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Fire & Ice

Cabiria e il suo tempo

edited by Paolo Bertetto, by Gianni Rondolino
Milan: Editrice il Castoro, 397 pp., L65,000

Griffithiana: The Journal of Film History

edited by Davide Turconi
La Cineteca del Friuli, L40,000


Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) called himself fire and ice, and a combination of opposites had a great deal to do with his vast, mysterious, and largely unhealthy influence on Italian culture and politics. He began his career as the unlikely combination of rhapsodic poet and gossip columnist for Roman society. He went on to write novels and plays that combined a nostalgic decadence with the technological optimism of the Futurists. In 1897 he ran for parliament, successfully, on an elusive platform, “the politics of beauty.” Since he rarely attended the legislature, his next attempt at office, in 1900, was defeated. Driven out of Italy in 1910 by overtoppling debts, he became a literary lion in Paris, where he collaborated with Debussy on a play with music, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, produced by Michel Fokine with sets by Leon Bakst. The role of Saint Sebastian was taken by D’Annunzio’s lover, the dancer Ida Rubenstein, whose transvestism in the role brought denunciations from the Church.

At the outbreak of World War I, D’Annunzio returned to Italy, calling for war on the Allied side as a way of advancing Italian imperialism. He was a brave if showboating warrior, winning every available Italian medal and agitating for French decorations into the bargain. John Woodhouse, in his thorough and balanced new book, points out that D’Annunzio’s famous sea raid on an Austrian base on the Dalmatian coast, the Buccari Taunt (Beffa di Buccari), sank no ships—and could not have sunk a warship in any case, since none were in the Bay of Buccari when D’Annunzio’s three little torpedo boats infiltrated those waters by night. But the poet left satirical messages bobbing merrily in bottles, and wrote up the feat as if it had been an epic encounter. He flew over Austrian lines alternately lobbing bombs and pamphlets at the enemy, and lost sight in one eye from concussion when his pilot crash-landed.

Despite or because of the fact that he floated about in the military with only vague authorization for his activities, he was a great favorite with the fighting men, who had their nation’s love of bella figura. With a gift for inventing slogans, he got the Italian army to adopt the ancient Greek victory cry, Eia alala! (He claimed this was what Achilles shouted to his chariot horses when he steered them toward war.) From Rome he took the raised-right-arm salute that the Fascists later adopted.1 As a master of propaganda, he was as great a boost for Italian morale as he was a pain or puzzle to his military superiors.

It was inevitable that this voice for a flamboyant nationalism would become a focus of Italian discontent with the peace negotiations at Versailles. A promise made by England, that Italy would be given cities on the Dalmatian coast as part of the peace settlement, was one of those “secret covenants secretly arrived at” that Wood-row Wilson repudiated. D’Annunzio was one of several military and literary figures poised to take advantage of the revolutionary aftermath of the war. He helped show the others—from Benito Mussolini to the Futurist impresario Tommaso Marinetti—how to join the extreme left and right in his rhetoric, which was both populist and authoritarian. Above all he made politics a matter of show business, orchestrating mass rallies as quasi-religious liturgies, raising slogans like Forza Italia (which would later serve soccer teams well), composing poems that were hymns, and displaying sacred relics like the Banner of Randaccio.

This banner was a huge gonfalon that had covered the casket of Giovanni Randaccio, killed as he and D’Annunzio tried to lead a dangerous river crossing. Since Randaccio was a Dalmatian, D’Annunzio portrayed him as a martyr for the territories now being bartered away in a peace of traitors. On May 6, 1919, D’Annunzio unfurled the banner from a balcony at the Campidoglio in Rome, kissing each fold as he paid it out and named one of the disputed territories, handling the cloth as Mark Antony does Caesar’s toga in Shakespeare’s play. It was an emotional ceremony he repeated in other places, making the Arditi (“Zealots,” the elite military attack teams formed during the war) call on him to lead a military seizure of the Dalmatian coast, beginning with the city of Fiume (Rijeka in the present Croatia).

Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out that, while most people were soured with disillusionment by the grimness of the Great War, a certain segment of young men—the Frontsoldaten of Germany, like the Arditi of Italy—were intoxicated with myths of honor and glory; and that these made up an important advance guard of Fascism and Nazism.2 Mussolini said his veterans would reign by virtue of their “trench power” (trincerocrazia).3 D’Annunzio, though he was in his fifties during the war, had made himself the dashing figure many Arditi aspired to be. Some would even shave their heads, to imitate his baldness. But he hung back when it came time to turn his rhetoric about Dalmatia into action. He had been living idyllically in a small house on Venice’s Grand Canal (the Little Red Box—Cassetta Rossa—still visible across the canal from Peggy Guggenheim’s museum). Admirers urged him to assume the lead in retaking Dalmatia before someone else stepped into that role. He was dragged from a sickbed in Venice to be chauffeured toward Fiume in a Fiat banked with flowers, behind which a ragtag but swelling army rolled.

Since Fiume was occupied by Allied troops awaiting the disposition of the peace talks, a general named Pittaluga from the Italian contingent was sent out to order D’Annunzio away. D’Annunzio, with typical bravado, threw aside his coat, revealing a chest full of war medals, and told Pittaluga to shoot through them—upon which Pittaluga joined the march. D’Annunzio entered Fiume through cheering crowds, went to the city square, unfurled the Banner of Randaccio from another balcony, and ordered out the occupying French and American troops. The Allies complied, since they were unwilling to interfere in what looked to them like an Italian civil war, with Rome officially disowning D’Annunzio but also using him to exert leverage on the peace talks still droning on around Versailles.

In a typical case of having it both ways, D’Annunzio enjoyed the distant support of Mussolini’s Fascists while letting a socialist, Alceste De Ambris, draw up a very progressive constitution for his new state based in Fiume, one that guaranteed freedom of speech, secular schools, and universal suffrage.4 D’Annunzio, who had taken the title Comandante (which he clung to for the rest of his life), proclaimed a reign of the Muses, where music would be taught to every child as a civic responsibility. He invited Arturo Toscanini, whom he called King Arthur (Re Arturo), to come and conduct a concert for his troops. He had a Belgian poet, Leon Kochnitzky (whom he called Kotch), proclaim a worldwide union of the oppressed (the League of Fiume), a call to everyone from Chinese coolies in California to Catalans in Spain. He had the slogan Italia o la Morte painted in giant letters on the harborfront, then photographed it from the air and sent the picture to the peace negotiators in Versailles. He took as the city’s slogan of defiance an obscene expression from the World War trenches, Me ne frego (“I jack off on it”).

In his biography of D’Annunzio, Anthony Rhodes called the Comandante of Fiume “the lyric dictator.” D’Annunzio demanded strict discipline from his troops while continuing his own dissolute ways. Some Arditi followed his rules with iron devotion, but most people winked at them and imitated what D’Annunzio did rather than what he said. For some the reign of the Muses became a paradise for libertines. D’Annunzio himself noticed how many people were “stuffed with drugs,” especially cocaine, which troops had used to stay awake during the war. It was a habit D’Annunzio would indulge more and more himself. Some of his followers became as megalomaniac as he was at this frenzied peak of his power. The Arditi wrote in their newspaper, Ironhead (Testa di Ferro):

We are the island of wonder, which in its journey across the ocean will carry its own incandescent light to the continents stifled in the darkness of brutal commerce. We are a handful of illuminated beings and mystic creators, who will sow through the world the seed of our force—a force which is purely Italian and will germinate into the highest daring and violent irradiations.

Though the economy of Fiume tottered, and D’Annunzio had to send away children he could not feed, he used the one instrument of power he had been lucky enough to acquire—ships from the Italian navy that were in the Fiume harbor when he took over the town—to conduct raids on merchant ships, bringing their supplies (and sometimes the ships themselves) back to Fiume. He glamorized these acts of piracy by calling his raiders his “Corsairs” (Uscocchi). He meant for the capture of Fiume to be just the first step in recovering other Dalmatian cities and bringing down the government in Rome. When it became clear that this was not going to happen, power drained from D’Annunzio, even as he claimed that he would never surrender. The Italian government sent the warship Andrea Doria steaming to the Fiume coast. After it fired a shell into D’Annunzio’s headquarters, he said he had to abdicate in order to save his people from bloodshed. The government, playing it safe, did not provoke his remaining supporters by trying to punish him for his sedition. The days of having his very own government were over, but he would spend the rest of his life reliving (and reinventing) that “reign of beauty.”

D’Annunzio retired to an abandoned villa on Lake Garda, which he renamed the Triumphal (Il Vittoriale)—sometimes, more grandly, the Italians’ Triumphal (Vittoriale degl’Italiani). The adjective was left without a substantive, though we seem to be expected to supply Uomo (i.e., D’Annunzio himself). He spent the seventeen years left him expanding and elaborating the place as a shrine to his activities and writings. His fame continued to grow during this period, fostered in part by the man who most feared it, Benito Mussolini. Much of Fascism’s street theater was taken from the secular liturgies D’Annunzio had invented in his parliamentary campaigns, his war ceremonies, and his reign at Fiume. The cult of political martyrs, the life by slogan, the hypnotic rallies—all were a blend of Futurist and D’Annunzian mostre, or exhibitions.5 Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome was a replication of the march on Fiume—but one that did bring down the Italian government. Mussolini did not want any interference in or criticism of what he was doing with D’Annunzio’s tactics, so he immobilized the poet by wedging him into his shrine with pillows stuffed all around him. He showered him with honors, commissioned a grand edition of all his works, subvented Il Vittoriale with funds and mementos from the World War.

  1. 1

    Anthony Rhodes, The Poet as Superman: A Life of Gabriele D’Annunzio (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959), pp. 181-182.

  2. 2

    Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914- 1991 (Vintage, 1996), pp. 124-125.

  3. 3

    Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Knopf, 1983), p. 30.

  4. 4

    Michael A. Ledeen, The First Duce: D’Annunzio at Fiume (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 144.

  5. 5

    Marla Susan Stone, The Patron State: Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy (Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 165-168.

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