Italian artist Umberto Boccioni was a mover and shaker – an influencer of his time, a painter and sculptor, a writer and proponent of Futurism. His work not only graces the halls of the world’s most illustrious museums but holds a place in the lives of Italian citizens and their international guests.
WHO IS UMBERTO BOCCIONI?
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was born in Reggio Calabria, in the toe of the Italian boot. His parents, originally from the Emilia-Romagna region, moved frequently for his father’s work as a minor government official. Umberto attended elementary school for a few years in Calabria before the family moved on. And perhaps his futuristic concept of motion had roots in this constant movement: relocations to Forlì, Genoa, Padova, Catania and Rome, where he began to study art formally; learning-vacations in Paris, Munich and Russia; art school in Venice and then on to Milan, where he would meet fellow futurists in the type of dynamic atmosphere in which he felt at home. “Il Mattino” (The Morning, 1909) shows the vibrancy he observed when he looked out the window of his Milan apartment.
Boccioni’s initial focus lay in drawing, portraiture and landscape painting, while at the same time working as a commercial illustrator. The National Gallery in Cosenza, Calabria, has a sizeable graphic collection by the artist, consisting of works spanning from 1906 to 1915. Examples include “Tegole” (Roof Tiles), the earliest, showing his formative period
and “Testa di cavallo con paraocchi” (Horse Head with Blinders), dating from 1908-10.
In his early works, he moved between pointillism, impressionism and divisionism before he joined and then spearheaded the Futurist artistic movement.
WHAT IS FUTURISM?
In 1909, Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) published the Manifesto del Futurismo in which he put forth an artistic philosophy that rejected the past and celebrated speed, machinery, youth and industry. Futurism grew out of the prevailing winds of change – political, social, technological – and with it, a metamorphosis in the perception of time and distance. The Italian Futurists championed modernization and emphasized a dynamic present.
Boccioni subsequently collaborated with Marinetti in the creation of the Manifesto tecnico del movimento futurista (Technical Manifesto of the Futurist Movement) in 1910, and in the following year, together with a group of artists, wrote the Manifesto dei pittori futuristi (Manifesto of Futurist Painters). Even though Boccioni greatly admired Michelangelo as an ideal and studied the art of his predecessors throughout his career, the futurists purported that the modern artist needed to liberate himself from historical models and traditions in favor of the always-evolving contemporary world.
UMBERTO BOCCIONI: FUTURIST PAINTER AND SCULPTOR
Boccioni’s mother appears throughout his work – drawings of her seated at a table, sewing, crocheting, and studies of her head, so it’s no surprise that the artist would create an iconic image of his mother, the classic Italian woman in a futurist society. In “Materia” (Matter, 1912-13), she sits in her home with an urban landscape behind her shoulders. Color and light stream toward her giant, crossed hands at the center of the canvas. The painting exudes energy of color and movement, as he once described his premier futurist work: “una gran sintesi del lavoro, della luce e del movimento” – a great synthesis of labor, light and movement. “Materia” combines familial memory with the image of his mother, ancient convention with the frontal presentation reminiscent of archaic statuary, complementary colors evocative of impressionism, and cubist-style decomposition of form. I wonder what his mother thought of the likeness.
Boccioni became interested in sculpture in 1912, completing his best-known work, “Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio” the following year. “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” was originally in plaster and wasn’t cast in bronze during his lifetime, which ended just a few years later in 1916 at the age of 33. Ironically, during a military exercise, the futurist was thrown from his horse, spooked by modern machinery, a truck. He had volunteered, as the futurists welcomed the conflict.
This masterpiece of Futurism embodies the velocity and dynamic force of the movement’s principals. The strong figure marches through space like an unstoppable machine, yet with a human grace, the muscular legs almost winged by power and speed. Interestingly, the grand physique lacks arms, and every angle gives a different perspective.
The first bronze casts were made in 1930. The original plaster sculpture is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in São Paolo, Brazil, while bronze casts are on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Milan’s Museo del Novecento, London’s Tate Modern, the Netherland’s Kröller-Müller Museum and Calabria’s National Gallery of Cosenza.
UMBERTO BOCCIONI: SCULPTURE AND HOMAGE IN CALABRIA
Umberto Boccioni never forgot his birthplace of Reggio and expressed a desire for one of his sculptures to reside in Calabria. In an effort to fulfill this wish, Marinetti had a bronze cast created in 1933, and finally, 80 years later, in 2013, Cosenza’s Bilotti family donated one of the “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” bronze sculptures to the Calabrian gallery (pictured above).
For the 140th anniversary of his birth, Reggio Calabria inaugurated a dramatic homage to the artist in front of the city’s Francesco Cilea Theater on the main pedestrian street in October 2022. The almost 6-meter (20-foot), weathering-steel sculpture towers over citizenry and guests as they take their passeggiate, usually in a manner less determined than that of the sculpture. Omaggio a Umberto Boccioni was created by Cosimo Allera (b. 1962), artist from Gioia Tauro, who collaborated with Nik Spatari in the creation of the 15-meter iron sculpture of a thin man soaring to the sky at MuSaBa art-park in Mammola, Calabria.
UMBERTO BOCCIONI: FUTURISM IN YOUR POCKET
And my 20 cents? They’re in my wallet, at the ready for when a vendor shakes his head as I hand over a 20-Euro note for a 2.50 item. All those EU coins are heavy, but have you ever really looked at them apart from trying to figure out the difference between the 10 and 20 cents and the 1 and 2 Euros? Turn over the 20-cent piece and you may be surprised to see the bold modernity on the reverse side!
Join me on one of my Calabria tours! We visit Cosenza’s National Gallery, home to Boccioni’s Futurist sculpture and sizeable graphic collection, on the Calabria Cultural Tour, and Reggio Calabria features on all three itineraries!
Read all about the fascinating Calabrian region in my book Calabria: The Other Italy, described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an intoxicating blend of humor, joy, and reverence for this area in Italy’s deep south,” and explore Calabria’s northern neighbor in my book Basilicata: Authentic Italy, “recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by the Library Journal.
Follow me on social media: Basilicata Facebook page, Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page, Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for beautiful pictures and information.
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