A guest post by Professor Susan Bassnett
High above the shores of Lake Garda is the villa where Gabriele d’Annunzio spent the last years of his life, the Vittoriale. Its full title is Il Vittoriale degli italiani, which roughly translates into something like ‘The Place of Italian Victories’. D’Annunzio moved there in 1922, and remained resident until his death in 1938. Today, there is a lavish website which testifies to the way in which the villa has become a shrine for right-wing Italians, who can take out membership and contribute money in various ways. This includes, for just 49 euros, planting a cypress tree on the estate.
The website includes a section entitled ‘Disobbedisco’ (I disobey) which provides a brief account of d’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume (now Rjeka, in Croatia) in September, 1919. Since 2019 is the hundredth anniversary of that episode, the Vittoriale has mounted a special exhibition, and the website explains what happened in the following terms:
On 12th September, 1919 a poet, at the head of 2,000 rebellious soldiers, conquered a city without a shot being fired. He would remain there for more than a year, defying all the major powers, watched by a world still traumatised by the Great War [my translation].
The text goes on to praise the innovative nature of d’Annunzio’s regime, comparing it to the world of 2020:
For 16 months Fiume was a centre of plotting, celebrations, game-playing, struggles, love affaires conducted within a political and diplomatic web suspended between utopia and reality. Soldiers, writers, aristocrats, industrialists, feminists, subversives, politicians, youngsters who had run away from home made up the Comandante’s army, little realising the extent to which they would influence the twentieth-century imagination. In the light and shadows of that enterprise, with the hindsight of a century, we can see many aspects of our world today: the way in which politics has become performative, the use of propaganda, inter-generational rebellion, celebration as a means of protest, antagonism to international financiers, transgression and a refusal to conform [my translation].
A little later we are told that Mussolini ‘betrayed’ d’Annunzio in Fiume, certainly a view that d’Annunzio himself held. For the Fiume episode was an extraordinary piece of theatricality with political repercussions and Mussolini, who had not yet come to acquire the power he would obtain after the March on Rome in 1922 when he became Prime Minister, hesitated over whether to support d’Annunzio’s actions.
What lay behind d’Annunzio’s ‘conquest’ of Fiume was the dissatisfaction among Italian nationalists that Italy had not been granted the Dalmatian coast, following the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. Italy had fought bravely in atrocious conditions in the Alps against the Germans and Austrians and expected to be given territories that had been Venetian possessions for centuries. When this did not happen, D’Annunzio led an ad hoc group of aficionados to take control of the city. In a letter to Mussolini accusing him of cowardice, d’Annunzio declared that now he had Fiume, nothing would dislodge him for as long as he lived, proclaiming his enterprise to be the most magnificent exploit since the landing of Garibaldi in Sicily in 1860 (Woodhouse,1998:334).
D’Annunzio was dislodged, of course, and left Fiume in 1921, deeply offended by Mussolini’s lack of support, moving shortly afterwards to the villa on Lake Garda which would henceforth be his home. Mussolini courted his favour with a series of gifts, including a battleship, the Puglia, which became a garden feature and the small plane in which he had flown over Vienna in 1918 to drop propaganda leaflets. Today, the aircraft is housed in a separate building, along with other military items and the battleship occupies a commanding position in the garden, overlooking the lake. The physical effort of getting it there has been well-documented, but it seems that nothing was too good – or too extreme – for d’Annunzio in the early years of Mussolini’s regime.
D’Annunzio was 59 when he acquired the Vittoriale. He was by then world-famous (some would say infamous) for his flamboyance, his self-promotion, his profligacy and his promiscuity, but he was also regarded as a great writer, a man of action and an Italian patriot. In her 2013 biography, Lucy Hughes-Hallett chose as her title the name given to d’Annunzio by Romain Roland: The Pike. And she subtitled her book Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War. His private secretary for over 30 years, Tom Antongini had earlier contributed to the mythology surrounding d’Annunzio with his hagiography that came out the year of d’Annunzio’s death, 1938. The Italian title, Vita segreta di Gabriele d’Annunzio was less pruriently titled in the English version which consisted of just a surname.
I went to the Vittoriale a few years ago, at the request of the late Malcolm Bradbury who wanted someone to act as an interpreter. He was researching the life of the artist, Tamara De Lempicka who had visited d’Annunzio at the Vittoriale and since we were both taking part in a conference in Northern Italy, I agreed to go with him. We were, to put it mildly, astonished by the Vittoriale, which d’Annunzio had crammed with all kinds of objects that he had collected over his lifetime. We saw the painting he had commissioned of himself dressed as a Franciscan monk, and told how in later life he would wander round the house in his monkish robe. In a room called ‘The Room of the Leper’ ( he gave names to different rooms in the house) we were shown the bed he designed, in the shape of a coffin on rockers, as a reminder of the cradle into which he had been put after birth and the coffin he would occupy after death. Our guide was very reverent, whilst Malcolm spiced up her account ( in English) with information from other sources, including the fact that the ageing d’Annunzio wore nothing under his robe so as to make it easier for his servants to masturbate him in his rocking coffin.
In the dining room we were shown a huge marble turtle, covered by the shell of a real one, d’Annunzio’s pet, which had died from over-eating. D’Annunzio kept the shell and commissioned a sculpture of the dead creature, on which was placed a sign warning guests that this would be the fate of anyone who ate too much. The guide told us that d’Annunzio disliked eating in public and considered the act of eating to be as private as that of defecation. This may well be another myth, but the house was so full of bizarre things that it seemed entirely probable. One room contains Lo Scrittoio del Monco, (the Desk of the Amputated Limb), which refers to his habit of claiming that he was unable to answer the thousands of letters from adoring fans because he had lost his right hand in an accident. He did not lose a hand, though he did lose the sight of one eye in flying accident in 1916, and so kept the house in semi-darkness because bright light was hurtful to him. He was painted by Ercole Sibellato just after the accident, where he is portrayed sitting in a chair with a heavily bandaged eye, looking down at a cockerel which is pecking a lizard to death.
I have written elsewhere about d’Annunzio’s fetishistic obsession with the body in decay, with mutilation and dismemberment, particularly with the mutilation of women, a recurrent theme in his writing. My argument is that the creation of the superman myth which D’Annunzio worked so hard to achieve from a very early age was constantly enabled by women, a fact which caused him repressed anger and resentment. He married very young in 1883 when he was only 20, and his wife, the long-suffering Duchess Maria Hardouin de Gallese gave him the connections he needed to enter Roman high society. D’Annunzio became a master of social climbing, and quickly established a network that included aristocrats, artists, financiers and members of the European beau monde.
His origins were far less grand: he was born into a middle-class family in Pescara, then sent to school in Florence where he showed early talent as a poet. His first collection of poems, Primo vere came out in 1879, but his rise to fame as a writer came with his novels: Il piacere (Pleasure) in 1889, Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death) in 1894, Le vergini delle rocce (The Virgins of the Rocks) in 1896. These novels, written in lavish prose feature handsome heroes who fall passionately in love, then cause the beloved woman suffering and in some cases, death. All his novels are to some extent autobiographical, as I pointed out earlier:
Read chronologically, they give an insight into the way he was developing artistically and ideologically. His themes are those he would also develop in his plays:incest, adultery, rape and martyrdom. combined with studies of frustrated sexual desire and suicidal depression. The narrative voice is very much that of the male, and women are objectified, either as emblems of idealised perfection of destructive figures of obscure desires (Bassnett, 1999:131).
Two factors recur in narratives about d’Annunzio: firstly, that despite being extremely ugly, he seems throughout his life to have been very attractive to women of all ages, nationalities and professions and secondly, that he treated them all appallingly. There was a profound ambiguity in his never-ending pursuit of women as he rose from being a young man from the provinces with a talent for poetry to become the international superstar of his later years. Writing in his diary, André Gide, who had lunch with him in 1910 captures that ambiguity:
D’Annunzio, more pinched, more shrunken, wrinkled, smaller than ever, but also more sprightly. No tenderness or goodness in his glance; his voice rather adulatory than really caressing; his mouth more cruel than sensual: his forehead rather handsome. But in him genius goes beyond his natural gifts. More calculation than will; little passion, or at most a cold passion. (Gide in Woodhouse 1998:251).
My interest in d’Annunzio arose out of research into Italian theatre history. I had written the section on Eleonora Duse for a co-authored book with Michael Booth and John Stokes on nineteenth century actresses, The Actress in Her Time. Duse was one of the greatest actresses of her day, regularly touring Europe and the Americas; she had been born into an impoverished touring theatre company, making her stage debut at the age of 4 and had gradually risen to stardom, though not without considerable hardship, including having a child who died shortly after birth with a man who abandoned her, the writer Martin Cafiero. A key to Duse’s personality is her itinerant childhood, where she had no formal education and consequently in adulthood admired (and felt subjugated by) both men and women who she saw as intellectuals. She had a long-standing friendship with the writer Matilde Serao, and a series of lovers who helped her to broaden her repertoire beyond the more familiar diet of French plays that dominated the Italian stage at that time. Her relationship with Arrigo Boito, who wrote and translated a number of plays for her lasted for several years and then, in 1894 she met d’Annunzio.
The affair with d’Annunzio lasted for some years. Although he was, as with all his women, serially unfaithful, he used the relationship to embark on a new phase in his writing career. In 1897 he wrote a one act play specifically for her, Il sogno d’un mattino di primavera (Dream of a Spring Morning).
In typical dannunzian style, the heroine spends a night clinging to the blood-soaked body of her lover, who has been murdered by her husband and consequently goes mad. The play was not well-received, despite Duse’s bravura performance, but she continued to take it on tour regardless. He had sold the rights to his first play, La città morta (The Dead City) to Duse’s greatest rival, Sarah Bernhardt who performed it in Paris for the first time in 1898, much to Duse’s chagrin. Here too we find dismemberment and death: Anna, the female protagonist is blind, the hero falls in love with his own sister , Bianca and ends up murdering her. The play ends with Anna screaming as she touches Bianca’s dead body. However, Bernhardt was more savvy than Duse, and following bad reviews, she pulled the play from her repertoire after only twelve performances.
Duse’s close friend Matilde Serao was dismayed by the relationship with D’Annunzio. Writing to another friend, Serao made her feelings plain:
I swear to you on the head of my children whom I adore to have done all possible to save my unhappy friend from these unpardonable errors of this horrible period of her life, for which I have received this gracious result; she, the great Duse, treated me either hurtfully or with open coldness. Gabriele D’Ann.(sic) considers me his personal enemy; and my husband and all his friends treated me like dirt (Serao, in Sheehy, 2003:184).
Duse had encouraged d’Annunzio to write another play for her, La Gioconda, which opened in Palermo in 1899. In this play, the heroine, Silvia loses her hands when a statue made by her lover falls on her and crushes them. This time the reception was better, but when just a few weeks later another of his plays, La gloria opened in Naples there was a public uproar and the performance was a complete failure. Helen Sheehy comments that in a letter to a friend, Duse said she felt as if she were being slaughtered by the audience. Nevertheless, she was undeterred and agreed to a production of what was probably d’Annunzio’s most ambitious play yet, Francesca da Rimini.
This play, based on the famous episode in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno when the doomed lovers, Paulo and Francesca encounter Dante in Hell, opened in Rome in 1901. Preparations for the play had cost a fortune; d’Annunzio wanted spectacle, so commissioned elaborate sets, costumes by the French couturier Worth and a huge cast of actors. By this time his interest in the theatre had broadened and he had become aware of some of the more experimental work being created across Europe. The fin de siècle was not only an age of great playwrights, it was also an age of theatre practitioners such as Maeterlink, Lugné Poe, Appia and Craig and the young Stanislawski. D’Annunzio wanted to be acknowledged not only as a writer but as a man of the theatre, hence his insistence on being directly involved with the staging of Francesca da Rimini, despite Duse’s complaints about the financial pressures and his behaviour during rehearsals.It was widely reported that Duse had spent more on the production than had been spent on any previous production for the Italian stage. On the opening night the performance ran for nearly six hours, there were major technical problems with lighting and sets, and at one point the theatre filled with smoke. D’Annunzio was forced to cut the play drastically when Duse proposed to take it on tour. Reviews were mixed, but Duse’s virtuosity continued to please some critics. What was clear, however, was the destructive effect that collaboration with d’Annunzio was having on Duse. The great doyenne of Italian theatre, Adelaide Ristori remarked that nobody would be surprised if the relationship ended with a revolver, while her son, Giorgio commented that d’Annunzio had become Duse’s vampire and was slowly destroying her.
In 1904 d’Annunzio finally had the success he craved with his play, La figlia di Iorio (Iorio’s Daughter) only there was no role for Duse in it. D’Annunzio had gone behind her back and engaged another theatre company, headed by Virgilio Talli to stage the play along with the actress, Irma Grammatica, to play the title role. The relationship between Duse and d’Annunzio had been in trouble for some time, but this was the final blow from which it never recovered. Duse had coped for years with d’Annunzio’s infidelities, had almost bankrupted herself staging his plays, had endured harsh criticism when she promoted his work at home and abroad but what she saw as an artistic betrayal was too much to bear.
Yet there had been another, possibly even more serious artistic betrayal when d’Annunzio published a novel, Il fuoco in 1900. It was serialised in French and translated into English in the same year and caused a scandal across Europe. The novel is a thinly disguised account of the relationship between d’Annunzio and Duse, though with some significant authorial alterations. The hero, Stelio Effrena, (handsome, arrogant, a gifted writer and artist) embarks on a relationship with a famous actress, La Foscarina. Stelio’s dream is to create a great Italian theatre based on ancient Greek models (something which d’Annunzio had also dreamed of doing for a while) and at the end of the novel, Foscarina is about to embark on a world tour to try and raise money for this endeavour. By then, their relationship is over, for Stelio is in love with a younger woman, the singer Donatella Arvale and throughout the novel we see Foscarina struggling with her despair as this becomes more evident. Nevertheless, she is so committed to her belief in the power and possibility of Stelio’s artistic vision that she sacrifices her own desire for happiness for him. The closing scene of the novel is the funeral of Wagner, who has just died in Venice. As John Woodhouse points out, “while Stelio’s admiration for the German composer never lessens, just as his flawed passion for Foscarina never dies, the reader is left in no doubt that the Latin genius is about to take over from the Teutonic” (Woodhouse, 1998:188).
In the novel, Foscarina is consistently described as an ageing woman, in contrast with Stelio’s youthfulness. In reality, d’Annunzio, at 31 was only four years younger than Duse, so the portrayal of Foscarina as an ageing star was particularly cruel. Woven into the narrative is Stelio’s jealous fantasising about all Foscarina’s former lovers, which shocked critics. Foscarina’s fear of ageing is cruelly highlighted in one scene, when she stands in front of a painting by Francesco Torbido, entitled ‘Old Woman’ and experiences a sense of terror and foreboding at the image of
… that wrinkled, toothless, flabby, yellowish old woman who can no longer smile or weep, that species of human ruin that is worse than putrefaction, that earthly Fate who is not holding a spindle or a thread or scissors in her fingers, but rather a paper on which the warning is written.
‘In time’, she repeated…(Bassnett, 1990:123).
Also, the novel exposed some of Duse’s most private memories, entrusted to d’Annunzio in confidence, notably her account of making her stage debut at the age of 14 in the arena in Verona, playing Juliet. D’Annunzio tried to justify his novel, claiming that it was a work of pure invention, but the general view was that he had treated Duse badly, had exposed her private feelings to the world and had made her a figure to be pitied. But Duse herself appears to have colluded in the writing of the novel. She did not attempt to prevent its publication, though she knew about its contents and had read some parts of it. In a letter to her agent, Jose Schurmann she wrote:
I know the novel and have authorised its printing because my suffering, no matter how great, counts for nothing when it comes to giving Italian literature another work of art. And then, I am forty years old…and in love (Woodhouse, 1998:191).
I was invited to translate Il fuoco for Quartet books, and agreed to do so, but as I done so much work on the life and work of Eleonora Duse and felt great sympathy for her, it would be fair to say that as a translator I was not unbiased. One reviewer commented ironically that having read The Flame, he understood why d’Annunzio was no longer read, which could have been a comment on my translation or simply an acknowledgement of the extent to which that kind of overblown writing has gone out of fashion. For the style is convoluted, the pace veers from being breathless to being almost absurdly descriptive. Here are a couple of examples from early on in the novel, when the lovers are in Venice, in a gondola on the lagoon :
It was still evening, the time that he had described in one of his books as Titian’s hour, because everything seemed to be gleaming with its own rich inner glow, like that painter’s naked bodies, almost lighting up the sky rather than taking light from it (p.7).
He was speaking quite freely and fluently, as though he could see the soul of the woman listening to him becoming concave, turning into a chalice to receive the flow of words and he wanted to fill that chalice to the brim (p.16).
I kept wanting to shift the perspective, to make Foscarina less of a victim, to challenge the superiority of the very masculine narrative voice, but as with all translations, there is a responsibility to the author to try and give the second language readers a sense of what the original author was doing. D’Annunzio was the product of a particular time, and his writing undoubtably appealed to many of his contemporaries. In my view his best work is his youthful poetry, written before he became so self-obsessed and so grandiose, and it is a measure of his skill that his poetry should be so extremely difficult to translate. His prose is less difficult, but is so much a product of a completely different aesthetic that even had I had more empathy with his novel, it would still have been my duty to try and render for modern readers a style of writing that ceased to be popular more than a century ago.
From the very start, translating The Flame presented another set of difficulties. The novel is full of allusions and historical references that probably mean nothing to English-language readers. Il fuoco is prefaced by a quotation from Dante, a reference I kept in the English version, though recognising that it would not resonate with English readers. Moreover, the literal translation of the title would be ‘The Fire’ or simply ‘Fire’ neither of which felt satisfactory. I also kept wanting to simplify the language, to cut down the long drawn-out sentences, to excise the number of adjectives, but I tried to resist this because that would have been to change d’Annunzio’s style of writing. And I had to acknowledge that whilst my twenty-first century feminist-shaped consciousness finds d’Annunzio’s ideology abhorrent, this was not necessarily true of his contemporaries. Writing to Arrigo Boito after she had finished reading Il trionfo della morte, before she had actually met d’Annunzio, Duse expresses her wildly ambiguous enthusiasm for his writing:
That diabolical-divine d’Annunzio? The book – I have finished it – Ahi!Ahi!Ahi!!! – Each of us…poor women – think that it’s she who has found all the words – That diabolical d’Annunzio knows them all! […] I would rather die in a ditch that fall in love with a soul like that (Sheehy, 2003:134).
Alas, for Duse, she did not die in a ditch, she died alone in a hotel room in Pittsburgh and though she managed to recover to some extent from the disastrous years with d’Annunzio, she had been damaged. Admired and respected to the end of her life as one of the greatest actresses of her day, she was also the object of pity at having been so ill-used by d’Annunzio.
When I lived in Italy I occasionally encountered elderly extremely elegant ladies who were pointed out as former mistresses of d’Annunzio. Whether this was true, or whether, as a cynical friend suggested they were simply eager to try and claim a role in the d’Annunzian myth I shall never know, but the fact that they were still around in the late sixties when d’Annunzio, and fascist writers more generally, were barely ever mentioned strikes me as significant. Today, as fascist ideas seem to be undergoing a resurgence, the cult of the Superman which d’Annunzio borrowed from Nietzsche can no longer be consigned to history and needs to be watched with care . What I learned from translating d’Annunzio’s novel ( and from reading his other novels and his plays) is that there is a direct link between personal cruelty and the cruelty of political systems.
Antongini, Tom (1938) D’Annunzio. London: Heinemann.
Bassnett, Susan, Michael Booth, John Stokes (1989) The Actress in Her Time: Bernhardt, Duse, Terry. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
Bassnett, Susan (1991) trans. Gabriele D’Annunzio The Flame. London:Quartet.
Bassnett, Susan (1999) “A Passion for Dismemberment’ in Michael St. John ed. Romancing Decay. Ideas of Decadence in European Culture. Aldershot and Brookfield USA:Ashgate, 128-140
Hughes-Hallett, Lucy (2013) The Pike. Gabriele d’Annunzio Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War. London:Fourth Estate.
Sheehy, Helen (2003) Eleonora Duse A Biography. Alfred Knopf:New York.
Woodhouse, John (1998) Gabriele D’Annunzio. Oxford:Oxford University Press.