Home » belles-lettres, criticism, history, politics, Politics & History

Nine Ways of Looking at D’Annunzio

By (October 1, 2012) 11 Comments

The Quirky Intellectual Dandy

Perhaps to compensate for his not-so imposing physique, lack of good looks, and plebeian background, Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) embraced excess in everything he did. And he did many things: novelist, playwright, poet, aviator and sailor, a genuine war hero, a narcissist, a drug addict, a gifted rabble-rouser, debt-evader, and a noted womanizer.

He was also ahead of his time, exhibiting so many of the behavioral traits not openly admired until our present day: selfishness, self-centeredness, sexual promiscuity, ostentatiousness, love of violence, and a narcissistic dictatorial bent. A master of self-publicity, he aimed to shock and dazzle Europeans with his politics, conventional and unconventional sexual gymnastics, heroic and nearly-impossible military feats, and his writing. His life was a contrast between sophisticated urban civility and a crude and violent behavior. He was seldom out of the limelight, shaping taste, societal mores, literature and, after Mussolini’s rise to power, proving an annoying competitor to the dictator for public attention.

One of his most recent biographers, John Woodhouse, summarizes the writer’s character in one paragraph:

D’Annunzio’s sole concern was self-gratification and glory: to make his existence as interesting and preferably as joyful as possible for himself, whatever the consequences for others; to create a work of art from his life and to immortalize it in words. There were, it is true, moments when nationalism or patriotism seemed important … but more often than not the greater glory of his native land served only to throw into greater relief the lustre of his personal brand of glory.

Harry Clément Ulrich Kessler, an Anglo-German diplomat, writer, bon vivant, and patron of modern art, has also left us in his diaries an indelible view of D’Annunzio. In 1911, Kessler attended in Paris the performance of D’Annunzio’s five act musical play Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (music by Claude Debussy). Kessler recounts that when he met the playwright after the performance and complimented him on “his masterful command of the French language,” D’Annunzio replied: “I accept the compliment, monsieur, because I owe this to a terrific amount of work. I can truly say that I have been heroic!”

Kessler described the poet (as D’Annunzio was always reflexively known, despite all his other literary achievements), who was then living in France to escape from his Italian creditors, as follows:

His suit is also Italian: light gray summer pants such as one sees in bazaars in Florence, or Sunday on Italian traveling salesmen. Add to that rundown patent leather shoes, a somewhat frayed coat with a black-braided casual suit, and a no longer new, light lilac necktie, the whole outfit in the style of a fading coffeehouse Don Juan from an Italian small town, Bologna or Pisa. The bald scalp and the yellow, wrinkled face with the pale blond little beard completes the burned-out impression, standing in contrast, it must be said, to the clever, often witty, often cruelly indifferent eyes.

D’Annunzio’s every public word and gesture was designed for effect, as though he were on an opera stage, tinged, as Kessler puts it, with a “light half-ironic melancholy.” Taking his leave of the young New Englander Marguerite Chapin (the future Marguerite Caetani, Princess of Bassiano) Kessler confided to his diary that D’Annunzio stopped at the doorway before stepping out and looking at his hostess said: “But truly what a charming woman you are! One of those women of whom you retain a delicious memory. And we will never see each other again. Perhaps later, seeing each other more often, one would discover faults, but, like this, it will be one of those memories that you have in life, the memory of something exquisite that you will never see again.”

The Young Seducer

It is hard for us, nearly a century later, to fathom why women were so attracted to D’Annunzio. Photographs of him show that he was short of stature, totally bald by age 23, had spindly legs and rotten teeth, and his eyes were described by actress Sarah Bernhardt as “like little blobs of shit.” He was, in other words, unattractive; thus, it must have been his mind, melodramatics, wit, and daring (and, toward the end, money) that made women flock to him like moths to a flame. In marriage, he moved frenetically to affair after affair, his sexuality (and ego) never satiated or satisfied, bursting flamboyantly into the wider world as a shooting star, lighting the nightly sky with its brilliant phantasmagoria of colors before disappearing on the horizon.

D’Annunzio was certainly a typical Latin lover; he boasted that he had seduced at least 1,000 women. If this was not an exaggeration, he had been more promiscuous than Giacomo Casanova, who in his Memoirs, by some counts listed a measly 122 women with whom he had affairs – although D’Annunzio’s estimate, even if true, still puts him well shy of such record-holders as Fidel Castro (an alleged 35,000), actor Warren Beatty before he settled down with his wife Annette Benning (12,775), or prolific Belgian novelist Georges Simenon (10,000 – women, not books).

D’Annunzio was born in Pescara (Abruzzi) in 1863 as Gaetano Rapagnetta. His father changed the family name to Rapagnetta-D’Annunzio when a maternal uncle adopted him. Son “Gaetano” became known as Gabriele, after the Archangel Gabriel, because in childhood he had such angelic looks; as a young adult he then dropped the plebeian-sounding Rapagnetta surname and used exclusively the more aristocratic-sounding D’Annunzio (Of the Annunciation).

Francesco Paolo Rapagnetta, Gabriele’s father, was a spendthrift and supremely egotistical man who accumulated mountainous debts in order to provide for serial lovers, many of whom were prostitutes. D’Annunzio turned out to be a magnified copy of his father, believing that he had inherited “corrupt seed” from him, a notion which both repelled and fascinated him. In his novel The Triumph of Death, he paints an accurate portrait of his father’s proclivities and of his own:

Flesh, flesh, this brutish thing, full of veins, tendons, ligaments, glands, bones, full of instincts and needs; flesh, sweating and stinking; flesh becoming deformed, sick, covered in sores, callouses, wrinkles, pimples, warts, hairs. This brute thing, flesh thrived in him with a sort of impudence, producing in his delicate neighbor at table an impression almost of revulsion … I, I am the son of this man!

At the age of 16, while still in high school, he published his first book of poems, Primo Vere. To stir interest in the publication of these verses, he circulated a press release of his fall from a horse and premature death; it had the effect he intended since the slim volume garnered free publicity when newspapers mentioned it in his obituaries. He also pawned his grandfather’s pocket watch to pay for a visit to a brothel, and started a long-term love affair with a fellow student, Giselda Zucconi. He wasn’t faithful to her, of course, but throughout the years he kept returning to her in between bouts of affairs with many others.

In 1881 he moved to Rome to study at the university, a task which he did not take as seriously as his social gad-abouting or insatiable love life, but in 1883 he met and married the young Duchess Maria Harduin, despite her parents’ opposition. Although Harduin gave the poet three children, married intimacy did not last long and in 1890, after she tried to commit suicide, the two finally started to lead separate lives, although they remained married for 55 years.

In fact, many of D’Annunzio’s discarded lovers attempted suicide. Others coped with drugs, alcohol, or else devolved into mental instability. D’Annunzio’s trail of lovers, discarded when he got bored, is varied and long. He led several of the abandoned ones to suicide attempts, drugs, alcoholism, and mental instability.

In 1886-87, for instance (after an 1884-85 affair with Neapolitan poet and journalist Olga Ossani), he took up with a woman separated from her husband, Barbara Elvira Leoni, an affair that, on and off, lasted six years (1886-1892). The two had met in Rome in April 1887 at a concert. Her real name was Elvira Natalia Fraternali; pressured by her parents, in 1884, she had married Count Ercole Leoni but for various reasons (among them an abortion that left her incapable of bearing children) in early 1887 the two had separated and she had returned to live with her parents.

She was smart, good-looking, twenty-five, and available and within a matter of days the two had become lovers. Within months they were separated when her parents took her on vacation to Rimini, on the Adriatic, for the summer. They saw each other only once in Rimini before Barbara left with one of his friends, poet Adolfo de Bosis, on a yatcht bound for Venice. D’annunzio followed via land, and the two stayed together in Venice for about a month before returning to Rome, where in the meantime, D’annunzio’s wife had given birth to his third son.

In Rome they saw each other virtually daily and during the next few years he wrote her more than one thousand love letters, some romantic and many erotic: “You came into my blood as a sweet and frightening destiny. A caress from you is not worth anything; a kiss from you not worth anything. Every day I am more and more convinced of this. Adored one. Adored one, very much adored and desired…” In another letter, his aesthetic decadence, and fetishism comes to the fore when he wrote to her about, “that bloody (menstrual) handkerchief wrapped in newspaper pages… a very intimate thing… I cannot describe to you the strange life elixir that comes out of these dead objects…”

D’Annunzio financial profligacy kept him always in debt, and only one step ahead of his creditors. After serving in the army for a year, he fled from his residence, decamping to Naples, where he worked as a journalist.

In Naples, although he was still continuing his affair with Leoni, in 1891 he started a new entanglement with the married mother of four children, Countess Maria Gravina Di Ramacca. In October 1892, Maria’s husband surprised the two in bed together in her apartment in Via Caracciolo in Naples. He challenged D’Annunzio to a duel, but when the poet declined (odd for an Italian), the husband reported the crime of adultery to the authorities. In July 1893, D’Annunzio and Maria were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to a five-month jail term, which was promptly suspended through royal amnesty. Maria then moved in with D’Annunzio and gave him a child, Renata, but the relationship floundered the following year. Maria always claimed that another child, born in 1895, was also D’Annunzio’s, a claim he denied because he believed that after he left her she had relations with other men. Later, Maria moved to Monte Carlo (Monaco), became the manager of a small hotel, and died there.

The Lover of Eleonora Duse

Few streets in Florence are named for women. One of these, Viale Eleonora Duse, crosses Viale Gabriele D’Annunzio near the foot of the Settignano hill. The city fathers, in their wisdom, have thus romantically united, as they were in reality for a decade, two of the most famous Italian figures of the late 19th century.

Eleonora Duse was one of the two most famous European actresses of the era. When not touring, Duse lived in a modest villa, La Porziuncola, Via della Capponcina 75, in Settignano, in the hills above Florence. D’Annunzio had conveniently rented the more grandiose villa La Capponcina, for which he could not afford the rent and which Duse paid for him, at Via della Capponcina 32, living there in princely splendor with his 38 borzoi dogs, 10 horses, 15 servants, and 200 doves. Michelangelo, as a child, also lived at Via della Capponcina 68, in a house owned by his father Leonardo Buonarroti who run a stone quarry nearby.

The short distance between the two villas, on opposite sides of the same street, gave the lovers ample opportunity to see each other. D’Annunzio remained in the lavishly furnished villa even after his affair with Duse foundered in 1904. He lived there from 1898 until 1908, when, as Duse was no longer paying his bills and he lived mostly on credit, he was forced to flee into “exile” in France to escape creditors haunting him for payment.

The affair between D’Annunzio and Duse started with an exchange of correspondence. Duse had just read D’Annunzio’s novel L’Innocente and was attempting to convince him to write a play for her. After reading his next novel, Il Trionfo della Morte, Eleonora’s fascination with D’Annunzio became a morbid fixation, since she was fascinated and at the same time repelled by the author’s energetic but strange ideas. She confided to Boito: “I would prefer to die in a corner rather than love a soul such as his. I detest D’Annunzio, but adore him.”

The two had met in 1894 in Venice. The affair, which started in 1895, lasted on and off for close to a decade. The relationship was mutually advantageous, since Duse paid most of D’Annunzio’s bills, and he wrote four plays in which she starred.

The personal relationship was a tortured one, since the egotistical D’Annunzio saw Duse merely as an outlet, but not an exclusive one, for his sexual acrobatics, a source of funds to pay for his expensive tastes, and a glamorous and respectable publicity vehicle for his plays. Additionally, the depth of their intimacy provided him material for his novels.

We mostly know of the turmoil of their relationship from the nearly 1,500 letters Eleonora Duse wrote him, which are conserved in the archives of D’Annunzio’s residence-museum in Gardone Riviera. Her letters are full of love, but also visions of professional dreams and descriptions of her increasing reliance on her work to forget his frequent slights and escapades, and on opium for her increasing solitude. D’annunzio was not keenly aware of, or else did not care for, Duse’s emotionality. He was frenetically active, both writing and engaging in intimate relationships with other women, even using stimulants to stay awake, saying, “The heraldic flags of glory are insomnia and activism.”

D’Annunzio’s letters to Duse are no longer extant since apparently her daughter Enrichetta Marchetti Bullough destroyed them in England after Duse’s death. The poet was apparently incredulous and perturbed when he learned of this and sent Enrichetta a telegram which said, in part: “The destruction of my letters to Ghisola [his nickname for Duse] is an unjustifiable crime against the spirit. Those many pages were the highest testimony of nobility for my loved one and myself. It is not true that she gave you orders to destroy them. I swear it is not true. She is always next to me and speaks to me without words…”

In 1897, D’Annunzio wrote the play Sogno di una Mattina di Primavera, in which Duse starred in Rome. When the play did not do well, D’Annunzio blamed Duse and moved to Paris, where he started to pay assiduous attention to Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora’s rival on the world’s theatrical stage.

The two actresses worked on stage in totally different manners: Bernhardt was old school and her superb acting was the result of long experience and exaggerated but expressive stage gestures; Duse was an instinctive actress who detested gesturing and conveyed her characters’ essence by living their emotions and being able to transmit them to the audience. Bernhardt was also very adept in the favorable use of publicity and relished it, while Duse rarely gave interviews and when not on stage avoided publicity and the press.

Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, commented that Duse was the greater actress: Bernhardt’s success was due to hard work, Duse’s to talent. George Bernard Shaw, who saw them both in June 1895 acting the same role in the same play in London, also gave his vote to Duse as the better actress. In one of his most enthusiastic reviews, Shaw, who had already praised Duse for “the best modern acting I have ever seen,” wrote that she had inflicted “annihilation on her rival…” He added that the Italian, “with a tremor of the lip, which you feel rather than see, and which lasts half an instant, touches you straight on the very heart,” and concluded that Duse “immeasurably dwarfs the poor little octave and a half on which Sarah Bernhardt plays such pretty canzonets and stirring marches.” Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, and Charlie Chaplin – all were vocal in their praise of Duse.

D’Annunzio gave Bernhadt the lead part in his new play La Citta Morta even though it had been written and promised to Duse, who in 1896 had undertaken a new tour in the United States to raise the money to stage it. The tour had been a triumph, and in Washington President Grover Cleveland and his wife attended all her performances. The First Lady even went so far as to invite Duse for tea, a first at the White House for an actress, and had thus shocked the staid Washington society.

In 1900 D’Annunzio, by now bored with his lover (now 37 to Duse’s 42), in his novel Il Fuoco revealed in the intimate, somewhat fictionalized details about their affair. And though the break was definitive, she would not admit that her love had ended, as she wrote with reference to the publication of Il Fuoco: “My pain, whatever it is, does not count when we are talking about another masterpiece of Italian literature. Further, I am forty-one years old …and I love (him).”

Still more slights followed. In March 1904 D’Annunzio deprived Duse of the main role in his new play La Figlia di Iorio, which he’d also written for her, and for which she had already had costumes made. He sent a messenger to pick up the costumes, telling her in a note: “ The theater is a monster that devours its children; you must let yourself be devoured.” The role was then given to the younger Irma Grammatica. D’annunzio wrote in his secret notebook, “Fleeting infidelity gives love an inebriating novelty,” and “going down the old streets of Fiesole I would arrive at the gate of a villa barred by a gate…” where “two sisters expert in perverse pleasures” waited for him. He would return from such excursions, sometimes lasting two or three days, in great spirits and charged with boundless energy.

Poor Duse was at wit’s end about how to keep her philandering lover from straying. Once, while he was out, she arrived at his villa unannounced, searched the bed and found two hairpins, proof that the poet was taking women to the bed they had shared. In a jealous, hysterical rage, she went about looking for matches so that she could burn La Capponcina. A veterinarian who was at the villa treating some of the animals reminded her that no one in the villa smoked, and hence there were no matches.

Duse, although she still loved D’Annunzio, was finally losing patience. She sent him a note telling him off: “…Do not talk to me of the supremacy of rationality, of your life of the flesh, of you thirst (for glory), of a life of joy. I am tired of these words! I have listened to you parroting them for years… Do not answer this…”

On April 5, 1924, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, walking from the hotel to the theater, she was caught in a rainstorm. That night she came down with high fever and never recovered, dying on Easter Monday, April 21 at the age of 66.

Although she was buried in Asolo, her wishes concerning the private character of the funeral were not respected, since her death and funeral became a political issue. Learning of her sickness, D’Annunzio did not rush to his former lover’s side, but soon after she died telegraphed Benito Mussolini, the prime minister, urging that the remains of the “most Italian of hearts” be brought back to Italy by the government. Although the appeal was couched in personal terms, D’Annunzio was likely seeking publicity for himself, since he gave copies of the telegram to the press and the text was published throughout the world. Now that she was gone, D’Annunzio also appeared devastated by remorse and, truthful for once, said, “The one whom I did not deserve has died.”

In his older days, D’Annunzio kept a veil over the face of a Duse bust sculpted when they lived together and claimed that he could communicate with her spirit while biting a pomegranate standing in front of a statue of the Buddha.

The Lover of the Flamboyant Luisa Casati

By 1904 his ardors for the “Divine Duse” had cooled, and D’Annunzio became sexually involved with Marquise Luisa Casati, an affair lasting from 1903 to 1913. Casati was flamboyant, erratic, and exhibited shocking behavior; thus she fit well with D’Annunzio’s exhibitionist style, as much as a narcissist and insatiable show-off as he was, but one with the advantage of having money, and lot of it.

Born Luisa Annan in Milan, in 1900 she had married Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino and led a conventional life until age 22, when she started an on-again off-again affair with D’Annunzio. Converted by her lover to a philosophy of excess, extravagance, and decadence, she used the considerable fortune she had inherited from her father, a textile magnate, to pay for this lifestyle. From 1910 to 1924 she lived in her Venetian palace, Palazzo Venier de Leoni, on the Grand Canal. From this grand residence, with its retinue of servants and a menagerie of exotic animals, Casati would take late evening strolls, naked under her furs, parading her pet cheetahs, held by diamond-studded leashes, and accompanied by black male servants whose bodies were covered in gold paint.

Casati’s stated aim was “to be a living work of art.” To accomplish this, she continued spending with abandon, trying to impress with her originality and uniqueness. In addition to D’Annunzio, she had affairs with artistic figures such as Augustus John, Erte`, Jean Cocteau, and Cecil Beaton. Her parties were attended by the likes of Isadora Duncan, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. When in New York, she hobnobbed with the likes of John Barrymore and William Randolph Hearst.

By the early 1930s Casati was totally broke, unable to obtain further loans, and in debt for 25 million dollars. Her palaces, art collection, and other possessions were seized and sold at auction and she fled to London, where she was still able, for a time, to move in the intellectual circles of Peter Quennell and Quentin Crisp. During her last years, she kept moving from one rooming house to another, sometimes rummaging for food through garbage cans, a forlorn, strange, pitiful figure.

Casati died on June 1, 1957, poor and forgotten, a figure of oblivious pity and curiosity. She was buried near London at Brompton Cemetery with one of her beloved dogs, stuffed, buried at her feet. Her tombstone bears a quotation from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra:

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her
Infinite variety”

The Lover of Many Others

Even though by 1900 D’Annunzio was a member of parliament on the extreme right, in March of that year he voted with the left against his own party and was beaten by his district conservative candidate at the following election. Certainly, politics was not his consuming passion but only the means for displaying his enormous ego. Literature and women were more important to him.

Concurrently, while he was still carrying on with Duse, Casati, and others, from 1903 to 1907 D’Annunzio also maintained a relationship with Alessandra Di Rudini` Carlotti, the widowed daughter of the Marquis Antonio Di Rudini, a former prime minister of Italy. The poet met the beautiful, statuesque 27-year-old mother of two children when he had acted as a witness to the marriage of her brother, count Carlo di Rudini. He saw her again in Milan at the Club Leonardo da Vinci, and continued to pursue her. Slowly, the initial distrust and antipathy Alessandra felt for him turned first to admiration and then to blind love, creating a great public scandal.

Unlike Duse, whose place she had seemingly taken, Alessandra wanted the poet all for herself and did not think twice about spending her money to keep him happy and in style. The servants at the villa increased from seven to twenty-one, the horses from four to eight, and the dogs from four to thirty-nine.

When scandal followed, and Alessandra’s widow’s pension from her deceased husband was reduced despite her father’s fury, she moved in with D’Annunzio in Florence. Their stormy relationship verged in some respects on the kinky; recently a contract about the rules of their relationship they had both signed on November 27, 1903, has come to light. In it, the first rule read “Alessandra Carlotti of Garda gives to Gabriele D’Annunzio absolute possession of her body – free of any clothing and other impediment- from the nail of her feet to the very top of her light hair, without exclusion of any part, in light, health, and joy.”

In 1907-09 D’Annunzio had a relationship with Countess Giuseppina Giorgi Mancini, another married woman. He had been pursuing her since 1906 and finally seduced her in February 1907. In September 1908, while she was on her way to see him, two men sent by her husband had abducted her on the street and brought her back home. In any case, because she had been showing signs of mental malady, the affair had virtually petered. Mancini was institutionalized until 1911.

By then D’Annunzio’s creditors had caught up with him, and he had fled to Paris, while most his furniture and personal effects were, on orders from the courts, auctioned off (the balance were auctioned off for charity by the owner of the villa in 2001). He lived in Paris, on and off, about five years, continuing his promiscuous, unstable life: among his new conquests were Countess Natalie De Golubeff, the wife of Russian Count Viktor Golubeff, with whom he had an affair from 1908 to 1915, and Romaine Brooks, an American lesbian painter. She painted three portraits of him, but had the good sense to leave him for expatriate American poet Nathalie Clifford Barney and Russian ballerina Ida Rubenstein before D’Annunzio had the opportunity to ditch her.

During World War I, between 1916 and 1919, a period in which he primarily devoted his energies to military exploits, he frequented Olga Brunner Levi, a singer and musician who was married to Venetian Ugo Levi and lived in Palazzo Giustiniani Lolin in Venice. The palace was a venue for musical and literary dinners, and D’Annunzio, who was then living in Venice recuperating from a plane crash, came for supper. Olga, then thirty years old, fell for the talk of the poet, and the affair started, known to those in their social circle in the city, except Ugo who remained in the dark. The passionate affair lasted several years, and Olga kept hidden in a small trunk the over three hundred love letters he sent her.

In 1919 he abandoned Brunner Levi for classical pianist, Luisa Baccara. He had met her in the Brunner’s home in April and was able to seduce her by the fall of that year. She was 27, he 56. Baccara followed him when in 1919-20 he headed the military invasion of Fiume he had organized. Such was her influence on him during those days, that two of his lieutenants, Guido Keller and future novelist Giovanni Comisso hatched a secret plot to kidnap her during a party and drop her off in one of the deserted Dalmatian islands. It did not happen since D’Annunzio nixed the idea of giving that party. She subsequently moved to Venice with him, and installed herself at his retirement villa, Il Vittoriale, in the town of Gardone Riviera on the shores of Lake Garda, as the mistress of the house. Luisa Baccara, despite D’Annunzio frequent “adventures” inside and outside the “family” walls, stayed with him until his death in 1938.

In 1924 a beautiful 22 year old French woman, Angela Lager, made her appearance in Gardone Riviera. Somehow, the 61-year-old D’Annunzio seduced her, installing her in a small apartment in town. He nicknamed her Jouvence and visited her frequently; however when she demanded that he send Luisa away and move her to the villa, he demurred and in August 1925 sent her packing.

Many others succeeded her. In 1932, it was 20-year-old Emy Heufler, employed at the villa as a maid, who on and off stayed put until he died. Emy, who was allegedly from the Tyrol, may have been employed by the German intelligence service to report on D’Annunzio’s activities, since after D’Annunzio died she landed a job on the staff of the Third Reich Foreign Affairs minister.

As he got older, D’Annunzio became even more active in proving that his libido was still up to par, and to keep himself “ in form,” started taking cocaine and engaging in all kinds of erotic games.

One who was often invited to the Vittoriale to entertain the “commandante” was Letizia De Felici, who ran the tailor shop that provided D’Annunzio with his suits and the various costumes he wore around the house.

One of those few women that D’Annunzio wanted to bed and could not was Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish art deco painter. In 1925, sponsored by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco, she had a major exhibition in Milan, and was introduced to D’Annunzio. She visited him twice in Gardone Riviera, hoping he would commission a portrait (for about $ 2,000), but the old man was more interested in trying to seduce her than sitting still, clothed, for a painting. She would not give in to him and left Gardone Riviera.

But this was an almost isolated exception. Thanks to his fame and money, D’Annunzio’s bed partners multiplied. In many instances, mothers prostituted themselves and then offered their daughter to the lecherous old goat. He was always very generous both with mothers and daughters; their “happiness” certainly had material rewards. Giuditta Franzoni, his long-time personal nurse, also participated in his unorthodox libidinous games and was in charge of contacting and procuring for him new and varied female companions. A letter dated November 28, 1936, found in D’Annunzio’s papers, from a certain Angela reveals that her daughter Annamaria is more than ready to visit him again. Mother Angela writes: “Commander, as recommended by your nurse Giuditta, I had our doctor examine Annamaria and he determined that she is a little weak and ordered a tonic treatment. Annamaria is now well again and has a strong desire to return to you. I am very appreciative of your thoughts toward me. Annamaria is all for me and I am happy that you make her happy – a happiness which I often dreamt during my youth.”

The War Hero … and Fascist

On April 24, 1915, Italian customs officers at the Italian-Austrian border engaged in a firefight with Austrian reservists who were burning a small river-crossing bridge. The news that the Italians had suffered casualties prompted the D’Annunzio to address a frenetic crowd with fiery words, spurring the country to enter World War I:

Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins … The cannon roars. The earth smokes …Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory … The slaughter begins, the destruction begins … All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow … We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.

D’Annunzio’s rhetoric was rousing, and he continued his campaign for war with several other speeches in Rome. Mussolini, the former Socialist agitator, also continually beat the war drums from the newspaper, Il Popolo D’Italia, (The Italian People), which he had founded with French money after he was kicked out of the Socialist Party for advocating war.

In the war, which Italy entered on May 24, 1915, D’Annunzio served in the army, the navy, and the air corps. He lost sight in one eye in a plane crash, but this did not deter him from continuing to fight.

On February 10-11, 1918, D’Annunzio participated in hit and run raid against the Austrian Navy. The raid, by three anti-submarine motorboats (each with a crew of thirty) led by Captain Costanzo Ciano, had infiltrated the Bay of Buccari and launched six torpedoes against Austrian ships at anchor; nets around the ships had stopped five torpedoes, while the sixth exploded prematurely and raised the alarm. Tactically, the raid was a bust, but the attendant publicity about the daring action reinvigorated the Italians, who were still demoralized by their 1917 defeat at Caporetto.

In August of the same year, D’Annunzio led a flotilla of seven unarmed airplanes over Vienna, carrying only his violin, and dropped 50,000 handbills (his own composition, naturally), urging Austrians to surrender. After the end of the war, he agitated for a “greater Italy.” On September 12, 1919, D’Annunzio organized his own small army made up of two thousand discharged soldiers and deserters, and led a motorized column into the city of Fiume, whose status was to be the subject of negotiation with Yugoslavia. He made himself, Garibaldi-style, the dictator of what he called The Regency of the Carnaro, organizing a totalitarian republican government, calling himself Duce (Leader), overprinting stamps, issuing some with his own likeness, and otherwise acting as ruler. His soldiers wore black shirts, pledged allegiance to him, and became convinced that they were defending civilization against “a flood of Slav barbarians.”

Evidently, D’Annunzio’s ego was thus satisfied for 15 months, and while the Italian government ordered the city blockaded, it did not prevent the Red Cross from keeping it well supplied. Thus the “legionnaires” were able to enjoy their moment in the spotlight, with endless mass meetings in the public squares, replying to the Duce cry, “To whom Italy?” with “To us!”. One of his “legionnaires wrote: “The city abounded with beautiful girls; the pastry shops were bursting with extraordinary sweets. One ate, one danced, one drank; indeed, it truly seemed that this city, with its life overflowing with gifts, was the reward for all our exertions during the war.”

In November 1920, Italy signed a treaty with Yugoslavia making Fiume for the moment a free city. The new Italian Prime Minister, Giovanni Giolitti, ordered D’Annunzio to leave and disband his “soldiers.” When D’Annunzio refused to do so, Giolitti had the Italian army and the navy blockade the city. D’Annunzio then declared that he would resist. When Italian army units attacked on December 24, nearly fifty lives were lost, including five civilians. D’Annunzio knew the game was up when a shell from the battleship Andrea Doria hit his palace and wounded him slightly. He made one final speech about the “Christmas of Blood” and, convinced that he could no longer milk his exploits for publicity, left the city and retired to a villa on Lake Garda, while his “soldiers” evacuated Fiume and returned home.

D’Annunzio’s actions and the failure of the state to stop him promptly and prosecute him afterward provided the behavioral example that Mussolini learned well on his ascent to power: violence and illegality could be used with impunity to accomplish one’s political aims.

D’Annunzio was a supporter of Mussolini and championed his rise to power, although he did not like Germans and Nazism and warned Mussolini against an alliance with Hitler. Perhaps because he was a mountebank himself, although a more refined and cultured one, he could see through the dangerous histrionics of the former Austrian corporal. In 1934 he wrote in pencil on the inside cover of his copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “The converted Jew Adolph Hitler with the ignoble face darkened by indelible splashes of the paint or glue that he held in his brush… which has became the scepter of a ferocious clown…”

For his support of (or acquiescence to) Fascism, D’Annunzio was handsomely rewarded: at Mussolini’s recommendation the king made him Prince of Monteneveso and gave him a substantial pension. He was made an honorary general in the Air Force, and an integral edition of his writings was published at state expense. In 1937, after the death of sitting president of the Academia d’Italia Guglielmo Marconi, D’Annunzio was appointed to the post, and he was provided with funds to restructure and enlarge the villa he had purchased in Gardone Riviera on the shores of Lake Garda.

The Lion in Winter

D’Annunzio had first rented the villa, then known as Villa Cargnacco, on January 28, 1921. He bought it later in 1921 at a cost of 260,000 lire, which he borrowed from a bank (part of the debt was still outstanding at the time of his death). His expenditures always managed to outpace his substantial royalties, so to create the monument to himself that he wished, he came up with an ingenious scheme. In December 1923, he deeded the villa and its contents to Italy, provided the nation supplied him with the funds to carry out his grandiose redevelopment schemes. Even in the entrance arch to the property he had an appropriate motto carved “Io ho quell che ho donato” (I only have what I have given), reminding visitors that he was just a temporary tenant, enjoying what he had already gifted to the Italian nation.

The Vittoriale degli Italiani (the Victory Monument of the Italians), as he called it, became his obsession. He hired young architect Giancarlo Maroni and directed him to translate his vision into buildings and landscape.

The main building of the complex, which he called the Priory, a reference to the asceticism of monks (which he admired but most certainly did not practice), is replete with strange and symbolic motifs. For example the entrance to his study, which he called officina, was preceded by three steps but the lintel was not raised proportionately, so that visitors entering the room would have to bow before him. One day, distracted by one thing or another, even though he was only 5’ 5’’, he forgot the height of the door and banged his own head on the lintel. His bedroom in the Priory, keeping with his own brand of monasticism, is unsettling. Called the Leper’s Room, it features a very narrow bed, unadorned, and made in the shape of a crib, looking much like a casket. D’Annunzio intended it to be this way to symbolize that the beginning of life (the crib) and death (the casket) are part of a continuum. The room also contains a painting showing the poet, dying of leprosy, being held in the arms of St. Francis of Assisi. The ceiling is frescoed with images of female saints, whose faces, however, are those of some of his lovers.

The closets and furniture drawers, left exactly as they were when D’Annunzio died in 1938, contain his personal effects and clothes: 73 pairs of silk underwear, ivory in color and monogrammed, more than 300 pairs of boots and shoes he designed himself, 30 nightshirts, including one with a round hole below his waist, decorated in gold thread, baby doll pajamas, made to order, that he had his lady visitors wear when they came to see him, small boxes with his lady visitors’ pubic hair.

D’Annunzio was 58 when he moved to the future Vittoriale and 75 when he died. Apart from frequent outside female companionship, he lived there with Luisa Baccara, and for a while her sister Iolanda, his architect Maroni, the “governess” Aelis Mazoyer, his librarian Antonio Bruiers, a cook named Albina, and a number of other household servants. He still kept lot of dogs, mostly great Danes, all having names that followed a distinct pattern: Dangiero, Dannaggio, Dannissa, Danzetta …

Friend – and Enemy – to Mussolini

Mussolini’s relationship with D’Annunzio was complicated. On one hand, the dictator admired the fearlessness and intellect of the old man, while on the other he feared him as a potential rival and could not comprehend the attention-grabbing and grandstanding of D’Annunzio. Thus he kept the poet/soldier/lover/adventurer honored and well-supplied with funds and cocaine, but isolated and away from Rome and politics. His invitations were diplomatically refused.
Mussolini had commented: “D’Annunzio is like a bad tooth. Either you pull it or cover it with gold.”

Mussolini officially tasked police inspector Giovanni Rizzo with D’Annunzio’s personal security, but in fact had Rizzo spy on the rival’s activities: screening and reporting on the mail, telephone calls, and visitors. Mussolini’s instructions to Rizzo had been short and to the point: “Communicate immediately news about the poet’s thinking.”

Novelist Giovanni Comisso, an intimate friend of D’Annunzio, believed that Mussolini, afraid that from one day to the next D’Annunzio could re-enter politics, had given orders to subdue the poet with a slow poison: “There were third parties secretly tasked by Mussolini who, taking advantage of the weakness that invariably follows all great artists, procured for D’Annunzio a box, large as a cigarette container, full of drugs that the poet snuffed daily.”

On the evening of March 1, 1938, D’Annunzio died in his study while standing in front of his writing lectern. He would have been 75 years old on March 12. Although according to the two doctors that examined the body afterward, the cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage, there have been speculations that he may have committed suicide since, in his own words, he had by then become a “shitting biped.”

Mussolini, informed right away telephonically by inspector Rizzo that D’Annunzio had died, if the telephone operator can be believed, exclaimed, “Finalmente!” (Finally!) He then decreed that the poet should be given a state funeral. If D’Annunzio had indeed committed suicide it would have been impossible to conduct religious services at the funeral, and the Fascist regime would have been embarrassed. Mussolini himself decided to take charge, leaving Rome by special train, accompanied by several ministers, the following morning. The funeral was held in Gardone Riviera the morning of March 3, and the body interred the same day, standing up, in the gardens of the Vittoriale. As no autopsy or extended exam of the remains was done, the possibility of death by suicide, the ingestion of an over dose of the many drugs D’Annunzio was using, cannot be excluded.

The Literary Dazzler

Equally at home with drama, poetry, and the novel, D’Annunzio was above all a self-enamored lyrical genius, whose superb command of the Italian language made him a “word painter,” equaled, as he himself certainly would have estimated, during the last 150 years only by Victor Hugo and Thomas Mann.

His genius, though, was amoral. For him actions or art were their own justification and he, the epitome of narcissistic selfishness, did not recognize anyone or anything else superior to himself, except perhaps a mythical Italy, as he perceived that she ought to be. D’Annunzio’s first novel, aptly titled Il Piacere (“Pleasure” – 1888) is the story of Andrea Sperelli, a man whose aim in life was to experience “pleasures never tried,” “horrible sacrileges” in a very refined, decadent, perfectionist sensual quest. In The Innocent (1892), the main character, Tullio Hermil, believed that being a unique individual automatically ennobled his actions, even when he behaved in a perverted, sadistic fashion. Finally, in Il Trionfo Della Morte, protagonist Giorgio Aurispa is an egotist whose aesthetic sensibilities cannot find fulfillment: his desire that “the substance of my life be dissolved in a vaporous dream” can only be achieved by death.

As a playwright, D’Annunzio’s most notable plays are La Citta` Morta (“The Dead City” -1896), which was written in the manner of an ancient Greek tragedy, and La Figlia Di Iorio (“Iroio’s Daughter” -1907), whose setting was the land of Abruzzi during prehistory.

It is, however, with his poetry that D’Annunzio’s fame now most securely rests, as its rhythmical command, enormous vocabulary, and the musicality of chosen words make some of his poetry, in Italian, unforgettable. His desire to shock, repel, but also amaze, fascinate and hook you, can be sampled from this translation by G. A. Greene:

“As from corrupted flesh the over bold
Young vines in dense luxuriance rankly grow
And strange weird plants their horrid buds unfold
O’er the foul rotting of a corpse below…
Even so within my heart malignant flowers
Of verse swell forth…

(Intermezzo Di Rime – 1883)

A different D’Annunzio reaches the reader with the quieter, musical and visual lyricism of La Pioggia nel Pineto:

Taci. Su le soglie
del bosco non odo
parole che dici
umane; ma odo
parole più nuove
che parlano gocciole e foglie
Ascolta. Piove
dalle nuvole sparse.
(Rain in the Pine Forest:
“Quiet. on the edge
Of the woods I do not hear
The words you speak
Human; but I hear
Newer words
Which speak of raindrops and leaves
Listen. Rains
From scattered clouds…”)
(Translation by the author)

As is evident, D’Annunzio’s poetry is a blend of acute aesthetic sensibility, a love of nature, and a fascination with the perverse, macabre, and sometimes the violent. Still, his marvelous use of language, with its vitality, emotionalism, and colorful exuberance, make him one of the major poets of the modern age.

Since his death, D’Annunzio’s literary reputation has dimmed, because of his political beliefs, violent ideas, and his Nietzchean elitist views. At one point, he wrote:

Men will be divided into two races. To the superior race, which shall have risen by die pure energy of its will, all shall be permitted; to die lower, nothing or very little. The greatest sum of well-being shall go to the privileged, whose personal nobility will make them worthy of all privileges. The plebeians remain slaves, condemned to suffer, as much in the shadow of ancient feudal towers. They will never feel at their shoulders the sense of liberty.

From the beginning, he was a provincial parvenu who set out to conquer the literary and social milieu of his times and pass himself as an aristocrat, showing in the process his insecurity and drive for constant recognition and acclaim. Like Lord George Byron and Oscar Wilde, he was most adept at seeking publicity for his exploits and manipulating the media to maintain internationally the notoriety of his persona. A man of his times, the acclaim started to wither when he died.

Although James Joyce opined that the three greatest writers of the 19th century were Tolstoy, Kipling, and D’Annunzio, Thomas Mann was not taken in. In his Mario and the Magician (1930), he skewered both D’Annunzio and Mussolini by combining in the person of the magician Cipolla the salient traits of both men: the shocking artistry and oratorical skills jumbled with ideological pastiche, violence, and lust for power. More directly, Mann called D’Annunzio a demagogic rhetorician, “…always looking from the balcony from whence he seduces and dishonors the people,” “Wagner’s monkey”, “the pasta dish of the spirit,” going as far as to conclude that D’Annunzio, “does not know solitude, has never doubt about himself, ignores the irony of his pursuit of glory… he is the master of verbal orgies… seeking to celebrate his marriage with the multitude.”

Poet George Macbeth put his finger on the essence of D’Annunzio’s literary aim and wrote that he, “was the last major writer who could use the Romantic ideal with its full political relevance before it went bad in the hands of the Fascists.”

Other dictators found him inspiring and admirable, including Lenin who thought that D’Annunzio was “the only real revolutionary in Italy” – aimed at Mussolini, this was as good a shot as one dictator could take at another.

Ernest Hemingway had an evolving love-hate relationship with D’Annunzio’s philosophical views. While he had originally admired D’Annunzio’s fictional recounting of his love affair with Eleonora Duse in Il Fuoco, the Italian poet’s intense bellicosity prior to and during World War I distanced him, and in 1921 he wrote a short poem expressing disgust for D’Annunzio love of war:

Half a million dead Wops
And he got a kick out of it
The son of a bitch

By 1923 Hemingway had changed his assessment again and expressed his admiration for some of D’Annunzio’s character traits, if not his literary writings, by calling Mussolini a faker, while saying that D’Annunzio was, “A old and bald Rodomonte, perhaps a little crazy, but profoundly sincere and divinely courageous…” Then, by 1950 in Across the River and into the Trees, his reflective dislike for D’Annunzio came again to the fore through the mouth of the main character of Colonel Richard Cantwell who refers to D’Annunzio as: “… put beat-up old boy … a more miserable character than any I know and as mean…” Yet, despite Hemingway’s apparent dislike, he took inspiration in the structure and form of this novel from D’Annunzio’s 1917 prose-poetry book Notturno.

E. M. Forster wrote: “By the time he died he had a number of books to his credit, a still larger number of mistresses, and the city of Fiume. It is no small haul.” Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale cryptically said that “not to have learned anything from him would be a very bad sign.” Still, in the opinion of Italian author Alberto Arbasino, D’Annunzio is, “the proverbial body hidden in the basement, one of the most cumbersome of all literature, of all countries, vilified, trampled, neglected…”

His reputation as L’Enfant terrible of Italian letters may be reviving. In October 2008, Giordano Bruno Guerri, a controversial historian and journalist, became president of the Fondazione Vittoriale degli Italiani, the organization that runs D’Annunzio’s villa and it museum. Since the beginning of his tenure, he has launched many new initiatives, acquired important documents about D’Annunzio and his life, and organized and sponsored many exhibitions of D’Annunziana and conferences – all with the aim of getting his name spoken more often, in Italy and throughout the world. The old poet would have been very pleased.

Luciano Mangiafico was born in Italy and is a retired U.S. diplomat. Among his many foreign postings in several continents, he was U.S. Consul in Milan (Italy), and Consul General in Palermo (Italy), Bucharest (Romania), and Bridgetown (Barbados). This essay is an abridged portion of a book in progress.