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. 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 …

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