Sascha Bru, Luca Somigli, and Bart Van den Bossche (eds.). Futurism: A Microhistory.
This book explores the history of Futurism through a methodology never applied before to the study of the historical avant-garde: microhistory. As explained by the editors, microhistory is the "intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often an event, an object, a small community, or a village). It does not simply involve case studies, however, but explores large questions in small places" (3). The microhistorical approach was established in the Seventies by a group of Italian scholars (notably Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi, Pietro Redondi and others) in order to investigate historical phenomena in the Early-Modern age; the editors of this book extended this method to the realms of Futurist scholarship, thus allowing on the one side to shed a new light on its traditional themes, and on the other to raise new questions and challenges.
The book is divided into fifteen chapters written by different Futurist scholars. Each chapter intensely investigates a particular theme: topics range from physical objects (the automobile, the skyscraper, the cocktail) to concepts and ideas (seduction, doubles), to places and institutions (the cafe, the Church), to social practices (football and gymnastics). Such a variety of topics allows the scholar to deal with different areas of research, including literature, architecture, politics, theater and everyday life. Although they all share the same overarching microhistorical approach, authors take different angles in their works, at times (as it inevitably happens in edited collections) with variable results. Essays that carefully catalogue the recurrence of particular objects or topics in Futurist works are juxtaposed to pieces that go deeper into theorization and explore the significance of these topics within the broader Italian cultural context of the time. The book can thus be read in different ways: as a collection of the stories of single concepts or objects in Futurism, as the narration of a possible "Futurist day" (which is made of cafes, cocktails, skyscrapers, seductions, beds, etc.), or as a multifaceted, comprehensive history of Futurism as a whole.
Many essays demonstrate how the story of a particular object or concept often reflects in a smaller dimension the history of Futurism itself. Marja Harmanmaa's essay on cocktail, for example, highlights how alcohol (and especially wine), from being despised in the early Futurist years as a symbol of decadence and degeneracy, became in the 1930s and 1940s a bearer of happiness; whereas Francesca Billiani looks at how the skyscraper from a symbol of experimentation and individualism in the 1910s-1920s became in the 1930s a means for the regime's aspirations to transform individuals into a mass.
The close-up analyses of the book show implications and connections that the larger perspective may miss. The result is a composite picture of Futurism that highlights its many facets and contradictions, both inside the movement and in relation to the broader Italian culture and society of that time. The microhistorical approach allows, in particular, for an appreciation of changes in the Futurist cultural politics throughout the decades, from the aesthetic institutionalization of the 1920s to the integration with a more traditional political agenda in the 1930s. Monica Jansen and Luca Somigli's essay on the Church is, for example, particularly significant in this context, as it highlights the evolution of the Futurist attitude towards the Vatican, as well as the latter's reactions to Futurism. Futurism's established condemnation of the Vatican, as expressed in both political terms (svaticanamento) and literary (Le monoplane du Pape, Contro il papato e la mentalita cattolica, etc.), is overturned in the 1940s, when the Church is conceived as an intimate part of the Italian character. In order to counterattack the Futurist noisy anticlerical propaganda, the Church opted instead for a strategy of silence and rarely talked about Futurism. The reaction of society towards Futurism frequently emerges in other essays too, as, for example, in Matteo D'Ambrosio's work on numbers, where the connections between Italian Futurism and the contemporary Russian avantgarde milieu are explored.
Another great merit of this book lies in its abundance of information and material. Since every essay is the result of intensive research on a specific topic, the book gathers a very large number of details as can be found in few other works on Futurism; it would have taken several years for a single author to collect such a quantity of data. Further, although Futurism is the core business of these pages, other coeval cultural manifestations are explored, to the extent that the investigation extends to much of the Italian culture of the time. The great quantity of people, events, publications and stories examined in this book, the novelty of its approach that allows looking at Futurism with an unprecedented angle, the many connections that emerge between Futurism and the Italian culture and society of the time make this work an essential reading for every scholar of the avant-garde. Futurism: a Microhistory will probably open up new strands in Futurist scholarship.
The book is enriched with a very dense interview with Gunther Berghaus. The interview touches upon many topics, from Futurist historiography over the past few decades, to the difference between the Italian and the English-speaking scholarship on the avant-garde, to Berghaus's own research path, both as a scholar and as the current editor of the International Yearbook of Futurism Studies.
University of Zurich
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
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