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Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War?
by lucy hughes-hallett
?knopf, 608 pages, $35

An Italian poet, soldier, and dandy, an endless self-promoter, a man deeply intertwined with the intellectual trends and dramatic events that shaped his time, and the subject of enormous attention from prominent figures from all over Europe, Gabriele d’Annunzio might be described with the adjective multanime , a neologism he forged in his novel L’Innocente :a many-sided man, a kaleidoscope that can simultaneously disclose and distort the appearances of reality.

In Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War , Lucy Hughes-Hallett portrays il Vate , the national bard, as well as il Comandante , the daring soldier devoured by “a feverish desire for action.” She captures his vitality and his strange attraction to death, explains his neo-paganism, one that revived an ancient pantheon of gods dear to the intellectuals of the Renaissance, and depicts the lascivious anchoret who blended blasphemy and deviancy.

Yet he has been presented in previous biographies as a one-dimensional figure who was either a bloodthirsty proto-fascist or a sublime versifier. In her carefully researched yet highly readable biography, Hughes-Hallett, a critic for the Sunday Times of ­London, writes:

There is an acceptable d’Annunzio, ?who writes lyrically about nature and myth, and there is an 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 institutionalized thuggery. Those who admire the former have often tried to ignore, or even deny, the existence of the latter. ? . . . I contest both arguments. The two d’Annunzios are one and the same.

He was, after the fall of fascism in Italy and the end of World War II, a victim of a massive damnatio memoriae . In the country’s fury to erase any mark of a hideous ideology, he was ostracized, and his poetics became seen as the quintessence of a rotten past that needed to be redeemed with neo-realistic forms of art more ­suitable to the ideals of the Resistenza . D’Annunzio was seen as the carrier of the original sin of a chaotic Europe of black flags, Roman revanchism, and swastikas.

For example, as Hughes-Hallett notes, Mark Thompson, the historian of Italy’s Great War, is only mildly critical of Benito Mussolini and the origin of fascism while describing d’Annunzio as “psychotic,” ­“vicious,” and “odious.” D’Annunzio’s ­persona inspires a sense of ­perversion and depravity even among those who have not read a single line of his work.

The man who”as the ideals of aestheticism impose”wanted to be a work of art ended up being retrospectively judged mainly by his vicissitudes, not his art. D’Annunzio shares the tragic fate of many aesthetes whose dramatic search for perfect beauty”and therefore truth and goodness, according to the ­tradition”is often hijacked by the distortions of their conduct.

Many are familiar with the eccentric lifestyle of Oscar Wilde, but only a few read his De Profundis . A biographer of the great painter Caravaggio wrote, with some reason, that “he died as badly as he lived,” but it would hardly be a sign of wisdom to judge his genius by his ­objectionable lifestyle rather than turning one’s eyes toward The Calling of St. Matthew or the Madonna of Loreto .

The biographical oddities can morph into a source of distraction that overshadows the deepest, most human dimension of the author. It is worldly temptation, and often a sign of intellectual laziness, to underline the salacious anecdotes while overlooking the hidden treasures buried under the cover of a wild life. The most important collection of d’Annunzio’s poems, Halcyon , abounds with verse that faces the eternal questions of beauty, fulfillment, finitude, love, and the meaning of life and death that men have asked since the beginning.

In the poem La Sabbia del Tempo (The Sand of Time), for example, he draws the reader into a metaphysical painting of Salvador Dalí. He compares his own “throbbing” heart to an hourglass, and his body to a pointer that projects its feeble shadow. “And a sudden anxiety mugged my heart,” he writes. The anxiety of finitude opens some transcendent questions about the ultimate meaning of reality.

D’Annunzio had many obsessions. He was fond of music, interior design, women; his soul was raptured by the demons of war as well as by the Muses; he had been immersed in occultism and enchanted by “Liebestod”; but the power of words was the one he invoked to find that perfect harmony between form and content. Yet Hughes-­Hallett summarizes the works without the critical examination required to understand an author who was a devotee of the word.

His published works have been collected in forty-eight volumes, and his legacy overflows with letters, notes, interviews, speeches, diaries, and autobiographical sketches. A compulsive scribbler, he wrote throughout his life about countless subjects in different styles, borrowing and remodeling every bit of art he encountered to create the most ambitious of his masterpieces: his own life.

Even the everyday fascinated him: He could write with the same grandiose prose about the traditional dessert of Abruzzi, the southern region of Italy where he was born, as about a flight over the city of Trieste in a plane full of bombs and pamphlets. A note to his cook, Albina, compliments her for a “sublime” boiled egg he calls the bearer of a “divine ecstasy.” It reminded him of his childhood, when he used to eat such eggs with anchovy paste. “Albina, may you be praised for evermore. And shine in eternity in the Constellation of the Egg and the Nebula of the Anchovy! Amen,” he concludes. With equal passion he describes in detail his countless sexual encounters and outlines his own version of the Nietzschean Übermensch.

A good deal of this power naturally gets lost in translation, since the Italian language was his fatherland, the home where this prodigal son, without a father who kills the fattened calf for him, found relief. A portrait of d’Annunzio that jumps from episode to episode almost naturally leads us to dwell on the most scurrilous and morbid anecdotes of his troubled life.

Perhaps his most important political act was his grandiose and ill-fated adventure in the city of Fiume. He and a band of followers seized the city (today in Croatia) and turned it into an independent fiefdom. D’Annunzio’s dream of an independent city ruled by a political and social alternative to both Marxism and capitalism was violently swept away by the Italian Army in 1920, but the legend of the Impresa di Fiume remained in the collective memory for a long time. Unfortunately, Hughes-Hallett cheaply compares it to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1968.

Every chapter of this work could turn into a single book, and indeed many such books have already been written. Ultimately, though, Gabriele d’Annunzio is an accurate cento of the life of a flamboyant maudit .

There are at least two reasons to approach d’Annunzio’s biography today. One has to do with his historical impact. He helped shape the rhetoric of nationalism that nefariously tainted Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Mussolini meant to diminish his role when he called him the “John the Baptist of Fascism.” But, as Hughes-Hallett notes, “The black shirts, the straight-armed salute, the songs and war cries, the glorification of virility and youth and patria and blood sacrifice, were all present in Fiume three years before Mussolini’s March on Rome.”

There is a deeper reason why he deserves to be remembered, which has to do with his artistic vocation. His works stand in the poetic tradition that embraces the verses of Giacomo Leopardi, fraught with a tense, almost desperate yearning for an ultimate redemption in a universe apparently cruel and meaningless. There can be found echoes of the immortal spirit of Dante and the poets of the Dolce Stil Novo . In the meanderings of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s tormented life, there are glimpses of an eternal longing that should be deemed valuable, no matter how many times he got lost along the way.

Mattia Ferraresi is the New York correspondent for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.