Giacomo Balla

Massimo Introvigne

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GIACOMO BALLA TIMELINE

1871 (July 18):  Giacomo Balla was born in Turin, Italy.

1891:  Having completed his first cycle of art studies at Turin’s Accademia Albertina, Balla moved to Rome with his mother.

1899:  First exhibition of Balla’s paintings in Rome.

1900–1901:  Balla spent time in Paris, familiarizing himself with the local artistic milieu.

1902:  Balla returned to Rome and became a close friend of ceramist Francesco Randone and politician Giovanni Amendola, both prominent Theosophists.

1904:  Balla married Elisa Marcucci.

1910:  Balla signed the Futurist Manifesto and painted Arc Lamp (although he signed it with the date 1909), a painting with both Futurist and Masonic symbolism.

1911:  Balla’s works were exhibited at the exhibition organized in Rome to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Kingdom of Italy. He befriended several neo-Pagan literati and artists.

1912:  Balla traveled twice to Germany, where he was exposed to the ideas of Rudolf Steiner.

1915:  Balla signed the manifesto Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe. By then, he was recognized as one of the leading Futurist painters. He also privately taught art to young pupils, including Julius Evola.

1916:  Balla started attending regularly the meetings of the Theosophical group of General Carlo Ballatore, part of Theosophy’s splinter group Independent Theosophical League. His contacts with Theosophy, however, had started well before that date. He also attended Spiritualist seances.

1920s:  Several Balla masterpieces revealed clear Theosophical influences.

1922:  Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy. Balla gradually abandoned Futurism and embraced Fascism.

1947:  In the new democratic Italy, Balla was ostracized for his past association with Fascism. Paradoxically, he was rediscovered and promoted by the Communist artists of the Forma 1 movement, who greatly admired his early work.

1958 (March 1):  Balla died in Rome, after several years of poor health.

BIOGRAPHY

The esoteric and Theosophical references in the work of Giacomo Balla (1871–1958) have been analyzed by Giovanni Lista (1982, 1995, 2008b), Flavia Matitti (1998, 2011a, 2011b), Fabio Benzi (2007; 2008:217–33), and Elena Gigli (2013). These scholars wrote in Italian and their works were not well known outside of Italy, although Henderson (2012), Hanstein (2013) and Chessa (2012) did mention the connection in works published in English. They were also art historians, and their knowledge of the history of Theosophy in Italy was understandably limited. When their valuable works are read together with the studies of those scholars who studied the early history of Theosophy in Italy (see Pasi 2010, 2012), they demonstrate that the connection between Theosophy (and other esoteric currents), and Balla’s work was not peripheral, as it is often claimed, but central.

Giacomo Balla was born in Turin on July 18, 1871. Although his family was poor, he managed to enroll in the famous Accademia Albertina, Turin’s high school for the arts, and to complete the first three-year cycle there. In 1895, Balla’s mother decided to move with her son to Rome, hoping to find better opportunities for him there. [Image at right] The Savoy dynasty had unified Italy in 1861, and conquered Rome (previously under the government of the Pope) in 1870. The Catholic Church was hostile to the new Italian state, and the hostility was reciprocal. Anti-Catholic intellectuals elaborated the myth of the third Rome. The first Rome was the center of the glorious Roman Empire. The second Rome was the Popes’ decadent capital of Christianity. The third should be the capital of the new Italy, a model of progress and social justice. The new Rome should produce a new spirituality; some would say more boldly, a new religion. What this new religion should be was less clear. Freemasonry offered a secular spirituality. Socialism was lived with a religious fervor. The gentle religion of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) also became popular. When Theosophy came, it easily fitted into this scenario of progressive spiritual alternatives to Catholicism.

This cultural milieu became politically dominant in Rome when Ernesto Nathan (1845–1921), a London-born Italian Jew who had been Grand Master of Italian Freemasonry between 1896 and 1903, was elected Mayor of the city in 1907. Nathan’s program was strongly inspired by the myth of the Third Rome. Balla counted among his first friends in Rome Duilio Cambellotti (1876–1960; see Fonti and Tetro 2018) and Alessandro Marcucci (1876–1968), both associated with Nathan and Masonic circles. In 1904, Balla married Marcucci’s sister, Elisa (1878–1947). [Image at right]

Balla was first admitted to exhibit one of his paintings at the Nathan-sponsored Società Amatori e Cultori in 1899 (Benzi 2007:284). After a passage in Paris between 1900 and 1901, he became reasonably well known in Rome and acquired his first pupils, including Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), soon to emerge as a Futurist enfant prodige and whose art was in turn deeply rooted in esotericism (Hanstein 2013; Henderson 2015). Balla participated in the prevailing socialist climate, as evidenced by his early “social” works. While these works are better read within the climate of the civil religions of socialism and radicalism, his close friends Cambellotti and Marcucci introduced Balla into a more esoteric side of the Roman Masonic milieu. The artist’s daughter Elica (1914–1993) told art historian Fagiolo dell’Arco that Balla never joined Freemasonry (Fagiolo dell’Arco 1968a:28): but he seems to have been very close.

A cause dear to the heart of many Roman artists and Freemasons was the alphabetization of the poor children of the Roman countryside (Agro Romano), who were largely illiterate and suffering from malaria. One of the so-called “XXV [artists] of the Agro Romano” was Vittorio Grassi (1878–1958), a Freemason (Ponente 1997:137) who designed for the Italian mail in 1911 a Masonic stamp celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Kingdom of Italy. The stamp portrays a Freemason in  the act of sculpting an Ouroboros serpent with the words DEA ROMA (Goddess Rome) (“Contributo del Servizio Biblioteca alle ricerche per le celebrazioni dell’Unità d’Italia” 2010). [Image at right] Balla was not one of the XXV, but donated some of his works, including a portrait of Tolstoy, to be sold to the City of Rome on behalf of the cause (Vannozzi 2006:142).

This was a worthy humanitarian enterprise, but also included hidden meanings. Several of the XXV, including Cambellotti and sculptor Ettore Ferrari (1845–1929), who succeeded Nathan in 1904 as Grand Master of Italian Freemasonry, believed that, with all their problems, the peasants of the Roman countryside maintained in their physical appearance and folklore, hardly touched by Catholicism, genuine remnants of the ancient Romans of the Empire. “These men, wrote Cambellotti, still exhibited, beyond the ruins of malaria, fatigue, and servitude, the signs of an ancient nobility. We spotted in them the physical appearance and the posture of the Roman legionaries, consuls, tribunes, captains” (Cambellotti 1982:219).

A leading archeologist and member of this group, Giacomo Boni (1859–1925), seriously considered to replace Catholicism with the religion of the ancient Rome as the official religion of the new Kingdom of Italy. Preparing the 1911 exhibition for the fiftieth anniversary of the Kingdom of Italy, Boni and Cambellotti went together to the Agro Romano and found in the huts of the local peasants their models for reconstructing the huts of the early Ancient Rome (Gizzi 2011). At the 1911 exhibition in Rome, visitors could enter one of these huts, reconstructed by Cambellotti and Boni, and admire inside several paintings by Balla (Fagiolo dell’Arco 1968a:28; Tetro 2002).

Another close friend of Boni and Cambellotti, who was part of both the Agro Romano project and the early circle of Balla in Rome (Giorgio 2011:I,210), was Cesarina Ribulsi (1892–1963). An archeologist born in Torino, Ribulsi lived in the home of Camilla Mongenet Calzone (1861–1944) and served as her secretary. Mongenet was a leading member of the Theosophical Society, although later she left it after meeting Giuliano Kremmerz (Ciro Formisano, 1861–1930) and joining his quite different brand of esotericism. Both Mongenet and Ribulsi, together with Boni, were key figures in the small Roman circle who tried to restore the ancient Roman religion, and there are suggestions that Ribulsi served as a seer and priestess in neopagan ceremonies. In the late 1920s, however, Ribulsi broke with the Roman esoteric milieu and moved to Viterbo, where she worked as a schoolteacher (Giorgio 2011:I, 216).

An astute politician, Nathan was understandably skeptical about a restoration of the Pagan religion of Rome, but he encouraged both Boni and the Agro Romano campaign, in which his daughter Annie (1878–1946), an amateur painter, was also involved. Annie Nathan was part of a group of female artists who studied under Balla (Matitti 2001). The group also included Yris Randone (1888–1958), one of the daughters of the idiosyncratic artist Francesco Randone (1864–1935), the “Master of the Walls.”

A distinguished ceramist, Randone lived in a tower of the old walls of Rome, where he established in 1890 a school for artists that is still in existence. The Italian Ministry of Instruction eventually appointed him as caretaker of the Rome walls (de Feo 2000). A close friend and associate of the Masonic artist and Grand Master Ettore Ferrari (de Feo 2005:48), and a Freemason himself since 1905 (Matitti 2014:49), Randone was particularly interested in the religion and art of the Etruscans, a culture that flourished in Central Italy between 800 and 500 BCE. Cooking ceramics eventually became for Randone an “Etruscan” ritual ceremony. The happy few invited to participate, including Balla, received an invitation in the shape of a “host of goodness,” resembling the Catholic holy wafer used in the Eucharist and decorated with pagan, socialist, and Masonic symbols (Bellini and Folini 2005:88–89). One of the hosts depicted the “tria fata,” in Latin, “three fairies.” [Image at right] They were three of Randone’s six daughters: Yris, Honoris (1892–1968) and Horitia (1894–1984), dressed as (more or less) Etruscan priestesses. Their garbs and hats were also reminiscent of the communities created by the Tolstoyan movement in Russia and elsewhere (de Feo 2005:62–63).

They played their role in the ritual of cooking ceramics, where Balla was a frequent guest. One participant to these ceremonies, who left an account of them, was the Dutch Baroness Henriëtte Willebeek le Mair (1889–1966). She reported that, in the ritual devised by Randone, he knelt before the furnace with the three fairies and prayed the spirits of the fire, before ceremonially starting the cooking (de Feo 2005:56). These were not the only spirits evoked in Randone’s tower. From 1902 to 1912, the artist’s daughter Horitia acted as a medium in Spiritualist séances, and Spiritualism remained an important part of Randone’s spirituality and worldview (Matitti 2014:55–57).

Randone also joined the Independent Theosophical League, a Rome splinter group who had separated from the Theosophical Society in 1910 (de Feo 2005:51–53). In 1920, Randone showed to some visitors “the Golden Chain sent to us by the President of the Theosophical Society” (de Feo 2005:53), although who this President was and what the Golden Chain exactly was remain unclear.

Writing in 1984, the artist’s daughter Elica wrote that “Balla was interested in psychical phenomena and went to the meetings of a Theosophical Society presided by General Carlo Ballatore [1839–1920], where Spiritualist séances were also organized” (Balla 1984:387). Elica went on to explain the Theosophical meaning of a painting by Balla, Trasformazione forme spiriti. [Image at right]  In fact, there were at least three paintings with this title, produced between 1916 and 1920, which depict reincarnation and the ascent and descent of human souls (Lista 2008:254–255). There is little doubt that this was for Balla a period of intense interest for Theosophy. Chessa found in paintings from 1913–1914, starting from Iniezione di futurismo and including the patriotic paintings of 1915 calling for the intervention of Italy in World War I, that “the two “L” and the “A” of Balla’s name [in the signature] intertwine to form a swastika in which the hooks are oriented toward the right” (Chessa 2012:34). This is an interesting discovery, considering how the swastika was an important symbol of Theosophy in general and the Independent Theosophical League in particular. The “Theosophical Society presided by General [Carlo] Ballatore” mentioned by Balla’s daughter in fact operated within the Independent League.

On the other hand, Elica’s late reminiscences are no evidence that Balla met a “Theosophical Society” only as late as 1916 (Finazzi 2018). Even Chessa’s hypothetical date of 1914 for Balla’s first Theosophical contacts (Chessa 2012:34) is probably too late. As early as 1902, Balla was described as keeping “contact on a daily basis” with Randone (de Feo 2005:54), who was at that time a quite active member of the Theosophical Society (de Feo 2005:51). Balla was also a frequent guest in the home of Italian politician and Freemason Giovanni Amendola (1882–1926), who left the Theosophical Society in 1905 but had been a very active member in the previous years (Capone 2013).

One of the most famous paintings of Balla is Lampada ad arco (Arc Lamp), currently at the MOMA in New York. When exactly it was painted is a matter of contention. The elderly Balla in the 1950s insisted that the date was 1909, and the painting inspired Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s (1876–1944) Futurist manifesto and motto of October 1909 Uccidiamo il chiaro di luna (Let us kill the moonlight) rather than vice versa. The prevailing scholarly consensus is that, in fact, it was Balla who was inspired by Marinetti, and painted his Lamp in 1910 or 1911, after he accepted to sign (but did not contribute to) the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting in 1910. The date “1909” on the upper left of the painting was included as a reference to the birth date of Futurism (Lista 2008a:12–13). [Image at right] Balla had signed the 1910 Manifesto as a gesture of support to his pupil Boccioni, but the main Futurist scene was in Milan, and he remained in Rome. Only after he attended Boccioni’s “esoteric” conference on Futurism in Rome (1911), and met Marinetti there, Balla decided to co-operate actively with the Futurists. He then offered Lampada ad arco to Boccioni for the Futurist exhibition at the Bernheim Gallery in Paris in 1912. Boccioni first accepted and included in the catalogue the painting, but then rejected it, judging Lampada as not being Futurist enough (Lista 2008b:41).

The painting is, in a way, transitional. It depicts the triumph of the light of modernity over obscurantism, a Futurist idea that is, however, presented within the framework of early twentieth century Masonic lore. The star in the center of the painting, if not strictly speaking Masonic, is the star of the Kingdom of Italy and of the Third Rome overcoming the Second Rome’s Catholic obscurantism (Lista 2008a:13). A time was coming to its end. As a Mayor of Rome, Nathan was put in trouble by internecine squabbles in his own coalition. He had to resign in 1913, although he was still an important Masonic figure. He will serve again as Grand Master of the Grand Orient of Italy between 1917 and 1919.

Balla accepted quite graciously the rejection of his Lampada by the Futurists, and resolved to study Futurism more in depth (Lista 2008b:41). In 1912, Balla traveled twice to Düsseldorf, Germany, in order to stay with the Löwensteins, the family of one of his Rome female pupils. It is unclear where he really met there, as Lista (2008b:54) claims, the Dutch architect Johannes Lauweriks (1864–1932), an active member of the Theosophical Society. Lauweriks had left his position at the Düsseldorf Art School in 1909 and moved to Hagen, but his influence was still felt in the former city. Balla explored in Germany the movement of the light and the meaning of colors, in a context inspired by Thought Forms and the works of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) (see Poggianella 1995; Sarriugarte Gómez 2009:236). He started sketching what he would later call “compenetrazioni iridescenti” (iridescent compenetrations), geometric compositions of lights and color, although when the name was adopted is a matter of dispute. [Image at right]  Lista even claimed that “compenetrazioni iridescenti” was used only in the 1950s “as an inappropriate and ‘pseudo-Futurist’ label, created almost as a slogan for commercial purposes” (Lista 2008b:54). Whatever the name, Lista recognized a “direct” derivation of these paintings of the 1910s from Theosophy.

In 1913, Balla announced that he was now a full-blown Futurist, as evidenced by his new paintings about speed and the essence of the movement, often represented in the shape of a vortex (e.g. Tutto si muove, “All moves” 1913), a Theosophical image. On November 7, 1914, Balla observed the partial solar eclipse determined by the planet Mercury passing before the sun. He produced several paintings with the title Mercury Passing in Front of the Sun. Balla’s reading of the eclipse went beyond pure astronomy (Benzi 2007:133). He was familiar with the writings of the French astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842–1925) (Lista 2008d:328), a prominent Theosophist, whose comments were not purely scientific and mentioned the occult meaning of astronomical phenomena. [Image at right]

Another connection of Balla with Theosophy was through the Ginanni Corradini brothers. In Ravenna, the brothers Arnaldo (1890–1982) and Bruno Ginanni Corradini (1892–1976) were the scions of a noble family rooted in the Masonic and anti-clerical Central Italian subculture. Their parents named the brothers Arnaldo and Bruno after the arch-heretics Arnaldo da Brescia (1090–1155) and Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), in an open act of defiance against the Catholic Church (Collarile 2009:16). Later, Balla nicknamed Arnaldo “Ginna,” from “gymnastic,” and Bruno “Corra,” from “correre,” “to run.” They were in fact both interested in fitness, and decided to go under the name Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra.

According to Ginna’s own recollections, the brothers were early and avid readers of occult books from the Paris publishers Durville and Chacornac, as well as books published by the Theosophical Society. They attended meetings of Theosophical lodges in Florence and Bologna (Verdone 1968:22), a city where they also dabbled in Spiritualist séances and experimented with hashish (Madesani 2002:4). In 1905, Thought Forms by Theosophical leaders Annie Besant (1847–1933) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934) had been published (Besant and Leadbeater 1905; the frequent reference to a first edition allegedly published in 1901 comes from a misunderstanding based on a typo in the 1925 edition: see Crow 2012). The brothers read the book with great interest. Its theory that thoughts have “forms” and can be represented he obvious artistic implications.

In 1908, when Ginna was only eighteen, he started writing with his brother booklets on how to mobilize occult energies (Vita Nova, Metodo) and on how to paint by translating feelings and music into colors (Arte dell’Avvenire, “Art of the Future”), an idea probably derived once again from Leadbeater (Ginna and Corra 1984). Ginna was registered as a member in the books of the international Theosophical Society in Adyar on February 19, 1913 (Theosophical Society General Register, no. 50:611).

Ginna’s first contacts with Balla occurred sometimes after 1911 (Collarile 2009:22–23; Matitti 2011a:126), when the artist from Ravenna went to Rome. When, in 1915, Balla signed the manifesto Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, he was recognized in Rome as the head of a genuine Futurist “atelier,” or private academy, where several young artists came to learn the spirit of the movement. [Image at right] They included Ginna, Benedetta Cappa (1897–1977), whom Balla introduced to her future husband, Marinetti, and a very young Julius Evola (1898–1974). Benedetta was still another painter inspired by Thought Forms (Cigliana 2002:252–53). Evola, well known in his later years as a right-wing esoteric political philosopher, started his cultural career as a painter. Later, he was associated for several years with Dada, a movement Balla and the Futurists did not particularly care for, and left painting altogether in 1923.

Ginna later remembered that he, Evola, and Balla discussed Blavatsky, Besant, and Steiner in the older painter’s studio when Boccioni was still alive (Ginna 1985:136), i.e. before August 17, 1916. At that date, Boccioni died after falling from his horse during his military training near Verona. Balla was very moved, and sculpted Boccioni’s Fist, his most famous sculpture: a depiction of his deceased friend’s fist smashing old art and the  moribund traditions of the past. Balla also created a Fist stamp as a trademark of sort for his paintings. [Image at right] When he started attending the Theosophical meetings of General Ballatore, Balla was already surrounded by friends and pupils who were seriously interested in Theosophy.

Ballatore’s Theosophical career has been reconstructed by Matitti (1998; 2011b), and some of his writings were discussed by Benzi in his 2007 book on Balla. Less well known are Ballatore’s activities before he helped founding the Rome Theosophical Association in 1897. A search in Italian libraries showed that he wrote on military matters, including on the importance of promoting high moral standards among the troops (Ballatore 1877). More interesting is a commemorative stone in a small Catholic shrine in Rocca di Papa (Rome), which I discovered quite fortuitously. The inscription claims that a miracle happened there on September 26, 1883: “Carlo Ballatore and his wife Rina Biancotti,” while leaving the village after their holidays, were falling into a gulch with their carriage and horses. Suddenly, they experienced the special presence of the Holy Virgin of Tufo (i.e. the Virgin Mary as depicted in an  image kept in Rocca di Papa), who miraculously saved them (Noga 2011:19). [image at right] Those who restored the shrine, and published the article, in 2011, did not know the later Theosophical connections of Ballatore, but the name of the wife confirms that he was indeed the same military man whose lectures on Theosophy Balla would later attend. The incident shows the Ballatores as a couple with a special proclivity towards the supernatural (Rina will also become a Theosophical lecturer: Scaraffia 2002:79), although we do not know how it later evolved from Catholicism to Theosophy.

Benzi insists on the importance of an unpublished lecture given at the Theosophical Society of Rome by Ballatore in 1904, and presented again, with a new Part V, in 1920 (presumably at the Independent Theosophical League). There, Ballatore discussed the fourth dimension and the theories of Charles Howard Hinton (1853–1907), whose relevance both for international Theosophy and modern art have been studied in depth by Henderson (2012; see Benzi 2007:122–24).

Ballatore discussed again these topics in an article of Ultra also printed as a booklet, The Fourth Dimension, or the Hyperspace, in 1908 (Ballatore 1908). Here, Ballatore described how mono-dimensional and bi-dimensional beings would see the world. He did not quote the 1884 novel Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott (1838–1926), which was based on a similar idea, but both Ballatore and Abbott were influenced by Hinton. The Italian Theosophist explained that we, as three-dimensional beings, would be able to “appear” to bi-dimensional beings, should they organize Spiritualist séances, and they would see us as “ghosts” (Ballatore 1908:9). This, he claimed, was not mere “idle chatter” (Ballatore 1908:10), since it explained how spirits, who inhabit a fourth-dimensional universe, appear to us who live in a three-dimensional world. He went on to explain how non-Euclidean geometries explored the fourth dimension, and discussed Hinton’s “tesseract” as a typical “fourth dimension figure” (Ballatore 1908:23), yet another topic of relevance for modern art, as Henderson (2012) demonstrated. [Image at right]

In addition, Ballatore, who had been one of the founders of the first Theosophical Lodge in Rome before joining the Independent League, published in 1909 a book, also derived from an earlier 1907 article in Ultra, on “universal and human” radioactivity, a subject of interest to Futurists. The general explained that occultists see things normally invisible to our senses, and that there are “painters of the invisible who offer to us precious models of the astral world, just as there are works of art created intuitively with the help of the invisible” (Ballatore 1907, in Matitti 2011b:31).

Ballatore also considered how a spatial fourth dimension can be represented, and mentioned vibrations as field lines, or lines of force, and “elastic” spheres capable of compenetrating or inter-penetrating each other, all ideas “so similar to Balla’s applications that a mere coincidence should be excluded” (Benzi 2007:124). Balla explored these ideas in his polimateric sculptures of 1915, of which only photographs remain, and perhaps in Boccioni’s Fist. The theme of the fourth dimension emerged also in the quite sensational scenario Balla prepared in 1917, under a commission from Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), for the representation in Rome of Feu d’artifice, on music by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) (Gigli 2005). [Image at right]

Elica Balla claimed that Ballatore led his father to attend also Spiritualist séances. We may easily see echoes of these in Verso la notte (Toward the night, 1918), whose subject matter “is precisely an ectoplasm, a spirit” (Benzi 2007:140), and perhaps in the 1920 self-portrait Autostato d’animo, where the painter may have tried to depict his own astral body.

There are several Balla masterpieces of the early 1920s where a clear Theosophical influence has been detected: Sorge l’idea (The Idea is Born, 1920), Scienza contro oscurantismo (Science against Obscurantism, 1920), and Pessimismo e Ottimismo (Pessimism and Optimism, 1923)  of which several versions exist. [Image at right]  These are Futurist abstract paintings, yet they also express Masonic ideals of the Nathan era that Balla never truly abandoned. The idea rises from the nondescript magma of ignorance. The light of science battles the black-red fire of obscurantism. A blue optimism confronts a black pessimism, whose shape evokes a medieval knight, in a painting that may incorporate reminiscences from illustrations of both Leadbeater’s Man Visible and Invisible and Philosophia Sacra by British Paracelsian physician Robert Fludd (1574–1637) (Matitti 2011a:127). Shapes and colors perhaps do take into account Theosophy, but the tale Balla tells is again about the progressive Third Rome overcoming the clerical and corrupted Second Rome. When he painted on a tapestry Genio Futurista (1925) for the Paris Exposition des Arts décoratifs modernes, he managed to put together, in “this summa of sort of his art,” both “Theosophical representations” and different brands of Italian nationalism and Third Rome mythologies (Benzi 2007:179).

At the same time, following the examples of many (but by no means all) Futurists, Balla’s politics in these years were moving far away from Nathan. He saw in Fascism the best and most energetic chance to realize the Third Rome for good. In the meantime, Balla was abandoning Futurism, and the break came after Marinetti published in 1931 the Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art, where he offered Futurism to Catholicism in order to renovate its arts and churches. Although the Manifesto duly quoted Balla among those Futurist artists who would be able to create a new art for the Church, the old friend of Mayor Nathan was simply not interested in producing a Catholic art, Futurist or not. Balla, who maintained his “sympathy for the ideas of Freemasonry” (i.e. the Italian Grand Orient, militantly anti-Catholic) (Lista 2008d:330), simply ceased his association with Futurism. When Fascism criticized Futurism and avant-garde in general as degenerate art in 1937–1938, Balla claimed that he had no longer anything to do with the movement (Lista 2008d:331).

Balla was a true believer in Fascism, at least for a while, [Image at right] and would pay this with ostracism and marginalization after the War. The world was changing, again. In an Italy dominated by the Christian Democrat Party, and at the same time with the strongest Communist Party in the West, some of Balla’s old friends made choices that surprised the painter. Cambellotti went from Freemasonry to designing Catholic comics (see Ricciotti and Cambellotti 1946). Cesarina Ribulsi, neopagan archeologist and perhaps priestess, went one step further and became a Catholic nun in Verona (Giorgio 2011:I,216).

The other Italy, cut off from political power but hegemonic in the intellectual and artistic world, looked at the Communist Party. The Italian abstract painters who signed the Forma 1 Manifesto in 1947, including Piero Dorazio (1927–2005) and Carla Accardi (1924–2014), claimed to be Marxists. Together with older abstract artists, including Ettore Colla (1896–1968), they rediscovered Balla after the War. Their interest went to his Futurist abstract works, rather than to his post-War figurative paintings. Balla obliged, and produced some so-called “neo-Futurist” works, which also sold much better (Lista 2008d:331). The milieu of abstract artists he associated with was, however, far away from Theosophy, and there is no evidence that Balla kept in touch with the Italian Theosophical milieu as it was re-emerging after the War.

Eventually, despite his controversial relationship with Fascism, Balla came to be celebrated as one of the greatest Italian twentieth century artists. He died on March 1, 1958 in Rome, after several years of poor health spent with his daughters Elica and Luce (1904–1994). They provided a domestic haven for Balla, [Image at right] although they were also criticized for what amounted to his progressive separation from the outside world.

Balla’s interest in Theosophy was never theoretical. Unlike Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), and Jean Delville (1867–1953) (see Introvigne 2014a, 2014b, 2016), three artists who were card-carrying members of the Theosophical Society, he did not spend time considering what a genuine Theosophical art might be. Balla focused on the arts, much less on spirituality or politics, despite his various relationships and involvements. However, in an Italy polarized by cultural and religious tensions, he chose to remain quite apart from the Catholic hegemonic culture. Balla found his spiritual home in the counter-hegemonic milieu where the civil religions of socialism, nationalism, neopaganism, Freemasonry, and Theosophy both competed and co-operated in order to offer to Italy an alternative to Catholic hegemony, coherent with the idea of a Third Rome.

Theosophy was an actor in the social process leading from Balla’s initial inspirations to the production of works of art recognized as influential by several generation of artists. This is true for Futurism in general. The early Italian Futurists were part of an alternative subculture hostile to Catholicism and interested in the occult and in various esoteric movements. When they met Theosophy, they found there a synthesis of ideas and themes they were already familiar with. Theosophy, in turn, significantly influenced their art, both by providing specific themes, such as reincarnation and occult astronomy, and by offering an esoteric theory of colors and forms.

IMAGES

Image #1: Balla, La Madre (portrait of his mother), 1901.
Image #2: Umberto Boccioni, Portrait of Elisa Marcucci Balla and Her First Daughter, 1906.
Image #3: Vittorio Grassi, Stamp for the 50th anniversary of the Kingdom of Italy, 1911.
Image #4: The “Three Fairies.”
Image #5: Balla, Trasformazione, forme, spiriti, 1918.
Image #6: Balla, Lampada ad Arco, dated 1909 but in fact painted in 1910–1911.
Image #7: Balla, Compenetrazione iridiscente #7, 1912.
Image #8: Balla, Mercury Passing in Front of the Sun, 1914.
Image #9: Balla in his Rome studio.
Image #10: Balla, Boccioni’s Fist, 1914–1915.
Image #11: Inscription commemorating the Ballatore miracle.
Image #12: Cover of Ballatore’s book The Fourth Dimension.
Image #13: Balla, Sketch for the Ballet by Igor Stravinsky, Fireworks (Feu d’artifice).
Image #14: Balla, Pessimismo e ottimismo, 1923.
Image #15: Balla, Marcia su Roma,1926, celebrating the Fascist coup of 1922.
Image #16: Door of Balla’s home, painted by the artist.

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Post Date:
21 December 2018

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