The great Italian artist Umberto Boccioni was one of the most passionate proponents of Futurism. Futurism was a radical and controversial avant-garde movement that shaped Italian art at the beginning of the 20th century. Umberto Boccioni’s talents made him truly a great master. His career was short but very prolific. Take a look at the fascinating life and work of the famous Italian futurist.
1. Umberto Boccioni Didn’t Come From An Artistic Family
Umberto Boccioni was born in 1882 in Reggio Calabria, Italy. His family had no connection to art whatsoever. Boccioni’s father worked for the Italian government and his mother was a housewife and a seamstress. After his parents separated, young Umberto remained with his father and moved a lot around the country. After finishing school, he studied in an art academy in Rome. His earliest artistic influences include Neo-Impressionism and Liberty Style, the Italian version of Art Nouveau.
Boccioni’s life and style changed radically when he met one of his teachers, Giacomo Balla. Balla was a respected artist who worked in the Divisionist technique. He introduced Boccioni to Futurism, the new and radical art movement that sought to dramatically change the face of Italy.
2. He was a Member of the Futurist Movement
Umberto Boccioni is best known as a member of the progressive Italian art movement called Futurism. The movement started with a manifesto written by a young radical Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. At that time, Italy was an undeveloped country mostly known for its ancient ruins left from the Roman Empire. Marinetti and his followers wanted to change that by destroying everything old and outdated. They wanted to focus on industrialization and technological progress. They also believed war to be the only hygiene of humanity. Their nationalist and militaristic claims partially contributed to the later establishment of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Marinetti and others called for the immediate destruction of academies, libraries, and museums, seeing them as graveyards of art and knowledge. The new art for the modern age had to focus on technological advancements, movement, and dynamism.
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3. He Started as a Painter
Although Umberto Boccioni gained recognition as an innovative sculptor, he started his career as a painter. In his early artistic practice, he painted like Impressionists and Pointillists, influenced by his teacher Giacomo Balla. Although his switch to Futurism was not an instant one, his 1911 painting The Laugh was the first Futurist work he made. When it was first exhibited the audience was outraged. One of the viewers even smudged some paint on it. Many art critics appreciated the work nonetheless, although attributing it to the French movement of Cubism.
4. His Most Famous Work is a Sculpture
However, Boccioni did not feel content with painting, believing it to be motionless and lacking the needed expressive means. Boccioni saw sculpture as the only way to revive the stagnating art of his age. The sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space features an anthropomorphic figure which nonetheless looks more like a machine than a human.
According to some historians, Boccioni found his inspiration while watching a soccer player in motion. Boccioni chose to represent continuous movement not through repetition of forms like his teacher Giacomo Balla, but through layers of various geometric forms on top of each other. Because of this, the figure is not static and it represents several stages of movement all at once.
5. He Died Young… And That Saved His Reputation
When World War I started, Boccioni’s militaristic Futurist beliefs led him to enlist as a volunteer on the frontline. This was a conscious choice made by many Futurists, including Marinetti, who would even volunteer in his sixties during World War II. Yet Boccioni became one of the victims of his ideology.
Boccioni died in 1916 during a military exercise, trampled by his own horse. The witnesses to the tragedy found strange similarities with his early Futurist painting called The City Rises where you can see a rearing horse clashing with a crowd. In a way, his tragic case helped protect Boccioni’s name from further political controversies. Unlike other famous Futurists, he never became a supporter of Mussolini’s fascist regime, simply because he never lived long enough to join them.
6. His Work Was Not Free From Older Influences
Despite the eagerness of Futurists to destroy everything old and get rid of any kind of artistic influence, many art historians believe that Boccioni’s works were not created as independently as he claimed. Despite the fact that Futurists opposed their ancient Roman legacy and strived to make their country truly modern, they were well aware of ancient art and its principles. Some experts on Futurism recognize the influence of Auguste Rodin in Boccioni’s work, while others compare his anthropomorphic sculptures to The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This comparison is ironic since Marinetti referred to The Winged Victory in his Manifesto. He compared it to a racing car, although not favorably.
7. Boccioni’s Mother Was His Favorite Model
Despite being known for his mechanical heavyweight compositions, Boccioni’s favorite subject was, in fact, his mother Cecilia Forlani. Boccioni painted her in both a traditional realistic manner and in an almost completely deconstructed way in a style similar to Cubism. At least forty-five paintings, drawings, and sculptures of Boccioni feature his mother’s face in one form or another.
Cecilia Forlani was a conservative working woman who looked older than her age. Still, Umberto loved her dearly, wrote her heartwarming letters, and supported her after his father left Cecilia for a younger woman. Cecilia outlived her son by eleven years. By an unnerving coincidence, a few days before the tragic accident, she wrote a letter to Boccioni, asking him to be careful around horses.
8. Another Sculptor Destroyed Most of Boccioni’s Works
Unfortunately, most of Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures exist only in the form of photographs. Soon after Boccioni’s death, his fellow artists organized a memorial exhibition in Milan. The artist’s family then entrusted the works to a sculptor called Piero da Verona who was supposed to keep them for some time until the relatives found a suitable space. However, this never happened.
Piero da Verona was a conservative traditionalist who rejected the Futurist ideas. The accounts of the following events vary depending on the source. Marinetti stated that da Verona’s workmen destroyed the sculptures, thinking they were rubbish that was taking up space. Boccioni’s relatives insisted that this decision came from da Verona personally who allegedly ordered his assistant to get rid of the works. The sculpture Anti-Gracious is one of the few works that survived the attack.
9. Umberto Boccioni’s Legacy is Full of Paradoxes
Boccioni’s most famous work, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, is imprinted in the collective mind as a bronze man-machine with its heavy steps in unstoppable motion. In reality, the sculpture was never supposed to be made in bronze. The Futurists, arguing for a completely new approach to art, never used bronze. They saw it as an outdated remnant of the past that was heavy and useless. Its durability also did not help since the Futurists wanted all art to be destroyed after it became irrelevant.
Since this principle applied to the Futurist works as well, Boccioni used plaster to facilitate the future destruction of his sculptures. The bronze casts that we see in museums today were neither made nor authorized by Boccioni. It was actually Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who commissioned the earliest bronze casts in the 1920s.
10. Controversies Barely Affect the Prices of Boccioni’s Works
The most recent sale of Boccioni’s work happened in 2019 when Christie’s sold a 1972 bronze copy of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space for a thrilling $16 million, with a quite modest estimate of $3.8 – 4.5 million. This version is essentially a copy of a copy, a cast made from the copy made in 1925. Although Christie’s insisted on the outstanding quality of the cast, the question of authenticity remains.
11. Umberto Boccioni’s Legacy Lives On
In 2019, a team of digital artists reconstructed Boccioni’s destroyed sculptures using the few remaining photographs and 3D printing technology. The reconstructed works included three sculptures preceding the legendary Unique Forms of Continuity in Space which were destroyed after his memorial exhibition. Of course, the recreations are not 100% accurate. The photographs from Boccioni’s studio do not show all points of view. However, digital artists Matt Smith and Anders Rådén were able to reconstruct the sculptures as accurately as possible, using technology and their general knowledge of Boccioni’s work.