There were complaints, the nuclear fallout scare after Chernobyl, and even some terrorist threats. But they did little to mar what the Europeans described as the "art event of the year" -- the gala inaugural of the renovated Palazzo Grassi, an intriguing new museum whose industrial sponsors expect to make the same sort of mark on the European art scene that the opening of the radical Georges Pompidou Centre for modern art in Paris did a decade ago.
From all appearances, that expectation is realistic. The Palazzo Grassi is in fact directed by Pontus Hulten, the same innovative Swedish art historian who was the creator of the Pompidou museum -- and, more recently, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. And Hulten's choice of highlighting the Italian esthetic philosophy of Futurism for his opening show confirmed that the Palazzo Grassi will be as controversial and daring as anything he brought to the Pompidou Centre during his eight years there.
Futurism, a movement that began in Italy in 1909 and lost steam shortly after World War I, is one of the key esthetic revolutions of this century and a radical philosophy whose denunciation of the past and exultation of the technological future was a precursor of the political fascism that later infested Italy.
It is one of the show's ironies that the Palazzo Grassi's exhibit -- by far the most comprehensive ever assembled on Futurism, a movement in art rivaled in this century only by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque -- is sponsored by such members of today's social establishment as Italian auto magnate Giovanni Agnelli and the American United Technologies Corp.
In the first Futurist manifesto, published in Paris Feb. 20, 1909, the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti said: "We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer's stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap."
In a more chilling vein that shows its links to the fascism that followed, Marinetti's initial declaration stated: "We will glorify war -- the world's only hygiene -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women."
The Futurism exalted at the Palazzo Grassi for the next six months is nothing if not an effort to break from a past grown comfortable and decadent and to embrace the new world of technology and modernism. The way the futurists saw it, the way to move ahead was to revile and destroy all that had come before -- in art, poetry, architecture, theatre, music, even cuisine.
"Destroy the cult of the past, the obsession with the ancients, pedantry and academic formalism," is how the Italian painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini put it in the 1910 "Manifesto for Futurist Painters," which embraced Marinetti's initial pronouncements.
Marinetti's original cry to "turn aside the canals to flood the museums! . . . Oh the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift in those waters, discolored and shredded" has a special irony in the present show where the works of those original Futurist revolutionaries are enshrined in the sort of museum they so violently sought to demolish.
For Hulten, a tall, soft-spoken man with blue eyes and close-cropped gray hair, the reason he chose to focus on the Futurists for his opening show was, first, because they were an explicitly Italian product. Beyond that, he said, the Futurists had a "revolutionary impact" on 20th-century culture but their real importance had been clouded by the turbulence of the period, and the emotional reactions that its influences in fascist Italy still evoke.
"It was necessary to return to analyze the great moments in the beginning of the 20th century," he says, "because they were moments forgotten because of the troubled history of the period and the tragic developments that followed in the long and difficult intermediary period between the wars."
That the world, and Italy in particular, have made their peace with the extremes of Futurism could be seen last weekend when the Palazzo Grassi was formally inaugurated in the presence of Italian President Francesco Cossiga, a handful of Italian ministers, the widow of the late French President Georges Pompidou, the Aga Khan, Henry Kissinger, hundreds of captains of industry, socialites, international museum directors and assorted art groupies who converged on Venice for two days of festivities.
Though the threats apparently deterred the participation of some American invitees, such as David Rockefeller and United Technologies president Robert Daniell, only social columnists seemed to have missed them in the middle of the festivities in and around the Palazzo Grassi, bought by Fiat tycoon Agnelli barely two years ago and remodeled explicitly for Hulten.
Venetians had shown some reservations about the fact that Agnelli, from the Piedmont on the other side of Italy, had come to tradition-bound Venice to create a new art museum, but when the museum finally opened criticism seemed muted by the brilliance of the exhibit, the praise of the critics, and the prospect of the life and excitement that it promises to bring to the city.
"We have a saying here that it is all like re-inventing hot water," said nobleman Giovanni Volpe. "But there is no denying that the Palazzo Grassi and Hulten are an asset for our city and a new jewel in the city's crown."