The Pre-Futurist Years (1876-1908)
Marinetti was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and received an education based on the arts and humanities at a French college. He became entirely bilingual and from an early age was a prolific writer of poetry. In order to see his works published, he founded a magazine, Le Papyrus. The twenty-one issues that appeared between February 1894 and January 1895 also contained his first essays on literary questions, new artistic trends, and political issues. In 1895, Marinetti's father decided that his son should study law at an Italian university and sent him to Pavia. After a transfer to Genoa, Filippo Tommaso graduated, on July 14, 1899, with a thesis titled "The Role of the Crown in Parliamentary Government."
Marinetti's commitment to his legal studies was rather halfhearted. He spent most of his time pursuing his true calling, poetry, and published his works in respected literary magazines in France. At that time, Symbolism, inaugurated in 1886 with the publication of Jean Moréas's manifesto in Le Figaro, was the most influential school of literature, and Marinetti converted wholeheartedly to its aesthetics. He also served as a kind of literary agent, getting young French poets published in Italy and placing recent Italian writing in French magazines and anthologies. His name appeared as collaborator in a number of literary magazines, and from 1898 on he functioned as editor in charge of Anthologie-Revue de France et d'Italie. As a result of his activities as a "literary manager," Marinetti became a major force on the Italian literary scene. In 1899 he published an anthology of contemporary Italian poets and voiced his own views on recent Italian literature in essays for La Vogue. As he rightly observed: "Italian poetry has changed very little since Leopardi. To the eye of the observer, it appears most unsophisticated, absolutely unaffected by the modern spirit and contemptuous of the heaving research that animates the soul of our century." This lack of a "modern spirit" he sought to change, both as a writer and as a cultural organizer.
Marinetti made a considerable impact with his first poetry collections, La Conquête des étoiles (1902) and Destruction (1904); his play Le Roi Bombance (1905); and his journalistic essays on literary and theatrical matters. He was also a talented musician and served as a regular reviewer of musical concerts and opera productions. At the same time, he made many public appearances as a reciter of French and Italian poetry.
I had a strange, colorful, uproarious sort of life. I started off with rose and black, a blossoming, healthy little tot in the arms and between the carbon-coke breasts, of my Sudanese nurse. Which maybe explains my somewhat blackish concept of love and my open antipathy toward milk-and-honey politics and diplomacy.
My father's Piedmontese tenacity was passed on to me in the blood. It is to him that I owe the great strength of his willful, domineering, sanguine temperament, but fortunately, I have not inherited his dense tangle of spiritual arguments, nor his fantastic memory which made him, in his time, the greatest civil law lawyer in Alexandria.1
On certain evenings, down there in the witchery of Africa,
They would take us onto your dark, deserted beaches,
A doleful flock of boarders
Who crept along, placid and slow, watched over
By our priests, strict and black . . . Little blots
Of ink we were against the immaterial
Silks of a divine, oriental sky.
My mother,2 who was entirely composed of the most delicate, musical poetry of affectionate tears and tenderness, was Milanese. Though born in Alexandria, I feel myself bound to Milan's forest of chimneys and its ancient Cathedral.
O Cathedral of Milan! I have terrified you
Brushing with my seagull's wings
Against the monstrous, steep slopes
Of your age-old cliffs . . .
You say, I am a Milanese in too great a hurry.
When I was six, I was often severely scolded when I was caught red-handed, spraying passersby from our balcony.
They weren't exactly passing by; rather were these solemn Arab merchants standing around, extending their lengthy, ceremonious greetings, with their backs arching their salaams, beneath their many-colored turbans, avidly bargaining for Parisian bed linen and chests of fruit with Jewish brokers and camel drivers.
On one side, my father's house in Alexandria looked out onto a busy street, and on the other onto a huge walled garden that was filled with palm trees, fans gently waving against the foamy blue laughter of the African sea.
I lived out my days on a tiny wooden balcony in a dreamy sort of closeness with some fat turtledoves which, perched up among the date palms, just a couple of meters from me, cooed away melodiously, perhaps preparing my ears for their future sensitivity to sounds.
When the noise of the merchants talking disturbed my friends, the doves, I would turn on the tap of my childish liquid scorn, down among them.
For a long time, at the French Jesuit College of St. Francis Xavier,3 all I ever learned was how to play soccer, and to fight with any of my classmates who said anything against Italy. Many times my terrified mother would find me covered in blood as a result of these furious games.
I was just fourteen when Father Bufferne, my Humanities teacher, solemnly announced one day in class that a description of mine, of the dawn, was far superior to any of those written by Chateaubriand, and predicted my glory as a very great poet.
I evinced a mad passion for Mary, a sweet fourteen-year-old girl who was a pupil at a nuns' school next to my college. From the Levant, with her large liquorice eyes, her camelia cheeks, her fleshy, sensual lips, slinky, tender, all woman already, sly and full of malice. To kiss her, I climbed onto the shoulders of my Arab servant every day, and after having cut myself on the sharp glass shards on a wall top, I would wait among the branches of a fig tree, until she could slip away without the nuns noticing. But sometimes, up in the fig tree, there would be chameleons with me, drinking in the heat of the afternoon. Trying to get a better look at one of them one day, I lost my balance and fell, dislocating my shoulder.
My love for Mary was all mixed up with a terrible crisis I was in over mysticism.4 From being fourteen to when I was sixteen, I was
. . . the adolescent who submitted the stirrings of his feeble body to the voluptuous embrace of the Evening,
to the scent of incense and sweetened hosts,
when the Month of Mary came to visit us in the parlor,
like a perfumed lady,
more beautiful than the sisters of my friends!
But the religious constraints of my teachers, the Jesuits, rather than supporting my mystical urges, cut them down. I was expelled from the college for having brought in some of Zola's novels.5 I got myself into debt for the first time in my life in order to set up my first journal, Le Papyrus, which was brimful of Romantic poetry and anticlerical invectives against the Jesuits.6 However, I found myself in the impossible situation of not being able to continue my classical studies in Alexandria, much to the fury of my father, who felt compelled to pack me off to Paris.7
Alone in Paris. At eighteen years of age. Evenings in the Latin Quarter, with all the ladies of easy virtue at my disposal. And all the usual student upsets. A disastrous examination in mathematics, but a triumphant one in philosophy, on the theories of Stuart Mill.8 I arrived in Milan a bachelier ès lettres, with a French culture, though incontrovertibly Italianand that despite all the temptations of Paris.
While I was reading for my degree in law at the University of Genoa,9 one of my poems written in Free Verse, "Les Vieux Marins," which had been published in the Anthologie-Revue,10 was awarded a prize by Catulle Mendès and Gustave Kahn, the directors of Sarah Bernhardt's Samedis populaires, and was then gloriously recited by the great actress herself, in her own theater.
With the little money allowed me by my father, sworn enemy of all my literature, I dashed off to Paris. My entry into the literary circles there represented the acclaimed rise of a new, young, great poet: the doors of the publishing houses were open to me, editors and journals were entirely deferential.
My literary campaign throughout Italy then began to unfold, promoting both French Symbolism and Decadentism, with endless lectures in which I introduced Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Gustave Kahn, Claudel, Paul Fort, Verhaeren, and Jammes to Italy.11 The establishment and development of the international revue Poesia12 then followed, a teeming hothouse in which our best young poets germinated and burst into flower: Cavacchioli, Paolo Buzzi, Govoni, Palazzeschi, Gian Pietro Lucini, and Luciano Folgore.13 Thus it was that in 1905 Futurism was born.14
I was the much-acclaimed author of La Conquête des étoiles (Conquest of the Stars),15 a poem far from the realistic; nevertheless I followed all the disturbances and ideological developments of the Italian socialist movement very closely, and these crystallized into my tragedy Le Roi Bombance (King Guzzle).16 This fat-bellied king of mine stormed onto the Parisian stage, already bearing the scandal of Futurism in his symbols and grotesque actions.17 For a whole month, Paris was violently shaken by the revolutionary truculence of this work and by the arguments raging back and forth about the Futurist Manifesto, which appeared in Le Figaro, as well as about my sword gash, dealt me in a duel with the novelist Charles-Henri Hirsch.18 The Parisian papers dubbed me "The Caffeine of Europe"!19
The text translated here is taken from the chapter "Alessandria d'Egitto," in Marinetti e il futurismo (1929). It is based on "Autoritratto" in Scatole d'amore in conserva (1927), which itself is taken from the autobiographical sketch "Il delizio pericolo," in Come si seducono le donne (1920) and Racconte-Novelle: Periodico quindicinnale (December 15, 1920). It was reprinted with some evocative illustrations by Prampolini in Novella: Rivista mensile di novelle italiane e straniere e di varietà in January 1925 and excerpted in L'impero, February 3-4, 1925, under the title "Caffeina dell'Europa." Two more evocations of Marinetti's early life can be found in the poetic autobiographies La grande Milano tradizionale e futurista and Una sensibilità italiana nata in Egitto, both written between 1943 and 1944.
Excerpted from Critical Writings by F. T. Marinetti; edited by Günter Berghaus; translated by Doug Thompson. Copyright © 2006 by Luce Marinetti, Vittoria Marinetti Piazzoni, and Ala Marinetti Clerici. Translation, compilation, editorial work, foreword, preface, and introduction copyright © 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Published in October 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.