Gabriele D’Annunzio – flame of the former future

Gabriele D’Annunzio –

flame of the former future

STODDARD MARTIN remembers the extravagant life and dangerous times of one of Italy’s literary giants

When living in lascivious pleasure in post-Napoleonic Italy, Byron wrote to his publisher, “Scribbling is a disease I wish myself cured of”. Within a few years he famously died in the cause of Greek independence, and for a century after writers regularly chafed at the bonds of their profession, wishing to transform themselves into men of action.

A leap out of art and into history usually involved adopting a messianic cause, which if frustrated could produce antinomian outbursts, even crime. W. B. Yeats, who dreamed of glory and dabbled in Irish revolution and later fascism, spotted the danger – “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” (1)

Nonetheless he was among the host of literary men of the early 20th century who found inspiration in their Italian contemporary Gabriele D’Annunzio. Henry James, George Moore, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway all admired his prose. Ezra Pound perhaps came closest to him in morphing literary prominence into political activism. In Pound’s case, failure of the cause led to disaster. In D’Annunzio’s, at least in his lifetime, it produced even greater celebrity.

Gabriele D’Annunzio, 1922

Named for an archangel and seen by some as a devil, he appears to have been born under a lucky star. His father, a licentious man and skilful networker, was mayor of Pescara in the backward province of Abruzzi; his mother, like Lawrence’s, was of more refined stock. The child was doted on, educated above his station and subsidized through his first literary efforts, which rendered him into a Wunderkind as poet by age twenty. Adept at networking too and striking-looking, if small, he set about climbing the social and literary ladders of Rome via shrewd love-affairs and journalistic alliances. Newly unified Italy needed geniuses and patriotic Gabriele perfectly combined the persona of coming young man with respect for an older order of rank. Parisian decadence, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Wagner and other artistic fads of the fin-de-siècle were mixed easily by him into a specifically Italian penchant for beauty and tradition. Turning to novel-writing, he became by age thirty one of the leading literary names of the age. A very public affair with the actress Eleanora Duse vaulted him by the turn of the century into world celebrity.

He wrote gargantuan plays for his mistress, though on one occasion infuriated her by offering the lead to her rival Sarah Bernhardt, whom he may also have bedded. His reputation was such that he felt at ease in spurning collaboration with Puccini, whom he saw as not high-brow enough to do his work justice. Published simultaneously in French and in Italian, he became a figure to envy in the then citadel of the arts and relocated to France in 1910 to escape debts he had racked up in a notoriously extravagant Italian lifestyle.

In the salons of Paris he was lionized by the Count of Montesquiou, once inspiration for Huysmans’ Des Esseintes and shortly for Proust’s Baron Charlus. Debussy was allowed to set music to his Martyrdom of St Sebastian and Ida Rubenstein to play the lead. Cross-dressers and lesbians appealed to his increasingly jaded sexual taste, and along with Rubenstein the American painter Romaine Brooks joined the list of his lovers. In the monde they moved in, the chief slander a woman could suffer was to be said not to have had a liaison with D’Annunzio.

All this Lucy Hughes-Hallett catalogues with eyes on stilts. She is fascinated to uncover what this bald little man in goatee did with and to women to attract them in droves. Delving into the wealth of letters he left, which his lovers failed to destroy, she details the foods and fabrics, the flowers and scents, the acts and afterglows which attended clandestine post-midnights and cinq-à-septs. Cunning in seduction, D’Annunzio was also blithe in discarding what he was done with; thus a trail of children and ex-paramours was left in his wake as he set out on the greater adventure of his career: to persuade Italy to fight on the side of its Latin sibling in World War I and to demand a larger share of the spoils than Allies were willing to give at Versailles. Having promised his country all that it wanted to abandon the Triple Alliance, France and Britain reneged under cover of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. D’Annunzio, who had been instrumental in engineering Italy’s volte-face and became its lead propagandist during a fight in which 600,000 of his countrymen died, was not surprisingly outraged.

He had preached war as the crucible out of which glory was forged and blood as a libation needed to fertilize the soil of the expanding new nation. He himself lost an eye in one of many exploits in modern chariots of battle: the airplane and motorized attack-boat. Gutsy as a diminutive Napoleon, he became a hero for millions, his rhetoric fanning their war-cries, his commitment to fight on for territories ‘unredeemed’ rallying a continued bellicosity.

When he staged a coup in the sub-Istrian port of Fiume as a bulwark against what he saw as the trumped-up southern Slav kingdom, demobbed soldiers and unemployed thugs flocked to his call. Over them and others enraged at the ‘unfair’ peace and pusillanimity of official leaders, he ruled as a quite benign dictator. Promulgating his own post-democratic political charter, he presided for a year over a festival of art, sex, drugs, expressionistic glamour and larceny before the ‘eunuchs’ of Rome, under pressure from the West, forced him to step down.

On this episode Hughes-Hallett focuses her most excited attention, and indeed for a time D’Annunzio’s experiment in Fiume dazzled the world. His mesmeric speeches, the mass adulation they evoked, the trooping of Arditi and other young irregulars through piazzas impressed women and men alike. Here was chutzpah incarnate, Nietzschean exuberance rather than the threat of proletarian excess that Lenin and Trotsky were fomenting in Russia or Bela Kuhn and Kurt Eisner closer to home. D’Annunzio was no enemy to Western civilization tout court, rather its prospective defender, an antidote to its torpor – or so many thought. Others noted the jack-booted edge to the performance. Mussolini, who slyly did not get involved, wrote in tepid support from his editor’s desk at Il Popolo. D’Annunzio had become far and away the most charismatic political figure in Italy: he could neither be opposed nor be fully adhered to by a younger man with rival ambitions.

D’Annunzio might have spread his revolt from Fiume back into and down the national peninsula. In the post-Versailles atmosphere discontent was so rife that action against the men of Rome was propitious. But D’Annunzio dithered. Hughes-Hallett shows how at crucial moments he would slip away to luxuriate in his bath, thence to a long crépuscule of aesthetic delights – he had his own string quartet to serenade him – entertaining the de rigueur mistress or two amid the overlord’s gaudy display of banners and trinkets. Perhaps he was just too old by the time for action – 60 to Mussolini’s 40. In any case, despite professions that he would die for Fiume, he let himself to be pensioned off to Lago di Garda, where he spent the final seventeen years of his life making a private Xanadu out of a lakeside villa once owned by the art-historian Heinrich Thode, husband of Cosima Wagner’s daughter Daniela, complete with a piano whose ivories had been tinkled by her womanizing celebrity grandfather Franz Liszt. (2)

D’Annunzio remained a figure of notoriety through these last years. Mussolini feared his political intervention and did everything possible to keep him shut up in his shrine, eventually dubbed ‘Vittoriale’, a word intimating the role its inhabitant had played in victory over Austro-Hungary and as “phraser of the dialectic of fascism” (3). Major differences might have set him against the Duce, not least the Latin racism which inclined him forever against the ‘Teuton’ and Slav; Hughes-Hallett, however, rejects a notion that he may have been murdered by a German agent out of fear of his opposition to the Berlin-Rome Axis; she attributes his fatal heart attack to his own abuse of cocaine and penchant for orgy even at age 74. Shades of Silvio Berlusconi may spring to mind, “bunga bunga” being a demotic version of what went in the Vittoriale’s warren of dark-draperied rooms. Berlusconi, however, has only outrageous eccentricity in common with his arguable precursor, for D’Annunzio was until the end a serious or at least self-conscious artist.

Hemingway revered Notturno and owed inspiration to it. Proust subsumed the inwardness, self-analysis and narrative abundance of L’Innocente and Il Fuoco, a title which Hughes-Hallett renders as Fire, though Hemingway and others of the epoch would have read it as The Flame. The latter indicates dominion of La Duse over the novel, but Hughes-Hallett may prefer the 1960s tinge to her version. This hovers behind her account of long-haired bad boys roaming the streets of Fiume, of hot nights of fornication in alleys or on wharf sides – young masculinist fun that prostitutes and slumming patrician ladies abetted. Hughes-Hallett views this with indulgence, as did its true begetter. Her dictator of Fiume might be sibling to the “wickedest man in the world”, the equally bald Aleister Crowley, practising his “sex magick” in a commune in another port town at the far end of Italy. Licentiousness was abroad and D’Annunzio a fount of it. Demonstrably his example incited other Anglo writers to preach it during their sojourns in Italy of the time – Lawrence in ‘Sun’, Pound in his ‘Circe’ cantos.

Hughes-Hallett’s enthusiasm for this aspect of her subject encourages her on occasion to make explicit parallels between the carnival that was Fiume and the ‘new age’ of the 1960s. On BBC3’s Private Passions, aired to coincide with the book’s launch, she identified herself as of a generation which grew up when Eros was defined by the Rolling Stones, choosing as her one non-classical inclusion Mick Jagger’s seductive if provocatively misogynistic “Under My Thumb”. No sentimentality here, rather challenge; effrontery. Hughes-Hallett’s treatment of the D’Annunzio phenomenon in this way has a likeness to her friend Ann Wroe’s ‘biography’ of the applicable archetype in her recent Orpheus, which interrupts serious discussion to notice a rock busker in the London tube and paints the inceptor of music as a spirit of dark shades, a lover of all, yet above all of himself, with a sinister streak such to make it seem apt that he should have been ripped apart by inflamed maenads in the end.

The sado-masochistic element in D’Annunzio’s work coloured his exploits as much as his décor and arguably assisted his courage. The awful side of it affected the imagination of great Italian artists to come after – in film, Pasolini in Salò, a town within sight of the Vittoriale, and Visconti in The Damned as elsewhere. But post-Fascist Italy and post-war cultural judgement sought to downgrade this once titanic figure, a re-rating Hughes-Hallett partly seeks to correct, though she fails to provide enough space to his serious work. A page or two each for L’Innocente and Il Fuoco seems derisory in a book whose main text runs to 650 pages. These are major works, as Henry James knew when he broke off writing his own most D’Annunzian novel (4), set partly in a Fuoco-like Venice, to dictate an extended essay on the Italian for Quarterly Review. (5).

The paucity of Hughes-Hallett’s treatment makes one wonder if she did much more than speed-read what are now considered unfashionable texts. In the genre of trade biography, name authors tend to favour sensation and eschew any whiff of the academic. Editors concerned with sales encourage this, and writers whose day job may be principally journalism fear if not loathe experts who can take them to task over this fact or that. Some mix of such motives may be what prompted Hughes-Hallett, her editor or both to confine references to summaries of what sources she read for each chapter. These ‘notes’ are prefaced by an invitation to those wishing exact citation to contact the author via the publisher’s website. I wonder how many have done so and, if so, have been responded to to their satisfaction, and how quickly. The tactic seems designed to chill scholars hot on the trail of origins of myths which inevitably grow up around a figure of D’Annunzio’s charisma. The approach could encourage a loose tale-teller to legerdemain, if not outright dishonesty, and in this respect, as in its tightness of narrative, John Woodhouse’s 1998 OUP biography Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel shows a steadier hand. In any case, it has a better title.

‘Pike’ refers to a quip made by D’Annunzio’s onetime friend the writer Romain Rolland, whose politics became pacifist at the same time the Italian’s became militaristic. The fish in question is a predator that lurks in wait for its prey; D’Annunzio, said Rolland, ever lurked in wait for ideas – in style, in content – fresh models to swallow and vomit back as his own. Well, great writers steal, they don’t borrow, T. S. Eliot famously said; moreover, D’Annunzio was as sinned against as sinning in this – Lawrence, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway on the one hand to Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Huysmans and Wilde on the other. Had D’Annunzio’s politics not disgusted Rolland, the epithet might have not been applied, and the fact that Hughes-Hallett uses it only once or twice in her introductory pages suggests that it may be an afterthought, encouraged perhaps by editorial concern that her book not appear too much in thrall to what post-Fascism has deemed a rebarbative subject. One is reminded, however, of the blithe coda tacked onto the end of Don Giovanni, which fails utterly to efface a dominant impression of what went before: the awesome spectacle of a libertine to whom daring is all and the consequence of being pulled down into flame faced with a roar not a whimper.

The Pike, in short, is not about D’Annunzio being a ‘pike’, it is about him being a dangerous exemplar of genius. His courage, allied to sensuality in extremis, is what attracts the author and gives her text a narrative drive and flavour far beyond what the less affected Woodhouse conveys. An Italian commentator said of D’Annunzio’s most youthful novel that you could sense an excess of semen about it; Hughes-Hallett adds a sense of the ‘orgasmo’ with which women responded to this ‘seminal’ figure of a modern Italianità. The book is prurient and would be less if it were not, for the erotic within the aesthetic is essential to what Italians called dannunzianismo. The sanguinary is here too, and towards it Hughes-Hallett’s moral compass is spot on. D’Annunzio’s war-mongering – “Morire non è basta” (6) – was appalling, the results terrifying. He too of course suffered – impaired vision, headaches, hallucinations – and his emphasis on remembrance of the dead in the elegiac Notturno as in the Vittoriale itself is impressive. But no part of Hughes-Hallett’s book is more moving than her account of the ghastly, unnecessary carnage that went on on the Isonzo and the Piave from 1916 to 1918.

Her descriptions of war have a Goya-esque grandeur to them. Add them to Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms and you begin to understand modern Italy with a profundity that elbows aside the blithe jokes about Berlusconi or Grillo that are common currency today. For this alone Hughes-Hallett’s book is worth reading. Alongside Amanda Foreman’s treatment of the carnage of the American civil war in her recent A World on Fire, it makes one wonder if a new age is at hand for history written by women – an age in which the matter of blood and destruction wreaked by men is weighed up and grieved over, yet with fine objectivity, by the sex that largely did not participate in it. Here may be a writerly equivalent to the advent of Hilary Clinton, Susan Rice and “Oestrogen Power” into the arena of war-making policy (7). Let us hope women do better. Certainly it is hard to imagine D’Annunzio’s Nietzschean cries for Dionysian glory in death issuing from the lips of the greater or sometimes lesser beauties he spent so much of the rest of his time longing with purple vehemence to kiss.

Dr. STODDARD MARTIN is a journalist and the author of numerous books on 19th and 20th century thinkers

THE PIKE: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Fourth Estate, £25


1. The Man and the Echo

2. Liszt, Cosima and Wagner all figure at crucial moments in D’Annunzio’s largest novel Il Fuoco

3. Hemingway’s tag, in Across the River and into the Trees. See my essay in Quarterly Review (Summer 2011)

4. The Wings of the Dove, published in 1902, two years after Il Fuoco. Influence of D’Annunzio may also appear in The Golden Bowl, not least in the character of Prince Amerigo, published in 1904

5. “Gabriele D’Annunzio, 1902” appeared in QR in April 1904. The editor of Penguin Classics book of James’s literary criticism omitted this major essay on the grounds that “D’Annunzio is so little read nowadays”

6. As Hemingway quotes, again in Across the River and into the Trees. See Note 2 above

7. I am obliged to Ilana Mercer’s essay ‘Libya: a war of the womb’ in QR (Spring 2011 ) on this point


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