The First Duce: D’Annunzio at Fiume
In 1919-1920 Gabriele d’Annunzio occupied the Adriatic port of Fiume—now the Yugoslav city Rijeka—for twenty months. It is easy and tempting now to dismiss this episode as meaningless buffoonery, a grotesque Italian operatic demonstration, a hysterical and almost bloodless heroic-comic show staged by a demented Art Nouveau poet, one more sign of the perennial impotence of Italian governments. Michael Ledeen, a perceptive young American historian who knows more about modern Italian history than all living Italian historians with the exception of two (Rosario Romeo and Renzo de Felice), has a different view. He considers the Fiume adventure the harbinger of things to come. He sees in it the sinister seeds of other, more catastrophic left-wing and right-wing mass movements, based mainly on primitive emotions whipped up by a magnetic man haranguing crowds from a balcony and staging mass spectacles. The city under d’Annunzio, he writes, “was a highly revealing and suggestive model for much of the West today, a microcosm of the modern political world.”
The poet-hero-leader was called Duce by his followers. He personally preferred the title of Comandante, the man in charge, a virile military and naval term. Duce was an archaic and vaguely pretentious word, slightly ridiculous, more fitting for the hero of a nineteenth-century medieval novel or a Verdi libretto. Garibaldi had been called Duce when he conquered Sicily with one thousand volunteers in 1860. He too had moved officially against the will of the government and had been followed by, among others, many deserters from the regular army.
D’Annunzio was not Garibaldi. The general was a great guerrilla leader, almost illiterate, very handsome, blond, blue-eyed, long-haired, and bearded. He had been compared to Jesus Christ or a Greek god, and many thought he actually looked like a lion. Scores of young people died by his command, under his very eyes. D’Annunzio was a tiny man, fifty-six years old in 1919 but looking older, as bald as an egg, with rotten teeth and bad breath. His military competence was nil. All he had done in the war was take part in the death-defying actions of a few men—more publicity and psychological stunts than real military enterprises. The poet did not even possess the impressive and statuesque presence of a later Duce, Benito Mussolini, not to mention his political intuition and cynical knowledge of human nature.
But d’Annunzio had to a greater degree than Garibaldi or Mussolini an uncanny capacity to excite vast crowds, to play with their emotions. He had a melodious voice of great beauty and range of expression (from rhapsody to irony and sarcasm, from the noble and patriotic to gross obscene invective). His language was always poetic, often enriched with sonorous and rare words which the crowds loved although they did not always understand them. Above all he made each listener (with the exception of a very few who preserved a critical faculty and a sense of humor) feel he or she was caught up …
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Looking for Livy October 12, 1978