Although they were ardently anti-traditionalist, the Futurists celebrated the concept of the opera d’arte totale or “total work of art.” Paradoxically, this idea of unifying the arts to create one integrated whole emerged in the late 19th- and early 20th-century through the Symbolist borrowing and interpretation of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Despite its roots in the period from which they were attempting to distance themselves, the notion of the “total work of art” appealed to the Futurists because of their goal of situating the viewer psychologically and physically at the center of the artwork. In a typically modernist fashion, the Futurists also strove to abolish the hierarchy that dominated the arts and placed painting and sculpture above all other mediums. To this end, they made the decorative arts a part of their production, incorporating ceramics, furniture, textiles, and clothing into their art.
As the movement progressed, the Futurist conception of the opera d’arte totale transitioned from large-scale paintings that mentally enveloped the viewer to the design and decoration of private homes and smaller public spaces, such as restaurants; in the 1930s, they worked on larger public commissions. One notable example of a Futurist opera d’arte totale was Fortunato Depero’s celebrated Cabaret del Diavolo. The space he designed opened in April 1922 in the Hôtel Élite in Rome where it remained until closing in 1924. The Cabaret del Diavolo served primarily as a restaurant where the top echelons of intellectual and artistic society gathered, but the space also hosted occasional theatrical performances, including musical compositions played by Luigi Russolo and poetry readings by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
The Cabaret’s interior layout and design created a dynamic and fanciful environment. The space was arranged on multiple levels, and visitors descended three stories to reach the center of the venue. The three stages, each with its own design scheme, were dubbed “Paradise,” “Purgatory,” and the “Inferno,” named for the three parts that make up Dante’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy. The decor in “Paradise” was light blue with blue furniture, white, red, and blue lighting, and imagery that included stars and angels. In “Purgatory,” the furniture was green, the lighting white and green, and the decoration floral. Finally, in the “Inferno,” the furnishing was black and the lighting red, and the decor featured fire, pitchforks, dancing and battling devils, and serpents. The furniture on each level was made up of tables and chairs crafted with shapes of flames, hearts, lances, and pyramids (as you can see in the historical photograph to the right). Each room also displayed ten wooden marionettes that were dramatically brought to life with the effects of flickering light. Overall, the lighting, furniture, and props in the restaurant created a mysterious and sometimes fearsome ambiance.
Textiles were also an important feature of the Cabaret del Diavolo. Designed by Depero, tapestries, pillowcases, and other textiles were crafted by a number of female seamstresses and embroiderers who were overseen by his wife, Rosetta, in his Casa d’Arte (or “art house”) that served as an artisanal workshop. While Depero is named as the primary artist of these works, the role of these craftspeople was essential to their creation (see photo at right). On view in the Guggenheim’s exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, the tapestry titled Little Black and White Devils, the Dance of the Devils (1922-23) is from the “Inferno” level of the Cabaret del Diavolo. The border of the tapestry is made up of horned devil heads, and at the center of the piece, a vertical section features pairs of dancing devils. The imagery in this piece exemplifies the powerful element of magical realism in Depero’s work.
Unlike later Futurist public commissions with a more serious tone, such as Benedetta’s murals for the Post Office in Palermo, the Cabaret del Diavolo represents a more lighthearted aspect of Futurism. From this tapestry, one gets a sense of the humorous, performative, and disruptive aspect of Depero’s art. In his Cabaret del Diavolo, surrounded by Depero’s furniture, lighting, textiles, and other decoration, the visitor would exist within a complete Futurist environment—at least for the evening.