When, in the 1920s, the Italian Futurists had fantasies about concreting over the canals of Venice and turning them into roads, they were not just indulging in gratuitous vandalism but reacting against the accumulated weight of dead-city literature that the Symbolist and Decadent writers of the fin de siècle had generated. The fin-de-siècle cities ended in whimpers, but the Futurists wanted them to go with a bang. It needed a big, bloody war – violent death and the flattening of entire towns under mortar shells – to revise the way people thought about the deaths of cities and their human inhabitants. The exaggerated exultation of the Futurists and Vorticists about machine-age death and destruction can partly be traced to the glut of pallid degeneration narratives on which they would have been drip-fed: dead-city poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Henri de Régnier and Gabriele D’Annunzio, wispy lyrical novels and countless atmospheric travelogues that revisited the same tropes and clichés of urban exhaustion and desuetude.
The central figure in the dead-city cult was the Belgian poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach, and the totemic city was Bruges, or, to give it its full fin-de-siècle name, Bruges-la-Morte, the title of Rodenbach’s novel of 1892.
more from the TLS here.