The Revolutionary Art Movement That Redefined Italian Mixology

Cocchi cocktail
Italian futurism celebrated advanced technology and urban modernity. Now, it's making its way into bars. Photo courtesy of Cocchi.

The concept of ‘avant-garde’ was a major component of the history of twentieth century art and culture. Nothing did more to shape that concept than Futurism, the strange phenomenon that was unleashed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti on 20 February 1909 when he published ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ on the front page of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. — Futurism: An Anthology (Yale University Press, 2009).

Embedded in this movement was a drinks revolution, with vermouth at its core.

This important Italian artistic and cultural movement “celebrated advanced technology and urban modernity. Committed to the new, its members wished to destroy older forms of culture and to demonstrate the beauty of modern life — the beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change,” according to The Art Story. “The Futurists were fascinated by the problems of representing modern experience, and strived to have their paintings evoke all kinds of sensations — not merely those visible to the eye. At its best, Futurist art brings to mind the noise, the heat and even the smell of the metropolis.”

A literary figure of his day, Marinetti drew support for his ideas from artists Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, and Carlo Carrà, who believed that those ideas could be translated into a modern, figurative art that explored properties of space and movement.

Futurism, which lasted through World War II, encompassed primarily painting and sculpture, but also architecture, design, fashion, film, literature, performance, advertising, and even gastronomy (more on that soon). Much of this output fell into obscurity after Marinetti died in 1945, in large part because of the Futurists’ connection to Fascism. Recently, however, the art that came out of the movement is being appreciated anew. The Guggenheim Museum’s 2014 exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe was first comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism to be presented in the United States. And Casa d’Arte Futurista Depero at MART, Italy’s first museum dedicated to Futurism, recently opened in Rovereto, near Trento.

Among the Futurist realms experiencing renewed interest is gastronomy, including avant-garde cocktails that the Futurists called “Polibibite.” Marinetti, who brazenly preached the abolition of pasta, wrote the Futurist Cookbook in 1932 with the poet known as Fillía, who had designed the Holy Palate restaurant in Turin. A big influence on avant-garde experimental cuisine as well as on the décor of modernist restaurants and bars, the Holy Palate was entirely lined in aluminum, like a submarine, and even the menus were written on sheets of metal. The meals were genuine “happenings” at which all the senses were stimulated.

“In keeping with the movement’s mantra, the Futurists rejected classicism and sought to reinvent the cocktail as not only modern, but undeniably Italian. They rejected the use of classic or expected garnish and eschewed the use of all foreign ingredients,” explains PUNCH. That means that the cornerstones of Polibibite were native beverages amari, moscati d’asti and, of course, vermouth. A classic ingredient that somehow always inspires a modern take on mixology, vermouth is, according to bartender Leonardo Leuci of the Jerry Thomas Project in Rome, the “alpha and omega of Italian cocktail evolution.”

A guide to Polibibite cocktail construction.

While Polibibite made use of traditional Italian wines and spirits, their purpose was to buck tradition and societal mores. As the PUNCH article explains, "in the eyes of the Futurists, a drink was a temporary creation meant to evoke discussion, challenge expectations and alter sexual desire and performance." PUNCH goes on to explain that cocktails integrated certain ingredients with intentions to lower inhibitions (eggs and spice), inspire creativity (sparking wine), or resist conformity. The resulting creations have had a lasting effect on modern Italian cocktails, with drinks like the "Bombardino" still found in many Italian ski resorts today.

The recent efforts in Italy to explore and compete with making Futurist cocktails has been a unique opportunity for bartenders to push boundaries and have great fun. So, if your next bartender’s choice combines veal stock with grappa and holy bread, understand this is not without precedent — and perhaps designed to provoke.

Below, two recipes courtesy of Cocchi with roots in the Italian Futurist Movement:

Coppa di Brividi — Modern Preparation

  • 1 1/4 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • 3/4 oz. Italian brandy
  • 4 grapes
  • 2 pear segments
  • 1 slice of orange

Pour vermouth and brandy into a mixing glass full of ice and mix until chilled. Pour contents into wine glass, into which the grapes and pear segments have been placed. The liquid is then "enclosed" by a slice of orange floated on the surface. Serve with a wooden stick for skewering the fruit, and a straw.

Aperitif cocktail The Avanvera, an aperitif cocktail of vermouth, brandy and Strega born of the Italian Futurist movement. Photo courtesy of Cocchi.

Avanvera — Modern Preparation

  • 1 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • 1 oz. Italian brandy
  • 2 teaspoons Strega
  • 5 slices of banana

Build drink directly in the glass, a low tumbler, with ice cubes. Garnish with slices of banana.

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