It may not be the best reason to fund the arts. It’s certainly not the only one. But travelling to the small city of Rovereto, at the feet of the Italian dolomites, reminded me of the lasting influence that a single great artist can have for a community.
To complicate the story a little, this particular artist – Fortunato Depero – just so happened to have been part of a movement that was intimately connected with Fascism. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the man of wit and genius behind the Futurist manifesto which Depero co-signed, was also a squadrista who took part, among other things, in the armed expedition against the offices of the socialist newspaper Avanti! in Milan, in the April of 1919, one of the key milestones in Mussolini’s rise to power. In the following years, a movement that was born over a decade before the inception of Fascism became one of the official forms of expression of the regime, furnishing it with an aesthetics that fit seamlessly with its political project.
Depero grew up in what is now Italy, but was then Austria. Rovereto was small but had an excellent art school, the Realschule, which he attended. Then when the first world war broke he volunteered to liberate the province and claim it back for Italy. Had he not been taken ill, which resulted in him being sent home, he might have died at the front like fellow Futurists Umberto Boccioni and Renato Sant’Elia, and I’d have no post to write this week.
My son and I entered Depero’s house in Rovereto from the top floor, which was closed to the public but this fact wasn’t signalled well enough so we pushed the door opposite the elevator and got in. There we found an exhibition – either in the process of being assembled or dismantled – of Sant’Elia’s seminal architectural paintings and drawings. Sant’Elia, who was also a volunteer in the Italian army, was decorated twice. The first time in Monte Zebio, for taking command of a platoon whose officers had been killed, and returning to the front after receiving medical attention, against his captain’s orders. The second time, in Monfalcone, for leading the assault in which he lost his life, aged 28. Had he survived, he would have no doubt become the great architect of the regime.
Depero was never a squadrista, nor did he agitate for war, or wax triumphantly in public over Italy’s bloody colonial conquests. Yet he was a man of the regime, even as he spent half the years of Mussolini’s rule in New York, working in advertising and at the boundary between art and design, while still pursuing the principles of the manifesto. Some of his posters from this period grace the streets of Rovereto in unexpected places, such as where a shop front has been permanently walled up.
In 1932, he designed the bottle for Campari Soda. The museum’s shop let us take one with us to New Zealand, as that particular anniversary vintage wasn’t for sale.
The Realschule has long since closed down, but a new art school has been named after him.
Above all, however, his legacy survives in the form of his house-turned-museum, and in a new branch of Trento’s MART, the museum of modern and contemporary art which houses some of the works he collected, and has now responsibility over the Casa d'Arte Futurista Depero.
The MART – a purpose-built storehouse whose central dome is modelled after the Pantheon in Rome – reminded me of the Len Lye Museum in New Plymouth, which I have not yet visited but strikes me as a similar concept, leveraging the star power of a late local artist to draw crowds and create a new piece of public art infrastructure: sustained by tourism, yes, but hopefully also serving as a place for locals to visit and enjoy. Somewhere to meet art, and difficult art especially. For the function of contemporary art has to be to challenge and critique, more so than the masterpieces of the past.
Before Depero’s dream became a reality, decades had to pass so that Futurism could be thought of as anything other than the art of power – and an oppressive power at that. We can now revel in the contradiction, or admire at some critical distance works such as Renato Bertelli’s ‘infinite profile’ of Mussolini.
It is perhaps my weakness that I can’t stay mad at Futurist art too long. Even minor works, such as Tullio Crali’s ‘Diving over the city’.
Besides, the MART houses a number of De Chiricos, one of those monoliths by Arnaldo Pomodoro and at time of our visit at least two fine temporary exhibitions, including Giuseppe Penone’s sculptures incorporating trees in the act of growing.
But we’re mostly looking for Depero. At the house, we find the marionettes for Balli plastici, his incredible furniture, plans for a dance of robots he devised in 1924 and was upset to learn was performed in the Soviet Union three years later.
The Lightning Composer, an oil on canvas from 1926.
His great tapestries, including the ‘Feast of the chair’.
This advertising panel for a maker of Venetian blinds.
And his typographical work, which I admire above all else.
We enjoyed Rovereto a great deal. We would have enjoyed it, I suspect, even without visiting its museums, for it is very charming and on this particular day the sun’s attempts to break through the clouds created pictures that would have made Turner drop whatever he was doing and rush to the easel. But we wouldn’t have travelled there had it not been for the artist, whose work and whose desire to build something of lasting value in the place where he received his education are a significant contributor to the prosperity of the city. Art, which is a necessity, sometimes produce great material returns, and I don’t know if that should be the paramount reason for investing in it. Seeing this city transformed by it, and made better for it, I figure it can’t be the worst reason either.