The Times Literary Supplement (Christopher Duggan) – Exactly what happened at around 11 o’clock on the evening of August 13, 1922 in the Vittoriale, the retreat on the shores of Lake Garda of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italy’s most celebrated war hero and writer, is unclear. He was sitting in pyjamas and slippers, his back to an open window, in the raised ground floor of the music room, listening to Luisa Baccara, the latest of his long-suffering mistresses, play the piano. Suddenly he toppled headfirst ten feet on to the gravel below and fractured his skull. According to one witness he had been fondling Luisa’s sister: perhaps he had lunged forward and lost his balance; or perhaps she had pushed him away a little too brusquely. Or it could be that he had simply been overcome by momentary dizziness: he was consuming quite large quantities of drugs at this time, including cocaine. He himself subsequently chose to shroud the episode in mystery, referring, with his characteristically teasing eye for self-glorification, to his “archangelic flight” – and noting, with a further twist of irreverent immodesty how, after three days in a coma, he had risen again.
Whether the presence in the Vittoriale that evening of one of Benito Mussolini’s most trusted lieutenants, Aldo Finzi, had anything to do with the accident is unknown. It seems not (though Finzi was later heavily implicated in the murder of another serious rival of Mussolini, Giacomo Matteotti). But D’Annunzio’s fall was undoubtedly extremely fortuitous for the Fascists, who by the summer of 1922 had succeeded in terrorizing their way to dominance in northern and central Italy and stood poised to seize power by force. In a final attempt to effect national reconciliation and shore up the beleaguered state, D’Annunzio had been invited by a senior liberal politician to meet Mussolini on August 15 in Tuscany and strike some sort of deal: “All our forces must be united . . . . You see the danger and you can work on the youth, setting it alight, and leading it back to the right path”. D’Annunzio, as most observers recognized, was the one man in Italy at that time with sufficient charisma and authority to halt the unruly young blackshirts; indeed, a year earlier some senior Fascists had even asked him to assume control of their movement. His “archangelic flight” put paid to the rendezvous with Mussolini and a little over two months later the Fascists staged the March on Rome.
D’Annunzio was the one man in Italy at that time with sufficient charisma and authority to halt the unruly young blackshirts
How a rather diminutive poet, novelist and dramatist, with a compulsive urge to transgress, priapic sexual instincts, and a fascination with cruelty, blood and death came to be Italy’s most celebrated man of action and a precursor of Fascism is the subject of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s engrossing and superbly written biography – the first in English since John Woodhouse’s study of 1998. Her aim throughout is to capture the complex and often paradoxical texture of D’Annunzio’s psyche; and her technique is unconventional. She begins with a series of rapid snapshots of the writer’s life from his arrival in Rome in 1881 as a curly-haired faun-like seventeen-year-old prodigy, author of two acclaimed volumes of verse, through to September 1937, when Mussolini stopped at Verona station on his way back from being feted by the Nazis in Berlin to pay homage to the now wizened, bandy-legged and almost toothless national icon. She then begins her narrative in the spring of 1915 with D’Annunzio’s campaign of inflammatory speeches urging Italy to rouse itself from its craven torpor and plunge itself into the maelstrom of war, before turning back to explore in depth how the creator of some of Italy’s most lyrical poetry could arrive at such a juncture from his relatively humble origins in the small provincial town of Pescara on the Adriatic coast.
This is a long biography; but Hughes-Hallett succeeds in maintaining the momentum in what might have become a rather cloying tale of mistresses, self-indulgence and posturing through skilful variations of pace. Some chapters, such as those on the First World War or his occupation, at the head of a growing band of mutineers, of the Croatian city of Fiume in 1919–20 (the high-water mark of D’Annunzio’s political career) have a broad narrative sweep. Others adopt a pointilliste technique, juxtaposing disparate episodes to create a multifaceted picture of the poet’s life at particular periods. D’Annunzio in his villa at Settignano in 1899 feverishly writing his novel The Fire, using handmade sheets of paper and up to thirty goose quills a day (he claimed to press too hard for a normal pen); D’Annunzio in Paris in 1910 throwing himself at the feet of the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein and kissing her famous long legs from ankle to crotch – to the consternation of Maurice Barrès, Edmond Rostand and other luminaries standing by (but to her amusement); D’Annunzio in 1922 entertaining the Soviet Commissar for External Affairs in the Vittoriale, and suddenly taking out a scimitar and announcing to his guest that he had decided to behead him.
The narrative is further enlivened through varied perspectives, which simultaneously serve to underline the degree to which D’Annunzio was admired by many contemporaries, both as a writer and a personality. Today his prodigious output of prose and poetry (which runs to forty-eight volumes in the national edition originally sponsored by the Fascist regime) enjoys limited popularity and acclaim, but in his lifetime his works commanded huge sales in Italy and abroad and were widely acclaimed, including by some of the most notable authors of the period. Henry James praised the “extraordinary range and fineness” of D’Annunzio’s artistic intelligence; Proust declared himself “ravi” by one of D’Annunzio’s novels; while James Joyce said that D’Annunzio was the only European writer since Flaubert to have taken the novel into new territory, and ranked him along with Kipling and Tolstoy as one of the three “most talented writers” to appear in the nineteenth century. One of D’Annunzio’s most celebrated works, the 8,000-line verse travelogue Maia (1903), foreshadowed Joyce’s Ulysses in its deployment of classical mythology as a counterpoint to contemporary everyday life and experience.
D’Annunzio’s fame ensured he was sought out by men and women of all walks of life, many of whom left behind vivid records of their encounters. A steady stream of female admirers contacted him for assignations, drawn it would seem as much by the extraordinary mises en scène of his seductions, with their carpets of rose petals, pungent scents, candles and kimonos, as by his fabled amatory powers. D’Annunzio readily acceded to the requests (he viewed sex in characteristically amoral fashion as grist to the mill of his artistic imagination). And even those who were instinctively repelled by his apparent meretriciousness could be captivated. The young diplomat Harold Nicolson snobbishly felt D’Annunzio was “a chap one couldn’t know”, but came away “fervent with excitement” after hearing him declaim his poetry in an aristocratic drawing room in Paris in 1910, his voice ringing “like a silver bell” in his ears. The dancer Isadora Duncan found her emotional defences crumbling in the face of his verbal sallies as she walked with him in a French forest: “Oh Isadora . . . . All other women destroy the landscape. You alone are part of it. You are a part of the trees, the sky, you are the supreme Goddess of Nature”. “What woman”, she confessed, “could stand up against such flattery?”
It was words, more than anything else, that lay at the heart of D’Annunzio’s often mesmerizing appeal to contemporaries
It was words, more than anything else, that lay at the heart of D’Annunzio’s often mesmerizing appeal to contemporaries – words not so much as vehicles for thought but as instruments for arousing strong emotion and enveloping reality (and often the darker aspects of reality) in cocoons of voluptuous sound. In a sense D’Annunzio had verbal deceit in his blood. His father, a small landowner and wine merchant with strong social ambitions, who rose to become mayor of Pescara, had begun life with the prosaic surname of Rapagnetta, but had adopted the aristocratic-sounding and more euphonious D’Annunzio from an uncle some years before Gabriele was born in 1863 (D’Annunzio is not in fact aristocratic and is usually written with a capital “D” to indicate this; Hughes-Hallett adopts the lower case). D’Annunzio always gloried in his name – Gabriel of the Annunciation. It seemed to have ordained him, as if by nominal determinism, for exceptionalism. In the entrance hall of the Vittoriale was written in Latin the words: “I am Gabriel who stands before the gods, among the winged brothers uniquely sighted”. Biblical imagery and language suffused D’Annunzio’s poetry and prose.
The power of words propelled him from provincial obscurity to the salons of the rich and titled. A brilliant student, with a phenomenal gift for languages, he moved to Rome when the city was looking to define itself, not least culturally, as the new capital of Italy. The opportunities for someone as avidly ambitious as D’Annunzio were great. To bolster his fame ahead of his arrival, he sent a postcard to the editor of a leading newspaper announcing that the young poet had been killed suddenly in a fall from his horse. The news spread around the country. In Rome his poems became increasingly florid and erotic. He turned out enormous quantities of journalism – reviews, comments and vignettes of high society (real or fictitious) – affected the dress and mannerisms of an aesthete, and embarked on the first of his string of affairs with high-class women. He also married a woman who, like D’Annunzio, was not quite what she seemed. Despite bearing the name of an old Catholic noble family, Maria di Gallese was in fact not of aristocratic descent: her father was a humble French non-commissioned officer. “When I married him”, Maria later wrote, “I really thought I was marrying Poetry.” The couple soon separated.
At the end of the 1880s, D’Annunzio turned his hand to novels. Set in the salons and bedrooms of the aristocracy, with which he was now very familiar, works such as Pleasure, The Innocent, The Triumph of Death and The Virgins of the Rocks were notable for their adjectival profusion, confessional tone and decadentism. Sex, adultery, betrayal, incest and murder were among the recurrent themes. Though often structurally weak, they displayed a distinctive capacity for sharp observation, something that he continually practised by keeping a notebook with him at all times and jotting down descriptions and impressions (Hughes-Hallett has mined these notebooks skilfully to convey the texture and intensity of his gaze). A growing theme of his work from the mid-1890s was that of the Nietzschean superman, the heroic individual whose superior personality entitled him to disdain ordinary mortals and ride roughshod over conventional morality. This was an idea that increasingly shaped his own life – and more disturbingly (and in some measure due to the success of his works) began to insinuate itself into the cultural mainstream of Italy, with its rising tide of anti-democratic thought.
D’Annunzio was beginning to sense the potential of politics. In 1897 he was elected to parliament (as a candidate for “beauty”). But he had no stomach for the humdrum business of the Chamber and scarcely attended. In 1899 he dramatically crossed the floor to join the socialists on the grounds that they now represented “life”. But his heart could never seriously be on the Left, and after losing his seat the following year he lent his voice increasingly to the emergent groups of Nationalists (of whom Hughes-Hallett makes surprisingly little mention) that were condemning parliamentary government as too weak for the needs of Italy and calling for a new and more potent form of politics in which emotionally charged “myths” could mobilize the masses. The most powerful such myth was war. In his play of 1908 The Ship (D’Annunzio had turned to drama in the late 1890s, partly as a result of his celebrated love affair with the great actress Eleonora Duse), a sadistic tale of murder, sexual jealousy and suicide in sixth-century Venice is combined with exhortations to empire and conquest. After the triumphant premiere, attended by King Vittorio Emanuele and many other dignitaries, crowds spilled into the streets of Rome chanting the work’s most famous line “Fit out the prow and set sail for the world”.
There was a tragic irony in Italy’s cultural drift at this time. In the wake of unification in the 1860s the most respected arbiters of the nation’s civic values had called for sober realism after the “poetry” of the Risorgimento. The country needed, they said, to address the complex social and economic problems confronting it with harsh sobriety and not succumb to the old traditions of rhetoric in which words began to drift free from thought (and morality) and become vehicles for the generation of emotion. But many of the most influential cultural figures from the 1870s vented their disappointment with what they saw as the paltriness of the new Italy with grandiloquent appeals for glory and escape from the dull “prose” of liberal politics. As Giosuè Carducci, Italy’s most revered poet until his death in 1907 (when D’Annunzio publicly assumed his mantle as national “prophet-bard”), famously put it, the country had called out in the Risorgimento for “Rome” – with its attendant associations of greatness and strength – but instead had been saddled with “Byzantium” – flaccid, weak and corrupt.
D’Annunzio may have been to some extent, as the French writer Romain Rolland said, a “pike”, a predator lurking “afloat and still, waiting for ideas”; but in taking up the theme of war as an instrument for national regeneration D’Annunzio was more moving with an intellectual tide in Italy than consciously grabbing at something extraneous. Where his alignment with bellicose ideas (which were being powerfully trumpeted by various groups of Italian intellectuals, including the Futurists) was particularly significant – certainly as far as shaping the course of the country’s history was concerned – was in his capacity to envelop the celebration of war in a rhetoric with sufficient aesthetic and emotional charge to override any would-be humanitarian objections. His increasing use of religious terminology and imagery added to the potency of his words: “Blessed are the young who hunger and thirst for glory”, he proclaimed in a speech calling on Italy to enter the war, “for they shall be satisfied . . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be called upon to staunch a splendid flow of blood, and dress a wonderful wound . . . . Blessed are they who return with victories, for they shall see the new face of Rome”. The mobilizing power of such language would be exploited fully by Fascism.
D’Annunzio’s heroic exploits as a pilot during the war (Hughes-Hallett’s excellent account of this phase of the poet’s life underlines his genuine bravery) and his occupation of the city of Fiume in 1919–20 in defiance of the government in Rome and the international community cemented his position as prophet-bard and champion of national regeneration. The Fiume episode, whose aesthetic, moral and political perverseness is vividly captured by Hughes-Hallett, provided the nascent Fascist movement with further material on which Mussolini later drew: choreographed parades and ceremonies, ritualized chants, exotic uniforms, the celebration of youth, the cult of the heroic (and shaven-headed) leader, inflammatory speeches from balconies designed to generate a collective euphoria akin to religious enthusiasm. Although D’Annunzio’s relationship with Mussolini was always to be somewhat wary (largely from a sense of jealousy), he rightly sensed that he had done much to prepare the way for Fascism: “In the movement which calls itself ‘fascist’, has not the best been engendered by my spirit?”, he wrote to Mussolini, almost peevishly, after the March on Rome.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett has written an eminently readable biography. Its strength lies in her ability to tease out and examine the strands of D’Annunzio’s complex personality in ways that continually illuminate how creativity can coexist with inhumane thought and action. She is less interested in exploring why D’Annunzio should have had so much allure and influence in Italy, where disappointment with what was seen as the prosaic materialism and weakness of the liberal state led increasingly from the 1890s to calls for a new politics of myth, emotion and force. Nor does she seek to reappraise or rehabilitate D’Annunzio as a writer – though any attempt seriously to resurrect his literary reputation would be something of a lost cause, given the extent to which his work became wrapped up in the morbid anti-democratic and nationalistic currents that culminated in Fascism. When D’Annunzio died in 1938 it was probably apt that Mussolini should have been the principal mourner at his funeral, proclaiming with a grandiloquence of which D’Annunzio would no doubt have been proud: “You may be sure – you may be sure – you may be sure – Italy will arrive at the summit you dreamed of. I swear it . . . !” The tragic consequences of such rhetoric would shortly be revealed.
Christopher Duggan is Professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Reading. His books include The Force of Destiny: A history of Italy since 1796, which appeared in 2008, and, most recently, Fascist Voices: An intimate history of Mussolini’s Italy, which was published last year.