(11 September 1908 – 11 March 1944)
Written by Maria Grazia Simeone
Translated by Giulia Fabbris
The artistic figure of Nello Voltolina perfectly integrates within the Second Futurism. For a long time, historians of Italian art have denied the importance of a second phase of the movement, defining the value of the futurist experience just with reference to the authors and works up to the Great War and declassing those dating 20s and 30s to mere academy without any vitality, infected anyway by fascist propaganda. Later critics often define artists from this phase as “useless and superficial”, “imitators”, moved by a “courteous epigonism” and a “provincial delay”. Surely, this judgment is dictated by the aversion to fascism and, more in general, to the figure of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
Starting from 1958, especially thanks to Enrico Crispolti, the Second Futurism got a late critical recognition, a role in the framework of the European artistic avant-gardes, which contributed also to the modification of the main dates of the movement, setting its birth in 1909 (year of publication of the Futurist manifesto of F. T. Marinetti) and its end in 1944 (year of the death of Marinetti). Certainly, within this long period, different phases of vitality can be identified, and the names of the most prominent exponents of the Second Futurism (Fillia, Dottori, Prampolini) dominate once again. In any case, aeropainting is considered the innovation, the real hallmark of this phase. In the years following the Great War and thanks to the progress in aviation, the myth of the machine, modernity and speed – typical feature of Futurism – becomes a real cult of flight, of aeroplanes, of vertigo.
Nello Voltolina can be legitimately put together with the names of the major exponents of the Second Futurism for human affinity, for participation in exhibitions of futurist art with them, for the impulse that he and the others managed to imprint on the movement in provincial realities (Veneto, Polesine, Friuli) which, as it is usually the case with peripheral areas, get to know artistic avant-gardes later than big cities. Marinetti goes around Italy to bring back the futurist movement and organises a congress in Milan in November 1924 to moderate the conflict between Fascism and Futurism and to claim a political identity of expression of the new art for new men. Cities, especially those with universities such as Padua, become centres of aggregation and revitalisation of Futurism at the end of 1920s, also thanks to Marinetti’s tour in Padua, Adria and Rovigo’s conferences, where he greets students with this formula: “The student, the futurist and the Italian… are three entities that identify creating an only entity”. In the preface to the catalogue of the exhibition “Futuristi del Polesine” (Futurists from Polesine), (Rovigo, 6th November – 8th December 1992), which shows Nello Voltolina, Angelo Prudenziato and Leonida Zen’s works, Carlo Munari states that “in a Polesine never mentioned by the (ex) official historiography, some artists laid claim of the right to operate with supranational tone. Their attitude started and gained life from a specific cultural background: the feverish succession of discussions on theories, on “nights” of poetry, of theatre performances, and, in the end, of deliberately provoking interventions that right in Polesine spread in a large turmoil.”
It is extremely likely then that a very young Nello Voltolina, with a passion for drawing and colours ever since his childhood, got closer to Futurism coming into contact with this ferment in the lively environment of Padua.
From a sort of autobiography written as a presentation when he approached the futurist artistic scenario, we can get some information about his previous life and his debut:1
“On Friday the 11th of September, 1908, in a town lost in sinuous dunes and river, spotted with wheat fields and ponds buzzing with mosquitos, I saw for the first time the sun. Yellow sun, yellow dunes, yellow wheat, yellow malarious faces: this is my yellow childhood, very yellow, desperately yellow, with a dead mum and a dad at war.”
Voltolina was born in Donada (present-day Porto Viro), in an isolated place surrounded by the sand and water of the river Po delta. We have no photos of his childhood, while his following activity as photographer is abundant and immortalises countryside corners, hunting and fishing scenes, moments of family happiness. Voltolina belongs to a family of well-off land owners; father and uncles run fields and fishing valleys with the help of many labourers who live in big houses isolated in water and reeds. As first born and only male of the family, Nello seems to be fated to bring on this tradition. However, to hinder an apparently inevitable destiny, different factors intervene: a rebel artistic nature, studies, a life lived far away from Donada, the employment in a northern company and, lastly, the tragic coming of World War Two.
From the description of his birth and childhood it is difficult not to notice the persistence of colour and the reference to the dunes and river that Nello will always bear in mind in his works, from the melancholic landscapes of his beginnings, vaguely impressionist, to the more intrepid futurist and aeropainting realisations of the richest years of his artistic activity.
Nello summarises the conflict between the aspiration to an artistic life and the need to study, imposed by the social position and the future and probable administration of his family property as follows:
“And then the study: I scribbled all over one hundred kilos of paper, went through two hundred of useless books heating the desks of Porto Tolle, Donada, Adria, Rovigo, Venice, Chioggia, Padua and Venice again for the pleasure of being called, in some years, “Doctor”.
Particularly suitable for this state of mind (besides our progenitors’ ability to reuse whatever piece of paper) there seems to be the profile of an African woman, drawn with a blue pencil on a typewritten sheet with the value of the Mexican plate and other currencies, or the cover of the notebook of chemistry, adorned with a figure of a woman holding a still. Voltolina seems not to be divided just between the world of art and study, but also between the city life, witnessed by some group photos with elegant boys and nice girls, and the life of the “valley”, where one can see dogs, rifles, landscapes of marvellous melancholy. They represent two aspects of his artistic sensitivity: the cultured, which often is expressed with caricatures of his friends and professors, and the one in which dunes and water of the Po valley delta are a characterising and essential element.
Pre-futurist Nello is a diligent and meticulous painter. With firm hand he draws the portrait of his grandfather on his deathbed (1928) to give it to an aunt oh his. The artistic activity seems to be still delimited to the family sphere:
“Since I was a child, I have had such a great passion for drawing that I spent my best time leaving my studies to the second place”.
In Nello’s words, it seems that the temporary unsuccess at school favours his artistic progress, or this last one determines the first.
“In 1930 exams failed and futurist genius blossoms. January 1931: Dormàl lets me exhibit for the first time introducing me to Marinetti. First success!”
Voltolina will always ascribe to Dormàl the credit of his emersion from a sort of hibernation, showing him the way to Futurism.
Actually, 1931 is a crucial year for Nello. In January, he exhibits in Padua at the exhibition called Seven Paduan Futurists, a true debut not just for him but for the whole Paduan movement, together with Della Baratta, De Giorgio, Dormàl, Peri, Sgaravatti and Crali. Of the eight works shown, Brezza primaverile, Sott’acqua, 2 novembre, Circo, Seminatore, Trebbiatrice, Ritratto, Tram (Spring Breeze, Under Water, 2 November, Circus, Sower, Thrasher, Portrait, Tram), this last one gets the biggest success for “straight lines, angles, strong contrasts, sensations of lights in movement. Little specific thought, technical perfection. This is how Voltolina’s evolutionary process began” (Silvio Marchesani, 1993). Nello Voltolina signs his works with the acronym Novo. The use of short and vivid pseudonyms was a typical futurist habit. The two syllables are formed by some letters of his name and do seem to express the innovation and disorder that Nello wants to bring in his life and in the artistic environment of the province.
In May of the same year, he displays at the exhibition Futurist Painting and Aeropainting – Tapestry, Architecture and Toys, organised in Trieste by Bruno G. Sanzin. At this exhibition, to which futurist artists from Padua and Trieste participate, Voltolina shows the paintings already displayed in Padua, except for Brezza primaverile and Seminatore. At the end of the month, the exhibition is moved to Gorizia, at the reading club, and the number of works and painters increases (there are also some futurist artists from Gorizia, as Cossar and Zadiby), but Nello’s paintings dominate: in L’eco dell’Isonzo (The echo of the River Isonzo), 4th June 1931, Valentino Danieli praises in particular Tram but also 2 novembre and Circo (or Salto mortale – Somersault). “Among the most appreciated paintings of the exhibition, Salto Mortale seems to be the best: flexibility and agility in the muscle vibration of the clown, heavy concentration climate full of concentration from the audience, acrobatic lightness in the bright room from above”. 2 novembre is “reciprocity of love feelings” with soul eyes suspended on bent figures, to which they are connected by the winding strip of memories, in the favourite blue/light-blue chromatic gradations.
Meanwhile, he can finally finish his studies as consultant and commercial accountant and enrols in the Faculty of Economy and Commerce in Venice. Anyway, he keeps his contacts with the Paduan environment, in particular with Dormàl; Voltolina’s caricatures and cartoons can be found in the only number of the Paduan scholarly journal Noi siamo le colonne (We are the columns). During the same period, the International Exhibition of Christian Modern Sacred Art opens with a futurist section where one of Voltolina’s paintings is displayed, La conversione dell’eretico aleardino (The Conversion of the heretic follower of Aleardino). This work gets great success: “From the perfect fusion of tones, the two concise figures emerge: spiritual, sweet, deified the saint’s one; strong, vivid, human the heretic’s. Extremely efficient contrast. Voltolina understood the need to give a soul to that painting, and so he did” (Marchesani, 1933).
The first national recognition of his activity comes with an invitation of participation to the futurist section of the First International Exhibition of Colonial Art in Rome, where his painting Atmosfera coloniale (Colonial Climate) is exhibited. In 1931 he displays the works Volo (Flight) and Aeropittura (Aeropainting) at the Futurist Exhibition of Aeropainting and Scenography in Milan at the Pesaro Gallery.
Other noteworthy artistic productions of Nello are graphic design, caricatures, advertising sketches, drawings for musical scores. Particularly beautiful Nostalgia di Greta (Nostalgia of Greta), sketch for a musical score of E. L. Poletto, in which Greta Garbo’s portrait is marked by the red spot of her lips. The versatility of Futurism is expressed, by Nello as by other Paduan exponents, also with the creation of pillows with stylised figures of aeroplanes and octopuses and with the experimentation of photography.
“The outburst was excellent, the race was fast and frenetic. In December, I had to stop all of a sudden, a serious illness threatened my existence”.
The typhus fever forces him to a six-month convalescence, but during that time he continues with his painting activity, getting closer with stronger conviction to aeropainting.
“I endured the shock, and in spring I stood up, took back my path, slowly, then… with a good pace and now I walk fast, fast, looking up and in front of me, speeding up more and more, and then I will run, run far away always seeking for new achievements”.
After his recovery, in spring 1932, he gets the degree in Economics (18th November 1936) and is hired by the aeronautic company Savoia Marchetti (1st November 1937). During these years, Nello’s artistic activity is intense, even if alternated with his studies. In the First Exhibition of Futurist Triveneto Art, in Padua in 1932, he displays the first realisations of the “new manner”, more properly aeropainting (Palude, Poeta che declama, Tramonto africano – Marsh, Poet Reciting, African Sunset). The inauguration with the participation of Marinetti and the presence of a large group of artists from Padua, Verona and Trieste give prominence to many “scattered and lost energies”. Voltolina belongs to the supervision and committee, together with Dormàl and De Giorgio.
Marinetti chooses Voltolina and three works of his (Acquazzone, Spiaggia, Pesca – Downpour, Beach, Fishing) for the Third Exhibition of Art of Triveneto, organised in Padua by the Fascist Labour Union of Fine Arts in October 1932. There follow the exhibitions of aeropainting in Piacenza (February 1933) and Bologna, then Mantua (May 1933) and Milan, Pesaro Gallery, the following month. Nello’s participation in the First National Exhibition of Futurist Art in Rome means to him the achievement of the official consecration. The ten works displayed (Tram, Cosmo, Atmosfera italiana, Seduzione aerea, L’arcolaio, Amanti in palude, Spiaggia, Acquazzone, Atmosfera coloniale, Pesca – Tram, Cosmos, Italian Climate, Aerial Seduction, The Spinning Wheel, The Lovers in the Marsh, Beach, Downpour, Colonial Climate, Fishing) are deeply appreciated and a personal room for a second round is announced. Seduzione aerea and Atmosfera coloniale are exhibited in Berlin and Hamburg for the travelling exhibit of futurist aeropainting (February – March 1934).
Atmosfera coloniale is Voltolina’s most renowned work. A camel walks on some sandy dunes, warm colours, prickly pears, the evocation of a tropical landscape in which fantasy and folklore mix together, local colour and home exoticisms. In Seduzione aerea, geometric lines are apposed to a figure of a black woman traditionally draped and to a shapeless mass, almost organic, formed by gyri. These elements prove the presence of a clear surrealist origin. Acquazzone is very appreciated by the critic, defined by Quirino De Giorgio “sublime impulse in the artist’s soul towards new and unexplored peaks… It represents the uncontrolled hitting of a terrible downpour against a small tree that is stricken”. The painting will be then donated by Voltolina to Marinetti. Spiaggia is calmer, almost fun: an airplane wing flying close to the ground above the double line of beach cabins, the sand and the foreshore with sun umbrellas, a sail cuts through the waves. According to Sanzin “in Spiaggia he animates the marine environment with merry spontaneity by aligning cabins, distributing colourful umbrellas, putting in the foreground a light big sail. More sea and sand. You do not see people, but you can grasp them, merry and noisy among those elements that summarise the world of bathers”.
The love of Nello for the beach is witnessed by the numerous photos of groups of young people at the sea or on a boat. And what to say about the letter addressed to Nello Voltolina, cabin n. 20, Sottomarina (Chioggia)? The beach becomes even a possible delivery address.
At the First Exhibition of Avant-garde City of Lonigo a group of Venetian futurist painters, who evidently considers Voltolina a master, honours him with paintings that have the same name of one of Nello’s works Sintesi veneziana (Venetian Summary). A fundamental element of the image of Venice, the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, becomes the background of a frenetic transformation of the gondola’s iron, in which aeroplanes – symbol of aeropainting – are inserted.
The aeropainter Nello Voltolina wants to mark his impetuous innovation even in another field, heraldry, regulated by norms and by repeated and traditional representations. The Podesta of his town assigned him the task to draw a stemma for a new territorial entity, the municipality of Porto Viro, created in 1929 after the union of Donada and Contarina. In the nth squared sheet, Nello describes his creation, which will not include helmets, plumes, rampant animals but a “stemma divided vertically in two fields by a fertile spike… the right field is black, the left one is green crossed by a light-blue river which branches out and is overflown by an airplane. The spike represents the fecundity of the land and of the inhabitants. From the spike, an aircraft – latest expression of the human genius – springs”. Of course, the stemma is not approved, despite the support of the Podesta who, in the heavy correspondence entertained with the Heraldry Council, claims that a young and fascist municipality like Porto Viro cannot have in its stemma the lion of San Marco, but a reference to new times and people. Voltolina, a futurist on which the Podesta heard praise, but who creates works little comprehensible for a lay in art, probably exaggerated by inserting an aeroplane in the stemma (a plough would have been more appropriate), but he expressed that sense of innovation of which the municipality of Porto Viro itself is concrete realisation.2
“Voltolina is young and can create many works: if he goes on, as he affirms, with fast pace, as he has done until now, we will have in him a complete artist”. These are the last words of a laudatory review of Nello’s works when he, in 1934, participates in the Littoriali of Culture and Art in Florence. While the works of this event seem just to respect an academic convention, Voltolina finds starting points for a critical article, “A look at the painting of Littoriali”, published in the journal “Futurismo – Sant’Elia”.
Voltolina is recognised as aeropainter for all intents and purposes: this is demonstrated by the presence of his Glorificazione della Terra (Glorification of the Earth) in the room dedicated to aeropainting of the XIX Venice Biennial. In this painting, the stylised shapes of an aeroplane draw a semicircle and then an ellipsis on the blue background of the sky. According to Marchesani, who talks about this work formerly in 1933: “the aeroplane acquires for him a mystical value, therefore he divinises it and his compositions reach a high level of lyricism”.
Always in 1934 he participates in the First National Exhibition of “Mural Plastic” in Genoa with the project for the decoration of the walls of a house of the fascist party. Voltolina is among the signers of the manifesto in which Marinetti states that the exhibition will present all the brilliant possibilities that architects, painters and sculptures together can do for the fascist construction industry. Nello, even considering his architectonic experience limited to “what is marshland and measures of reclamation”, hopes to produce something measured up to the task (letter to Fillia, 11th September 1934).
Still, Nello has in mind the necessity to finish his university studies. He writes Mino Somenzi about the fear of leaving arts for studies and his friend exhorts him to fulfil his artistic and university duties with the same intensity. Nello limits the participation to exhibitions, even if in 1935 he displays both in the second Quadrennial of National Art in Rome (Palude da 1000 metri – 1000-Meters Marsh) and in the Exhibition of the Forty Years of the Biennial (Atmosfera fascista – Fascist Climate).
The graphic side of his activity deserves a separate discussion. In 1935, the only number of L’ascensore, Arciquaderno goliardico cafoscarino (The Elevator, Big Scholarly Notebook of Ca’ Foscari) is out, and he edits the graphic, layout and editing of it. On the first page of the journal, the classical aeroplane, now a distinguishing feature of his, raises a flying lift in which the figures of a student with the traditional university hat and a girl hugging can be distinguished. On the black background, the bright green cubital letters WLA appear, repeated in black on the frontispiece. Through them, the love of futurists for word games and not the sense is fully manifested: capital A stands for the first letter of “aerodynamic, anti-rabies, petrified (agghiacciato), academic, antiseptic, accelerated, anatomic, extremely full (arcipieno), aperitif, arrhythmic, artistic, lovely (amoroso), friend (amico), winged (alato)”. In the pages there are caricatures, cartoons, Italian and broken Latin, an exuberant spirit, debunking of Venice and its old university. The price? AS YOU PLEASE (at least two lira).
Always on this side, deeply intersected with the university life, there is the creation of “degree cartoons”, a real mocking summary that, according to the scholarly life, laughs at habits and virtues of the student that is about to graduate, obviously finding in the caricature the focus of the realisation. Voltolina and Dormàl offer this service upon payment of a large sum, for those who mean to solemnise the degree of a friend in a joking way.
Voltolina creates two degree cartoons for the degree of Dormàl in 1933 (Today Carlo Maria Dormàl is Doctor in Law) signed by Marinetti, Benedetta, Prampolini, De Giorgio, Bargaglia, Voltolina, Mazzorin, Somenzi, Ambrosi, Depero, Dottori, Brunas, Fillia, Sanzin, Balla. They contain the caricature of their close friend, true driving force of the Paduan futurist group.
In 1936, with Sbadigli (Yawns) he participates in the XX Venice Biennial. In the same year, he exhibits some works in the futurist section of the Second Exhibition of Art of the Union of Polesine. Some of these works had already been displayed (Spiaggia, Acquazzone, Atmosfera coloniale), others are new (Maria la figlia del pescatore, Alla conquista dell’infinito – Maria Daughter of the Fisherman, Conquering the Infinity). Maria’s mouth is transformed into a hook float, on the background a net and a fish, with clear references to the world of the fishing valleys, so important for Voltolina’s artistic development, with its grandeur and colours.
On 18th November 1936, he obtains the degree in Economics. Marinetti, Dottori, Dormàl, Somenzi, Dalla Baratta, De Giorgio, Prampolini, Guidi, Sanzin and Mazzorin sign his diploma and one of them, De Giorgio, realises the cartoon decorated with aeroplanes, fish and laurel leaves.
In Rome, in the rooms of the aeronautic recreational activities of Esedra Square, he shows four paintings at the Exhibition of Futurist Aeropainting: Paese schiacciato, Sorvolando Sabaudia, Vele innamorate dell’idrovolante, Etna aerea (Compressed Town, Flying over Sabaudia, Sails in Love with the Seaplane, Aerial Etna).
In June 1937 the Fascist National Federation of the merchants of fishing products appoints Nello to the planning and realisation of a pavilion for the trade of fishing products for the Fair of Ancona, scheduled from 15th July to 15th August. The pavilion needs to present specific characteristics, its structure and decoration have to mirror rationality and modernity. Even if Marinetti’s influence certainly counted, Nello seems to be the most fitting person for this project of an area dedicated to the fishing commerce, given his family tradition linked to the fishing activity and the eclecticism and openness on every aspect of life that a modern futurist has to possess. His division between two worlds seems to find this time a sort of pacification, of ideal connection.
He continues helping his father in the management of the fishing valleys. At the beginning of November 1937, he is hired by the aeronautic company Savoia Marchetti and remains there until January 1940 in the office in Rome “for the connection with different ministries and foreign legations and for assistance of airplanes on the field of the area”, as it is written on a CV handwritten that doesn’t report artistic experiences any longer, but jobs and roles.
Nonetheless, he manages to exhibit both in the XXI (1938) and in the XXII (1940) Venice Biennial, and in the Third Quadrennial of Rome in 1939.
He asks and gets the transfer to the branch of Sesto Calende. The new tasks carried out in the new job role are listed in his CV, as service deputy manager of industrial accounting, then of general office and, since February 1942, of personnel management. Surely, Nello has explained the reasons of his transfer to his relatives and friends. We can just suppose them: the necessity to get closer to his family, while war became more and more difficult and real, or maybe better career prospects, or again the desire to get away from Rome and ministries.
While dealing with hiring and terminations, he organises the Third Art Exhibition of Business Union Savoia Marchetti in Sesto Calende, for which he edits the bulletin, publishing caricatures of employees and managers. His famous aeroplane appears on sketches, maybe for a manifesto or a cover, for the Second Day of Technique, 4th March 1941. However, the transfer marks the end of the futurist production and the return to the impressionist landscapes of his youth. It seems like Nello closes a door definitively, even if the fascination that flight and aeroplanes have ever had on him does not fade completely. During the production of the movie Gente dell’aria (People of the Air), which shooting take place in September 1942 in the construction sites of Sesto Calende, he follows the creation of the film, produced by Cinecittà, and realises some aerial shoots.
Under the circumstances of the tragic passing of Nello Voltolina, two main components of his life seem to match fatally: the love for art and aeroplanes. When the aerial bombing of Padua begins on 11th March 1944, Nello was presumably on the street and, instead of looking for a shelter, he entered the Eremitani Church. Those who did not have news of him for some months think that Nello went into the church for the sudden opening of the gate due to the blast, or maybe for the sense of safety and the call of Andrea Mantegna’s frescos, which magnificently adorn the Ovetari Chapel. The church is hit, the roof, façade and apsis collapse. Nello’s relatives, evacuated in the family valleys and uninformed about his fate, not having any news believe that he escaped, maybe he had reached the partisans. At the same time, as it always happens with missing people, his presence is reported here and there.
Sometime after the bombing, the removal of the ruins of the church brings to light human remains, under a statue of the Virgin Mary. A ring allows to identify the corpse. It is, in fact, Nello Voltolina.
What could Nello Voltolina have done if he had survived the war? Hard to say. Certainly, as every exponent of an art that was considered irreparably fascist and low quality after the war, he would have been forgotten and demolished without appeal. In any case, the estrangement from Futurism of the last years of his life makes believe to a sort of boredom, maybe also to the difficulty to accept an art that is more and more consecrated to the regime propaganda, right when the outcomes of the war reveal the real face of Fascism and remove every illusion also for those who supported it.
Carlo Munari, concluding the presentation of Voltolina’s works in the catalogue dedicated to the exhibition “Futurists in Polesine” in 1992, claims that “during Voltolina’s painting production, rhetoric and propaganda of the regime do not find space and aeropainting does not serve the scope of celebrating Italian fame. Instead, it is in favour of the representation of the landscape and of figures familiar to him before, and of the endless space later”.
1 The autobiography of Nello Voltolina is preserved at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art archive of Trento and Rovereto (MART), Fortunato Depero fund.
2 The sketch of the stemma drawn by Nello Voltolina and the correspondence between the Podesta Arcangeli and the Heraldry Council are preserved in the archives of the municipality of Porto Viro.