Futurism to Arte Povera: Italy’s quest for a modern artistic identity

Utterly different movements define the 20th century – one looking forward, the other harking to the past

Alastair Smart


If asked to name two Italian art movements of the 20th century, chances are that most people would plump for Futurism and Arte Povera.

These, after all, had the biggest fame and impact internationally. Indeed, they are rare examples of movements outside Paris and New York that find any place in 20th-century art history as it’s traditionally told.

On the face of it, though, Futurism and Arte Povera couldn’t have been more different. The former appeared in the 1900s in fast-industrialising Milan, glorifying dynamism, machinery and technology.

This was the city of Alfa Romeo and speed was king: many Futurist pictures capture the pace of city life, fragmenting and distorting the subject matter to give the effect of it in stages of motion.

According to founder FT Marinetti, in Futurism’s 1909 manifesto, “a roaring motor car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace” (a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture).

Conflict was also championed. Newly unified, Italy ought to gain an empire to rival that of its European neighbours. War, added Marinetti, was “the world’s only hygiene”, the only way for the human race to cleanse itself on a regular basis.

Riled rather than inspired by the glories of Italy’s Classical, Renaissance and Baroque past, the Futurists also demanded all historical art be destroyed; all museums and libraries be closed; plus the whole of Venice be demolished, “that bath with jewels for cosmopolitan whores”.

Arte Povera, by contrast, which had its heyday in the late Sixties, was utterly against the martial and technological; so, too, the capitalistic.



Michelangelo Pistoletto (Biella 1933)
Ragazza che cammina, 1966, Silkscreen print on polished stainless steel, 230 x 120 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano

Italy’s economy had boomed in the years immediately after the Second World War, per capita income growing faster than in any other European country up to 1970. Thanks in large part to Marshall Aid from the US, the steel, car and chemical industries soared.

Arte Povera artists felt such progress hadn’t been entirely positive, however. It had come at the expense of old-fashioned, societal and family values. Everything was now a commodity. The movement’s rise coincided with swathes of strikes and protests by students and factory workers nationwide. Dispensing with traditional media such as marble and oil paints, Arte Povera favoured everyday materials such as rags, cartons, earth and rope in a bid to take art back to its simplistic roots and evoke a pre-industrial age.

It matched the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the Sixties and was as far a cry imaginable from the machine-worship of Futurism. It harked back rather than looked forward. Often made from organic materials, Arte Povera works transformed naturally during the course of their exhibition. In other words, they existed in real time – as opposed to the high velocity at which Futurists wanted life to be lived.

Dispensing with traditional marble and oil paints, Arte Povera favoured everyday materials such as rags, cartons, earth and rope  

Unsurprisingly for a holding so rich in modern and contemporary Italian art, the collection of Intesa Sanpaolo has examples of both movements. Fausto Melotti’s Couple, from 1970 (which also features in 101/900, a new book cataloguing 101 of the bank’s best works from the 20th century), is a gorgeous piece of Arte Povera.

This brass-wire sculpture features two stylised figures entwined in an embrace. The theme of love was very much of its time – which is to say, very Sixties – and certainly wasn’t one that any self-respecting Futurist had adopted. (The instruction to ‘make love not war’ never came close to making it into Marinetti’s manifesto.)



Photo: Fausto Melotti (Rovereto, Trento 1901 – Milan 1986)
Coppia, about 1970, Brass, 63 x 18 x 14 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

Politically, philosophically and aesthetically, then, our two movements were opposites. But there are, in fact, interesting parallels between them.

Notwithstanding their global reach, they both occurred at very specific moments of Italian history – times of accelerated industrialisation. Their protagonists’ response was to call for artistic ground-zero.

You might even draw a line of influence between the two: in the Thirties, in Futurism’s latter years, its artists became synonymous with so-called ‘Aeropainting’ (vertiginous visions from a pilot’s perspective in the sky).

This heralded a move towards Abstraction, which was taken up by the likes of Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni after the Second World War. They applied everyday materials such as pebbles and tree branches to their canvases – which, in turn, inspired the humility of Arte Povera.

Photo: Alighiero Boetti (Torino 1940 – Roma 1994), Untitled, 1966, Wood, rope, eye bolts, 99,7 x 99,7 cm, Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano

Over the past couple of years, Italian 20th-century art of all types has grown increasingly popular. Paintings by Burri and Manzoni, for instance, have sold for artist records: £9.1m and £12.6m respectively. Previously ignored, the country’s Pop art has also been reappraised – with various exhibitions dedicated to it internationally. Prices for 20th-century Italian art have rocketed across the board as collectors (particularly in the US) realise this is a critically important, but commercially untapped, market.

Giulio Paolini (Genova 1940)
Dimostrazione, 1975
Metal music stands, photographic reproductions, sheets of Plexiglas
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano


Giulio Paolini (Genova 1940)
Narciso, 1982
photograph on emulsion-coated canvas, 137 x 204 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano

One positive from all this is that we’ll soon start to see Futurism and Arte Povera not as isolated movements but as part of an Italian artistic continuum. Finally, Marinetti might be getting his wish for recent art to be taken as seriously as that from the preceding centuries and millennia.

Alighiero Boetti
(Torino 1940 – Roma 1994)
Blue ballpoint pen on canvas paper, two elements, 100 x 70 cm each
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano
Cover Photo:
Jannis Kounellis
(Piraeus, Athens 1936)
Untitled, 1959-1966
tempera on paper, 69,5 x 98,5 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano

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