Centenary fever! We’re facing a fusillade of First World War commemoration. And there are four years to go… Meanwhile, next month sees the centenary of an admittedly rather more minor fiasco – a series of 12 performances at the London Coliseum by the Italian Futurists Luigi Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909 – an intentionally provocative mixture of anarchism, fascism, disdain for the past, misogyny and glorification of machines. ‘Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice… We will destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy… We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.’ Eek.
Soon after they celebrated with a backwards banquet in Trieste:
Sweet Memories on Ice
Marmalade of Defunct Glories
Mummified Roast with Professorial Liver
Goulash of The Past
Explosive Peas with a Sauce of History
Dead Sea Fish
Clotted Blood Soup
Entrée of Demolition
According to the Futurists, existing Italian music was ‘mediocre, rickety, vulgar’. They wanted to introduce experimental sounds inspired by machinery. Luigi Russolo invented The Art of Noises – music made by intonarumori, acoustic noise generators, including The Gurgler, the Crackler, the Hummer, the Burster, the Whistler, the Rumbler. The first concert, in April 1914 in Milan, apparently caused a riot. This was followed by 12 performances at the Coliseum in June 1914, bizarrely as part of a variety evening which also included a routine by Vesta Tilley, the singing recruiting sergeant. Marinetti and Russolo’s contribution was a single work, in four parts, or ‘noise-spirals’. Audience and critics were profoundly underwhelmed. ‘The first of the ‘noise-spirals’ performed, The Awakening of a Great City… resembled the sounds heard in the rigging of a Channel-steamer during a bad crossing...’ Ironically, for a project called The Art of Noises, the main problem seemed to be that the music was almost inaudible.
Marinetti formed the Futurist Party in 1918. In 1919 it merged with the Fascist party; Marinetti helped to write the Fascist Manifesto, and became more and more reactionary, increasingly seduced by the politics of Mussolini.
In 1930 he produced, in collaboration with Luigi Colombo, a Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, and in 1932 The Futurist Cookbook, part Fascist propaganda, part excellent common sense, part exuberant provocation, part nonsense. It contains a ferocious broadside against pasta. Pasta, according to Marinetti, causes lassititude, pessimism and lack of passion. Spaghetti is not proper food for Italian soldiers. This predictably caused a furore. The Mayor of Naples weighed in: ‘The angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli al pomodoro.’ Marinetti replied: ‘This confirms my suspicions about the monotony of Paradise.’ In fact it was nationalist propaganda designed to appeal to Mussolini; imports of wheat were on the rise, and Il Duce was looking to substitute it with a home-grown staple –
rice. Rice was ‘more virile, more patriotic, more suitable for fighters and heroes’.
A nasty nationalist thread, in fact, runs through the book. Marinetti wants Italians to stop eating foreign food, and he gives a glossary of specifically Italian culinary terms to replace insidious foreign ones, for example ‘polibibita’ instead of ‘cocktail’, ‘quisibeve’ for ‘bar’.
But then there’s a rather wonderful schtick about the future of food. Food must mainly appeal to the eye and the imagination; in fact some food should not be eaten, but only experienced with eyes and nose. (Shades of Satyricon…) Food should arrive rapidly and contain many flavours, but each course should consist of only a few mouthfuls. Remind you of anything? Nutrition is crucial. He rails against not only pasta but processed grains, the overcooking of vegetables, over-reliance on meat. Traditional kitchen equipment should be replaced by scientific equipment: ozonisers, ultraviolet ray lamps to activate vitamins, electrolysers to decompose ingredients into new forms, colloidal mills, autoclaves, dialysers, vacuum stills to cook food without destroying vitamins. Prophetic!
The actual recipes are quirky, but tend to be subversions of traditional recipes rather than genuinely visionary inventions: mortadella with nougat, pineapples with sardines, risotto with cape gooseberries, Italian Breasts in the Sunshine (almond paste topped with a strawberry, sprinkled with pepper). The most avant-garde recipe is for Chickenfiat: the taste of technology world is achieved by tucking a handful of ball bearings into the chicken’s shoulder. Elizabeth David, who approves of Marinetti’s common sense but is deeply suspicious of his politics, quotes several recipes in her Italian Cooking, including this one for Dolce Mafarka, a frisky but hardly radical rice pudding:
60g ground coffee
Sugar to taste
The peel of a lemon
40ml orange-flower water
Cook the coffee in the milk, and sugar it to your taste; strain it, then pour in the rice and cook it (in a steamer) al dente. Remove from the fire; when it is cold grate into it the lemon peel, and stir in the orange-flower water and the eggs, mixing well. Pour into a mould and put it on ice. Serve with fresh biscuits.
Marinetti’s ideas prefigured many later developments, and it’s tempting to claim that they were influential. There’s a thread from the Art of Noises through Varese and Cage to Stockhausen and electronic music. But one from La Cucina Futurista to Michel Guérard and Heston? It’s difficult to detect. The ‘destructive gesture of freedom-bringers’? ‘Scorn for women’? Well, those ideas seem to have made it through.
You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal. Click here to find out more.
Pictured, a detail from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Free Words, between 1914 and 1916