- Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism
In Avant-Garde Florence Walter L. Adamson attempts to show how a generation of young intellectuals in Florence sought to “build a culture of sufficient spiritual depth” to offset, or at least to complement, the anxieties caused by the industrialism, urbanization, and increasing importance of science and technology inherent in the modernization process. The point of departure of Adamson’s account is the reaction of the Florentine avant-garde to the modernist transformation of the urban landscape, and the points of imbrication that existed between their lives and careers and those of other artists and thinkers. As the “Vociani,” writers for La Voce, they rejected both D’Annunzian aestheticism and the ideals of socialism in order to seek out and find a “secular religion” in the writings of Benedetto Croce (Prezzolini), a reborn Catholic Christianity (Papini), and fascism (Soffici). Adamson states his thesis thus: “the Florentine avant-gardists present us with a case in which modernity was championed in the name of ideals and visions that were profoundly opposed to what many took modernity to mean then and what it has come to mean since” (255). This thesis is argued in a straight-forward, almost conversational style that enhances the author’s intricate interweaving of the lives of the subjects central to his study, Giovanni Papini, Giuseppe Prezzolini and Ardengo Soffici, [End Page 197] and the journals they founded and directed, Leonardo, La Voce, and Lacerba.
Adamson first brings forward his analysis of the trio’s exasperated, elitist individualism as it moved decisively toward propounding “the idea of war or violence as a necessary instrument in the molding of a new aristocracy” (88), and then brings into the design the contemporary cultural, political, and social tensions to which the avant-garde responded. The result is a richly layered text that is at once broad in scope and highly focused. Although many segments of this path have already been trodden by Italian scholars, Adamson gains a fresh perspective through the documentation and analysis of the interaction between his central figures and the other artists and intellectuals they encountered. Indeed, what makes Adamson’s work successful is his ability to bring together the intellectual biographies of an extensive group of men of letters whose importance is commonly recognized in Italy, but who remain obscure among all but specialists abroad. As Adamson reminds us, only in relatively recent times has Italian cultural life entered the European mainstream. At the same time, as is noted in the introduction, non-Italian audiences are unfamiliar with the cultural history of Italy. Comparative studies of the two decades that precede Mussolini’s seizure of power, he writes, “tend to ignore Italians” (2).
Adamson retraces the Florentine avant-garde’s itinerary, from its constitution and collaboration on Leonardo, through the group’s reconciliation with Marinetti and the Milanese Futurists, the war in Libya (1911), and the interventionist campaign and World War I, to the early years of fascism and the avant-garde’s ultimate dissolution. The author begins by considering the formation of the avant-garde as the response of the generation of the 1880s to the failure of Italy’s ruling class to live up to Risorgimento ideals, a response both of their frustration at the political moderation of the man who dominated Italian politics during the first two decades of this century, Antonio Giolitti. Adamson then examines “the avant-garde’s perception of the city and region in which they worked” (3) and their embrace of a myth of their own creation, that of Tuscany, defined as a stasis of class harmony in an idyllic setting. He then looks at their reactions to a condition of modernity (as yet undefined during the period), and to the larger European modernist movement.
Of great interest is the exploration in the final chapter of the “interconnections between the modernist culture of Florence and Italian fascist ideology,” especially the role played by the avant-garde’s characteristic “rhetoric of regenerative violence” (178) in the subsequent, almost overnight creation...