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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.

  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. 

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