Luigi Russolo (1885–1947)—painter, composer, builder of musical instruments, and first-hour member of the Italian Futurist movement—was a crucial figure in the evolution of twentieth-century aesthetics. As creator of the first systematic poetics of noise and inventor of what has been considered the first mechanical sound synthesizer, Russolo looms large in the development of twentieth-century music. In the first English language study of Russolo, Luciano Chessa emphasizes the futurist’s interest in the occult, showing it to be a leitmotif for his life and a foundation for his art of noises. Chessa shows that Russolo’s aesthetics of noise, and the machines he called the intonarumori, were intended to boost practitioners into higher states of spiritual consciousness. His analysis reveals a multifaceted man in whom the drive to keep up with the latest scientific trends coexisted with an embrace of the irrational, and a critique of materialism and positivism.
Luigi Russolo, Futurist Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult
Futurism as a Metaphysical Science
It is surprising how little the common perception of futurism has changed since 1967, when Maurizio Calvesi complained about the "reductive general idea of Italian futurism as a simple exaltation of the machine and superficial reproduction of movement."1 Although the futurists did not always agree among themselves on a definition of the movement, they certainly would not have shared a view that reduces futurism to merely materialistic terms.2 If a similarly reductive attitude can already be found in Varèse as early as 1917, the reduction of futurism to a materialistic movement within post-World War II art criticism was likely determined, as noted in the introduction, by a need to downplay the uneasy relationship between futurism and fascism.3
Yet futurism was a movement animated by contradictory ideas, constantly oscillating between science and art, the rational and the irrational, future and past, mechanical and spiritual. Indeed, it may well have been these very tensions and frictions that gave futurism its dynamic force.
Defining the futurist movement and analyzing its aesthetic is not an easy task. To the casual observer the futurists seem to present a united front, unified by the charismatic personality of Marinetti, but analysis shows them to have been highly diverse intellectual personalities, each with slightly different opinions and conceptions of life and art and sometimes in open and violent opposition to one another. They may have found themselves (for reasons of convenience, if nothing else, and perhaps sometimes opportunism) under one ideological roof, but individually they maintained autonomous physiognomies and attitudes and peculiarities of their own. It seems, then, impossible to hope to find coherence inside the different poetic positions of the futurists, let alone to formulate an organic presentation with which they would have been satisfied.
Marinetti's work and personality succeeded in maintaining a certain order, at least in the beginning. It is well documented that Marinetti initially subsidized all the initiatives of the movement (including publications and exhibitions), and, like a good impresario, he reserved the right to supervise the work of the other artists of the group, to the point that all the first futurist manifestos unquestionably ran the gauntlet of Marinetti's censorship; this explains their similar tone.4 But in the privacy of living-room discussions or personal correspondence-or anywhere outside Marinetti's public control-the futurists' aesthetic visions diverged synchronically and diachronically; they were in continual growth and in a restless state of becoming, changing along with the shifting alliances within the movement.
Critically the most lucid figure among them was probably Umberto Boccioni. Perhaps for a predisposition of spirit, perhaps because his career lasted for only a brief moment and almost did not leave him time to conclude a cycle of thought, Boccioni was one of the very few futurists to produce a volume that presented his poetics systematically.5
The other exception was Luigi Russolo. Although he was not as socially exuberant as Boccioni was, his thought was characterized by a surprising coherence of themes-many so extraordinarily close to those of his friend Boccioni as to suggest a sort of intersecting pollination between the two. Russolo was to repeat these early themes, unchanged in their substance, for the rest of his life; being spiritual in character, they corresponded well with futurism's occult side.
To summarize all the instances that show connections between futurism and esoteric preoccupations at various levels-ranging from spirituality to interest in and practice of the occult arts, and also including black and red magic and spiritualism-would be an ambitious undertaking. Here I shall simply create a backdrop against which to project the fruit of research on Russolo's interest in the occult and my reinterpretation of his sound-related activities in the context of this interest.
I am not the first to mention the influence of the occult arts on the futurist movement. Sporadic references to this influence can be found in volumes, catalogs, and essays on futurism and the visual arts edited by Calvesi and Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco. Until a few years ago the only contributing monographs available were a brief article by Germano Celant titled "Futurismo esoterico," published in Il Verri in 1970, and Calvesi's very brief article "L'écriture médiumnique comme source de l'automatisme futuriste et surréaliste," published in Europe in 1975, in which Calvesi shows connections between mediumistic phenomena and the poetics of the automatic writing adopted first by Marinetti and then by the Surrealists. To these should certainly be added Calvesi's above-mentioned 1967 classic Il futurismo: La fusione della vita nell'arte, in which occult and spiritualist themes, however eccentric, occasionally color the overall discussion.
Renewed interest in the topic began first with the extensive catalog of a 1995 Frankfurt exhibition titled Okkultismus und Avantgarde, which devoted much space to the futurists; this was followed by Flavia Matitti's writing on Balla and theosophy, as well as by the handsome volume by Simona Cigliana (Futurismo esoterico), which takes its title from Celant's essay and is the most complete contribution to the topic to date. In contrast to the earlier sources cited, some of which are limited to a list of facts, Cigliana's book offers a convincing in-depth analysis of the futurists' occult frequentations, albeit primarily limited to the field of literature.
The futurists' interest in the occult can be attributed to their full immersion in the culture of their period, principally inspired by French symbolism, which was in turn a reaction to Comte's mid-nineteenth-century positivism and absolute materialism. In Italy, critiques of positivism and materialism also attacked idealism, and not just in rational and dialectic Hegelian formulations but also in idealism's mainstream Italian dissemination through the writings of the philosopher Benedetto Croce.
It has been maintained that interest in the occult arts and metapsychics can be attributed to the futurists' attraction to the then current understanding of science. There were those who, considering the future of scientific research, maintained that science should include among its fields of inquiry the study of paranormal phenomena and confer legitimacy upon it, since this was the natural direction toward which science was already tending. This view may be true, but it offers only a partial picture of futurism, and it bears the further defect of again putting science and technology at the center of the futurist poetic meditation, as if they were the end of this meditation instead of, as we will see, the means.
Already at this stage, however, it is clear that these occult interests were poles apart from an aesthetic conception preoccupied exclusively with the "simple exaltation of the machine and exterior reproduction of movement." The futurists' interest in science was not always exclusive or absolute, and it was not always blind idolatry. Calvesi addresses this point when he writes, "Boccioni did not want a scientific aesthetics, that is, definable into scientific rules, but only an aesthetics that took the acquisitions of science into account: which is very different."6 For Marinetti the situation was entirely similar: "Art assimilates science intuitively, analogically, by parallelism and also by benefiting from science's technical discoveries, but never by a substitution of methodologies."7 For the futurists, science was above all a means; it was not the end of their aesthetic vision.
The present chapter considers the movement's interest in occultism-alongside its interest in science and technology and its greatly underexplored interest in altered states of consciousness-as a means to achieve out-of-body experiences. Such experiences, in turn, would permit the futurists to observe reality from a hyperreal point of view, as well as to re-create reality through a new, spiritual mode of artistic creation. Subsequent chapters add Russolo's musical activity to those expressions of futurism that are indebted to the occult tradition.
Science and the Occult at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Interest in the occult would seem to contradict the attention the futurists gave to the latest discoveries of the science and technology of the period. 8 But from the middle of the nineteenth century on, interest in the occult was increasingly shared by scientists and occultists alike, generating such terms as "scientific occultism," which further muddied the waters.9 Increasingly spreading an image of the universe as an organism animated by mysterious and supernatural forces, new scientific discoveries made between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth showed that idealism, positivism, and materialism gave too restricted a vision of natural phenomena and the cosmos.10
A more dynamic conception of experimental science led various intellectuals of the time to consider occult manifestations as phenomena not yet known because of imperfect human senses and the limitations of human research tools; sooner or later, however, the scientific community was expected to be in a position to measure, understand, and explain. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle would eventually limit, if not altogether undermine, this hope for accurate measurements.
Exhortations to avoid reducing existence (and so the world) exclusively to what human senses can perceive came from all sides, as exemplified by the famous astronomer Camille Flammarion's comment that X-rays were a further proof that "sensation and reality are two very different things."11
Among the many attempts to systematize ways of understanding, ranging from alchemy to metapsychics to spiritualism, and drawn from sources as diverse as the Corpus Hermeticum, medieval mysticism, the neoplatonism of the Renaissance, freemasonry, and Eastern philosophies, was the philosophy of the Rose+Croix, which is worth citing for its direct influence on artistic disciplines.12 But even more relevant was the influence of theosophy.
Blavatsky's theosophy, with its comparativist and encyclopedic popularizing approach, which embraced Eastern philosophical thought as well as having numerous points of contact with scientific research, found fertile ground in the cultural context of the epoch. In fact, it became fashionable in those end-of-the-century artistic circles that still believed in romantic philosophical ideas or had aligned with the new symbolist trend. Theosophy famously called for systematic research of parascientific phenomena that would apply the same criteria used by scientific method to investigate other natural phenomena. Such spiritual research was never intended for utilitarian purposes but only for the spiritual advancement of humanity.
In Italy theosophy paid particular attention to the study of the human psyche. In fact, perhaps because of the charismatic presence of the celebrated Turinese psychiatrist and anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, psychiatry and neurology were in Italy the first disciplines to take an interest in various forms of the occult. Among these forms were parapsychology and parascience (telepathy, clairvoyance, possession, psychokinesis, ideoplastic), as well as correlated mediumistic phenomena.13 The need to push beyond the appearance of things to understand the world and the belief that mediums and artists were gifted with more highly developed spiritual faculties-both principles that betrayed connections with romantic aesthetics-were propositions that futurists maintained on several occasions.
In this "sounding out" of reality the new frontiers of science were certainly helpful. Among the scientific discoveries of the age, that of Röntgen's X-rays in 1895 was one of the most suggestive, because its application implied a complete revolution of the perceptive act itself. Unlike the theories on the fourth dimension or the study of non-Euclidean geometries that affected the representation of the perceptive act, X-rays revolutionized the very act of seeing. This discovery was fundamentally important in the development of theories of the pictorial avant-garde in the first years of the century-and not only for the futurists.14
X-rays bore a metaphoric weight: they encouraged one to view things profoundly rather than occupy oneself with the surface perceptible via the five senses. And an even closer relationship with mediumistic phenomena circulates in the scientific literature of the time: Lombroso, Flammarion, Ochorowicz, and Zoellner all drew a direct connection between Röntgen's research on the vibration of ether waves and the phenomena of ectoplastic condensation.15 It is not surprising, then, to learn that X-rays profoundly fascinated Boccioni, Balla, and Russolo, and that they offered a concrete way of achieving (through the extension of human senses of perception) the futurist interpenetration of planes they promoted in the manifestos of futurist painting.
The futurists' fascination with this new technology is first documented in a passage in the technical manifesto of futurist painting of April 11, 1910: "Who can still believe in the opacity of bodies, while our acuity and multiplied sensitivity makes us intuit the obscure manifestations of mediumistic phenomena? Why must one continue to create without taking account of our visual power that can give results analogous to those of X-rays?"16
The futurists were convinced that X-rays and X-ray-like clairvoyance could help to register otherwise invisible aspects of reality, such as the residual traces of the movement of bodies or the luminous emanations produced by the brain and projected in the surrounding aura-emanations that theosophists called "thought-forms." This protocol of perception based on light and movement permitted one to grasp the spiritual level of reality. The technical manifesto claimed that "by the persistence of the image in the retina, objects in motion multiply, deform, following one another, as vibrations, in the space that they pass through [i.e., of their trajectory] [. . .]. To paint a figure one does not need to make the figure: one needs to render its atmosphere. [. . .] Motion and light destroy the materiality of bodies."17
These convictions would be summarized at the end of the manifesto in the concept of complementarismo congenito (congenital complementarism), a notion that the art historian Marianne Martin, in her Futurist Art and Theory, considered "an occult spiritual experience bringing the artist in closer touch with the universal forces."18 The term complementarismo congenito readily promotes a union of opposites that rings distinctively alchemical, and thus occult.
Space and Time Tamed: Marinetti's Ectoplasm
An examination of the critical texts of Calvesi, Fagiolo dell'Arco, and Celant reveals that all of the most representative futurist artists were to varying degrees concerned with the occult.19 This is certainly true of Marinetti. By celebrating action and movement-a celebration clearly intoxicated with Nietzschianism-his aesthetics celebrated the energy manifested in every vibration of the cosmos, that is, energy itself.
Far from being a proposition of materialistic thrust, Marinetti's obsessive celebration of movement and vibration reflects an occult, symbolist-derived substratum.20 Central to this view is the idea that matter is constituted by condensation of waves vibrating at different intensities; as such, through movement, matter either vanishes or better reveals its implicit spirituality. Basing his ideas on Nietzsche's theory of action, his personal reading of Bergson's vitalism, and Einstein's theory of relativity (which Marinetti probably encountered by way of the popularizing work of Minkowsky), the founder of futurism derived a conception of the world in which, if only because we lack absolute parameters to show stasis, all is perpetual movement.21
According to Marinetti, "absolute space and time do not preexist, nor do any absolutely immovable points nor any objects in absolute movement, because there is no absolute term of reference: object and subject are, always, correlatively but discontinuously mobile."22 According to Calvesi, futurists did not regard "spirit and matter (and therefore [. . .] intuition and intellect)" as separate; they saw them as a unity, under the "same principle of energy."23 As is also true of Boccioni, Marinetti overcame Bergson's dualism of matter versus movement. Matter never exists as absolute inertia: "Matter and movement, rather than contradictory ends, became ends that could be brought back to one single principle."24
Behind this theory of energy we find not only the influence of Nietzsche's interpretations and Einstein's suggestions but also one of the core propositions of alchemy that futurists may have derived from pre-Socratic philosophies: the belief in a universe that may be synthesizable into a single generating principle, a primal matter, existing in various levels of density and from which all things derive.25 This primal matter, a wave vibrating at different frequency, was often referred to as the ether.
The interest in waves and vibrations, and in their relationship to occult themes, is a constant in Marinetti's prose. In his Manifesto della declamazione dinamica e sinottica he writes that the futurist poet/performer will have the task of "metallizing, liquefying, vegetalizing, petrifying, and electrifying the voice, fusing it with the vibrations of matter, themselves expressed by Words-in-Freedom,"26 and in La grande Milano tradizionale e futurista Marinetti recognized in Russolo's enterprise the capacity to "organize spiritually and fantastically our acoustic vibrations."27
A similar transformative approach is found in the manifesto La radia, published with Pino Masnata in 1933. Among other things, the radio set (Marinetti and Masnata have recourse to the feminine gender for the word, radia) is here considered to be:
4. Reception amplification and transformation of vibrations emitted by living beings by living or dead spirits noisy dramas of states of mind without words.
5. Reception amplification and transformation of vibrations emitted by matter Just as today we listen to the song of the woods and of the sea tomorrow we will be seduced by the vibrations of a diamond or of a flower.28
It is, furthermore:
6. Pure organism of radiophonic sensations
7. An art without time or space without yesterday or tomorrow [. . .] The reception and amplification, through thermionic valves, of light and of the voices of the past will destroy time [. . .]
9. Human art, universal and cosmic, that is like a voice with a true psychology-spirituality of the noises, of the voices and of the silence.29
In these passages points of contact with panpsychism are evident. The idea that everything is vibration is an eminently occultist one, as it implies that all phenomena occurring in the world are in some way secretly linked. Once the corpuscular theory of light, inspired by Democritus and upheld by Newton, was put aside in favor of the theory of waves traveling through ether, which lasted until Einstein, it was as if the scientific community implicitly validated the long esoteric tradition that had always included a belief in the correlation between light and sound. The discovery of electromagnetic waves, X-rays, and, shortly after, radioactivity, confirmed this occultist proposition.30 In fact, the theory of waves propagating themselves in the ether reinforced and essentially confirmed an alchemical/synesthetic conception of art, because both sound and light are, according to this vision of physics, waves that only differ in frequency or wavelength-a difference of degree, not of kind.
Futurism was always characterized by a strong synesthetic component, and synesthesia has traditionally been an indicator of the occult (by way of the vibrational tradition).31 This connection was a remnant of the connection between futurism and French symbolism in the latter's most occultist (and psychedelic) moments-one may think of the Baudelaire of Correspondances or the Rimbaud of Voyelles-but also of the Italian version of that same symbolism, alcoholic and brilliant, that we call Milanese scapigliatura, an antibourgeois art movement surely characterized, just as futurism is, by an overlap of scientific and occult interests.32
The debate about synesthesia was widespread at the opening of the twentieth century.33 Marinetti's interest in the relationship between the arti sorelle (sister arts) and the different senses was ever present, even when not taking center stage as it does in his manifesto "Tactilism" (1921, revised in 1924).
Tactilism, Marinetti maintains, could be considered the result of the mortification of the other four senses, producing an empowered sense of touch; this would occur following a deviation of the sun from its proper orbit that would cause its unusual distancing from the earth.34 But, Marinetti maintained, the phenomenon was instead created by "an act of futurist caprice/faith/will." In fact, in an extreme situation such as a planetary catastrophe, the five senses would be reduced to only one. Marinetti wrote, "Everybody can feel that sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste are modifications of a single, highly perceptive sense: the sense of touch, which splits into different ways and organizes into different points."35
In this manifesto, tactilism is a provisional term for a new art form that merges all of the five traditional senses as well as a series of new senses that Marinetti lists. He chooses to give "the name of Tactilism to all the senses that are not specified," since he believes that the perceptive senses are in fact "more or less arbitrary localizations of that confused total of intertwined senses that constitute the typical forces of the human machine"; these forces could in his opinion "be better observed on the epidermal frontiers of our body." Notwithstanding this, the attention here is obviously on the sense of touch; as Marinetti describes it, to arrive at a tactile art, other stimuli (including the visual) must be sacrificed or neutralized.36
Marinetti therefore contemplates a synesthetic emotion-which by definition links different senses by means of association-that is evoked and activated by use of specially made implements that he calls tactile tables (tavole tattili). In tactile art it is exclusively through touch that the perceiver reconstructs, by association, stimuli that, while similar, belong to other expressive fields such as music or painting; this kind of reconstruction is encouraged in the tactile tables. Marinetti chose not to integrate the expressive protocol of the tactile tables with expressive modalities derived from other art forms (like painting or sculpture)-a choice made not to prevent a dialogue between the arts but to protect the newborn art form tactilism and permit it, at least in the beginnings of its journey, to develop autonomously.
Marinetti believed that the sense of touch, when empowered, permits seeing beyond the physical-permits seeing even inside objects, as if by a sort of tactile X-ray vision: "A visual sense is born, at the fingertips. Interscopia is developed, and some individuals are able to see inside their own bodies. Others can shadowy make out the shadowy insides of nearby bodies." The connection with Boccioni's interpenetration of planes, and of its occult and scientific matrices (or implications), could not be clearer.
At its core, Marinetti's tactilism aimed at the perfecting of "spiritual communications between human beings, through the epidermis." Often read as merely an erotic proclamation, this statement was, rather, the testimony of Marinetti's spiritual and occult attitude, perhaps even traceable to the conversations with his father, who was an enthusiastic reader of Eastern philosophy.37 With Tactilism, Marinetti proposed to "penetrate better and outside of scientific methods the true essence of matter" and to promote the type of spiritual experience that could reach the point of "negating the distinction between spirit and matter," an affirmation that in substance overcomes, as stated above, Bergson's dualism of movementversusmatter. Marinetti believed that comprehension of the essence of matter could be obtained by eliminating the mediation of the brain (i.e., of human reason), which is guilty of polluting the virgin, immediate perfection of the tactile experience. As he wrote: "Perhaps there is more thought in the fingertips than in the brain that has the pride of observing the phenomenon [the act of touching]."
According to Marinetti, the new art had more relations with spiritualism and could better demonstrate the validity of theories of reincarnation than other arts: "The futurist Balla declares that by means of Tactilism everyone can enjoy again with freshness and absolute surprise the sensations of his past life, that he could not enjoy again with equal surprise by means of music nor by means of painting."38
Only a few years after this manifesto, the Manifesto della fotografia futurista, a collaboration between Marinetti and Tato published on April 11, 1930, proposed updating Anton Giulio Bragaglia's fotodinamica (photodynamics) by taking advantage of the new technological possibilities. The aesthetic coordinates of this book however are not that distant from Bragaglia's, who was from the beginning of his career interested in phenomena of mediumistic materialization.
The goals of futurist photography in 1930 included, among other things:
4. The spectralizing of some parts of the human or animal body isolated or joined nonlogically; [. . .]
11. The transparent and semitransparent superimposition of concrete persons and objects and of their semiabstract phantasms with simultaneity of memory/dream; [. . .]
14. The composition of absolutely extraterrestrial landscapes, astral or mediumistic by means of thicknesses, elasticity, turbid depths, clear transparencies, algebraic or geometric values, and with nothing human, vegetable, or geologic;39
But in L'uomo moltiplicato e il regno della macchina, part of Guerra sola igiene del mondo of 1915 (and originally in Le futurisme of 1911, perhaps even drafted as early as 1910), Marinetti aspired to a structural modification of man that in future would, thanks to the materialization of wings produced with the force of thought, allow man to fly.40
In L'uomo moltiplicato, Marinetti wrote: "The day it is possible for man to exteriorize his will such that it extends outside of him like an immense invisible arm-on that day Dream and Desire, which today are vain words, will rule sovereign over tamed Space and Time."41 Having lost the reader in this forest of his postsymbolist prose, Marinetti then showed us the way. He believed that this prophecy, which he himself recognized as paradoxical, could be more easily understood by "studying the phenomena of exteriorized will that constantly manifest themselves in séances."
This uomo moltiplicato, a metallic alter egothat would duplicate man without duplicating his defects, would even have the gift of clairvoyance and, in addition to being a "non-human and mechanical type, constructed for an omnipresent velocity, it will be naturally cruel, omniscient and combative." The figure of the multiplied man shows interesting similarities with the metallic animal of the subsequent manifesto, "Ricostruzione futurista dell'universo" by Balla and Depero, the aggressiveness of which would unquestionably have been inebriated with the spirit of World War I interventionism.
For Marinetti, the man of the future was not so much the product of Darwinian evolution as, rather, the transformist hypothesis of Lamarck (whom, indeed he cited in his essay): not an evolution of man but his alchemical transformation into a more perfect being created by the futurists, a "non-human type in whom moral pain, kindness, affection and love, i.e., the only corrosive poisons of inexhaustible vital energy, will be abolished"-in short, a man aiming for a suspended, ataractic, beyond-good-and-evil spiritual state.
These scientific-alchemical themes never disappeared from Marinetti's repertoire. In his 1933 manifesto La radia, he again announced the "overcoming of death" through futurism "with a metallizing of the human body and the appropriating of the vital spirit as machine force."42 In this proclamation, Marinetti reelaborated his 1915 position, according to which the futurists had the power to reawaken mummies with the charismatic electricity of their hand movements. In a passage of "Guerra sola igiene del mondo," Marinetti recounts some of the brawls after the futurist evenings of the first years: "Everywhere, we saw growing in a few hours the courage and the number of men that are truly young, and [we saw] the galvanized mummies that our gesture had extracted from the ancient sarcophagi, becoming bizarrely agitated."43 By now it should be clear that Marinetti's will futuristically to abolish death is a trope, a trope that will recur frequently in Marinetti's writings (e.g., the closing of the manifesto "La matematica futurista immaginativa qualitativa"). 44
Painting the Invisible: Boccioni's Sixth Sense
Contro ogni materialismo.
Umberto Boccioni, "Note per il libro"45
At the intersection of romantic impetuousness and Bergsonian critique of materialism, the personality of Umberto Boccioni stands out dramatically. Departing from a type of formation close to Marinetti's but influenced by Marinetti's theories, Boccioni too demonstrated a strong interest in the occult. Drawn to symbolism, Nietzsche, and Bergson, familiar with the ideas of Einstein, admirer of Wagner, and more generally attracted to the titanic and romantic aesthetic, Boccioni had the vocation and the presumption of the demiurge, the creator of worlds, the materializer.
Boccioni, like Marinetti, overcame the Bergsonian dualism of matter and movement by wedding himself to Einstein's vision (and perhaps to that of Steiner, if one substitutes the term energy for spirit).46 Everything moves, everything vibrates(all bodies are "persistent symbols of the universal vibration," can be read in the technical manifesto of futurist painting), all creation is energy, existing in the form of waves that organize the primal matter, the ether, into different levels of density or, as Boccioni puts it, of intensity. There is no separation between one body and another: in Boccioni's thought, continuity is preferred. In fact, in his article "Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste," which appeared in the periodical Lacerba on March 15, 1913, Boccioni writes that "distances between one object and another are not of the empty spaces, but of the continuities of matter of different intensity," immediately adding that in the paintings of the futurists one does not have "the object and the emptiness, but only a greater or lesser intensity and solidity of spaces."47
And he adds, further advocating for continuity,
They accuse us of doing "cinematography, which is an accusation that really makes us laugh, so much it is vulgarly moronic. We do not subdivide visual images: we search for a shape, or, better, a single form [forma unica] that would substitute the new concept of continuity to the old concept of (sub)division.
Every subdivision of motion is completely arbitrary, as it is completely arbitrary every subdivision of matter.48
In confirmation of this proposition, Boccioni presents two quotes form Bergson.
This passage can be better understood after reading the futurist Ardengo Soffici's restatement of this principle of continuity, since he returns the concept to what would have been its original theosophical coordinates. In his article "Raggio," published in Lacerba on July 1, 1914, and republished not by chance a few months later in the Roman theosophical periodical Ultra with the eloquent title "La teosofia nel futurismo," Soffici wrote that bodies are not separated from one another but that "the entire universe therefore is a single whole without interruption of continuity," and that, moreover, "the world is not a molecular aggregate, but a flux of energy with varied rhythms, from granite to thought."49
Soffici goes on to maintain that "a privileged organism, a center of extra-powerful vital force, can in a certain moment and under certain circumstances attract and concentrate within itself its distant parts, the peripheral waves of its energies, making them concrete," and that "an artist can live and make concrete in a work the life of another being, of things, of places that he has not visited. A prophet [can] see and reveal future events-future for sensibilities less acute than his own." In a crescendo of self-centered hubris, Soffici maintains that his consciousness is "a globe of light that shoots its rays all around in accordance with its force," and he concludes, "I am the point of confluence of history and of the world. I am one with eternity and with the infinite."50
Soffici's claim that the psychic energy of the artist could not simply reproduce but must re-create reality was shared by all futurists. I shall investigate how determinative this proposition is in analyzing the work of Russolo. This idea led to the futurists' interest in the creation of ectoplasmic forms by sensitive subjects in a mediumistic trance. In "Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste," Boccioni wrote:
When, through the works, one understands the truth of futurist sculpture, one will see the form of atmosphere where before one saw emptiness and then with the impressionists a fog. This fog was already a first step toward atmospheric plasticity, toward our physical transcendentalism which is then another step toward the perception of analogous phenomena until now occult to our obtuse sensitivity, such as the perceptions of the luminous emanations of our body of which I spoke in my first lecture in Rome and which the photographic plate already reproduces.51
A year later, at the close of his volume Pittura, scultura futuriste, Boccioni wrote: "For us the biological mystery of mediumistic materialization is a certainty, a clarity in the intuition of psychic transcendentalism and of plastic states of mind."52 In his preparatory notes for the book, which were published posthumously, Boccioni formulated yet anothereloquent phrase: "Our painting is esoteric."53
In the passage from "Fondamento plastico della scultura e pittura futuriste" quoted above, Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco read an allusion to the photographs of ectoplasms produced at the beginning of the century by the notorious Neapolitan medium Eusapia Palladino.54 Both Marinetti and Boccioni were fascinated by Palladino's séances.55 These séances had became still better known after the director of the Corriere della sera tried to discredit them.56
Palladino based her credibility on the fact that she had agreed to repeat her mediumistic séances in the presence of neurologists and psychologists, and she was defended fiercely by the anthropologist Lombroso. Celant records that Lombroso, along with a Turinese group of faithful followers, was in those years investigating the study of phenomena of psychic condensation and materialization. Lombroso's theories would have been fairly widespread in the artistic circles of the time. Kandinsky, for example, was well informed about the studies on spiritualism that Lombroso conducted in Palladino's mediumistic séances,57 and the young Balla in his early years in Turin took Lombroso's classes.58
Materialization phenomena were also the point of departure for the work of Anton Giulio Bragaglia, the author of that "futurist photodynamism" that incited Boccioni's wrath. In two articles from 1913 titled "I fantasmi dei vivi e dei morti" and "La fotografia dell'invisibile," Bragaglia published photos of fake ectoplasms; in doing so he was following a well-established international trend.59 But the year before, influenced by mediumistic photos and those theories of chronophotography of Muybridge or Maray on which Giacomo Balla based his 1912 paintings of the frame-based breakdown of movement (scomposizione del movimento), Bragaglia had already produced the first works of photodynamism.60 In these works he retraced blurs and trajectories of bodies in movement, aiming to reveal that spiritual essence that is lost as a result of the limitations of the human eye: "In motion, things, dematerializing, become idealized," he declared in his Fotodinamismo futurista.61 Calvesi, considering this phrase to be a departure from Bergsonian ideas, linked it to one of the key phrases of the technical manifesto of futurist painting of 1910: "Movement and light destroy the materiality of bodies." Bragaglia's interest in the supernatural did not exhaust itself in this first phase, as testified by his 1932 photograph Alchimia musicale.
But the passage from Lacerba of March 15, 1913, in which Boccioni talked about "perceptions of the luminous emanations of our body," seems actually to refer to the particular metapsychics phenomena that Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater called "thought-forms." Their book Thought-forms of 1901 was read assiduously in the early twentieth century by artists who were interested in abstract painting. In fact, it exerted great influence over the work of Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, and Mondrian.
The book's central proposition is that all thoughts and emotions create corresponding forms and colors in the aura that surrounds the physical body of every human being. These forms and colors are directly determined by the vibrations of the aura, which only clairvoyants can perceive. According to Besant and Leadbeater, the aura of an individual is composed of the union of different "bodies," among which are the astral body, generated by the passions, and the mental body, generated by the thoughts. The vibrations of the astral and mental bodies have the power to produce special psychic forms, both concrete and abstract, which they called thought-forms. Thought-forms can move freely, and they can distance themselves from the body if the energy of the mind that produced them is sufficient. Their color is based on the quality of the thought, their form on its nature, and their sharpness on its clarity.62
Besant's and Leadbeater's book contain a famous series of color plates painted by various artists on indications furnished by the authors after experiencing trances. Their indications were intended to document scientifically, down to the smallest detail, the thought-forms produced by subjects while feeling emotions ranging from devotion to fear and rage that were collected on specific occasions, at specific times of the day. The largely abstract plates attracted the interest of artists of the time, as did the illustrations of Leadbeater's Man Visible and Invisible of 1902. Thought-forms was quickly translated into a number of languages; in Italy it was first disseminated in the 1905 French translation, in which version it was read by Luigi Pirandello and influenced his poetics from the writing of Il fu Mattia Pascal onward.63
It is useful, however, to remember that Boccioni first expressed interest in the occult in that Roman lecture of 1911 that he referred to in his Lacerba article of March 15, 1913, a lecture in which his spirituality is clearly revealed. The text of the lecture, which remained unpublished for a long time, represents one of the high points of Boccioni's poetics. Conscious of its relevance, he referred to it often in his subsequent works. His familiarity with the books of Leadbeater and Besant, particularly Thought-forms, emerges from the very opening lines of the lecture, where, in prophesizing the art of the future, Boccioni affirms:
There will come a time when a painting will no longer be enough. Its immobility will be an archaism when compared with the vertiginous movement of human life. The eye of man will perceive colors like feelings in themselves. Multiplied colors will have no need of forms to be understood, and pictorial works will be whirling musical compositions of enormous colored gases, which on the scene of a free horizon, will move and electrify the complex soul of a crowd that we cannot yet imagine.64
The reference to the use of colors as "feelings in themselves," the use of "colored gases" that can electrify the soul, and the synesthetic link between colors and musical composition are all concepts from Thought-forms. In that same year, 1911, Luigi Russolo exhibited perhaps his most ambitious canvas, on which he had worked for many years.65 Titled La musica, it represents a whirling azure wave that unfolds in the air while the protagonist of the painting, a pianist, executes equally whirling musical figurations on a keyboard. Russolo's painting probably inspired Boccioni's visionary remarks above; and it certainly inspired some elements of Città che sale, Boccioni's masterpiece of 1910-1911 (fig. 3).B66[fig.3]/B
The synesthetic hypothesis returned in the closing words of Boccioni's 1911 lecture, where Boccioni clarified that by painting the sensation, the futurists stop "the idea before it can be localized in any one sense and be determined either as music, poetry, painting, architecture, that way capturing without any mediation the primal universal sensation."67 Moreover, because futurists live in the absolute, Boccioni maintained that it was necessary for those wishing to understand their works to be not only extremely intelligent but also ready "to enter into contact with pure intuition," which is possible only "after a long and religious preparation."68
Thanks to this spiritual preparation, we are endowed with a new sensitivity that, through new perceptive and psychic means, guides us in the search for the absolute, Boccioni writes:
We painters [. . .] feel that this sensitivity is a psychic divining force that gives the senses the power to perceive that which never until now was perceived.69 We think that if everything tends toward Unity, that which man until today has sought to perceive in unity is still a miserable blind infantile decomposition of things.70
Boccioni believed that the artist must aspire to re-create this unity from the "chaos that envelops things." Sensation is the synthesis, the essence of things, their transfiguration. It is the "subjective impression of Nature."
Moving from the more spiritual aspects of the artistic currents that had gone before (divisionism, impressionism, symbolism), Boccioni arrived at a definition of futurism as the culmination and overcoming of these previous artistic currents. Divisionism represents for Boccioni the achievement of a "symphonic and polychromatic unity of the painting that will become more and more a universal synthesis." With the impressionists, figures and objects, although still in a fairly embryonic way, "are already the nucleus of an atmospheric vibration." But the impressionists exchanged "appearance for reality." It was their limit, and as a result they were trapped in a superficial representation of nature.
Boccioni considered the painting style of the Italian symbolist Gaetano Previati, in which he noted contacts with the "Rosa Croce," which was the direct predecessor of futurist painting. In Previati, "forms begin to speak like music, bodies aspire to make themselves atmosphere, spirit, and the subject is ready to transform itself into a state of mind."
Boccioni perceived futurism as a new kind of impressionism: "Our impressionism is absolutely spiritual since more than the optical and analytical impression, it wishes to give the psychic and synthetic impression of reality." The spiritual role of futurist painting and the psychic force that it develops exhibits far loftier ambitions than French impressionism. In Boccioni's words, it "hypnotizes, grasps, envelops and drags the soul to the infinite." Boccioni had already defined this psychic synthesis as "simultaneity of state of mind."It was a mnemonic-optical representation of what is remembered and what is seen; in substance, it was a spiritualization of the perceptive experience. As if it were an X-ray view, this psychic synthesis offered possibilities of "penetrating the opacity of bodies."
The influence of X-rays and the mythology that the futurists developed around them returns with Boccioni's mention of X-rays in a catalog note for the painting La risata (also painted in the year 1911), which was prepared for the program of the 1912 London exhibition: "The scene is round the table of a restaurant where all are gay. The personages are studied from all sides and both the objects in front and those at the back are to be seen, all those being present in the painter's memory, so that the principle of the Roentgen rays is applied to the picture."71
This quote shows similarities with his affirmations in the Roman lecture. For Boccioni the model of the modern artist was the "clairvoyant painter," capable of "painting not only the visible but that which until now was held to be invisible."72 He believed that the modern painter "can only paint the invisible, clothing it with lights and shadows that emanate from his own soul." Thanks to the progress-spiritual and technological-of the modern age, the five senses can be transcended: "It is our futurist hypersensitivity that guides us and makes us already possess that sixth sense that science strains in vain to catalog and define."73
This perceptive sensitivity permitted the futurist artist to understand the spiritual essence of the movement of bodies. Everything is perennially in motion, all is composed of the same waves that have various grades of density and that vibrate at different intensities. "Bodies are but condensed atmosphere," Boccioni wrote, and minerals, plants, and animals are composed of "identical nature." This new sensitivity is a true and real "psychic divining force" that allows one to grasp that substantial "Unity" of everything that Boccioni considered-as he phrases it in his lecture notes in a crossed-out line-the symbol of the "universal vibration." 74 Futurist painting aspired to reproduce a more profound reality as it is perceived by the subject and as it produced states of mind in the subject: "If bodies provoke states of mind through vibrations of forms, it is those that we will draw."
The following excerpt from the closing paragraph of the Roman lecture is both the most visionary passage of that document and the one where Boccioni's familiarity with Leadbeater is most evident:
There is a space of vibrations between the physical body and the invisible that determines the nature of its action and that will dictate the artistic sensation. In short, if around us spirits wander and are observed and studied; if from our bodies emanate fluids of power, of antipathy, of love; if deaths are foreseen at a distance of hundreds of kilometers; if premonitions give us sudden joy or annihilate us with sadness; if all this impalpable, this invisible, this inaudible becomes more and more the object of investigation and observation: all of this happens because in us some marvelous sense is awakening thanks to the light of our consciousness. Sensation is the material garment of the spirit and now it appears to our clairvoyant eyes. And with this the artist feels himself in everything. By creating he does not look, does not observe, does not measure; he feels and the sensations that envelop him dictates him the lines and colors that will arouse the emotions that caused him to act.
The Craft of Light: Balla's Occult Signature
In Balla one finds again the confluence of two streams common among many of his futurist comrades: the scientific/positivist and the spiritualist.75 The merging of these two tendencies into a sort of metaphysical rationality would constitute, toward the end of the nineteenth century, one of the aims of theosophy. As Linda Henderson maintains, the preferred meeting place between science and spirituality is the theory of vibrations.76 In the light of this convergence of ends, it is no surprise that Balla, literally obsessed with vibrations, was involved with theosophy for many years, and that an understanding of his relations with it are crucial to reconstructing his artistic journey.
During his formative years in Turin, Balla studied with Cesare Lombroso (whose contacts with spiritualism have been mentioned by Germano Celant, among others).77 But the encounter first with freemasonry and occultism, and later with theosophy, occurred only in 1895, once Balla had moved to Rome. In the first years of the century, Balla furthered his interest in psychiatry by reading Hoepli's popular compendia and manuals.78 His interest in X-rays may have been piqued by his acquaintance with Professor Ghilarducci, an expert on radiology, psychology, and electrotherapy, whose portrait Balla painted in 1903.79 This is indicated in an undated entry in his notebooks: "Roentgen rays and their applications."80 I believe he made this entry to remind himself to look into Ignazio Schincaglia's popular 1911 book Radiografia e radioscopia: Storia dei raggi Roentgen e loro applicazioni piu importanti.
The supernatural element is already present in some of Balla's first Roman works, both in the impressive dimensions of Ritratto della madre from 1901 and in the metaphysical angle and hyperrealism of the formidable Fallimento of 1902.81 As early as 1904 he maintained a friendship with Ernesto Nathan, an occultist and freemason (he was grand master of the Grande Oriente d'Italia in 1899 and again in 1917), who in 1907 became the first anticlerical mayor to take office in the Campidoglio. Nathan acquired nine canvases from Balla and commissioned a portrait in 1910, and Balla even taught painting to Nathan's daughter, Annie.82 Notwithstanding his contact with Nathan, Balla apparently never affiliated himself with a lodge.83
Information about Balla's first contact with theosophy comes from Balla's daughter Elica: "In 1916 Balla is also interested in psychic phenomena and attends the meetings of a society of theosophists presided over by General Ballatore; they hold, in said society, séances. [...] Inspired by this interest, [...] he outlines some sketches on this subject and then a larger painting, aptly titled Trasformazione forme spiriti" (fig. 4).B84[fig.4]/B
Flavia Matitti has reconstructed the history of the circle around Generale Ballatore, the "Gruppo Teosofico Roma," and Balla's relationship with that circle. Gruppo Roma was founded in 1897 and recognized as a theosophical association in 1907. In the same year, the first issues of the periodical Ultra came out; in it Ballatore published articles on hyperspace and the fourth dimension; later he wrote on radioactivity. Ultra was the official organ of Gruppo Roma until 1930. In October 1914, Ardengo Soffici published his article "La Teosofia nel futurismo" in Ultra.85
Gruppo Roma's activities included the production of their periodical, regular meetings, and the organization of lectures by illustrious speakers; among these Matitti mentions Annie Besant in 1907, and above all Rudolf Steiner, who in 1909 held a series of Roman lectures on different themes (Christ and theosophy, theosophy and Rose+Croix, occultism in Goethe's Faust) and drew so much attention that he was invited again the following year.86
A careful analysis of Balla's canvases from those years offers evidence that Balla had contact with Gruppo Roma before 1916, perhaps even as early as 1914. In Balla's signatures on the paintings at the beginning of Iniezione di futurismo 1913-14, the two "L" and the "A" of Balla's name intertwine to form a swastika in which the hooks are oriented toward the right. The swastika becomes more evident in the signatures of Balla's "patriotic" and interventionist paintings from 1915, among them Canto patriottico in piazza di Siena, Forme grido "Viva l'Italia," and Bandiere all'Altare della patria, and it is definitely noticeable in Trasformazione forme spiriti.
The swastika has a millennial history; the symbol reappears in a range of latitudes, principally in relation to the cult of light and sun. Especially the right-facing version (in which the hooks are flexed in a clockwise direction) is considered auspicious because it describes the apparent motion of the sun from east to west, thus representing light, life, energy, and the masculine principle.87
Because of the presumed Indo-Iranian (i.e., Aryan) origins of the Germanic peoples, Germany's National Socialist German Workers' Partyappropriated the swastika in their emblems as a symbol of the purity of "Aryan" blood. But the swastika had been utilized in other historical and geographical contexts well before the Nazis, with quite different meanings. In Madame Blavatsky's posthumous theosophical glossary, the term svastika is defined as follows:
Svastika (Sk.). In popular notions, it is the Jaina cross, or the "four-footed" cross (croix cramponnée). In Masonic teachings, "the most ancient Order of the Brotherhood of the Mystic Cross" is said to have been founded by Fohi, 1,027 B.C., and introduced into China fifty-two years later, consisting of the three degrees. In esoteric philosophy, it the most mystic and ancient diagram. It is "the originator of the fire by friction, and of the 'Forty-nine Fires.'" Its symbol was stamped on Buddha's heart, and therefore called the "Heart's Seal." It is laid on the breasts of departed Initiates after their death; and it is mentioned with the greatest respect in the Râmâyana. Engraved on every rock, temple and prehistoric building of India, and wherever Buddhists have left their landmarks; it is also found in China, Tibet and Siam, and among the ancient Germanic nations as Thor's Hammer. [...] Finally, and in Occultism [sic], it is as sacred to us as the Pythagorean Tetraktys, of which it is indeed the double symbol.88
According to Blavatsky the swastika was known in India (and other regions of the world that had contact with Buddhism), among proto-Germanic populations, and in China; above all it is a key symbol for freemasonry and theosophy, so important for Madame Blavatsky that she adopted it as one of the symbols of the mystic brooch she designed for herself.
The swastika was an important symbol within Gruppo Roma. For the 1922 design of "Spiritualist Movement," a column header in Ultra, Nicola D'Urso adopted a right-facing swastika inscribed in a winged disc and surrounded by stars and concentric orbits.89 Since at the turn of the century the swastika was regarded in Masonic and theosophical circles as a symbol of light, it is not surprising that Balla, too, would have been fascinated by it. The hidden swastika I detected in Balla's signature on a 1914 work may well indicate that his theosophical influences date back to that year or earlier.
Balla's belief in the mysticism of light, initially inspired by symbolism and divisionism (from Segantini to Pellizza and Previati), followed his early interest in the representation of light in the dark.90 This interest became stronger over the years, to the point of becoming the most important element of the scene depicted in Elisa sulla porta of 1904, in which Balla's wife, Elisa, who was expecting their first daughter-Balla would name her, appropriately enough, Luce-provided the background to a manifestation of light as magical and luminous phenomenon behind a door.91
The culmination of Balla's early research into light, and his first futurist work, is however Lampada ad Arco, dated 1909 on the canvas, though very probably painted in 1910.92 This painting, which was certainly influenced by Marinetti's manifesto "Uccidiamo il chiaro di luna," represents the symbolic victory of electric light over the moon and starry sky.93 In the technical manifesto of futurist painting of 1910, the signatories (Balla among them) proclaimed themselves "Lords of Light" who drink "at the living fountains of the Sun." This openly pagan adoration of the sun includes, among other elements, echoes of the poet Giosuè Carducci and the Milanese Satanism of the scapigliato Emilio Praga.94
But this is not the whole story. Besides being a symbolic work, Lampada ad Arco is also a scientific work, in which Balla analyzed and pictorially rendered the division of the spectrum; divisionists had largely concentrated on that issue. On the occasion of the canvas's acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art of New York in 1954, Balla wrote: "The canvas of the 'lamp' was painted by me during the divisionist period (1900-1910); in fact the dazzle of the light was obtained by means of the combination of pure colors. This canvas, besides being original as a work of art, is also scientific because I tried to represent the light by separating the colors that composed it. [...] Rendering light has always been my favorite study."95
In its ambitious, successful joining of science with spirituality, Lampada ad Arco represents an appropriate homage to the genius of Edison, who was a member of the Theosophical Society;96 as such, the painting may even be considered an homage to theosophy itself. Lampada ad Arco was not Balla's last work to betray theosophical leanings. The above-mentioned cycle of 1916-18 titled Trasformazione forme spiriti, for example, or Forme e pensiero-visione spiritica, exhibited by Bragaglia in 1918, show an evident relationship not only with theosophy, but even more particularly-down to their titles-with Besant and Leadbeater's Thought-forms.97
Calvesi has written of Balla's self-portrait Auto-stato d'animo of 1920, "The attempt seems evident [on Balla's part] to 'dematerialize' his own image by rendering it like an ectoplasm, an ideation very near to that of Bragaglia's Autophotodynamism of 1911; in this portrait, the intent is not so much to suggest a sensation of movement as to spiritualize his own face through the unfocusedness of the repeating and moving of his features."98
Balla's interest in spiritualism also surfaces in brief autobiographical descriptions. Describing himself, Balla wrote: "He is a little temperament (he would say) who prefers to hang out with the voices of the infinite than with our own."99 In a brief autobiographical note from 1920, he affirmed: "In 1500 they called me Leonardo or ... Titian after 4 centuries of artistic decadence, I reappeared in 1900 to shout to my plagiarizers that it is time to end it because times have changed. They called me crazy: poor blockheads !!!!!!!!! I have already created a new sensitivity in art that is expression of future ages that will be colorradioiridesplendorideal luminosisssssssssimiiiiii."100
Matitti considered this biographical note to be "in jest."101 But if the style is in jest, the substance is less so, insomuch as Balla offers a precise and aware self-portrait of himself. The "colorradioiridesplendorideal luminosisssssssssimiiiiii," a portmanteau word that comprises the terms colori, radio, iride, splendori, ideali, and luminosissimi (colors, radio, rainbow, splendors, ideals, and most luminous), summarize extraordinarily well the coordinates between which Balla's research moved; "luminosissimi" returns us to the word luce, "light," which is so central to his work, and "colori-radio-iride" to the notion of light as radiant wave and of the colors of the rainbow as a range, a spectrum of different frequencies of this same wave. Thus in but a few words Balla covered the critical and intellectual distance that separates the mysticism of colors, alchemy, and science.
Another point of contact with the theosophical mysticism of colors emerges with clarity in the series of Compenetrazioni iridescenti of 1912-14, real meditations in which the penetrating dynamic-spiritual form of the triangle and the colors of the rainbow, matched together with calculation and elegance, become a symbol of the reunion of two opposing principles, the "compenetration of the self with the universe"-the title Balla later gave to one of the coeval preparatory studies for his now lost Spessori d'atmosfera, on which he worked in 1913.102
Whereas the idea of rejoining opposites can be connected with the central thesis of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, the animistic ideas of pantheism and panpsychism, which return in Bragaglia and Balilla Pratella, are always present in Balla.103 Calvesi finds these concepts in Trasformazione forme spiriti, a work that he in fact considers a perfect example of the "compenetration between spirit and matter, between creatures and creation."104
As Calvesi emphasized, "compenetration [. . .] returns to that idea, fundamental in the theosophical and hermetic sphere, of integration or mercurial coniuctio."105 In the alchemical process the coniuctio takes place with the union of opposites, and its catalyst is the principle of light, symbolized by mercury (which is simultaneously a god, a planet, and an element). For alchemy-the hermetic science par excellence-as for theosophy,compenetration is possible since everything in the universe is intimately connected.106
This interconnection, then, reveals the occult roots of synesthesia as they are found in the symbolists, the scapigliati, and the futurists. According to these roots, sound, color, and scent are connected becausethey are different manifestations of one energy. The same holds for alchemy, which appears to be one of the most paradigmatic forces driving Balla's poetics. In alchemy, material objects are essentially variations of weight, form, and color of one single principle, to which they can all be reconducted; this leads naturally to one of the central aspects of this science: through the operation of transformation we can in fact pass from one substance to another. For example, to pass from iron to gold, the secondary properties, which are the distinctive characteristics of the first material (iron), are subtracted to reobtain the primal matter, and, in turn, properties of the second (gold) are introduced into the primal matter in the form of a seed.107
The function of compenetration, or coniuctio, of opposing elements is to reconstruct the primal matter, the principle common to every existing thing, and thus re-create the totality present in God's work (i.e., creation) through a process of artificious conjoining. The rainbow, as a symbol, is the natural equivalent of this process. Here the colors of the spectrum lie side by side, their conflicts smoothed out by way of attraction, to join together in a comprehensive universality of ranges in solemn harmony: white light as the primal energy that unites opposite, complementary colors.
Since everything derives from a single element, and everything constitutes but a variation of it, it is possible, with detailed observation and analysis of nature and through comprehension of its structure, to deduce the universal principles of these variations (the abstract equivalents that inform creation). It is then possible to reproduce in vitro(with artifice) a sample of the harmony of nature that has the same properties as the natural, divinely created phenomenon and in this way give new form, according to the deduced principles, to the primal matter. The deduction is possible through a hermetical theory of correspondences, according to which the microcosm corresponds structurally to the macrocosm, and so for every object on earth there exists an abstract, celestial ideal. The general laws of the entire universe are thus faithfully reproduced or mirrored in the earthly detail. This theory, central in Plato and famously found in the opening of Hermes Trismegistus's Emerald Tablet-"That which is above is like that which is below and that which is below is like that which is above, to achieve the wonders of the one thing."-returns constantly in all occult thought and is also present in Swedenborg, Steiner, and the Hinduist-inspired nineteenth-century organicism of Goethe. By means of contemplation, one may read in the particular the very metaphor of the totality; one may grasp this idea of totality because in the particular is reflected the structure of the cosmos and its harmony of proportions. This theory of correspondences explains the scientific, analytic-deductive, and alchemical point of view of Balla's research, characterized by meticulous study of details and their re-creation; it also explains his admiration for Leonardo da Vinci.108
Balla's ambition to re-create reality through thorough observation and then (re)production of that reality via a detail, or sample, is already perceptible in the hyperrealism of his 1902 Fallimento; to create this painting Balla stood tirelessly for hours before a closed door on Via Veneto. In 1950 Balla wrote on the back of the painting:
THIS PAINTING PAINTED BY ME FROM MEMORY IS OF A REALITY THAT NO ONE HAS EQUALLED! LEARN TO LOOK AT IT, TO KNOW IT PURIFIES THE EYES AND THE HEART
BALLA 1950; THOUGHTLESS CHILDREN SCRIBBLE ON THE DOOR OF A FAILED STORE A.D. 1902109
A similar attitude can be seen in Balla's Lampada ad Arco, which its author also considered, not by chance, "scientific." Fagiolo dell'Arconoted that in this painting Balla "humbly analyzes the most intimate substance of light, wants to find the structure inherent in the object, not the modifications brought by the subject; neglecting the effects he wants to arrive at the cause."110 An example of Balla's attention to detail is in the recursive structure of the Compenetrazioni iridescenti, in which the basic, modular element-the primal matter-is the triangle, which symbolizes movement and light.111 This attention is also present in the rhythms of the circular figures of Spessori di atmosfera, which are scaled down "to human dimensions by way of lines-of-force that connect them to the earth."112 This painting is now unfortunately lost, but preparatory studies and photographs reveal Balla's use of relations between alchemy and astrology that will culminate in his allegorical canvas Mercurio passa davanti al Sole, visto da un cannocchiale of 1914 (fig. 5). [fig.5]
Preceded by a series of preparatory studies and existing in various versions-in which the experience of Compenetrazioni iridescenti and Spessori di atmosfera is clearly visible-Mercurio passa davanti al Sole aims to re-create the experience of seeing the partial solar eclipse caused by Mercury on November 7, 1914, by reproducing the sublime and grandiose harmony of such natural phenomena through forms that are ideal, platonic, abstract. Balla was interested in astronomy and especially familiar with the research of the astronomer and theosophist Flammarion.113 Thus he observed the 1914 eclipse through a telescope, capturing on canvas the circular forms of Mercury, depicted in a spiral trajectory representing the different phases of the planet's motion, as they overlap with bold vigor against the mass of the sun, the solar rays, and the refractions of the focal lens itself. Mercury, placing itself in between the earth and the sun, acts as a catalyst in the union of the opposed entities of SunandEarth; Balla was able to downscale this cosmic union to a microcosmic, human level because, thanks to the technology of the telescope, it had become fully perceptible to human eyes.
This scientific-alchemical attitude can be found also in the 1915 manifesto Ricostruzione futurista dell'universo, signed by Balla and Depero but enriched with interpolations by Marinetti. In this manifesto we see the artist playing God. Though the attempt is overambitious, it is far from Boccioni's titanic "frescoes." Balla created the detail; he did not expect to create the entire universe in one single shot but, rather, patiently to populate it through example and its multiplications.
Consistent with all the aesthetic coordinates Balla had elaborated until then, the manifesto proposed to discover the pure and ideal forms that shape nature to produce a true tridimensional abstract art in which the synesthetic interaction-of painting, sculpture, the art of noises, and even odors-is once again decisive:
Pictorial futurism evolved, in six years, as the overcoming and solidification of Impressionism, plastic dynamism and molding of an atmosphere, interpenetration of planes and states of mind. The lyric valuation of the universe, by means of Words in Freedom [Parole in libertà] of Marinetti and the art of noises of Russolo, fuses itself with the plastic dynamism to give a dynamic, simultaneous, plastic, noisy expression of the universal vibration.
[...] We will give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable, the imperceptible. We will find the abstract equivalents of all the forms and of all the elements of the universe, then we will combine them together, according to the caprices of our inspiration, to form plastic complexes that we will put in motion.114
A few paragraphs later, Marinetti intervened in the manifesto in the form of a citation, in which he gave his blessing to Balla's and Depero's plastic complexes: "Therefore art becomes Presence, new Object, new reality created with the abstract elements of the universe. The hands of the artist who worships the past (passéist) suffered for the lost Object; our hands were impatient to create a new Object. That is why the new Object (plastic complex) appears miraculously between your hands."115
As in the case of the Compenetrazioni iridescenti of the preceding year, behind this theory of creation, which moves from an ideal level and lands at a analogous concrete materialization, there is the influence of the theory of correspondences: to every object that our mind can imagine, a material object can correspond, according to the assumption that what exists in the macrocosm must have a correspondent in the microcosm, and vice versa.
Side by side with the alchemic/philosophic aspect in the manifesto stands a more playful magic, an ideal meeting point between Marinetti's Manifesto del teatro di varietà (1913), Palazzeschi's manifesto Il controdolore (1913), and what would be Depero's marionette. The manifesto's section "Miracle and Magic" has more to do with the tricks of the illusionist than with the scientific seriousness of the alchemist and betrays Depero's imprint. Balla the "magician" entertains with tricks of conjuring, appearing, and disappearing among unexpected firecracker explosions, as if in a performance dedicated to children.116 In the rhetorical elaboration of the futurist toy and its pyrotechnic marvels, however, their contradictory nature is revealed; these are creations in which the game overlaps frighteningly with militaristic propaganda, and fantasy with the reality of war.
In closing the manifesto, just before their customary patriotically based claim for the "Italian genius," Balla and Depero adopted a messianic tone and affirmed that "we have descended into the profound essence of the universe, and we master the elements." With such elemental control, and by way of the fusion of art and science, they declared that they could repopulate the earth with the multiplication of new samples of reality, true futurist homunculi that areeither the innocuous fiori magici trasformabili motorumoristi (transformable magical motor-noisy flowers) or the dangerous metallic animals that, mass produced in millions of units, would have the task of re-creating in the field of art the hoped-for political conflagration of the Great War, which had just broken out and for which the futurists forcefully promoted intervention.
The idea of materialization, and above all the desire to give "skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable, the imperceptible" to obtain "a dynamic, simultaneous, plastic, noisy expression of the universal vibration," denotes the influence on this manifesto of Thought-forms, which is already an influence present in Compenetrazioni iridescenti, and also in Trasformazione forme spiriti and Forme e pensiero-visione spiritica.
One last proof of Balla's interest in the theosophical mysticism of colors and their associations with states of mind, as documented in Thought-forms, appears in a note never actually transcribed but reproduced in a manuscript by Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco. The note is dated 1914-15, the period in which Balla and Depero were producing the plastic complexes now lost but documented in photographs in the manifesto, and also a period in which Balla was still working on the series of Compenetrazioni. In this note, passatisti and futuristi colors are contrasted in the form of scenic action: the passatista yellow is depressing, whereas the futurista yellow is joyous; the passatista blue is monotonous, whereas the futurista blue is spiritual; the passatista red is mistrustful, whereas the futurista red is violent; and the passatista white is filthy, whereas the futurista white is clairvoyant.117