The palace called the Vittoriale degli Italiani (“The Italians’ Victory Shrine”) ought to win prominence in tourist itineraries of Northern Italy. It stands on a hillside, looking north towards Lago di Garda and the alpine border of the Germanic world beyond. Not far away is Salò, ersatz capital of the “Social Republic” over which Benito Mussolini was installed in 1943 as puppet dictator by his Nazi partners, the town’s name made more resonant by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, with its all-but-unwatchably extreme portrayal of Fascist violence. As Lucy Hughes-Hallett explains in her rattling new biography, the Vittoriale was where the “poet, seducer and preacher of war”, Gabriele d’Annunzio, lived out his disconsolate last years from 1922 to 1938, sedulously watched by an officialdom loyal to Mussolini.
The last time I visited the Vittoriale I joined flocks of Italian schoolchildren as I examined d’Annunzio’s wondrously syncretic furnishings - every Renaissance Madonna checked by a grenade leaning against it, every Buddha framed by machine guns - or strode the deck of a cruiser that had been deployed in the Adriatic but was, in 1925, expensively cemented into the slope so that d’Annunzio the “Comandante” could forever reimagine his heroic triumphs over Germandom. The children were noisy and excited, hard to control for the nuns who kept telling them “d’Annunzio was a great national poet and…”
Nuns! Nuns! What, I wondered, would the ghost of d’Annunzio make of his fate as what we now meaninglessly call a “national icon” - he, the writer who as his biographer notes exulted in “speed, risk, sexual cruelty, suicide and insanity”? After all, d’Annunzio may have done almost everything else in his exotic life, but he did not do irony.
Hughes-Hallett provides a lively and readable narrative of her subject’s private and public activities, and her book has much to recommend it as she moves capably between accounts of d’Annunzio as, for many years, surprisingly hard-working novelist, poet and playwright; as sexual athlete of more than Olympic standards; and as political activist at his most significant when both propagandising and fighting Italy’s First World War, and when heading the cocaine-ridden “poetic dictatorship” at Fiume in 1919-20. Her purpose, she states early in the book, is to display d’Annunzio, good and bad. “There is an acceptable d’Annunzio, who writes lyrically about nature and myth, and there is the appalling d’Annunzio, the warmonger who calls upon his fellow Italians to saturate the earth with blood, and whose advocacy of the dangerous ideals of patriotism and glory opened the way for institutionalised thuggery” - that is, Nazi- fascism.
From time to time, Hughes-Hallett does qualify the stories that she has taken from d’Annunzio’s extensive correspondence and other jottings about himself, amplified by his habit of “telling all” about his recent life in his latest fiction. There were flights of fancy, she concedes. There were lies. D’Annunzio was at least half “aware that someone like himself had two existences, one as a private person, the other as a public image”. But, I wanted to ask the biographer, wasn’t there a third d’Annunzio, a silly d’Annunzio, not so much the progenitor of Mussolini and Hitler as of star footballers or other vacuous contemporary “celebrities”? Wasn’t the “archangel Gabriele” the irony-free writer who has preserved a certain literary reputation but can scarcely compete with his contemporary, Luigi Pirandello, who did do irony? Sceptical historian, I wondered, when told of d’Annunzio’s prowess in cunnilingus - didn’t the brushing from his phallic moustache sometimes hamper his partners’ orgasms and reduce them instead to an irresistible fit of giggles?
The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War
By Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Fourth Estate, 704pp, £25.00
Published 17 January 2013