On a summer afternoon in Tuscany in the years of the belle epoque, a celebrated French courtesan alighted from a carriage to greet her host, the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, and was astonished to behold “a frightful gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth, bad breath, [and] the manners of a mountebank.” Wondering how he could have acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man, Liane de Pougy resisted his advances, climbed back into the carriage, and declined a subsequent offer to revisit the poet’s villa.
To be fair to d’Annunzio, the lady’s response was unusual and indeed unfair. He may have been short and unhandsome, but gnomishness and mountebankery were accusations not made by other women. He was certainly a show-off and often a poseur, and he was a shameless self-publicist: as a teenager he had spiced up his reputation as a romantic poet by fooling a Florentine editor into thinking he had been thrown by his horse and died a tragic death. He was also a narcissist of the most fastidious kind.
Yet many women were entranced by d’Annunzio’s energy and flamboyance, by his intellectual brilliance, and by his romanticism and amaranthine extravagance: he would arrange adulterous assignations in rooms hung in green damask; he would buy Persian carpets for his horses to lie down upon; he would visit a mistress in Capri and hang flowers made of Murano glass on all the shrubs in her garden. And above all—despite Mlle de Pougy’s reluctance to test it—his reputation as a sexual mesmerist was by all accounts well earned. He was the very opposite of the protagonist in Alberto Moravia’s L’amore coniugale (Conjugal Love) who is too tired to write his novel if he has had sex with his wife the night before. For d’Annunzio, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett observes in her wonderful biography, “sexual experience…fuelled his creative energy.”
“Vivere scrivere”—“to live to write”—was one of his many mottoes, and his most intense and persistent experience of living was the adulterous love affair. His story contains a long procession of desperate women trying vainly to hold onto him. One of the most tragic was the great actress Eleonora Duse, who said before meeting him that she would “rather die in a corner than love such a soul as…that infernal d’Annunzio.” The subsequent eight years of their affair were a period of artistic creativity for the infernal and unfaithful one, but for Duse they were in the main a time of torment, a “terrible convulsion of body and soul.” According to a friend, she was so addicted to the sexual pleasure her lover gave her that “she couldn’t do without him…it was lamentable.”
D’Annunzio was born in 1863 into the minor nobility of the Abruzzi, that most rugged of regions nicely described by Hughes-Hallett as “bounded by bald mountains, where bears and wolves still live, and in whose foothills walled…
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