The Candidate of Beauty

Alexander Stille

  • Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel by John Woodhouse
    Oxford, 420 pp, £25.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 19 815945 5

Some writers are as interesting to read about as to read: writers such as Byron, Wilde, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and D.H. Lawrence, who saw their lives as extensions of their art and in many cases set out to shape their own time as well as to describe it in their work. Others, of similar ambition but more modest talent, defined their age as much through the defects of their work as its merits, and what they wrote increases in historical density as it loses literary freshness, becoming a kind of stratigraphic layer in an archaeological dig. The novels of Disraeli, Vita Sackville-West, Georges Sand and Jack London and the plays of Clifford Odets come to mind.

Gabriele D’Annunzio is now best known as a historical figure, as a dandy-poet in Fin-de-Siècle Rome, celebrated for his flamboyant, scandalous love-life and his nationalist posturing, the First World War poet-soldier who helped create the rhetoric and culture of Italian Fascism. Much of his work is virtually unreadable today, while an impressive body of lyric verse has been obscured by the behaviour that won him so much notoriety during his lifetime. A confusing tangle of literature, sex, politics and propaganda make him the absorbing subject of a fine new biography, Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel.

Perhaps immodestly, its author, John Woodhouse, who teaches Italian at Oxford, says in his Preface: ‘This is the first fully documented biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio in any language, and, within the limits of reason, given the bizarre nature of D’Annunzio’s career, the first objective appraisal of the man’ – which is a bit unfair. Philippe Jullian, a French expert on decadent literature, published a biography in 1971, which appeared in English in 1972. While Woodhouse may feel, with justice, that the earlier book lacks the scholarly rigour of his own, Jullian covers much of the same terrain, relies on many of the same sources and brings to the subject an attractive enthusiasm for and knowledge of the Decadent movement. Woodhouse is more dispassionate, but Jullian’s immersion in French and English Fin-de-Siècle literature does more to place D’Annunzio in an international context, while his own extravagant literary flair gives a D’Annunzian spirit to the book.

Woodhouse moves judiciously and discriminatingly through the life and career of a writer who has generally elicited feelings of wild adulation or passionate hatred. He gives considerable importance to D’Annunzio the writer, but does not flinch from the many repellent aspects of his character. ‘For most of his life,’ Woodhouse writes,

D’Annunzio’s sole concern was self-gratification and glory: to make hit 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 immortalise 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.

D’Annunzio was born in 1863, in the Abruzzi, in the south-east of Italy. His father’s last name was originally Rapagnetta, but was changed to Rapagnetta-D’Annunzio when he was adopted by a maternal uncle. Gabriele dropped the more plebeian Rapagnetta at the start of his writing career.

Francesco Paolo, his father, was an intelligent but brutally egotistical man who drove his family into debt in order to maintain a series of mistresses and prostitutes. D’Annunzio believed that he had inherited the ‘corrupt seed’ of sensuality from his father, something he celebrated and vilified. In his early novel The Triumph of Death, he offered a horrifying portrait of the old sensualist:

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 neighbour at table an impression almost of revulsion ... I, I am the son of this man!

The crude, isolated atmosphere of the Abruzzi was crucial to certain aspects of D’Annunzio’s formation. In the 19th century, it was an exceptionally poor, underdeveloped region, populated by an illiterate peasantry whose culture was dominated by pagan custom and rural superstition. His verse play La Figlia di Iorio, for example, was inspired by his recollection of a crowd of drunken peasants chasing a beautiful young woman through the village trying to rape her. This backward environment, with its tiny educated élite and a mass of half-starving farmers and fishermen, influenced his aristocratic, pseudo-Nietzschean vision of a world divided into masters and slaves. ‘Men will be divided into two races,’ he later wrote:

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.

For all his aristocratic pretensions, the drive and aggression with which D’Annunzio set out to conquer the literary and social world of Rome in the 1880s reveals the insecurity of the parvenu and the provincial outsider anxious for recognition.

Part of what makes him a fascinating biographical subject is that, like Wilde, he was among the first artists to manipulate the new mass media in order to impose himself on a large international audience. (Byron was a prototype for the scandalous poet as literary star but lived before the telegraph and mass-circulation newspaper.) Already in 1879, at the age of 16, he had sent the newspapers a false report of his own death in order to publicise his first book of poems:

Gabriele D’Annunzio, the young poet, already well known in the republic of letters and often mentioned on our pages, some days ago (5 November) on the Francavilla Road, fell from his horse and died on the spot.

  The new edition of his Primo vere is expected daily!

Throughout most of his career, he wrote for newspapers in Italy, France, England and even the Hearst chain in the United States and worked on his public image with consummate skill.

Despite all his claims to originality, D’Annunzio’s early verse, combining a love of ancient mythological subjects with a modern erotic candour, drew heavily on the English Pre-Raphaelites – Rossetti, in particular:

     We descended the smooth bank and Isolde with such sweet act pressed the flower of her mouth to the fountain’s rivulet, and so fresh and crimson and vital did that flower open to catch the divided flow that with a scarce contained cry, on that full mouth I pressed kiss on kiss, cupidinously

More often, he worked in a Swinburnian vein, writing with a kind of over-ripe erotic sadism and necrophilia:

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 ...

Lured by the radiancy of the blood-red bowers,
The unconscious hand is stretched to pluck the bloom,
And the sharp poison fills the veins with death.

After several early romances, D’Annunzio married young, but left his long-suffering wife in the Abruzzi when he moved to Rome in 1881. At first, he supported himself with a gossip column, which helped introduce him into Roman society – and allowed him to begin fashioning his public persona. In this phase he played the part of the aesthete, impeccably dressed in expensive clothes with a flower in his lapel. In Rome, too, he embarked on his first scandalous love affairs and found the background for the poems and novels that earned him an international reputation.

The book that put him on the map was his first novel, Il Piacere (The Child of pleasure). Published in 1889, when he was only 26, it describes a world of crumbling Baroque palaces, exquisitely decorated drawing-rooms, languid principessas and constant erotic intrigue. As in all the novels, the protagonist, Andrea Sperelli, is a D’Annunzio stand-in, a figure of uncommon artistic sensibility, with perfect, aristocratic taste who celebrates the late 19th-century cult of art for art’s sake: ‘Art! Art! – This was the faithful Lover, ever young, immortal. This was the Fount of pure joy, forbidden to the multitude, conceded to the elect; this was the precious sustenance which made man like a god. Having set his lips at that cup, how could he have drunk at any other?’

Like all D’Annunzian heroes, Sperelli is irresistibly attractive to women. The book struck a nerve, both because of its sexual frankness and because it was a roman à clef whose characters represented recognisable high-society figures. Some of the scenes now seem quite ludicrous, as Woodhouse admits:

During a charity sale some of the upper-class ‘saleswomen’ offer cigarettes to their noble public, heavily moistened from their own lips, at exorbitant prices, while one noblewoman offers for auction a cigar, held for a time beneath her armpit, for another high fee, and in one ineffable scene, D’Annunzio indulges in one of his favourite fetishes, forcing Maria to give Sperelli a cup of tea by taking it into her own mouth and allowing him to drink, not from the cup but from her lips.

And yet there are passages that give the novel a ring of authenticity. ‘The motive for his power over women,’ he writes of his protagonist’s sexual appeal, ‘lay in the fact that, in the art of love, he felt no repugnance at being false, lying and deceptive.’

D’Annunzio took on new lovers and discarded them when he lost interest: some of them ended up losing their husbands and children, their money and their minds, while his own wife attempted suicide by jumping out of the window. His amorous adventures were, as Woodhouse argues, more than titillating gossip. Indeed, they were a central part of his work and integral to his vision of the world: ‘Today, tomorrow, until death, the work of the flesh is in me the work of the spirit, and both harmonise to achieve one sole, unique beauty. The most fertile creatrix of beauty in the world is sensuality enlightened by apotheosis.’ A superior creature, placed on earth to savour its pleasures and immortalise them in words, was fully entitled to exploit his friends, lie, borrow money and stiff his creditors. He often dressed up his own colossal selfishness in Nietzschean garb: ‘Where breathes the human being to whom the whole day, from dawn to dusk, is a festival, consecrated by a new conquest?’ he wrote in The Triumph of Death, his second novel:

Where lives the dominating hero, crowned with the crown of laughter, that crown of smiling roses of which Zarathustra spoke? Where lives the strong, tyrannical dominator, free from the yoke of any false morality, sure in the feeling of his own power, convinced that the essence of his person overcomes in value all accessory attributes, determined to raise himself above Good and Evil by the pure energy of his will, capable of forcing life to maintain its promises to him?

This rhetoric sounds preposterous now, but D’Annunzio (unlike Nietzsche) did live up to his exacting doctrine, flouting bourgeois convention, overcoming the resistance and disapproval of society and bending it to his will.

The era of the first mass daily newspapers, in which D’Annunzio came of age, was also the era of the ‘discovery’ of ‘the masses’ as a political subject. Technologies like the railroad and the telegraph had helped link Italy’s disparate principalities and stimulated the drive for political unification, completed in 1870. Mass communication also increased the number of literate voters, gradually bringing democratic suffrage to larger sectors of Italian society. D’Annunzio saw this political expansion as another mandate for personal glorification. ‘There was, then, in the multitude, a hidden beauty from which only poet and hero could draw flashes,’ he wrote later in his novel Il Fuoco (The Flame of Life), 1900. ‘The word of the poet, communicated to the crowd was, then, an action, like the gesture of the hero.’

In 1897, despite a marked contempt for politics, D’Annunzio resolved to run for Parliament. With remarkable candour, he wrote to a friend:

I have just come back from an electoral trip; and my nostrils are still full of an acrid smell of humanity. This enterprise may seem stupid and extraneous to my art; but to judge my aptitude it is necessary to await the effect towards which my will is bent directly. Victory meanwhile is assured. The world, my dear fellow, must be persuaded that I am capable of everything.

D’Annunzio regarded the ‘multitude’, the voting masses, as a dumb but powerful animal – the ‘electoral beast’, waiting to be goaded into action by the poet-hero. Besotted by will to power and the idea of the superman, D’Annunzio saw the creation of new media and of a new mass audience as a means of translating his words into action: ‘It seems to me that the word, addressed orally and directly to a multitude, must have as its only purpose action, violent action if necessary. Only with such an implicit understanding may a somewhat fierce spirit, without self-diminution, communicate with the mob by way of the sensual qualities of voice and gesture.’

D’Annunzio had no political programme to speak of: he ran as the ‘candidato della bellezza’ – a campaign slogan in which an incipient nationalism was celebrated in terms of Italy’s artistic greatness. ‘The fortune of Italy is inseparable from the fate of beauty, of which Italy is the mother,’ he declared. It is hard to imagine anyone getting elected on such an effete platform. But for all D’Annunzio’s talk about the stinking multitude, democracy in his day remained an élite enterprise: the district of his native Abruzzi in which he ran contained a mere three thousand voters.

Once elected, D’Annunzio immediately lost interest, his success having confirmed that he was ‘capable of everything’. He disappeared on a long trip to Egypt with Eleonora Duse, Italy’s answer to Sarah Bernhardt. When he returned, he rarely bothered to show up in Parliament, concentrating on this and other love affairs and on his work. In one of his rare Parliamentary appearances, he suddenly shifted from the extreme right to the far left, remarking: ‘After today’s spectacle I know that on one side there are many dead men howling, and on the other a few men alive and eloquent. As a man of intellect I advance towards life.’ In 1900, he ran as a socialist candidate in Florence. His defeat brought a brief career as a Parliamentarian to an end.

D’Annunzio’s affair with Duse coincided with an interest in the theatre. It was another medium that allowed him to reach out to large audiences. As a contemporary biography, quoted by Woodhouse, put it, ‘he considers dramatic work as the only vital form with which poets may show themselves to the multitude, offer them the revelation of beauty, communicate to them the virile, heroic dreams which transfigure life.’ He began composing long, rather static verse plays, not unlike Greek dramas, with violent, mythological subjects and absurdly convoluted plots. In one of these, four sons have their eyes and tongues torn out; in another, the main character plunges her hand into a barrel of snakes; characters are drowned, burnt, mutilated or commit suicide. Many of the dramas, as well as other writings from this period, began to articulate a rampant nationalism.

Having grown up in Pescara, along the Adriatic coast, D’Annunzio had a particular interest in the areas of the Istrian and Dalmatian coast across the sea – former Venetian territories that belonged at the time to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The return of these Adriatic territories to Italy became a recurrent obsession in his work. Many have seen D’Annunzio as playing John the Baptist to Il Duce’s Messiah. In his play, La Gloria, he called for ‘a true man, suited to the great emergency, a vast, free human spirit, a son of the earth, rooted deeply in our soil’.

If his plays were far removed from contemporary life, his novels often caught the pulse of the moment. Perhaps the most interesting product of his political involvement was Il Fuoco, whose main character, Flamma, anticipates the emergence of an audacious, unscrupulous political demagogue. As Woodhouse writes,

Flamma also relies on mob violence, as well as on his own powers as an orator, to achieve his ambitious ends, spends lonely hours working on his political schemes and could well prefigure, ten years before its appearance on the political stage, the character of Mussolini. Later, Flamma’s political slogan, ‘Chisi arresta è perduto’ (‘He who stops is lost’) was by a remarkable coincidence adopted by Mussolini.

In 1910, despite his great fame and financial success, D’Annunzio’s high living and irresponsible borrowing finally caught up with him. He was forced to flee Italy and his creditors, seeking refuge in France. It was his ability to stir national feeling that eventually saved him from exile. The beginning of World War One, and the growing debate about whether Italy should enter it, gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for. He began bombarding the press in various countries with articles and poems urging the Italians to join their neighbours, the French, in defence of Latin civilisation. He effected his return to Italy in theatrical fashion, dedicating a major monument to Garibaldi in Genoa and delivering a rousing speech which compared Garibaldi’s heroic efforts to unify Italy with the retaking of Italian-speaking territories now in the hands of the Austrian foe. The speech was reprinted on the front page of the Corriere della Sera, further amplifying its effect.

Between one debauchery and another, D’Annunzio whipped up the crowds in Rome, who staged continuous demonstrations in favour of intervention, yelling ‘Death to Giolitti!’ – the Prime Minister, who favoured neutrality. ‘Comrades, it is no longer time for speaking but for doing; no longer time for oratory, but for action, Roman action,’ he declared in one of his harangues. ‘If it is considered a crime to incite the citizens to violence, I would not hesitate; nor would I consider it necessary to feel any remorse for it.’ Many of Italy’s leading politicians cowered inside their palaces to keep away from the angry mob, and despite the fact that a majority in Parliament wanted neutrality, the Government plunged the country into war. Although D’Annunzio exaggerated the importance of his own efforts, to the point of taking credit for Italy’s entry into the war, Wood-house’s biography reminds us of the role public opinion and popular demonstrations played in fomenting World War One.

During the war, D’Annunzio received a dispensation to do as he pleased. His obsession with the Italian-speaking parts of Austria-Hungary led him to participate in bombing missions along the Adriatic, generally with a propagandistic aim: dropping miniature Italian flags over Trieste with ‘small waterproof containers which carried patriotic messages urging Italy’s Triestine brethren to have courage’, as Woodhouse writes. These missions were typical of D’Annunzio’s absurd theatricality, but none the less dangerous, and indeed on one such mission he was badly injured and nearly blinded. Decoration and rapid promotion were the rewards for his efforts – further proof that he was ‘capable of everything’. Woodhouse tells us that ‘he “acquired” heroic actions during World War One, and tried to obtain more medals for bravery than any other combatant, not only from Italy but from all the Allies, soliciting them when they were slow to be offered.’

In his attempts at nationalist propaganda, before, during and after the war, D’Annunzio invented many of the catch-phrases that became the rallying cries of Fascism. ‘Me ne frego’ (politely translated: ‘I don’t give a damn!’), ‘The Mutilated Victory’, to describe the Versailles Treaty that failed to grant Italy all of the territory it had hoped to gain. Taking advantage of the confusion and disillusionment that prevailed in 1919, he roused a troop of ardent followers to occupy the city of Fiume, which had been granted to the newly-formed Yugoslavia. This illegal military adventure – initially opposed, then tolerated by Italy’s vacillating government – eventually forced the European powers to reassign the city to Italy.

Fiume was, as Woodhouse ably describes, the apotheosis of D’Annunzio’s career: here he finally achieved the summit of power and adulation he craved. While the future of Fiume was being decided, he reigned for about a year as military dictator of a city-state whose chief purpose seems to have been the glorification of D’Annunzio himself. He apparently presided over a prolonged sexual orgy, a surfeit of women and champagne, punctuated by concerts, poetry readings and speeches by the great leader, delivered to adoring crowds. Eventually, the lawlessness and anarchy of his megalomaniacal fantasy wore out the city’s patience and Italian government troops moved in to restore order. The Fiume episode, however, set a dangerous and important precedent for Italy. By taking matters into their own hands, D’Annunzio and his acolytes exposed the weakness of Italian democracy and proved the efficacy of the bold use of force. In many ways, it was the blueprint for Mussolini’s style of intimidation, which eventually worked on the Italian Government. At the same time, D’Annunzio’s wildly self-indulgent administration of Fiume demonstrated his total unsuitability for any serious role in government, leaving the field open to Mussolini.

Ironically, with the triumph of Fascism in 1922, D’Annunzio went into prolonged decline. Mussolini neutralised him by turning him into a public monument and granting his every whim, however extravagant. He was given a title, Prince of Montenevoso, and generous subsidies that helped him buy and fit out a grand villa – Il Vittoriale – on Lake Garda. Perhaps because of his war injuries, the effects of age, or simply because he had nothing more to rebel against, he wrote little until his death in 1938. His creative energies were spent in decorating and redecorating the villa, turning it into a kind of museum or mausoleum for himself, while he began to rely increasingly on drugs and prostitutes to maintain the intensity of his erotic life.

The extraordinary drama of that life – and its association with Fascism – have obscured his literary status. Almost all his work is dated – much of it seems as hopelessly rhetorical as the kitschy decoration of Il Vittoriale – and yet a few of his volumes of poetry, Alcyone and Laus vitae (In Praise of Life), for example, are important contributions to the modern Italian canon. Woodhouse makes ambitious claims for D’Annunzio as a ‘creative genius’, and even his worst work has an undeniable lyric distinction. The poetry for which he is best known is not, however, comparable to that of the great English, French or German poets of the 19th and early 20th century, or to the work of Montale in Italian. Even D’Annunzio’s most accomplished lyrics seem to look back to Swinburne and Shelley and are extremely old-fashioned when set against the work of younger contemporaries such as Eliot and Pound.

The novels have more to interest modern sensibilities: their frank exploration of sexuality, the interest in crowds and power in Il Fuoco, or in modern inventions such as the automobile and the airplane, which figure heavily in his work. All the fiction is flawed to a greater or lesser degree by his rhetorical style, over-elaborate, contorted plots and the inevitable strain of self-worship. It is interesting but decidedly minor work. Yet the totality of his career – his writing and his life – make him one of the most interesting and representative figures of his time.