Gabriele D’Annunzio is a warmonger, womanizer, poet and playwright. He was a megalomaniac, a fascist, and aviator, dubbing himself L’Immaginifico ‘The Great Curator’. He is the personification of Italian decadence, a creature of an unbridled appetite for fame, luxury and women.
D’Annunzio can boast Eleonora Duse, American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, Olga Ossani, Letizia de Felici, Barbara Elvia Leoni and Luisa Casati as some of his many lovers. Although completely bald by 23, short, and – according to Sarah Bernhadt – with eyes like “little blobs of shit”, he was a notorious womanizer (boasting 1,000 conquests).
How do you begin to condense the flamboyant and colourful life of such a man into 644 pages? Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s book The Pike: Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War tackles the challenge.
French novelist Romain Rolland compared him to a pike, a predatory fish ‘lurking afloat and still, waiting for ideas’. It seems fitting that this should be Hughes-Hallett’s title for her biography in which she explores the many faces of D’Annunzio: Poet, preacher and seducer of war.
I sit down for a conversation with Hughes-Hallett. I am daunted, not just at the prospect of interviewing the Samuel Johnson Prize Winner, but also of tackling and questioning the aura that is Gabrielle D’Annunzio.
Born in Pescara, Abruzzo, son of a wealthy landowner and mayor, at the age of 16 his first poems Primo Vere (1879) were published. D’Annunzio’s machinations for self-aggrandizement began early when he faked his own death from a horse riding accident to increase his sales.
“D’Annunzio was a very charming clever person who held some abhorrent opinions, and that seemed to be something worth looking into. And also to see how those appalling ideas which he was expressing towards the end of his life have there roots in some very beautiful ideas,” says Hughes-Hallett.
These binaries between romanticism and fascism, politics and sexual politics are woven in a rich fragmented tapestry that is Hughes-Hallett’s Pike.
His writings emerge out of the Decadent Period, which interplayed closely with French symbolism and British aestheticism. He was a Nietzsche-esque sort of Renaissance man, a fusion of urban sophistication and crude, violent sentiments. This was the man whose ideas and aesthetics influenced Italian fascism and the style of Benito Mussolini.
He was highly intellectual, but there was a certain kind of intellect that evaded him. Hallett explains: “He was incapable of empathy and didn’t have much of a moral compass.”
He spent much time at the front during WWI and describes prosaically the deaths and mutilations of his fellow Italians. Benedetto Croce was repelled by how he seemed “to enjoy war, even to enjoy slaughter”.
Perhaps it is Hallet’s background as a journalist for Vogue and as TV critic that makes her ferocious for truth, and not only truth, but emotional detachment from D’Annunzio. “I felt possessive of him, but I did not identify with him.”
Hughes-Hallett is passionate about the poet and lothario who seduced Italy to wartime slaughter with his rhetoric, scandalized Europe with his writing and set up his own city-state in a forerunner to fascism.
“I feared I would loose interest in him before I finish, but that never happened and the great thing about him is he is never dull,” says Hughes-Hallett.
After reading her biography, I couldn’t agree more.