In 1898 Benito Mussolini was a fifteen-year-old boy with a full head of hair. He lived in Forli, a small city of Romagna, a proverbially unruly region, where in every age political passions reached (and still reach) fever heat. A rebellious schoolboy, expelled from one school after another for threatening his classmates with a sharp penknife (he wounded two of them), he saw himself as the champion of liberty, the enemy of “law and order,” the opponent of all authorities, the scourge of capitalists, priests, and militarists. Above all, he scoffed at patriotism: his only fatherland was the world. He bore proudly the name given him by his anarchist father (the owner of a cheap wine shop, the rendezvous of revolutionaries), that of Benito Juarez, the Zapotec Indian who condemned Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to be shot at Queretaro.
In 1898 Gabriele d’Annunzio was a famous and pampered poet of thirty-four. Of humble provincial origins (he was from Pescara, in the Abruzzi, the son of the disreputable whoring mayor), he had written scandalously sensual poems delicately describing unmentionable sexual acts; stirring nationalist odes; overripe novels; a few blood-curdling and almost incomprehensible tragedies. He lived in Rome this life of an imaginary decadent Renaissance prince, mostly on borrowed money; he eloped with and married a young duchess, rode to hounds, and drank tea (a most exotic and aristocratic brew in Italy at the time). A tiny man, he dressed like an actor impersonating a member of the Jockey Club, wore a monocle, captivated and tirelessly seduced women of all classes whom he attracted in spite of his decayed teeth and bad breath.
His politics were picturesque and confused, a politics of the extreme right, showing a patrician contempt for the shabby, corrupt, and unheroic manigances of parliamentary democracy, this in spite of the fact that he had been recently elected a member of the very parliament he publicly despised. At the same time, to paraphrase Gide, he was, “hélas,” Italy’s greatest poet. He was recognized to be a genius even by his enemies, by people who thought his style over-ornate and theatrical, his ideas absurd and dangerous, and who were revolted by his private life.
It has to be remembered that, for some reason, geniuses have always been more important in Italy than anywhere else. They, like the Alps, were an indispensable feature of the unhappy and flat Italian social landscape. In centuries past, the country might have been decadent and impotent, the princes rapacious and illiterate, the people without bread, hope, or dignity, but one could count on the splendid, reassuring vision of a few sunkissed peaks, the superhuman geniuses, emerging here and there. One could find some consolation in contemplating, admiring and envying them. The world respected them, they ennobled Italy and the Italians. In a way, they were substitutes of sorts for other nations’ victories, social achievements, wealth, power,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.