May 1st, 2013 · Przemyslaw Strozek
Futurism in Egypt: Nelson Morpurgo and The Cairo Group
By Przemyslaw Strozek
The leader and founder of the Futurist Movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was born in Alexandria in 1876, of Italian descent. He spent his early school years in Egypt, and, as a teenager, he founded a small literary review, Le Papyrus: revue bi-mensuelle litteraire, artistique, fantaisiste et mondaine (1894–1895), in which he published poems and articles in defense of naturalism and modern literature. In this eclectic periodical, of which he published twenty-one issues, Marinetti showed a keen interest not only in the newest French poetry, but also an early fascination with politics, and especially anarchism, that marked his later writings, including the first manifesto of Futurism. The manifesto, published on February 20, 1909 led to the launching of a Futurist group, which had during its thirty-five years of activity far-reaching representatives in various parts of Italy and abroad. Marinetti was certain that a radical condemnation of tradition and the transformation of provincial Italian towns into large industrial centers would lead to a strengthening of the country in the international arena and would make the country a fully modern one, governed by the "proletariat of geniuses." Marinetti believed that the proclamation of a futurist Italy would take place simultaneously by means of political as well as a literary and artistic upheaval. It was not without reason, therefore, that the Futurists were the first to call for Italy to participate in the First World War, as it was the War which paved the way for political fights, culminating in the March of the Blackshirts on Rome and the establishment of the Fascist government in 1922.
From the very beginning, Marinetti’s ideas achieved great acclaim, mainly among young poets and artists who under his protectorate were eager to mark their existence on the artistic scene. The budding local Futurist groups were taking up ideas connected with the political and artistic renewal of the country, and yet, before the Great War, apart from the Futurists residing in Milan, there was only a Florentine group connected with Lacerba magazine. During the war between 1916 and 1919, the number of local groups started to grow: L’Italia Futurista (Bruno Corra, Emilio Settimelli) in Florence, La Folgore Futurista in Pavia, Noi (Enrico Prampolini) and Roma Futurista (Mario Carli, Settimelli) in Rome, Vittorio Veneto (Carli, Settimelli) in Venice. They united mainly local Futurist soldiers and combatants (Fasci di Combatimento) who desired to use the turmoil of the post-war political scene and under Marinetti’s leadership to take control of the country. In November 1919, combatant groups ran in elections, where Mussolini was on the same list alongside the futurist leader. The elections ended in spectacular failure and as a result of this severe defeat, the Futurists left Fasci de Combettimento in May of 1920.
Top: Nelson Morpurgo attending Fascist March in Milan (after 1918). Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Bottom: Movimento Futurista. Futuristi di Cairo (1921)
In the face of these events, special attention was paid to the first (and probably only) group of Italian Futurists out of Italy—in Egypt’s capital city, Cairo. Almost all of its members took part in the war and were members of Movimento Futurista, an association which was also incorporated in Fasci di Combattimento. It had its headquarters in Cairo in Via Cheich Abour El Sebaah 25. They shared Marinetti’s political views, supporting Gabrielle D’Annunzio’s expedition on Fiume, and turned against the internal politics of Giovanni Giolitti and socialism. Its members included Italian lawyers, politicians, poets, playwrights and painters.
Nelson Morpurgo, born in Cairo in 1899, an advocate in the Appellate Court, poet, and Marinetti fan, was the leader of Cairo’s Movimento Futurista. In his memoirs, he recalled his teenage fascination with the Futurist leader, who gained support from the Italian youth during the tough times of the war. During the First World War, when Morpurgo was staying in Milan, he became involved in intervention and irredentist movements, printing leaflets aimed at the Central Powers and the Vatican. In 1915, he contacted Marinetti, organizing interventionist manifestations, which were to lead to Italy’s involvement in the Great War. Fascinated with the idea of a literary experiment and words expressing liberty, as an 18-year-old, he started publishing his poems in La Folgore Futurista and L’Italia Futurista, to which he contributed with his Citta’ + Campagna, which he also published in his later book of poetry, Il fuoco delle Piramidi. During his stay in Italy, he befriended Mario Dessy and Francesco Cerati—authors of several theatrical syntheses—Futurist plays, written to reflect the truth about the dynamic, contemporary world and usually lasting only a few minutes. While in Italy, Morpurgo also encountered Settimelli and Carli, who were involved in the political battles of the Futurists following the war. As the war ended, Morpurgo returned to Cairo and started to form a Futurist group, which would support the country’s legions of Futurists in political and artistic terms.
In 1920, Morpurgo issued his first futurist publication in Cairo, Movimento Futurista. Per i bimbi, which was an expression of propagandist support for the fights over Fiume. On June 26, 1920, he organized a great Futurist evening in Egypt, a performance of twelve theatrical syntheses by Umberto Boccioni, Paolo Buzzi, Remo Chiti, Francesco Cangiullo, Cerati, Dessy, Marinetti, Corra and Settimelli. In 1921 in Cairo, the first and only issue of a futurist periodical XX Settembre 1921 was published by Ferrentini, whose name recalled a historical event, when the Italian army under Victor Emmanuel II seized Rome from the French. This Egyptian Futurist magazine included, among other contributors, Morpurgo and Renato Servi, who on October 12, 1921 signed the manifesto "Noi Futuristi Italiani." This was also signed by other members of the Egyptian group: Natale Luri, Rudolfo Piha, Saverio Critelli, Enrico Pirro, Pietro Luri, and Rambaldo di Collalto. Four days later, Morpurgo put on stage in Teatro del Giardino (Esbekieh) his own trilogy in three acts, titled Morfina!, which was published in the same year by Edizioni del Movimento Furutista. In the early 1920s, he organized some futurist performances in Egyptian theaters, not only in Cairo but also in Alexandria, promoting the poetic and theatrical revolution of Marinetti’s in North Africa.
From top: Morfina!, Teatro del Giardino, 1921. N. Morpurgo, Il fuoco delle piramidi, 1923. N. Morpurgo, Amore, 1923
From 1922, Morpurgo edited the magazine Bar, and in 1923 he published his first volume of poetry, Il fuoco delle piramidi: liriche e parole in liberta. In the preface to this volume, Marinetti described Morpurgo as a "great paroliberist"; the book was published by the most prestigious Futurist publisher, Edizione futuriste di Poesia. Morpurgo’s book was a collection of works that formed a type of Futurist hieroglyph, which inscribed the Italian language and the liberated Italian words in the form of pyramids and Egypt’s natural landscape. Simultaneously, they were inspired by the spirit of Marinetti’s poetic revolution and life experiences of the sunny Cairo. It is worth mentioning that one of the poems, "Sintesi," was reprinted for a leftist organ of the Czech avant-garde “Red” in 1929, receiving international acclaim.
N. Morpurgo, Sintesi, "Red," 1929.
In 1923, Morpurgo worked as a futurist correspondent based in Egypt for the magazine L’Impero, edited in Rome by Carli and Settimelli. Nonetheless, neither Morpurgo nor the group from Cairo were listed in an index of “the world’s Futurists” published by Marinetti in his manifesto "Le Futurisme Mondial" (1924). The founder of Futurism pointed to different centers of international Futurism in Europe and across the world, including in it the different tendencies of the European avant-garde: Dadaism, Constructivism and Zenitism. The idea of the manifesto was to highlight that the whole avant-garde upheaval, which intensified in the 1920s, grew out of the Futurist foundations of individual artists.
The Manifesto “Le Futurisme Mondial” was reprinted in the Egyptian magazine AnaMali, published on December 25, 1929, in an issue entirely dedicated to Italian Futurism. At the same time, on December 28, 1929, a special issue on Futurism was published by another Egyptian magazine: Maalesh. They were published on the occasion of Marinetti’s arrival in Cairo for the Congress of the Association of Literature & Art (December 15–22, 1929). The representative of the fascist state arrived then as an Italian delegate (already a member of the Mussolini’s Royal Academy). Taking place in the then-inaugurated literary club Al Diafa, presentations of the poetic revolutions of Futurism were made.
From top: Caricature from Maalesh (28 XII 1929). Caricature from Maalesh (28 XII 1929). Front page of AnaMali (29 XII 1929).
Yet, in 1932, Morpurgo released the book Per le mie donne, under the supervision of the magazine La Semaine Egyptienne, published in Cairo in French. The French translation of Morpurgo’s work was by Jean Moscatelli, who, in the same year, published an article presenting Morpurgo in the pages of the same Egyptian periodical. It is worth mentioning that Valentine de Saint-Point—the founder of the manifesto of Futurist woman of 1913—published poems in the same issue, which also contained an article by a French painter Albert Gleizes. The following year, Marinetti published the book Il fascino dell’ Egitto (1933), displaying an interest in the pleasures of contemporary Egypt; in 1938, he once again visited Cairo, which turned out to be his last visit, remembered heartily by Morpurgo as the last meeting with his master.
In studies covering Futurism, it is hard to find further information regarding the group of Futurists established in 1920 in Cairo. However, the group deserves significant attention, as they were probably the first colony of European avant-garde artists in North Africa. They were certainly the first group to unite representatives of Italian Futurist literature and art, residing permanently away from Italy. Other advocates of Italian Futurism residing abroad, such as Prampolini and Ruggero Vasari, did not go on to form independent groups in their given countries. The former resided in Germany, the Czech Republic and France from 1917, while Vasari, following his arrival in Berlin in May 1922, went on to publish the German magazine Der Futurismus. For a short time it became a German voice for Italian Futurism, promoting its ideas mainly in central Europe. Although Marinetti did not include the Cairo group into his list of "world’s Futurists" in his "Le Manifeste Mondial," it is worth mentioning that it was in Egypt that the new Futurist ideas were spreading on a wide scale, and Futurist performances were organized in Egyptian theaters and literary clubs. Cairo became a significant colony of the Italian Futurists, who in North Africa, away from their homeland, were promoting Marinetti’s political ideology and propagating the values of the futurist revolution.
Top: Nelson Morpurgo and a group of Italian men (1930).
Bottom: P. Oriani, Enigmo del deserto (1937).
Przemyslaw Strozek is based in Warsaw, and runs futurstro.blogspot.com.