PRINT January 1981


THE CRITICAL FORTUNES OF FUTURISM are continuously improving as philological investigations of the manifestoes and works of art accumulate. Research into Futurism requires continuous scrutiny of the sources from which it emerged, and of the cultural environment in which it developed. It demands a systematic critical reinterpretation and a thorough examination of the cultural roots, which seem to lie in every area of social and esthetic activity of the years 1900–1916. The relationship between Futurism and studies concerned with the investigations of evidence for parapsychology and parascience (telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis . . .) is one of the many which have come to characterize the cultural environment at the turn of the century. This relationship has often been suggested but has never been thoroughly examined, in part because of the scientific vulnerability of such esoteric research. To attempt, or rather, to risk, an investigation of esoteric Futurist activities (a discussion already initiated by Maurizio Calvesi and Maurizio Fagiolo1), is to give credence to fleeting and evanescent occurrences which were at times viewed somewhat skeptically by the Futurists themselves. Their involvement with such phenomena as the action of mind on mind without known physical agency (metapsychics), belief in hidden or mysterious powers and their subjection to human control (occultism), the religious outgrowth of theosophy centering on man rather than on God (anthroposophy), and mediums through whom these hidden agencies work, was an antidote to the rigorously positivist and empirical scientific atmosphere that prevailed at the start of the century. A whole sector of culture, mostly official, was still interested, although from the new Modernist perspective, in the products of 19th-century culture—technology, urban growth, communication, production—but there was also a covert interest among scientists in paranormal phenomena. Physicists, psychiatrists, astronomers and neurologists were among those who paid particular attention to the electromagnetism of bodies, to the occult, to the supernatural, to mediumist events, to metapsychics, to telepathy and to the motion of objects and materials by means of psychical forces (telekinesis), to “possession,” and to the ability to organize figures and designs plastically and graphically without manual aid (ideography and ideoplastics), not to mention happenings where spirit materializations were thought to emanate from a medium (ectoplasmics) and where facts could be divined from contact with objects (psychometrics).2 By careful study of the few available documents we can begin to understand the unity that lay at the foundation of the esthetics and ideologies which comprise the Futurist mosaic.

Following the lead of such well-known foreign rig scholars as Richet, Crookes, La Fontaine, Maxwell and Zollner, Italian scholars such as Lombroso, Morselli, Marzorati, Pappalardo and Vassallo (who held chairs in psychiatry and neurology at the most important universities) carried out widely published,3 detailed studies and meticulous research on occult forces produced by mediums and on alterations upon the environment caused by individual psychic influences. For the sake of scientific verification they went as far as organizing mediumist sessions.4 Using handmade spectographs and photometers, they tried to measure and analyze the events and protoplasmic projections which took place during these sessions. These experiments even led them to posit the existence of an occult constitution in humans which was seen as being related to the extrasensory forces that govern the world. This theory found many parallels in contemporary theosophic and anthroposophic statements by Besant and Steiner.5 The famous astronomers, Flammarion and Schiapparelli, also composed lengthy treatises on astrology to verify the influence of occult forces produced by celestial matter on human behavior.

In addition to being published in books, esoteric culture found its way into foreign magazines,6 newspaper interviews, university classes and conferences,7 and cultural clubs and associations.8 Information concerning magical-esoteric phenomena left its mark in all the major cities and cultural capitals. In Turin, Lombroso’s circle was mainly interested in psychic condensation and materialization; in Rome, even the mayor Nathan, a Freemason, was an occultist; in Milan, the doctrines that each object in the universe had either a mind or an unconscious psyche (panpsychism) and general belief in the occult were promoted on the initiative of Marzorati. It is clear that the intellectual climate of Italian culture at the beginning of the century permitted the esoteric. Numerous documents verify that the Futurists were well aware of this information concerning the occult.

Giacomo Balla, who, as he himself said, had a temperament that related somewhat better to “the voices of the infinite than to our own”9 wrote in his notebooks10 about the Hoepli Manuals (in which Pappalardo’s Spiritismo and Belfiore’s Ipnotismo e Magnetismo appeared) and about psychiatric research of the time (such as the important treatise by Lombroso).11 Umberto Boccioni testified in the magazine Lacerba (1915) to his longstanding interest in mediumist and occult events declaring that he had already spoken at a conference in 1911 on “the perception of luminous emanations of the body .. . which have been recorded on photographic plates” and cited his book Pittura e scultura futuriste, (1914) in which he had written, “for us the biological mystery of mediumist materialization is a certainty . . .”

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, describing the influences on his cultural education, mentions his father’s interest in the history of religions, especially Oriental religions which pay particular attention to telekinesis.12 He states in L’uomo moltiplicato e it regno della macchina (Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine), “We believe in the possibility of an incalculable number of human transformations, and we declare without smiling that there are wings which lie dormant within the flesh of man. On the day that man exteriorizes his will so that an immense invisible arm extends out of him, the Dream and the Desire, which today are futile words, will reign supreme over conquered space and time. . . . [this type of man can be imagined] by studying the phenomena of exteriorized will which are continually demonstrated in spiritualist sessions.”13

Anton Giulio Bragaglia, in demonstrating the difference between spiritualist photography and photo-dynamics, showed himself to be aware of and versed in manifestations of the phenomenon of psychic condensation. In an essay in Humanitas, 1913, he wrote about the “photography of the invisible,” and in the same journal in a later article that was accompanied by photographs of ectoplasms, he emphasized his ideas about mediumist phenomena, stating, “. . . there exist within us different principles, like different bodies, which interact; from the psychic point of view, the visible body is only the instrument of the invisible body.”14 This declaration followed his exploration of the effects of photographic transparency and condensation in Fotodinamismo futurista (1912) (Futurist Photodynamism). Explaining the change in man’s sensitivity at the beginning of the 20th century, he writes, “. . . due to that marvelous intuition which is an important part of the extrasensory being of men who live rapidly and feverishly, we have in us a hundred voices and a hundred visions, optical, cerebral, emotional, that mix together, interact, uniting in the reality of the present moment.”15

Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, having read certain Indian texts and having been initiated into the practices of hypnotism and occultism, could have described themselves as the most esoteric of the Futurists. They were familiar with theosophy and suggestive therapeutics, and they influenced both Balla and Bragaglia with their interest in spiritualist and occultist theories. Ginna wrote L’Arte dell’avvenire (The Art of the Future) in 1910, and in it he speaks of this knowledge: “My brother and I acquired books on spiritualism and the occult from the publishers Dourville and Chacormac. We read the occultists Eliphas Lévi, Papus, theosophists like Blavatsky, Steiner, Besant, . . . Leadbeater, Edouard Shurè.”16 In the magazine L’Italia Futurista (Futurist Italy) Corra and Ginna, together with Mario Carli, Emilio Settimelli and Remo Chiti, championed occult phenomena, promoting such activities as water- and metal-divining (rhabdomancy), mediumism and occultism, to the extent that Irma Valeria published an article in a magazine in Florence called “Occultismo e arte nuova” (Occultism and New Art).

To add to the members of the Futurist group participating in esoteric activities: Gino Severini, although extremely religious, not only knew about mediumist sessions, but also took part in them with his wife Jeanne;17 Fortunato Depero was influenced in Rome by Balla’s great magic and alchemy and together they signed La Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo (The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe), the manifesto that affirmed, “we shall give flesh and bones to the invisible, to the impalpable, to the imponderable, to the imperceptible.”18

This interest in occult sciences did not remain an isolated theme and it created a particular attitude which in turn affected a specific kind of production. Aware of new scientific and parascientific theories and open to unknown and occult phenomena, the Futurists integrated their knowledge and experience of mediumist phenomena with scientific information about Röntgen rays and light. In the Manifesto tecnico della pittura futurista (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting) which was signed by Balla, Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Russolo and Severini, they asked: “Who can still believe in the opaqueness of bodies when our intelligence and increased sensitivity allow us to intuit the obscure manifestations of mediumist phenomena? Why must we continue to create without our visual powers, which can give us results analogous to those of X-rays?”19 This equation of the possibilities and extrasensory applications of Futurist vision with those of Röntgen rays, can compare with the many treatises by Flammarion, Lombroso, Ochorowicz, and Zöllner, in which Röntgen’s studies on the vibration of ether waves are related to analyses of mediumist condensation.20 Also linked to these relationships is the fact that in order for occult experiences to happen, particular light conditions were believed to be necessary. Such conditions became the key to the perception of invisible psychic movement. The association of Light + X-rays + Psychic Condensation seemed to guarantee a continuous requirement—on the part of both scientists and Futurists—to juxtapose science and spiritualism, science and parascience, science and parapsychology, so that they could increase and magnify their perceptions (Marinetti’s word was “immensificazione”) in the face of surrounding reality. Light + X-rays + Psychic Condensation combined basic concepts of physics with intuited theories of parapsychologists about the possible activity of invisible and unknown substances. Light + X-rays + Psychic Condensation also signified that the subject or object emits physical and psychical particles—radiations or vital and physical energy. This equation represents an interpretation of the energetic and dynamic process—a physical-occult and scientific-intuitive key needed for understanding and translating into visible data such a phenomenon as Boccioni’s “invisible which moves and lives beyond the depths, that which we have to the right, to the left, behind us.”21

The Futurists’ solution to the observation of the new “reality” (one dominated by the dynamism and movement of matter) was first to examine and visualize images that were produced by movement-within-matter and from there they attempted to locate facts,events and situations which the senses do not perceive. This research, which wavers between the separation from and the integration of the body in the world, actually led the Futurists (who were always interested in verifying the “sympathetic” state they had with the world) to become excited not so much about movement-within-matter as about the “traces”or “residual images” left behind by this movement. The residual image could be perceived by means of the “new visual powers” and the “renewed sensitivity”of Futurism and it was a product of the body in movement. The Futurists attributed it to the interior force of the subject’s state of mind which they believed could produce figures and forms in space under special conditions. Ginna wrote: “The ancients had developed a sense of interaction on the spiritual level; they did it unconsciously in the same way as mediums who fall into a trance.” And, elsewhere in the same book, he wrote, “Evolution leads to the acquisition of awareness of this state, and we must try to help evolution along, without losing the forces of interaction. . . . There should no longer be unconscious mediums. We must be conscious mediums.”22

The evidence for this renewed awareness was linked to the visualization and thereby the exteriorization of residual images. Boccioni’s Il lutto (Mourning), 1910, shows two old women in an atmosphere of hallucinatory colors “repeated in three different attitudes of desperate grief,” and in Stati d’animo: Gli addii (States of Mind: The Farewells), 1911, “the same couple in different spatial and psychic conditions; a repetition of images, or an attention to the traces produced by the subject under particular psychic-emotive conditions, are again found in all Boccioni’s work in which the pathological and psychological assumption leads to a dematerialization of the figure and to the understanding of a state of mind.”23 In “States of Mind” the osmosis between moments of consciousness and the occult, aided by movement and light, which together “destroy the materiality of bodies,”24 translates into continuous expressions of the depth and psychic flux of the relationship between subject and object. Futurist painting, then, selected from knowledge of the mind and made a psychological image that consciously combined the separation and integration of the body (in the “whole” world) with movement-in-matter.

Russolo, who lived in the same Milanese environment, uses themes analogous to those of Boccioni, 25 and confirms his interest in the extra sensory with Musica, 1911. It is a painting in which the idea of musical extra sensitivity is evoked on the canvas by the articulation of “traces” of the face of the pianist that were produced in a particular state of mind—residual images diffused and dispersed in undulating and sinuous swirling bands of blue, red and yellow.

The attention paid by Balla and Bragaglia to the visual residues produced by figures in psycho-motor “states” relates more directly to optical perception. Influenced by Ginna’s writings on the extrasensory, well-versed in radiology and mediumist photography, they were interested in the residual image as a parascientific document of movement-in-matter. Balla’s first Futurist work, Lampada ad arco, 1909, (in particular the preparatory study for it in which the halo that spreads out from the lamp takes the form of the lamp itself) is testimony to his intention to examine the residual image of movement-within-matter. It is almost an objectified ectoplasm of light. His images of figures in motion—in Ragazza che corre sul balcone (Girl Running on the Balcony) 1912; in Le mani del violinista (The Violinist’s Hands), 1912; and in Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio (Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash), 1912—are in each instance based on traces of the dematerialized body. Bragaglia’s “photodynamics” are the translation into photography of what one superficially does not see. With these, he wanted “. . . to tell and affirm the transcendental qualities of the real, in its displacement, itself displacing the atmosphere, the fulfillment of desire and of aspiration,” and “. . . to portray, beyond the esthetic expression of motifs, the ulterior sensorial, cerebral and psychic emotion which . . . left behind its most superb trace,”26—the trajectory. The trajectory is simply the path which follows the residual images which the body leaves in emotive or motor actions such as bowing, greeting, slapping, walking, reciting a poem, playing an instrument, rocking, explaining.27

Because the residual image is transparent, it permits the fusion of the body and the environment. It is the incorporeal channel through which “. . . bodies merge into the sofas upon which we sit, and the sofas merge into our bodies, in the same way that the [passing] tram merges with the houses which, in their turn, inflict themselves onto and blend with the tram.”28

Through the residual image, the observer or perceiver can cross the thresholds of sensory communication to become the meeting place, that is, “. . . the bridge between the infinite plastic exterior and the infinite plastic interior, so that objects are never finite, but intersect with infinite combinations of sympathy and collisions of aversion.”29 In making the residual. image visible, the Futurists converted their own interior energies into images, anticipating a future when “. . . it will be possible for man to exteriorize his will so that it extends out of us, like a vast invisible arm.”30 Finally, the residual image or trace was the grand rendering of movement-within-matter, and when it “exploded,” transparent forms became apparent. Three 1912 paintings by Boccioni, Materia (Matter);
Testa + luce + ambiente (Head + Light + Environment); and Volumi orizzontali (Horizontal Volumes) on the one hand, and Balla’s 1913–14 series of Compenetrazione iridescente (Irridescent Interactions) on the other, represent the two polarities of concrete and abstract movement-within-matter.

These investigations into esoterica heightened the senses and opened up new vistas, ignoring all boundaries, creating co-existence between the ordinary and extraordinary that extended to all areas of Futurist production.

Germano Celant is an Italian art critic.

This article was translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Maurizio Calvesi, Il futurismo (Futurism), Milan: Fratelli Fabbri, 1970: and Maurizio Fagiolo, Balla, Rome: Bulzoni, 1967–69.

2. The study of the territory of metaphysics and occult sciences includes various branches which can summarily be divided into the categories of physical phenomena and intellectual phenomena. For a more attentive reading of these phenomena it is necessary to consider the varieties of meta-psychical activity, which include hypnotism and suggestion: rhabdomancy; telekinesis; the passing of material through other matter; ideography and ideoplastics; and ectoplastics. Concerning this last phenomenon, which more specifically interests us here, the explanations of the scientists of the period are informative. Crookes, a chemist, attributed the formation of figures and forms in ether to a psychical force, which is the agent by which the phenomena are produced, but adds that this force might be directed and caught by some other intelligence. In Italy Lombroso states that the explanation for occult phenomena is simply that they are remembered in the nervous system of the medium, and that the resulting psychic condensation is produced by a transfer of forces by the medium from the inside to the outside. In his research on occult phenomena. Maxwell attempted to demonstrate empirically that the ectoplasms were produced by a force which exists in us. and that this force is intelligent. C.G. Jung. too. was among those interested in parapsychology, and in the years 1899–1900 he organized spiritualist sessions. The result of these experiences was his essay “Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena” (1902).

3. C. Lombroso, Ricerche su fenomeni ipnotici e spiritici (Research on Hypnotic and Spiritualist Phenomena), Turin, 1909, A. Marzorati. Realtà oscure (Obscure Realities), Milan. 1903; G. Morselli, Psicologia e Spiritismo (Psychology and Spiritualism), Turin, 1906. A. Pappalardo, Spiritismo (Spiritualism), Milan: Hoepli, 1898; L.A. Vassallo, Nel mondo degli invisibili (In the World of the Invisible Ones), Rome, 1902.

4. The mediumistic sessions of Eusapia Paladino were extremely well known and widely publicized and were conducted in the presence of Italian scientists in Genoa. Rome, Turin and Milan.

5. Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge of The Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, 1909.

6. The magazines Lumen, Stella and Urania.

7. The conference by Marzorati in Milan on January 18, 1903, was very well known within Milanese circles.

8. The Theosophical Societies of Bologna, Florence, Milan and Rome.

9. Giacomo Balla, Demolizione della Casa di Balla (Demolition of Balla’s House), 1926.

10. G. Balla, Taccuini (Notebooks). In No. 5, a note reads: “Röntgen rays and their applications. . . Manuali Hoepli. Brief compendium of psychiatry. Doctor Finzi.” Published by M. Fagiolo in Omaggio a Balla (Homage to Balla) (Rome: Bulzoni, 1967).

11. C. Lombroso. Nuovi studi sul genio (New Studies on Genius) (Turin, 1902).

The information about Balla’s frequent attendance at Lombroso’s classes was published by Maurizio Fagiolo in Balla prefuturista (Prefuturist Balla), who had it from Elica and Luce Balla. Evidence of Balla’s interest in scientific and parascientific experiments regarding energy phenomena, occult or not, is provided by his acquaintance with various figures involved in radiology. psychology and electrotherapy, such as Professor Ghilarducci (whose portrait Balla painted in 1903). and in occultism and Freemasonry such as Ernesto Nathan (whose portrait he painted in 1910). Other evidence can be found in some “occult” works: in particular, the “supernatural” (Fagiolo) vision of the mother in Portrait of the Mother, 1901, may be seen as an example of Balla’s awareness of the idea of the mediumistic expansion of particularly emotive subjects. a theory attributed by Lombroso to Lodge.

12. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, La grande Milano futurista (Great Futurist Milan) (Venice. 1943).

13. F. T. Marinetti. L’uomo moltiplicato e regno della macchina (Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine), in Luigi Scrivo, Sintesi del Futurismo (Synthesis of Futurism) (Rome, 1968).

14. A.G. Bragaglia, I fantasmi dei vivi a dei morti (The Ghosts of the Living and the Dead) in Humanitas (Bari, 1914).

15. A.G. Bragaglia. Fotodinamismo futurista (Futurist Photodynamism) (Rome, 1912), second edition.

16. The statement appeared in Cinema e letteratura del Futurismo (Cinema and Literature of Futurism), organized by M. Verdone, in a special issue of the magazine Bianco e Nero (White and Black), Rome, Oct./Nov./Dec. 1967.

17. The information was kindly given to me by Jeanne Severini, through Piero Pacini.

18. G. Balla and Fortunate Depero. “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe.” Rome. 1915, in U. Apollonia, Futurist Manifestoes, p. 199 (New York, 1973).

19. Manifesto tecnico della pittura futurista (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting), Milan, April 11, 1910.

20. In particular the studies by Röntgen serve to demonstrate that thinking is often accompanied by certain molecular movements which act upon the internal and external molecules. This information was used to explain the formation and visualization of the ectoplasms.

21. Umberto Boccioni, Introduction to the Paris Exhibition of 1912, in Boccioni, Gli scritti editi e inediti (The Published and Unpublished Writings), edited by Zeno Birolli (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1971).

22. Arnaldo Ginna, Carte dellavvenire (The Art of the Future) (Bologna, 1911), second edition.

23. M. Calvesi, Boccioni e it futurismo milanese (Boccioni and Milanese Futurism) in L’Arte moderna (Milan. 1968).

24. U. Boccioni, Manifesto tecnico della scultura futurista (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture), Milan, April 11, 1912.

25. M. Calvesi, Il futurismo.

26. Anton Giulio Bragaglia, Fotodinamismo futurista (Rome, 1912), second edition.

27. The photodynamics by Bragaglia published in Fotodinamismo futurista include: Bow, The Greeting, The Slap, The Walking Man, The poet Marcellusi reciting a poem, Balla playing the guitar, Man rocking himself, Balla explaining one of his futurist canvases.

28. Manifesto tecnico della pittura futurista (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting), April 11, 1910.

29. U. Boccioni, Manifesto tecnico della scultura futurista, 1912.

30. F.T. Marinetti, L’uomo moltiplicatoe it regno della macchina.