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The Writer, Seducer, Aviator, Proto-Fascist, Megalomaniac Prince Who Shaped Modern Italy

From Gabriele D'Annunzio to Silvio Berlusconi

Mondadori via Getty Images

Notturno By Gabriele D’Annunzio, Translated and annotated by Stephen Sartarelli, Preface by Virginia Jewiss (Yale University Press) 

Pleasure By Gabriele D’Annunzio, Translated by Lara Gochin Raffaelli, Introduction by Alexander Stille (Penguin Classics)

Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War By Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Alfred A. Knopf)

Gabriele D’Annunzio (there seems to be no agreement, even in Italian, about whether the particle should be capitalized) presents as a figure of splendiferous awfulness today: the very personification of Italian decadence, a creature of unembarrassed and unbridled appetite—for fame, for luxury, for thrills of all kinds. He dubbed himself L’Immaginifico, the Great Creator or Image-maker, and offered himself as a Nietzschean sort of Renaissance man, espousing a gospel of violence that encouraged what was then the most disastrous war of all time. Along the way he gave Italian Fascism a style and an approach to politics that helped bring on an even more destructive cataclysm.  

D’Annunzio’s aping of princely sprezzatura—of what Mussolini later called Romanità—epitomized the misappropriation of Italy’s ancient glory that the newly fledged Kingdom needed to prop up its membership in the colonial club of modern Europe. In Britain, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography, which won last year’s Samuel Johnson Prize, appeared under the title The Pike, because D’Annunzio’s opportunistic “flair for sensing what was new and influential” led his onetime friend the French novelist Romain Rolland to compare him to a predatory fish “lurking ‘afloat and still, waiting for ideas.’ ” As she creates her rich, effervescent, astute, involving portrait of the notorious “poet, seducer, and preacher of war,” Hughes-Hallett spares us the whole ghastly blow-by-blow, focusing instead on representative vignettes while leaving us to understand that there were many more such in her subject’s unflagging, jam-packed existence. It is a canny strategy that prevents her reader from sinking under the weight of D’Annunzio’s overweening narcissism; it also underlines the unswervingly exterior character of her relentless subject.

D’Annunzio started as a writer—a novelist and a playwright and above all a poet—but he left literature behind in the last twenty years of his life to become a public man. Alexander Stille, in his introduction to a new translation of D’Annunzio’s first novel, Pleasure, says that he “lived writing and wrote living, a dynamic and explosive combination” that went on for two decades, until his political ambitions led him to more or less abandon art. Wretchedness of excess, arrivisme, compulsive seductiveness, priapism, preening supermanism—D’Annunzio to some Italians personifies the nation’s worst vices, and his egregious journey dramatizes the transition out of the stultifying bourgeois Götterdammerung of the later nineteenth century that we experience by way of Wagner, Nietzsche, the Symbolists, and Proust.

D’Annunzio announced the coming change in 1893, when he declared the end of verismo, or naturalism, and the failure of positivism: “Science is incapable of repopulating the deserted heavens, of restoring happiness to those souls whose ingenuous peace has been destroyed.... [W]e no longer want truth, give us the dream.”

Dreams, desires, aspirations were his stock-in-trade all his life. He was born in 1863, the son of an illegitimate small landowner and wine merchant who became the mayor of Pescara, “a man of the flesh—self-indulgent and corpulent,” Hughes-Hallett calls him, who disgusted his son in later life because his father’s sexual profligacy and “compulsive overspending” were “a horrible caricature of his own.” The father clearly endowed the son with an unshakeable sense of self, sending him to a renowned boarding school outside Florence and paying for the publication of his first book of poems. (The poet himself put it about that he had died before publication to encourage sympathetic reviews.)

He was a climber in every conceivable way. After enrolling in the university at Rome, he became a society journalist, signing himself Duca Minimo. He married a young aristocrat and had three sons with her (a daughter, by another mother, would be born in 1893), but he soon abandoned wife and children for other liaisons. Short and physically unprepossessing, some said ugly, he nevertheless possessed an androgynous intensity that was irresistible to many, and had constant affairs, often several at once, throughout his life. D’Annunzio seems to have been an almost involuntary seducer. Today he might be called a sex addict; indeed, there is an aura of needy exhibitionism to much of his behavior.

Rémi Andron

Harold Acton wrote that D’Annunzio’s high-pitched voice was “intensely human, almost bi-sexual, since its virility alternated with feminine sweetness. His intonation seemed the fine flower of the Italian Renaissance” and made him “the idol of young Italy even when the poet was a shriveled old man with a glass eye.” Though his literary reputation today rests on his poetic achievements, he owed his international fame to a string of “decadent” novels, beginning in 1889 with the shockingly explicit Il piacere, or Pleasure, a kind of portrait of the artist as an irresistible, corrupt young aesthete cutting a wide voluptuary swath across aristocratic Rome, which has now been lushly translated in an uncensored version by Lara Gochin Raffaelli.

D’Annunzio’s calculatedly titillating fictions were wildly successful in Europe, though they struck more puritanical Anglo-American sensibilities as uncomfortably over-ripe. Henry James wrote in 1902 that D’Annunzio’s doctrine of “beauty at any price, beauty appealing alike to the sense and the mind” was distasteful and nervous-making, like many another Mediterranean product: “a queer high-flavored fruit from overseas ... not found on the whole really to agree with us.” For James, it is fundamentally D’Annunzio’s solipsism that is not “thoroughly digestible”: “the only ideas he urges upon us are the erotic and the plastic,” or malleable, which he makes into “interchangeable faces of the same figure.” More straightforwardly, The New York Times called the novel’s seducing Italian protagonist “evil” and “entirely selfish and corrupt,” though the earlier translation by Georgina Harding was so heavily bowdlerized that The Child of Pleasure, as it was called, had no sex in it. D’Annunzio was preaching in his fiction what he practiced in life. As James observed elsewhere, “though his work is nothing if not ‘literary,’ we see at no point of it where literature or life begins or ends,” and he often used letters to his lovers detailing their intimate encounters as aides-mémoire in composing his love scenes. “Pentella [his nickname for one lover’s vagina] has never been so soft and hot and velvety as during those four orgasms before Saturday lunch,” he wrote to one of his on-again-off-again partners in his later years.

More or less on the heels of the novels, D’Annunzio wrote a series of equally scandalous and popular plays, many of them vehicles for his paramour Eleanora Duse, the great rival of Sarah Bernhardt. The vicissitudes of their relationship were news, and enhanced the notoriety of both of them.

It would be hard to overestimate D’Annunzio’s fame in Europe at the turn of the century. He lived in what would later be called movie-star luxury, renting furnished houses only to refurbish them according to extravagant specifications calculated to reflect what Rolland called his “meretricious glory.” He once told a visitor, “I am a better decorator and upholsterer than I am a poet or novelist”—and his opinion of his literary gifts was not modest. The decoration of the villa that he rented in Settignano above Florence was “gorgeous enough to be worthy of a Renaissance lord,” and involved massive pseudo-Renaissance furniture of his own design. He kept the house heated to tropical temperatures.

In 1897, D’Annunzio stood for Parliament as an independent, calling himself “the candidate for Beauty” and promising a “politics of poetry,” asserting in a self-consciously Nietzschean vein that “I am beyond right and left, as I am beyond good and evil.” The future Futurist artist and ideologue Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was riveted by the “strident modernity” of D’Annunzio’s provocative candidacy—“converting literary fame into political influence, celebrity into power.” Once elected, however, D’Annunzio had little interest in the mechanics of politics, which he considered beneath him. His one term in Parliament proved to be his sole experience of legitimate public office. 

D’Annunzio’s debts—he was always profligate, in spite, or because, of the large sums he earned as a celebrated writer and man of the theater—forced him to move to Paris in 1910, where he collaborated with Debussy, wrote a libretto for Mascagni, made a film, and hobnobbed with the likes of Robert de Montesquiou, the model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus. According to the American whiskey heiress and saloniste Natalie Barney: “He was the rage. A woman who had not slept with him made herself ridiculed.” Among his many conquests was the American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, who painted his portrait.

World War I brought D’Annunzio to his second calling. The war represented a crucial opportunity for Italy to advance its imperialist agenda, and he had long been advocating it. “Italy is no longer a ‘pension de famille,’ a museum ... but a ‘living nation,’ ” he declared in one interventionist demagogic speech, to general acclaim. The prospect of mass deaths thrilled him; Benedetto Croce was repelled by his seeming to “enjoy war, even to enjoy slaughter.” As Hughes-Hallett puts it, “The ‘politics of beauty’ [was revealing] itself as a politics of blood.” Among his ardent supporters were Marinetti’s Futurists, who had recognized early on that, “for all his fondness for classical art and mediaeval knick-knacks, D’Annunzio was a fellow modern, a poet who rhapsodized over warships and steelworks, and who set a higher value on energy than he did on virtue.” The Futurists, too, exalted violence and despised democracy. They too were adepts of the cult of Italy as a future “bellicose and expansionist great power”: the unheroic reality was not acceptable. “Marinetti never acknowledged it, but he was D’Annunzio’s noisiest and most brilliant disciple,” Hughes-Hallett writes.

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D’Annunzio had become enthralled with flying, which he saw as the ne plus ultra of contemporary heroism. He had played a prominent part at the famous Brescia air show in 1909, riding with the American aviator Glenn Curtiss and watched by Kafka, Puccini, and the king, among thousands of others. In France, he had met the great Blériot, whom he considered “a modern avatar of the Frankish knights.” He foresaw aviation’s military significance and had urged the Italian government to establish an air force well before the war.

The war at last brought him a sense of purpose and engagement equal to his restlessness. He returned to Italy in 1915 and volunteered as a fighter pilot, taking up residence in a gem-like palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice lent him by an Austrian prince. He was in seventh heaven. As Hughes-Hallett writes, “To set out on a dangerous mission was, for him, to achieve ‘an ecstasy’ he compared with that known by the great mystics.” He formed passionate attachments to his fellow airmen, whom he glorified as martyrs and sacrificial victims when they died. D’Annunzio’s missions, though greatly daring and dangerous, were also self-advertising performances, often more symbolic than militarily significant. As Hughes-Hallett puts it, “Flying, he was flyering,” dropping leaflets over Trieste and, famously, over Vienna, as the war neared its end.

In January 1916, he suffered a detached retina during an air raid and was forced to lie absolutely still for several months to save his other eye. During his enforced convalescence, he composed a text in poetic prose written line by line on slips of paper handed to him by his daughter Renata. These formed the basis for his memoir, Notturno, which appeared in 1921, and has recently been published in a supple English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. It was D’Annunzio’s entry into the steam-of-consciousness sweepstakes, his most openly modernist work, admired by many, including Hemingway, in spite of the fact that he considered its author “a jerk.” Notturno is D’Annunzio’s last major contribution to literature. It makes use of modernist techniques of selectivity and parataxis, but its solipsism feels unsurprisingly in sync with his earlier work. The incipient rot that James sussed out early on wafts across the Venetian night:

O art, pursued with such passion, glimpsed with such desire!
Desperate love of the word inscribed for the ages!
Mystical thrill that sometimes fashioned the word from my very flesh and blood!
Fire of inspiration suddenly fusing the ancient and the new in an unknown alloy!

For D’Annunzio and his cohorts, the chance for a glorious wiping clean of the historical slate was disappointed by the Italians’ unheroic defeat at Caporetto, and by the victors’ contemptuous disregard at Versailles for Italy’s territorial expectations. Many focused obsessively on the recovery of “unredeemed” Italian-speaking territories 
along the Adriatic that had belonged to Austria, and D’Annunzio made himself the poster boy for the Irredentist cause. “We fought for a greater Italy. We want a greater Italy. I say that we have prepared the mystic space for her appearance,” he intoned. (It is worth noting perhaps that the orchestra pit in an Italian opera house is called the golfo mistico, the mystic gulf.)

When Wilson and the Allies decided that the Italian-speaking Dalmatian port of Fiume (known today as Rijeka) would be given to the new state of Yugoslavia, D’Annunzio saw his chance. He called on the Italian government to occupy the city, and in September 1919, after they failed to do so, he took matters into his own hands. He marched on Fiume at the head of a cadre of Arditi or Daredevil storm troopers dressed in the black and silver uniforms and black fezzes that would be aped, like so much else that was D’Annunzian, by the Fascists. Greeted with cheers by the Italian-speaking locals, D’Annunzio announced that he had annexed Fiume, expecting that the government would take control, but there was no reaction. Suddenly the poet-politician found himself in charge of a city in the grip of a delirious cocaine-enhanced bacchanal. Eventually Fiume, with D’Annunzio as its duce, declared its independence.

The practicalities of governing his new city-state interested him less than what David Cannadine has called the “Ornamentalism of uniforms, titles, ceremonies.” The style of his rule in Fiume was to prove highly influential on the look and “liturgy” of Fascism. But the Fiume experiment attracted political radicals of all stripes, and the so-called Carnaro Constitution also reflected the contributions of unionists, syndicalists, socialists, and anarchists. D’Annunzio later wrote that he “wanted to establish equilibrium between two fundamental human tendencies, the need for liberty, for without that there are only slaves, and the need for association, because without that there is no society.” William Pfaff, in his incisive portrait of D’Annunzio in The Bullet’s Song (2004), has described it as “an effort to reconcile a lyrical anarchism and syndicalism with precedents from the Renaissance and Rome”; he has also called it “a work of narcissism.”

What happened in Fiume was not meant to stay in Fiume but rather to foment political unrest that would allow D’Annunzio to assume absolute power in Rome. Instead, he was outwaited and eventually outwitted by Giovanni Giolitti’s government, as enthusiasm for the Fiume adventure waned. In January 1921, D’Annunzio capitulated and left, unapprehended and unchastised, for Venice.

Afterward, D’Annunzio lived a kind of posthumous existence at Il Vittoriale, the villa above Lake Garda that he gradually transformed into a monument and a museum to himself, waiting in vain for the call to save Italy. His relations with Mussolini, who had marched on Rome himself and claimed power not long after Fiume, were suspicious and uncomfortable, though the duce paid him a series of ceremonial visits and showered him with gifts, including the plane in which he had performed one of his famous stunts. The Italian state acquired Il Vittoriale as a national monument, and in 1932, the king bestowed on D’Annunzio the title of prince of Monte Nevoso.

D’Annunzio wrote little in his later years. He revised and expanded Notturno, produced a book of memoirs, and oversaw a collected edition of his works. He seems to have become addicted to cocaine, which had been used in the war to enhance pilots’ and soldiers’ concentration, and he continued to have prodigious amounts of sex, often with prostitutes. Several of his staff, including one of his girlfriends, were reportedly spies, working either for Mussolini—who nervously courted D’Annunzio’s approval, which he was careful not to give fully until it was too late—or for the Nazis. D’Annunzio detested Hitler, and he urged Mussolini not to join the Axis. He died in 1938, on the verge of another war he had done much to bring about.

Hughes-Hallett analyzes D’Annunzio in the Jamesian manner: she holds him up to the light as an overly perfumed, deplorably behaved Continental, an exotic post-Nietzschean specimen whose irresponsible aestheticizing of everything—from love to war—inflamed a lethal irrationalism. She quotes the historian Emilio Gentile to the effect that Fiume represented a new “way of doing politics”—one that is widely operative today. D’Annunzio remains a potent, problematic figure in Italy. In La Grande Bellezza, Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeous Felliniesque film about contemporary Roman social and artistic decay, which is much preoccupied with aesthetic fakery, the protagonist chides one of his friends, a would-be playwright, for mimicking D’Annunzio’s floridity. Something of his priapic dandyism lives on, too, in the loucheness of Silvio Berlusconi, which proved greatly attractive to Italian voters for a generation.  

Yet D’Annunzio was arguably the major poet of his time, something that Hughes-Hallett’s excellent book doesn’t delve into very deeply. He was the self-declared protagonist of the triad with Carducci and Pascoli that dominated turn-of-the-century letters (Italians like their great poets to come in threes), and his reputation as a writer today rests on his voluminous poetic production. The Mondadori Meridiano edition includes two volumes of Versi d’amore e di gloria, or Poems of Love and Glory, that add up to more than 1,600 pages of verse. D’Annunzio’s seductive lyricism rolls forward, as ineluctable as silken lava, smothering everything it encounters—women, nature, history, foreign territory—in an annihilating campaign of aural seduction:

O Tripoli, città di fellonìa,
tu proverai se Roma abbia calcagna
di bronzo e se il suo giogo ferreo sia.
[O Tripoli, felonious city,
you’ll discover whether Rome has heels
of bronze, and if its yoke is iron.]

Too much of this reads like a parody of itself today. But there is no gainsaying the fact that at his best D’Annunzio produced verse of voluptuary mellifluousness whose ripeness is essential to its charm. Eugenio Montale, who became the apex of the next Italian poetic triad, which included Ungaretti and Saba, reminds us how “bourgeois families gathered under the breakfast-room awning or in the shade of the garden to hear D’Annunzio’s Canzoni d’oltremare [or Songs from Overseas], which were printed in large type in the Corriere della Sera, read aloud.” Montale’s own classic first book, Ossi di seppia, can be profitably read as a stringent modernist reaction to the magniloquence of D’Annunzio’s retrograde gorgeousness.

Perusing Montale’s critical writings, one gets a vivid sense of the deep shadow that D’Annunzio cast for those who followed. Montale writes (about Guido Gozzano, and perhaps about himself) that he had to attraversare, to pass through, D’Annunzio, in order to arrive at territory of his own. He also allows that “you could admire Yeats (as you could, in part, admire D’Annunzio) without believing anything he said.”

Montale here is evoking Auden’s great elegy for Yeats, which famously argued that poetry’s ultimate value has nothing to do with the opinions it expresses:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Does D’Annunzio belong on Auden’s index of poetic miscreants? Auden later sought to suppress these lines (and others), but they have proved indelible. Is he giving voice to the writer’s self-glorifying credo? Is he scoring timely political points of his own, which he later thought better of? Or has he put his finger on poetry’s deeper purpose?   

D’Annunzio would have rejected Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and his own story seems to suggest otherwise. With typical assurance, he subscribed to an Italian model that goes back at least as far as Dante: the civic poet, the writer as engaged public man. We like to give imaginative writers the last word, but only after it has been refined in the alembic of history, with the contingent meanings filtered out. Poetry’s “survival” as “a way of happening, a mouth” essentially meant for “praise,” is the burden of Auden’s elegy for a poet whose politics he detested but whose art he revered. Engagement, Auden seems to be suggesting, tends to diminish and to compromise the essential witness-bearing work of the poet, who au fond may be a bit naive. Take Pound, a marvelous wordsmith who turned out to be unequipped to play with the big boys. Or Eliot, in another key. Or Auden himself.

Dante’s—or Pope’s, or Byron’s, or Leopardi’s—politics have no relevance today, but their expression of them is immortal. Kipling, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Auden, too, are well on their way to becoming the figures into which eternity will finally change them, as Mallarmé put it. But time has not yet forgiven D’Annunzio, and Italians are still wrestling with his torturous case.

Jonathan Galassi’s translation of the poetry of Primo Levi will be published later this year.