, four months later.
Before he died, Marinetti had one last encounter with Venice. Toward the end of his life, in ill heath, and in the midst of World War II and the Italian Civil War, he would return to Venice and find himself finally succumbing to city’s beauty. He arrived in October, 1943, with his wife and daughters, and stayed until August, 1944. At the time, Venice was a safe haven, protected from bombing through a secret agreement between the Vatican and the Allies.8Scappettone. 171-72. Venice became the “cultural center” of the Fascist puppet government, and attracted “refugees, diplomats, new bureaucrats, foreigners, artists, and war profiteers.”9Scappettone. 171. The Jewish citizens of Venice were rounded up, arrested and deported to Germany. Marinetti and his family were assigned a home, Casa Ravá, on the Grand Canal, that had been “requisitioned from Jewish owners.”10Scappettone. 171.
During his stay in Venice, Marinetti would write (or, rather, due to his delicate health, dictate to friends and family) what is considered to be his last major work. Entitled Venezianella e Studentaccio (my loose translation: Little Venice and the Punk), it was an experimental novel-slash-poem that reads like a fever dream — an unpunctuated, kaleidoscopic, delirious love poem to the lagoon city:
O my sympathetic readers I wish to remind you that the fainting of the Sun envious of the Moon in one of those cities candied in the spices of the past arouses a sibylline hour of vaporous decoctions on a wooded little fire with alembic filters and conspiring penumbras…
Venice reengraves herself wholly by herself in the saffron with reflections desirous to resound up to the tympanums of the clouds
Philharmonic gondolier I row them indolently and care only to cast off the opulent green brocades of the wake that encumbers the long shadows of sumptuous solar reception
–F. T. Marinetti, from Venezianella e Studentaccio, translated by Jennifer Scappettone.11Scappettone. 176.
In Venezianella e Studentaccio, Marinetti imagines a rebuilt Venice, not as a military colossus, as he had in 1910 — but in the form of a towering inhabitable female body made entirely of Murano glass. Venice is no longer the rotting town he derided in his early screed, but a city “candied in the spices of the past.” How does one explain this apparent voltafaccia? Marinetti provides his own time-knotting clue — as he limns the scene of a Futurist manifesto-bombing in Venezianella e Studentaccio, he imagines a conversation in the square below: “Who are these Futurists, anyway? They’re people who see the world backwards.”12Scappettone. 188.
Scappettone zeros in on the problem of Marinetti’s theoretical incoherence from several angles. First, she claims that Marinetti had a lifelong relationship with the city, vacillating “between strategic assaults and reconciliations.”13Scappettone, 162. Then, she argues that this “bizarre mingling of Futurist and passéist impulses in Venezianella e Studentaccio might well be viewed as consonant with a Fascist tendency to bind contradiction as oxymoron.”14Scappettone, 191. Fascism is anti-rational, and so is Venice, therefore Marinetti’s late work celebrating Venice fits a certain Fascist ethos. Finally, Scappettone suggests that it is the Venetianness of Venice that renders it immune to criticality, modernism, and the avant-garde:
Venice does not expire despite the centuries of its surface abjection[…] It persists as a site of influx and efflux that remains steadfastly ‘Venetian,’ forcing incursions into it to change their ways or channels — literally. As such it resists the dyads of future and past implicit in what Adorno called ‘the fatally rectilinear succession of victory and defeat,’ forcing authors to contend, in a vengeful obsolescence, with ‘the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic.’ Marinetti’s late deployment of unassimilated and anachronistic material should help us to extricate his writing from a unidirectional, monolithic narrative of futurity, and to bridge the history of a never-quite-rejected Symbolism and the aging stylistic disfigurations of the avant-garde.15Scappettone, 225. Quoting Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso, 2005. 151.
Here, Scappetonne deploys a bit of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Adorno began writing the book in 1944, while in exile in Pacific Palisades, while Marinetti, half a world away, was working on Venezianella e Studentaccio. In Minima Moralia, Adorno reflected on the failures of society, philosophy and reason in the wake of war’s devastation. In this passage, he considers the limits of dialectical theory and history. He writes:
If Benjamin said that history had been hitherto written from the standpoint of the victor, and needed to be written from that of the vanquished, we might add that knowledge must indeed represent the fatally rectilinear succession of victory and defeat, but should also address itself to those things which were not embraced by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside – what might be called the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic. It is the nature of the defeated to appear, in their impotence, irrelevant, eccentric, derisory. What transcends the ruling society is not only the potentiality it develops, but also that which did not fit properly into the laws of historical movement. Theory must needs deal with cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic. This can most readily be seen in art.16Adorno, Minima Moralia, Part II, dated 1945. Aphorism 98, London: Verso, 2005. 151.
Dialectical theory forces the history of everything into an eternal state of struggle, creating an engine for historical movement that rewards winners and consigns losers to their historical dustbins. Benjamin upends the historical narrative, in order to see the story from the vanquished point of view. That, in turn, Adorno adds, reveals things that history, theory and “the dialectic,” simply can’t assimilate — the apparently “irrelevant, eccentric and derisory,” things which have “outwitted the historical dynamic.” It’s absurd, Adorno continues, to apply the dialectic to some things. Our obligation to Benjamin’s legacy is, as Adorno writes, “to think at the same time dialectically and undialectically.”17Adorno, 152. Adorno asks us to do something seemingly impossible — to think in diametrically opposed modes simultaneously.
It’s not that Venice allows just this — Venice quietly demands it. Like no other city in the world, Venice bears its opposites, not in dialectical struggle, but in what the later, Venetian Marinetti would describe as “sweet simultaneity.” Venice carries its dyads, its contradictions, its paradoxes — future and past, water and stone, fragility and endurance, ersatz and authentic, European and Byzantine, vivacity and decay, corruption and beauty — with a kind of strange grace, outside the reach of theory, reason, modernity, history — the component parts of Adorno’s “dialectic.” Venice has truly outwitted the historical dynamic.
Venice stands outside of time, not anachronistically, but anachronically, bearing its past and its future, along with all its other contradictions, in a most serene, if very crowded, eternal and unhistorical present. Venice is not a place as much as it is a lived experience. To know Venice, you have to be there, and only then it reveals itself. And then, paraphrasing Scappettone above: You don’t change Venice — Venice changes you.
Perhaps this explains Marinetti’s change of heart. Perhaps, it was his own physical decline and the whispers of his own mortality that caused him to think and see differently. Perhaps it was his Fascist utopia crumbing before his eyes. Perhaps, as wars within wars raged around him, and as he found safety and refuge for himself and his family in Venice, he realized that some fifteen hundred years earlier, the first Venetians set out into the lagoon for the very same reason. Perhaps, as he looked out on the Grand Canal from the Gothic windows of his stolen house, he thought about the rightful owners and their fate. Perhaps he started to see history as Benjamin urged — from the perspective of the vanquished. Who knows what finally broke Marinetti’s dialectic — his militantly Manichean worldview? But something did — in his last, kaleidoscopic, contradictory, and paradoxical love poem, he finally saw Venice.
— Michael Westfall
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16.|
|2.||↑||See Scappettone, Jennifer. Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Scappettone devotes Chapter 3 to the Italian Futurists’ Venetian efforts of 1910.|
|3.||↑||”‘Futurists’ Desire to Destroy Venice,” New York Times, July 24, 1910, p. 16. Link to the full article here.|
|4.||↑||Rainey, Lawrence, Poggi, C., Wittman, L., eds. Futurism: an Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. Full text of A Speech to the Venetians, 68-70.|
|6.||↑||See Golan, Romy. “Ingestion/Anti-pasta.” Cabinet, Spring 2003. Available here.|
|7.||↑||The ninth declaration in Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism reads: “We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.” See Rainey, et al. 51.|
|9, 10.||↑||Scappettone. 171.|
|15.||↑||Scappettone, 225. Quoting Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso, 2005. 151.|
|16.||↑||Adorno, Minima Moralia, Part II, dated 1945. Aphorism 98, London: Verso, 2005. 151.|