He Dared the Undarable

Gabriele D’Annunzio; drawing by Tullio Pericoli

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 towns perch on crags fluted like the underside of mushrooms.” It is the setting of many of d’Annunzio’s early tales and much of his poetry. In “I pastori” (“The Shepherds”), one of his most beautiful rural poems, he writes evocatively of the annual transhumance, the migration of the Abruzzi shepherds and their flocks from the mountain pastures of the Apennines down to the shores of the Adriatic:

E vanno pel tratturo antico al piano,
quasi per un erbal fiume silente,
su le vestigia degli antichi padri.
O voce di colui che primamente
conosce il tremolar della marina!

They take the path their fathers’ fathers took,
the old drove-road, which bears them to the plain
as if upon a silent current of grass.
And oh the trembling sea, and the young swain
shouting at what he’s never seen before!

D’Annunzio was happy to be considered an abruzzese as long as he was not required to live in his native land. As a schoolboy in Tuscany, where people speak the purest Italian, he quickly discarded his regional accent, and as a renowned writer he rejected the gift of a house in the Abruzzi because, although he was bankrupt at the time, he could not bear to live in so philistine a backwater. He ended “I pastori” with the line “Ah perché non son io co’ miei pastori?” (“Ah, why am I not with my shepherds there?”), but the question is easy to answer. He preferred to be in Florence or Rome, in a place where he could make money and be famous and seduce sophisticated women.

D’Annunzio’s influences were many and diverse. Nietzsche and Wagner had palpable effects, as did Thomas Carlyle, who revealed how heroic men could change the course of history. Walter Pater and his aesthetic creed were also prominent, as were the English Romantics. Shelley was venerated for his poetry and Byron for the way he lived his life, though there is little trace of either’s work in their admirer’s verse. The dramatist Romain Rolland might compare d’Annunzio to a pike, a poacher of other people’s ideas, and the philosopher Benedetto Croce might dismiss him as “a dilettante of sensations,” but there was more to him than superficiality and decadence, at least in his poetry.

Poems such as “La pioggia nel pineto” (“Rain in the Pine Grove”) display an understanding of the natural world that is both sensuous and observant, conjuring a landscape in which he and his lady “immensi/noi siam nello spirito/silvestre,/d’arborea vita viventi;/e il tuo volto ebro/è molle di pioggia/come una foglia,/e le tue chiome/auliscono come/le chiare ginestre…” (“are huge inside the/sylvan spirit, alive with/tree life; and your drunken/face is softened by the rain/the way a leaf is, and/your hair is fragrant/like the brilliant broom…”).2 And he was a careful poet not merely of color but of specific shades of color. As Hughes-Hallett points out, his heroines don’t just wear gray but “the grey of ashes, of pigeon feathers, of pewter or a pale sky.”

By the age of thirty-one, d’Annunzio had written four fairly successful novels. Although his reputation has since faded—partly as a result of his association with fascism—we are often reminded that in his heyday he was admired by such younger writers as James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Like his French fan, he was seduced by the aristocracy of his capital city, and in his novel Il Piacere (Pleasure) he lamented the dimming of its cultural influence:

Beneath today’s gray democratic flood, which wretchedly submerges so many beautiful and rare things, that special class of ancient Italic nobility in which from generation to generation a certain family tradition of elect culture, elegance, and art was kept alive is also slowly disappearing.3

Yet while d’Annunzio’s aristocrats are idle and decadent, intellectually sophisticated and emotionally atrophied, they are not, alas, Proustian: indeed they are very dull and unmemorable compared to the Baron de Charlus or the Duchesse de Guermantes. One female character looks like a portrait by Ghirlandaio, another resembles a high priestess painted by Alma-Tadema, while a third has both the “amber pallor” of a picture by Correggio and eyes that might have been imagined by Leonardo. Almost everything is described secondhand, whether flames that are seen through Shelley, a greyhound that is viewed through Rubens, or a beard that is reminiscent of Van Dyck. As for the Rome they inhabit, it is simply a city of street names. What a subject it might have been, half a generation after unification, with the Piedmontese king in the Quirinal, the pope immured in the Vatican, and a new nation emerging from the civil wars of the Risorgimento.

In his introduction to Pleasure, Alexander Stille quotes Pirandello’s view that one either has to live life or write it before observing that “this was a division d’Annunzio did not accept: he lived writing and wrote living, a dynamic and explosive combination that lasted for about twenty years, until his public life crowded out his writing.” Yet even when he was still writing—and he was a dramatist and librettist as well as a novelist and poet—he was too restless to confine himself to literature. At the end of the nineteenth century he entered parliament, but his time as a deputy was brief and strangely undistinguished. He was more attractive as a conservationist, campaigning for the preservation of his country’s artistic heritage and preventing the demolition of Lucca’s incomparable medieval walls.

D’Annunzio’s life outside literature suits his biographer, who is not a critic and whose primary intention is to depict the character and personality of her extraordinary subject. Her approach to her task is protean and impressionistic, sometimes pointillist, and generally impatient of conventional chronology. The second chapter consists of eighteen “sightings” of d’Annunzio between 1881 and 1937, while Part Two of the book (250 pages long) is divided into the “streams” of his life: decadence, eloquence, virility, and so on. His later public career perforce requires a stricter narrative, but Hughes-Hallett anticipates this with an early chapter on the crucial months in 1915 when d’Annunzio transformed himself from a stagey litterateur to a swaggering warmonger and thence to an improbable war hero.

At the outbreak of World War I d’Annunzio was fifty-one, bored, jaded, and living in France to escape his creditors in Italy. He was not of course the only European writer who needed war to cure his ennui: numerous contemporaries in other countries were in thrall to the “battle-god.” But in Italy the desire for conflict had a long history, rooted in the military failures of the Risorgimento, an era that had concluded with unification only because its enemy Austria had been defeated by the armies of Napoleon III in 1859 and of Bismarck in 1866. In 1914 Italian nationalists still hankered after military glory, “a baptism of blood,” despising their most successful politician, Giovanni Giolitti, because he had abandoned the project of making Italy great in favor of making it prosperous. Among them were the Futurists, a group of painters and intellectuals who worshiped speed and technology and who in 1909 had issued their notorious manifesto glorifying war as “the world’s only hygiene.”4 In 1911 they and their allies managed to bully Giolitti into invading Libya and, despite military failures in North Africa, their bellicosity was undiminished three years later when Europe was engulfed by its most convulsive conflict.

Italy was not directly involved in the diplomatic nightmare that followed the archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo. Since it had no enemies (except those it had chosen to make as a colonial power in Libya and the Red Sea region), it had no need to fight on either side in World War I, neither against its old supporters France and Britain, nor against the newer allies to which it had been tied by treaty for thirty-three years, Austria and Germany. Yet the nationalists could not bear to watch other people fighting without joining in, especially when a war against their Austrian friends might lead to the acquisition of new territories, not just Italian-speaking areas of the Hapsburg empire, but Slav-speaking and even German-speaking places as well.

Mary Evans Picture Library/Everett Collection
Gabriele d’Annunzio, 1917

If the preservation of Lucca’s walls saw d’Annunzio at his most appealing, his rabble-rousing in the spring of 1915 displayed him at his worst. Of all the voices inciting crowds to demand conflict, his was the most eloquent and irresponsible. Repeatedly he denounced opponents of war as defeatists and traitors and even encouraged his listeners to kill them. Yet only hours after his ranting, he could regarb himself as a poet, “strolling,” in Hughes-Hallett’s words, “pensive and nostalgic…through the jasmine-scented Roman night, his appreciation of Rome’s multi-layered beauty that of a man of deep erudition.”

At the front he redeemed himself in his fashion. Despite his age he saw action with the army, the navy, and the air force, and his extraordinary exploits, which caused the loss of an eye and other injuries, included a dashing raid in a torpedo boat and flights to “bomb” Trento, Trieste, and Vienna with pamphlets written by himself. In moments of leisure he might linger over the zabaglione in Montin’s restaurant in Venice, but he was always ready to get up and make speeches to pilots or sappers or a crowd of mourners.

In 1917 the Italian commander in chief, General Luigi Cadorna, an obtuse man distrustful of clever subordinates, acted bewilderingly out of character by awarding him a squadron of bomber planes. During his offensives, d’Annunzio flew two sorties a day, getting wounded in the process and watching his colleagues being killed one after the other. Yet he was, predictably, in his element. War had brought him, as his biographer points out, manly fame and comradely love as well as adventure, purpose, and “the intoxication of living in constant deadly peril.” No wonder he was apprehensive when first he smelled “the stench of peace.”

Italy gained most of its war aims, including the cities of Trento and Trieste (acquisitions soon commemorated in the street names of almost every Italian city) as well as the German-speaking South Tyrol, which it renamed Alto Adige. But it did not achieve its ambitions in Dalmatia on the eastern shore of the Adriatic, which led d’Annunzio to condemn the postwar settlement as a “mutilated peace,” a phrase that encouraged many people to agree with him about the unfairness of the peace treaties and the perfidy of the wartime allies, whom he accused of trying to belittle Italy. A particular grievance was the fact that the Croatian city of Fiume (now Rijeka), which contained a substantial Italian bourgeoisie, was assigned to the nascent Yugoslavia.

D’Annunzio was no longer just an aesthete rhapsodizing over Fortuny gowns but a man of action who needed a stage on which to strut. One of his mottoes was “to dare the undarable,” and he put this one into practice by daring to capture Fiume for Italy. In September 1919 he placed himself at the head of a band of nationalists and adventurers (who echoed Garibaldi’s slogan “Rome or Death!” with cries of “Fiume or Death!”) and set off for the city. The Italian government ordered its army to prevent his entry, but the officers refused to obey, and the poseur in d’Annunzio delighted in playing the role of Napoleon when confronting his former subordinates after his escape from Elba in 1815: he even imitated the imperial gesture of baring his chest and telling the troops to shoot him. Unopposed, he entered the city, proclaimed from a palace balcony its annexation to Italy, and inaugurated what his opponents called an “operatic dictatorship” that lasted for more than a year.

At that moment d’Annunzio may have been the most popular man in Italy, his charisma and bravado providing a radiant contrast to the weakness of the government in Rome and the irresponsibility of the Socialist Party, which, although the largest grouping in parliament, refused to take part in the administration of the country. Many people saw him as a possible—and even desirable—dictator, and Hughes-Hallett wonders whether he might have gained power as Mussolini did three years later—simply by going to Rome and grabbing it.

Yet d’Annunzio hesitated, apparently waiting for an insurrection that the country was not yet ready for. In any case, although he might have been able to set off a revolution, would he have been capable of controlling it and turning it into a regime? Could a man unable to run his own household have governed such a complicated and disunited country? As even his supporters noted, d’Annunzio was bored by the chore of running Fiume, which he turned into a vulgar and hedonistic Ruritania known as the “Italian Regency of Carnaro.”

In June 1920 Giolitti returned to power for the final time, and ended the farce by sending troops to Fiume and forcing d’Annunzio to surrender. Yet the nationalists could claim a victory of sorts because the city remained a free port and, four years later, it was annexed anyway by Mussolini.

The socialist historian Gaetano Salvemini reflected the view of the left when he described d’Annunzio’s adventure as a source of dishonor and ridicule for Italy. Unfortunately, one observer who found it neither dishonorable nor ridiculous was the former socialist Benito Mussolini, who supported the escapade in the pages of the newspaper he then edited, Il popolo d’Italia. From Milan the journalist noted how the comandante (as d’Annunzio liked to style himself) manipulated crowds with speeches from a balcony, how he made use of gestures and salutes, how he stirred up audiences with oratorical crescendoes culminating in a peculiar cry, “Eia, Eia, Eia, Alalà!,” which he claimed was the battle yell of Achilles. Mussolini studied and absorbed these tactics, and years later he encouraged the writing of a biography of d’Annunzio to be called The John the Baptist of Fascism.

D’Annunzio may have been a precursor of the duce—at any rate in style—but he was not a true fascist: he was too independent, too anti-German, too much the epicurean and aesthete, and ultimately too intelligent. Soon after Mussolini became prime minister, he tactlessly told him that fascism had taken all its ideas from dannunzianesimo and invented nothing by itself. Yet that wasn’t quite accurate. Hughes-Hallett sums up the relationship between the two with the felicitous observation that “though d’Annunzio was not a fascist, fascism was d’Annunzian.”

In August 1921 Italo Balbo, the ablest of the fascist bosses, visited d’Annunzio and invited him to assume leadership of the “national forces” in place of Mussolini. But the aging writer dithered, the moment was lost, and fifteen months later the duce was installed as head of the government in Rome. Fascist friends of d’Annunzio implored him to endorse the new regime, whose “superb prophet” he had been, but he refused. Fascism’s “ideal for the world” may have been similar to his own, but it had already, he said, been “squandered and falsified.”

For her last chapter Hughes-Hallett reverts to her staccato technique, using the historic present as her tense as she picks moments in the progress of fascism and juxtaposes them with scenes from d’Annunzio’s retirement in his villa on the shores of Lake Garda. There are inevitably moments of both pathos and bathos in the years leading up to his death from a brain hemorrhage in 1938. While fascist squads are beating up the city of Genoa, d’Annunzio (newly ennobled as the Prince of Monte Nevoso—“snowy mountain”) is buying cufflinks and tiepins.

Yet his last years are lived in the requisite style, with a pack of huge dogs—Great Danes with d’Annunzian names such as Danski and Danzetta—with the forward half of a battleship in his garden firing salutes for his guests, and with his last mistress Luisa, a pianist “imprisoned by her senses” (like Duse) who is prepared to look after him, run his household, and share him with other women. At night she leaves a rose in the keyhole of her bedroom door when she wants him to visit.

All this is told with an empathy and craftsmanship that d’Annunzio would admire even if he might not appreciate every judgment. Although himself the least empathetic of men, he has attracted a biographer of rare sensibility who has set out not to condemn—“disapproval,” she writes, “is not an interesting response”—but to understand. The result is a magnificent and beautifully written book that makes readers feel they have really come to know d’Annunzio, his many faults, his fewer virtues, and his enormous talent for life.

  1. 1

    Translated by Geoffrey Brock in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, edited by Geoffrey Brock (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). 

  2. 2

    Translated by Jonathan Galassi in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry.  

  3. 3

    Pleasure, translated by Lara Gochin Raffaelli, with an introduction by Alexander Stille (Penguin, 2013), p. 33. The previous English edition, published in 1898, had removed the sex scenes from a novel that is mainly about sex. 

  4. 4

    Even after the “hygiene” had taken 600,000 Italian lives in World War I, the Futurist leader Marinetti was calling for the abolition of pasta on the grounds that it encouraged pacifism. His credibility was, however, punctured when he himself was photographed munching his way through a bowl of spaghetti.