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Fire & Ice

Much of Woodhouse’s book is filled, as it must be, with D’Annunzio’s famously omnivorous sex life. He planned his courtships with all the energy and imagination he put into his plays or political rites. It helped if the woman was rich and/or famous, though he would settle for anything in sight. He was especially proud to have bedded (though not at the same time) both sides of lesbian liaisons, like that of Romaine Brooks and Ida Rubenstein. Though Woodhouse mentions no homosexual affairs of D’Annunzio himself, the Seer (Vate, as he called himself) liked Ida Rubenstein’s androgy-nous looks, and cast her as Saint Sebastian, one of his favorite alter egos. (And Sebastian is, as Ellis Hanson put it, “the classic pincushion of homoerotic art.”6 )

D’Annunzio fetishized different parts of different women. For the Russian Countess Nathalie de Goloubeff, it was her long legs. For Barbara Leoni, it was her “rose” (clitoris), which he meant to celebrate in a series of works called Romanzi della Rosa. For the actress Eleonora Duse, the most famous of his conquests, it was her expressive hands, so expertly used on the stage. Hands, including his own, brought out the sadistic side of his eroticism. Hands are frequently cut off or mangled in his work. He liked to relate how, as a boy, he cut his hand in his insistence on opening a stubborn shellfish, then gulped the mingled saltiness of blood and mollusk. One of his earliest stories tells of a man who, when his hand is smashed by the falling statue of a saint, cuts it off and offers it to God.

When D’Annunzio traveled in Egypt with Duse, he made much of the fact that a bee stung her finger, seeking honey from a newly opened mummy tomb. When he abandoned her in the labyrinth of the Khedive’s garden in Cairo, she became so panicky that she tore her hands on the thorn bushes of the labyrinth. He photographed her against a thorn backdrop with her hands raised in a semi-crucified pose. The labyrinth scene went into his novel about Duse, The Flame (Il Fuoco). An exercise in public humiliation, the novel describes the helpless infatuation of an aging performer for a young literary-political genius. D’Annunzio was only four years younger than Duse, but he always thought of himself as the very spirit of youth, and he presents his Dusean heroine as obsessed with Giorgione’s painting of a toothless hag pointing to the motto “In time…” (Col tempo).7 As if to grind in the truth of the motto, the novel traces the seasons in Venice, with the performer renouncing the hero (for the good of his own coming glory) just as spring returns—to him.

Woodhouse does not palliate D’Annunzio’s frequent betrayals of virtually everyone he dealt with. He denied the contributions of collaborators and translators, cheated creditors, plagiarized freely, and left behind him a trail of broken women lapsing into drunkenness or drugs.

Psychologically, despite his great intelligence and his creative genius, which had certainly put him into the first rank of Italian writers, D’Annunzio never seemed to develop beyond adolescence. It has been noted that there is no evidence that D’Annunzio ever showed regret or compassion or even consideration for others once they had gratified a temporary whim; selfish egotism governed his every action.

Woodhouse thinks the stimuli provided by this predatory life were necessary to D’Annunzio’s work (he even pardons some of the plagiarism as creative in its adaptation of the original). Woodhouse’s previous scholarship has largely been devoted to the relations between D’Annunzio’s work and the English Pre-Raphaelite poets or decadent authors, on which (as one would expect) his book is particularly enlightening.


One thing Woodhouse can deal with only in passing, given the mass of D’Annunzio’s other output—ecstatic poems, sprawling plays, semiautobiographical novels, journalism, diaries, manifestos—is D’Annunzio’s relationship with the cinema. Like the Futurists, he was interested in all the technologies of motion.8 Film became an important part of his reputation, since he was credited with the major achievement of Italian film in the first two decades of this century, which was released as Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “Cabiria,” an extravaganza about ancient Rome that was a worldwide sensation in 1914. Ascribing the film to D’Annunzio is now recognized as a publicity stunt, and film scholars agree that the real genius behind Cabiria, the man who conceived, wrote, directed, and promoted it, was Giovanni Pastrone. D’Annunzio, it is now thought, just expanded (vastly) and made more poetic Pastrone’s intertitles.

But Pastrone was working, like many other early Italian filmmakers, from a D’Annunzian aesthetic—of decadence, pretentious classical references, and an “elephantiasis” like that of D’Annunzio’s outsized liturgies, plays, and speeches. No works were more in demand from early Italian filmmakers than his. Even when they were not filming his own plays or novels, they were dealing with concepts clearly derived from his work and popularity.9 Pastrone was shrewd in associating D’Annunzio with his ambitious and expensive venture. There may, in fact, have been an overreaction against the idea of D’Annunzio’s importance in making Cabiria. Either on his own or from his works, Pastrone seems to have imported D’Annunzianisms into it. A princess is called the Pomegranate (Melograno), one of D’Annunzio’s favorite terms for his lovers (or himself). And the temple of human sacrifice is decorated with large severed hands along its walls.

At the Pordenone Silent Film Festival last October, twenty-four films were listed that D’Annunzio had something to do with, and five of them were shown, along with three hours of Pastrone’s outtakes from Cabiria.10 The festival’s annual memorial volume for 1998, Griffithiana, contains an analysis of D’Annunzio’ s connections with the cinema by Vittorio Martinelli, and the first English translation of a film script D’Annunzio submitted to D.W. Griffith in 1920.

Two of the five films shown are now incomplete (much of the early silent work connected with D’Annunzio is lost). One contains thirteen minutes from a feature-length documentary D’Annunzio made of his rule in Fiume, The Paradise Shadowed by Swords (Il Paradiso nell’ombra delle spade). This was a touchy film to be released after his regime fell, since it criticized the Italian government in Rome, so intertitles were cut or altered by the early censors. What is left now shows D’Annunzio driving in his car or standing with his troops, but mainly concentrates on the ships of his little navy churning up the sea.

A more interesting fragment shows what may have been the most aesthetically satisfying of D’Annunzio’s film projects, a 1922 drama about the Montenegrin resistance in World War I, Without Death, No Resurrection (Non è risurrezione senza morte) of which only thirty minutes remain. This was written by Vladimir Popovic, minister of justice for the Montenegrin government in exile, and it used Montenegrin expatriates as actors. D’Annunzio helped produce and reshape the film, which starred one of his lovers, the forceful actress Elena Sangro. It tells the story of brothers separated by the conflict but finally reunited by love of their little country. This is the spirit of Fiume without the grandiosity D’Annunzio usually exhibited. It is to be hoped that more of the film will turn up.

Of the three features shown at the festival, the 1911 film, Dream of an Autumn Sundown (Sogno di un tramonto d’autunno), was among six works by D’Annunzio for which he had contracted to write the screenplays. He took the money and gave up the rights, but the producer had to get a different screenwriter. The original play was written for Duse in 1897, and it uses the cruelly autobiographical theme of a young man trying to leave an older woman. The Duse character, a dogaressa of Venice who kills her husband, the doge, to be with her lover, finds the lover wooing a younger woman. She practices witchcraft (a favorite theme of the author) against the woman, stabbing a wax image of her so that it goes up in flames, inducing the same result in the absent rival. What the dogaressa does not realize is that her foe is, at that moment, on the Venetian ship of state, the Bucintoro, so her incineration consumes the whole vessel, including the lover. The burning of the ship is rather primitive in its effects, and the actress trying to reproduce Duse’s anguish, Mary Cleo Tarlarini, caused some titters at her melodramatics—this from a group of silent film scholars who are inured to histrionic excess.

A second feature, The Ship (La Nave), of 1921 starred another of D’Annunzio’s lovers, Ida Rubenstein, who had played his Saint Sebastian in France ten years earlier. Here she is the archer who shoots arrows at men clamoring for this delicious death, a whole pit full of squirming Sebastians. This was the second movie made from D’Annunzio’s 1908 play La Nave, an ambitious recasting of the myth of Venice’s foundation by exiles hiding out in the lagoon. It is an early expression of D’Annunzio’s imperialism, which he connected with the Venetian fleets of the past rather than with Mussolini’s Roman legions. The adaptation was made by his filmmaker son Gabriellino, and it has many of his father’s obsessions, which crowd out the political message. In an early scene, a man offers gifts with a maimed hand, like the victim of the falling statue in his early tale. Rubenstein plays a vengeful woman who almost derails the glorious destiny of the new city, only to sacrifice herself in flames when she is thwarted (heroines burned up are a recurrent plot device with him). Rubenstein, who danced for Diaghilev, does not scale back her effects for the medium. A critic in the Rome journal Bianco e Nero wrote when the film was released:

However great an artist, she does not know how to conduct herself or adjust her dance to the requirements of the camera, that terrifying analytical eye, which enlarges both weaknesses and strengths. Movements of a languor too studied, serpentine gestures and sudden starts, smiles too frozen, the loss of delicacy in facial expression are all harmful aspects of this.11

The movie’s reverence for D’Annunzio’s words shows up in long and intrusive intertitles, for which D’Annunzio himself may be responsible.

The major item in Pordenone’s D’Annunzio program was, of course, Cabiria. When I told the director of the festival, David Robinson, that my major interest this year was in D’Annunzio, he grimaced but then shrugged; “Well, of course, there’s always Cabiria.” The film is a milestone in cinematic history. Released at three hours and twenty minutes, with a score by the esteemed composer Ildebrando Pizzetti played by large orchestras when the film was shown in the major cities of Italy, it dwarfed all earlier attempts at filming classical spectacle. Its third-century BCE story—of a girl kidnapped by pirates in Sicily, taken to Carthage, and eventually rescued by a Roman (Fulvius) and his huge African sidekick (Maciste)—is an excuse for staging grand sequences: the eruption of Mount Aetna, sacrifices in the temple of Moloch, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Archimedes burning up a fleet off Syracuse with his giant sun lenses, the siege of Cirta (on which Griffith modeled his siege of Babylon in Intolerance). The prints most of us have seen in the past were based on a cut version Pastrone made with sound additions in 1931. The restoration screened at Pordenone put back seventy-five segments missing from the 1931 cut, and it was seen with the proper tinting of effects like the eruption of Mount Aetna, as well as with a full musical score.

The restoration was the occasion for a book of scholarly essays on the film, Cabiria e il suo tempo, edited by Paolo Bertetto and Gianni Rondolino. Some of the essays deal with various myths connected with Cabiria. The contribution by Antonia Lant discusses racial aspects of the film, and quotes a 1923 essay in the African-American weekly The Messenger, contrasting the film’s treatment of the noble Ethiopian, Maciste, with the ignoble roles given blacks in America. Lant doubts that the author had actually seen the movie, since the man playing Maciste, Bartolomeo Pagano, was an Italian longshoreman chosen for the role—which he played in blackface—because of his giant physique. When Maciste goes into a Carthaginian tavern and is served by a blackface “mammy” type who ogles his muscles, he is disdainfully amused.

Pagano, the brawny stevedore, became immensely popular because of the film, and a whole series of Maciste movies were subsequently made with him or his imitators, the Rambos of their day. Those films are the subject of another essay in the Bertetto and Rondolino book.

One essay describes the social background of Italy’s early film production in Turin—rational and liberal, controlled by professionals and managers. But this seems to have little to do with the decadent and D’Annunzian aesthetic of Pastrone and the other Turinese filmmakers. The two most important essays in the book are devoted to Pastrone’s outtakes and his use of the camera. Pastrone was something of an inventor, an amateur cello maker who was fascinated by the dolly that could move a camera about the huge sets he constructed for Cabiria.12 He said that he meant to prove to the viewer that they were real, not backdrops, and that he could make the scenes three-dimensional, as in a stereopticon. His own claims have given him something of a reputation for using a highly mobile camera.

But Paolo Bertetto, in his essay on the outtakes, shows that Pastrone moved the camera more in rejected shots than in his released sequences. It is true that he filmed things at an angle, demonstrating that they were solid, but he did not interrupt the action by moving the camera unnecessarily. Rather he sought structural and monumental continuity in his storytelling, the very opposite of the montage effects created by Eisenstein. In their essay on the camera’s use, the collaborators Elena Dagrada, André Gaudreault, and Tom Gunning show that Pastrone achieved “composition in depth” by showing simultaneous action on receding planes, choreographing his actors more than his camera moves.

Cabiria‘s most famous scene is an exception to this general approach. This occurs during the sacrifice of children to Moloch. The camera shoots this obscene rite obliquely, as child after child is lifted up and deposited in the drawer that opens out from the blazing furnace that is the idol’s body. When the child Cabiria is held up, naked and squirming, the camera breaks all sense of continuity by looking out from inside the belly, across foreground flames. We must go back “out front” to see Maciste rescue the girl at the last minute. This scene—which was cut from the 1931 print by Italian censors—has been called the most D’Annunzian thing in the film (apart from the flowery long intertitles he wrote), and there is reason to think it affected his imagination.

Russell Merritt, in the 1998 Griffithiana, argues that D’Annunzio’s unperformed film script, The Man Who Stole the Gioconda, was written at the very time when he worked on Cabiria, and he points out that one of its most spectacular scenes silhouettes two figures against a background of flames. Though he wrote the script in 1914, his son sent it to Griffith in Hollywood in 1920, when his father’s name was in all the papers for his reign in Fiume. Griffith turned down the script but kept it in his papers, where Merritt found it. D’Annunzio himself plays a part in the story, where he murders a man in order to get the secret potion for bringing the Mona Lisa to life. It is extraordinary that he would want to peddle such a story at the very time when he was posing as a responsible head of state in Fiume.

But no effrontery in the man should surprise us, as my wife and I saw by going to his shrine, Il Vittoriale. The whole complex, built out incrementally from the original villa by his compliant architect, Gian Carlo Maroni, flies the banner Me Ne Frego. Here are enacted the various roles he saw for himself—Saint Sebastian, Saint Francis, Jesus. The first thing you encounter on the stairs inside his front door is a column dividing the staircase, with three nails in relief on it—the pillar Jesus was scourged at and the nails of his crucifixion, two of them driven into hands. The warren of rooms is jammed with memorabilia and artifacts, all carefully organized in a system of personal meanings. Rooms and nooks and items are labeled with slogans and mottoes, like the intrusive intertitles in his movies.

The faults of his plays and novels are all here—too many overlapping personal myths, too many effects crowded into too little space, too much strain to manipulate every reaction from his audience. As Mussolini’s favors to him grew, D’Annunzio found ways to make the prow of an actual warship project from the cliff his home sits on. The plane he flew in during the war is here, and so is the torpedo boat from his Beffa di Buccari. I had read that the casket in which he kept the Banner of Randaccio was somewhere on the grounds, but our guide, knowledgeable as she was about the place, could not run down this particular item in the inventory. We found it at last in a special niche created for it in the courtyard in front of the main building.

Here, too, are all the cultivated sadisms. Carved over one door is a severed hand dripping blood. Another room has stylized hands decorating its ceiling. The bust of Duse is hidden under a cloth, a final indignity inflicted on the woman he delighted in humiliating. The painter Guido Cadorin catered to the master’s fetishism by painting the disjunct parts of a woman on the ceiling panels of his bedroom. A sense of the claustrophobic life of self-referential obsessions is given in the book Dining with D’Annunzio, edited by Paola Sorge for the Vittoriale foundation. It contains many of his endless notes to his cook, who played Saint Clare to his Saint Francis. They are full of drolleries on this order: “From this day the white custard with powdered chestnuts shall be called: Saint Agatha’s breast.” We are favored with his meditations on food—e.g., that feeling for the seeds in grapes is like feeling for a wet clitoris.13 When D’Annunzio’s French translator traveled with him, he noticed that D’Annunzio was compulsively foul-mouthed, displaying that permanent adolescence which Woodhouse notes. The passage on grape seeds is excerpted from a book appropriately titled All About Me (Di me a me stesso).

His health failed him well before his death at seventy-five. Famous visitors were turned away as he went into a seclusion solaced by cocaine. That and the prostitutes dutifully brought up to him completed the political neutering of D’Annunzio that Mussolini had begun with a honeyed poison of benefactions.

  1. 6

    Ellis Hanson, Decadence and Catholicism (Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 338.

  2. 7

    At the time when D’Annunzio wrote, the Giorgione painting was still attributed to Francesco Torbido. Woodhouse complains of the weak and bowdlerizing first translations of D’Annunzio’s works into English (done by Georgina Harding). A 1991 version of The Flame translated by Susan Bassnett (Marsilio, 1991) does not show much progress. She makes the platform (palco) under Tintoretto’s Last Judgment in the Doge’s Palace a “balcony.” Pomegranate seeds (granelli) become “grains of flesh.” Wagner’s raving (delirante) music is watered down to “amazing.” The Latin “truly strong man” (verus fortis) becomes “in rightness is strength.” And so on throughout.

  3. 8

    For the Futurists and cinema, see Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism (Thames and Hudson, 1977), pp. 143-151.

  4. 9

    Gian Piero Brunetta, Storia del cinema italiano: Il cinema muto, 1895- 1929, revised and expanded edition (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1993), pp. 97-103, 173-77.

  5. 10

    For the Pordenone festival, see Garry Wills, “A Language of Their Own,” The New York Review, January 15, 1998, pp. 50-51. This year’s festival continued the important retrospective viewing and scholarly cataloguing of the works of D.W. Griffith, and launched a survey of silent films from the Fox studio, among other things.

  6. 11

    Review quoted in Vittorio Martinelli, Il cinema muto italiano: I film de gli anni venti (Turin: Edizioni RAI, 1996), p. 230.

  7. 12

    Gianni Rondolino, I giorni di Cabiria (Turin: Lindau, 1993), pp. 117-119.

  8. 13

    Paola Sorge, A tavola con D’Annunzio (Milan: Electa, 1998), pp. 22, 131.

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