In most Italian towns of any size, there will be a Via Nino Bixio, a Via Cadorna and a Via D’Annunzio. The commemoration of irrational bloodmongers seems to have had a vogue among Italian town planners, but of all the post-Garibaldi statesmen who led Italy into war and Fascism half a century after its establishment as a nation, the reputation of Gabriele D’Annunzio remains the most vexatious.
Like his French counterpart Louis-Ferdinand Céline, D’Annunzio’s status as a literary icon is, in the words of his latest biographer, “confusing to those simpleminded enough to believe that artistic talent and refined sensibility are incompatible with political extremism and an appetite for violence”. Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s luminously intelligent Life begins with the premise that “disapproval is not an interesting response” to a man who, while never himself a Fascist, was — well before the emergence of Mussolini — the real inventor of Fascism. Her account of the career of one of Italy’s greatest writers is also an expansive investigation into the roots of Fascism in post-Romantic European thought and an acute analysis of Italy’s ignominious and ongoing love-hate relationship with democracy.
Hughes-Hallett uses a “legato/staccato” technique, whereby conventional linear narrative is interposed with shorter vignettes of the poet’s life — a form of montage that finds effective parallels in D’Annunzio’s own writing. As a method of sustaining interest over more than 600 pages, it works brilliantly. Rather than having to wade through piles of what Holden Caulfield called “David Copperfield kind of crap”, we feel we know D’Annunzio from the start. As Hughes-Hallett demonstrates, D’Annunzio was a writer of extraordinary formal virtuosity and visionary prescience. His first novel, Pleasure, reads like a film script, though it was published in 1889, five years before the movie camera was invented. Indeed, the sheer excessiveness of his life seems to require a cinematic approach.
Born in 1863, D’Annunzio’s life was almost perfectly contemporaneous with that of the state founded two years earlier and whose figurehead he became. No one could have fulfilled the nationalist need for “imaginative state building” more impressively than he, nor perhaps was anyone more intellectually suited to his self-creation as the voice of Italy. The breadth and suppleness of his mind remains astounding. While his rejection of democracy was as much a matter of aesthetics as of politics, in his detestation of the “grey flood” of egalitarianism which was engulfing his country, D’Annunzio perfectly understood the need to appeal to the masses.
Poignantly, the heroine of Pleasure is first viewed from below and behind as she mounts the steps to a palazzo, the perspective of the narrator underlining his inferior status. Rather than seeking, Proust-like, a passport to her rarefied sphere, D’Annunzio recognized the potential of converting his own popularity into power. This way of “doing politics”, in the words of the historian Emilio Gentile, is now universally accepted in our celebrity-obsessed age.
Much of the power of D’Annunzio’s work derives from the tension between archaism and modernity. Here was a Futurist avant la lettre, who could describe the beauty of machine guns in a medieval idiom long before his disciple Marinetti published the manifesto in 1909 that launched the movement. Hughes-Hallett is alert to the presence of the Abruzzi, D’Annunzio’s homeland between the Apennines and the Adriatic, in his work; its wild landscape and vivid colours haunt his writing. It remains one of Italy’s most remote provinces, where in D’Annunzio’s day Christianity still co-existed with a fanatical paganism, and this mystical heritage informed the meditations on religious ecstasy and mob power which characterise his early stories, and contributed to the hypnotic liturgy of his later oratory.
Having sent notice of his own death to a Florentine newspaper to whip up a little sentimental publicity for his first volume of poetry Primo Vere, published in 1879 when he was 16, D’Annunzio set off to conquer Rome. Thirty-five years later he was exhorting a riotous populace to overthrow their government and enter the war. His trajectory — from jobbing hack to bestselling writer, from war hero to rebel leader (or “Duce”) of Fiume, the “City of the Holocaust” on the Dalmatian coast which he governed for 15 months in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles — is charted with the swift satisfaction of a Futurist bullet.
His love life was equally anarchic. After eloping with a duchess, who bore him three children before attempting suicide, he was prosecuted for adultery with a Neapolitan princess. Thereafter D’Annunzio worked his way through hundreds of women. The love of his life, he decided, was Eleanora Duse, a great actress whom contemporaries considered the only rival to Sarah Bernhardt. For “La Duse” he wrote plays which required her to be, respectively, blind, mutilated, mad and murdered. (The role in Jorio’s Daughter, where the heroine is burnt alive, went to someone else.)
D’Annunzio was an obsessive lover: an elegy to his mistress written in the Tivoli gardens exists in manuscripts dated an hour apart, and his erotic writing, which he compared to the Renaissance pornographer Pietro Aretino, is bluntly sensual. Women’s armpits, the intricacy of their genitals, the hairs on their legs, are greedily conjured up, but D’Annunzio shied from his desires even as he pursued them. He found something disturbingly putrid at the heart of his adored female flesh and came to prefer the “cleanness” of his friendships with young aviators.
It was on the Western Front in France during the First World War that D’Annunzio claimed to have seen dead soldiers tied to stakes in bundles of ten. For him, this evoked the fascio, a Roman symbol that would become omnipresent in Italy between the wars. D’Annunzio convinced himself that only by a sublime blood sacrifice could Italy be reborn as a great nation. Unlike his fellow literati, such as Pirandello, he refused to fully endorse Benito Mussolini, the former socialist who, following D’Annunzio’s example, transformed himself from hack journalist to strutting dictator. But the techniques of political theatre D’Annunzio created to propound his vision to such horrific effect were so thoroughly absorbed by Mussolini that the deposed Duce of Fiume became the victim “of the greatest act of plagiarism ever seen”. Fascism owed everything to D’Annunzio, but the exercise of power itself bored and disgusted him.
At the end of his life, closeted in his folly on Lake Garda and addicted to cocaine, D’Annunzio wrote of the “horror” of his fame. Lucy Hughes-Hallett has choreographed this compelling, macabre life with D’Annunzian sprezzatura in a scholarly distillation as potent and elegantly balanced as the poet’s personal recipe for cologne.