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In his "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature" (1912), F. T. Marinetti announced a new poetic form: parole in libertà, "words in freedom." The freedom to scatter words across a page, without regard for conventional syntax or punctuation, extended to a more pictorial version called tavole parolibere, "free-word pictures." Although the Italian futurist Francesco Cangiullo (1888–1977) made works of both types, he is best known today for his free-word pictures—dubbing his own tavole cangiulliane.

Like the suite of 14 pen-and-ink drawings from 1915 just acquired by the National Gallery, free-word pictures are almost entirely composed of letters that might be combined into words and numbers. They lean strongly toward the pictorial and, as futurism scholar Christine Poggi points out, "are meant to be viewed, rather than read or declaimed." Cangiullo assembled his suite under the heading Eden-Programma; in keeping with its theatrical aspect, the title refers to an evening's program at the Grand Eden Variety Theater in Naples. Subsequently Cangiullo reproduced most of the drawings in the suite, with some modifications, in his volume Caffeconcerto (1919), which the Gallery also acquired last year.

Cangiullo's fanciful pen drawings are effectively schematized figures made of numbers and letters. In the example illustrated here, he made whimsical use of an 8 to represent the muscled torso and limbs of a strongman. The strongman holds aloft a 4, its framework simulating a chair on which two lithe figures are balanced: one inverted, the other upright. (The inscription toward the bottom of the sheet, Oplà, is an Italian exclamation akin to "upsy-daisy.") Elsewhere Cangiullo turned his attention mainly to letters, as in the image of the dancer poised in midair: her pointed toe an inverted A; her bent leg a fleshed-out Z; her tutu a sideways 3; her wasp-waisted bodice a V; her breasts a sideways B; and a carefully defined O for her head. These two drawings will likely elicit different readings: we are apt to make out the 8s and the 4 in Oplà before taking in the image of a strongman and chair; inversely, we are apt to see the figure of a dancer before singling out the letters embedded in her figure.

For the published volume, Cangiullo added the subtitle Alfabeto a sorpresa (Alphabet Surprise), sorpresa being an effect that both he and Marinetti regularly invoked. The futurists' aim was to startle people—rouse them from a state of somnolence and provoke new sensations and feelings. Their tactics were multifold: from inciting mayhem at futurist performances by selling the same seat to ten different customers, to stirring debate by issuing a manifesto on "The Pleasure of Being Booed" (1911). Everything predictable was decried, and all that was unexpected was applauded. Ironically, when Cangiullo dissociated himself from futurism in 1924, he did so because he felt the movement had exhausted its ability to surprise.

Pictorial alphabets have long engaged visual artists, from Hans Holbein the Younger to Jasper Johns. Although the Eden-Programma drawings were partly a response to futurism's call for a typographic revolution, Canguillo was also operating within an artistic tradition. His particular strategy in this instance was to dismiss the signifying function of numbers and letters in favor of their pictorial value, and in addition to play with viewers' perceptions, the means by which images are read, either as signs—numbers and letters—or as purely abstract forms (a circle can represent the letter O, the numeral 0, or a person's head). The numbers in Oplà shift to become an image of acrobats, while conversely the image of a dancer breaks down into discrete letters—displacements in keeping with the futurists' call to "invent new means of astonishment."


lower center in black ink: Oplà


(Ars Libri Ltd., New York); purchased 2009 by NGA.

Associated Names
Ars Libri
Exhibition History
From Neoclassicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings, 1800- 1925, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2014 - 2015.
Ars Libri Ltd. Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: Rare Books and Documents. New York, 2009: no. 31.
Brodie, Judith. "Francesco Cangiullo, Eden-Programma." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 42 (Spring 2010): 25-26, repro.
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