10. Controversial Leonardo
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197 The futurists took a rather contradictory attitude toward Leonardo, which can only be explained if one separates his work from its canonization. Futurist public attacks on Leonardo centered not on his work but on what he represented of the past. Typically, futurist rage toward the past has been explained through a hermeneutical script by Marinetti, according to which the obsessive shadow of the cultural saints of the past and the adoration of their works — especially in a country with a rich history, such as Italy —were an unbearable weight slowing futurism’s dynamic aims. Marinetti’s carefully orchestrated act of turning one’s back on the past to deliver oneself from its encumbrances soon became understood (and misunderstood ) by the critics as the essence of the futurist movement. Whether consciously or not, he was at least in part responsible for the critical misconstructions ; and in regard to futurism’s spirituality, this eventually backfired . For many years, his writing, by its very force, dictated in many circumstances the words to his critics, and they believed in his manipulation. Sometimes it is best if authors are not allowed to have the last word on the meaning of their work, for they are often their own worst advocates. Critics of futurism fell under the spell of the propagandistic and rhetorical force of Marinetti’s voice, to the point that they believed him blindly and all too frequently read the entire movement through the guidelines that he had established. Marinetti’s smokescreen prevented the critics from applying their hermeChapter 10 Controversial Leonardo 198  .  The Art of Noises and the Occult neutics to the work itself and caused them instead to divert this hermeneutics onto the rhetoric surrounding the work. This kept them from seeing the contradictions of the movement, instead encouraging the image of a unified front. As a matter of fact, not all futurists hated the past; the more Marinetti proclaimed hatred of the past, the more this proclamation concealed a complex web of psychological conundrums —Marinetti’s own insecurity, for one thing, and that of his followers. He feared that his “frail courage” would fail and be defeated at the hands of the past. “Do you want then to waste all your best strengths, in this eternal and useless admiration of the past,” he asked in the last section of the founding manifesto of futurism, “from which you come out fatally exhausted, diminished and trampled?” 1 Four years later, in Lacerba, Boccioni reasoned likewise, suggesting a process of self-imposed amnesia: “We deny the past because we want to forget, and to forget in art means to renew oneself.” 2 Marinetti acknowledged that if the past is not ignored, forgotten, or destroyed , it can ultimately be kept at bay by paying homage to it, as if it were an insatiable Minotaur: “Museums: cemeteries! . . . Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. [. . .] That one should make an annual pilgrimage, just as one goes to the graveyard on All Souls’ Day —that I will grant you. That once a year one should leave a floral tribute beneath the Gioconda, I grant you that.” Marinetti’s fear of the past surfaces here: in his representation of the Mona Lisa —one of the few artworks he cited in his 1909 manifesto —as the most authoritative symbol of the art of the past, a terrible deity that needs appeasing, once a year, with flowers. Modernists attacked the Mona Lisa because of the place it holds in the canon: consider Duchamp’s suggestive moustaches (every parody, they say, hides admiration).3 Certainly that painting was an easy target. Ardengo Soffici , in his Lacerba column “Giornale di bordo,” wrote in the July 15, 1913, issue: “In the tram.  —I see written on a wall in big white letters on a blue background : ‘gioconda’ italian purgative water. And further down the stupid face of Mona Lisa. Finally! Finally we too are beginning to do good art criticism.” 4 A few months later, on December 15, 1913, in the same column, Soffici returned to the subject with a little acerbic poem on the infamous theft and subsequent retrieval of the painting: Controversial Leonardo  . 199 December 13. 30,000 people passed before the Mona Lisa with hat in hand. —The press. They have found it again, the old daub. The mirror of all the artistic Philistinism. The touchstone of aesthetic fetishism. The treasure of literatures. The magnet of snobbishnesses. The icon of past-worshipers. The...


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