In depth research reveals that scents and the sense of smell were deeply embedded in virtually all known artistic and political fields of interest and activities of the Futurists. Until the end of the movement in the 1940s, members of the movement not only wrote countless poems and manifestos about scents and the sense of smell, they also ‘aromatized’ a dance (with colonially obtained scents such as patchouli and myrrh), a theatre play (with a synthetic perfume by Gi.Vi.Emme), cinematic performances (with marine smells and the scents of grass), and possibly toys and other objects (with synthetic perfumes by the perfumer François Coty).
Their goals were varied, including the reinforcement of their political ideals, the opposition of the visually oriented bourgeoisie, the expression of modernity, the enlivening of Total Works of Art, and the establishment of their identity as Futurists - or as a group of ‘disciples of the future’. The Futurists clearly copied ideas and techniques from the Symbolists, but they did expand their olfactory palette with certain accepted forms of 'stench' (such as war smells and manure) and with synthetic odors that the industry had produced (such as ozone and man-made or synthetic molecules).
What is remarkable is the extremely flexible and creative way in which the Futurists expressed scent and olfactory phenomena and practices. For example, they invented a number of neologisms such as "aeroprofumi" (modern scents) and "profumatoio a tastiera" (scent keyboard).
The fact that Futurism is such a rich source which can provide so much insights into the role of smell in a particular period, has to do with the unique character of the time frame in which they were active. The Futurists witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift. The age-old miasma theory (the idea that not germs but stench was responsible for disease outbreaks) was dismissed, approximately at the moment that the vibrational paradigm (the idea that smell was a vibratory phenomenon) came into existence (although these did not replace one another). The Surrealists, for example, were further removed from these theories, and the significance of bad smells played a less prominent role for them. The Futurists perceived the smells of transformation that were the result of expanding metropoles, new machines, and means of transportation with their associated exhaust gases – all with their very own noses. Their description and relationship to these new scents proves that this period was characterized by re-odorisation rather than de-odorisation. This is important for nuancing the idea of modernity, as it is often wrongly associated with increasing inodority.
The Futurists were not just passive (nose-)witnesses of olfactory changes, but also caused a shift in the sensory hierarchy themselves. The emphasis on smell and the other lower senses (touch and taste) can be seen as a general tendency within avant-garde movements such as Symbolism, Dadaism and Surrealism. No other group of artists however, used scent so purposefully, creatively and regularly in their art, literature, and political actions. The Futurists did not so much try to elevate scent as an autonomous form of art, but to integrate art with everyday life by (also) addressing the sense of smell (Verbeek 2021, 5-297).
Verbeek, Caro. 2021. “In Search of Lost Scents – The Olfactory Dimension of Futurism”. Yearbook of Futurism Studies (ed. Günter Berghaus), Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 247-275.