The Child of Pleasure

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The Child of Pleasure

by Gabriele D’Annunzio


A novel set in Rome during the 1880s; first published in Italian (as Il Piacere) in 1889, in English in 1898.


The romantic entanglements of a young nobleman with a passion for art and beauty play out against the background of nineteenth-century fashionable society.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Gabriele D’Annunzio was born in Pescara, a small town in the Abruzzi region of Italy, in 1863. He went on to become a national treasure of Italy, the most celebrated (and some-times reviled) poet, playwright, and novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His huge body of work was read widely across all social classes, translated in many languages, and imitated in Italy and abroad. D’Annunzio came from a distinguished family’s of merchants and landowners but his father (who was once the mayor of Pescara) was a dissolute man. He fathered several illegitimate children, though Gabriele was legitimate, and, in the late 1880s, finally abandoned his devoted wife to live with one of his mistresses. Gabriele, who was always very attached to his mother, did not attend his father’s funeral in 1893. Initially educated at home by private tutors, the boy was sent to Cicognini College at Prato—a prestigious, Jesuitrun boarding school—when he was 11 years old. He excelled at his studies, showing special prowess in Greek and Latin, and, as his own father desired, learned voice control to lose his Abruzzese accent and sound more Tuscan. At the age of 16, D’Annunzio published Primo vere (1879; In Early Spring), his first collection of poems. After graduating from Cicognini in 1881, where he was impeccably trained in the classics, the young writer entered the University of Rome. Instead of attending classes, however, he developed a keen interest in high society and journalism. D’Annunzio would never complete his university education, but he was a tireless reader all his life, eager to absorb everything he could about literature and the arts. He began penning short fiction, society columns, and sports articles for local newspapers. He also published Canto novo (1882; New Song), poems inspired by his first love affair, and two collections of short stories in the realistic vein, Terra vergine (1884; Virgin Earth) and San Pantaleone (1884; Saint Pantaleone). In 1883 D’Annunzio married Maria Hardouin, Duchess of Gallese, but continued to become enmeshed in scandalous affairs with high-society women, which provided much grist for the mill of fictional stories he was to produce. His liaison with the world-renowned actress Eleonora Duse, which he fictionalized in the novel II Fuoco (1900; The Flame), became mythical in Europe and the United States. In 1888 D’Annunzio suspended his journalistic career to concentrate upon writing his first novel, II Piacere (1889), or The Child of Pleasure. Richly detailed and lushly romantic, it depicts the decadent atmosphere among the affluent classes of con-temporary Rome at the end of the nineteenth century, a period when scandals and corruption mired the political and financial world of the recently unified nation of Italy. Highlighted is the influence of this dissolute, cynical atmosphere upon a young aesthete, a type of the period, who—following in the footsteps of such European writers as Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde—feels that art is life and life is art. For the aesthete, narcissistic self-love and a passion for beautiful, elegant, and luxurious objects, women, and works of art eclipsed all other values (moral, religious, political, and economic). In Italy at the turn of the twentieth century, only a very small intellectual elite actually lived the life of the aesthete. D’Annunzio himself was the most visible and admired (or hated) representative. Still, the aesthete and his world symbolized a reaction against several societal traits: smug conventionalism; the practical, unartistic outlook; Catholic morality; and other middle-class or bourgeois values. Also the aesthete was plainly disenchanted with the patriotic ideals of the Italian Risorgimento, or Unification Movement. How did Italians react to such a character? He fascinated the public, who generally embraced him. D’Annunzio’s fictional aesthete and the spectacle of his own real-life example afforded his audience a vicarious, escapist, and forbidden pleasure.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Rome in the 1880s

In the years following the process of national unification, formally achieved in 1860, the new Kingdom of Italy faced numerous obstacles, including a struggling economy, pronounced regional differences, a poor and predominately illiterate populace, and its own lack of status on the world stage. In addition, lacking raw materials and unable to afford machinery from abroad, Italy lagged far behind in the European industrial revolution, and soon nationalist groups began lamenting the young nation’s lack of status on the world stage in the era of European imperialism. Moreover, unification was not complete in 1860. Some territories in the northeast, traditionally considered Italian, remained under Austrian occupation until 1866, and Rome continued to belong to the papacy until the Italian Kingdom conquered it by military force in 1870. After an additional decade of conflict between the Vatican and the new government, Rome was finally absorbed into a unified Italy. From 1865 to 1871 Florence had served as the Italian national capital. Rome, while still under papal rule, had existed as something of a rural backwater, unaffected by industrial development; goats still grazed in the Forum, for example. All this changed after the Italian government seized control of the weakly defended city in 1871 and made Rome the country’s new capital.

Within ten years of Rome’s annexation, its population had increased from 220,000 to 300,000 inhabitants (Woodhouse, p. 37). Military garrisons had been established there, as had a foreign diplomatic corps. Businessmen, entrepreneurs, speculators, and would-be politicians took up residence in Rome, while immigrant workers from the impoverished rural South also flocked to the city in search of gainful employment. Like many Italian cities of the time, Rome experienced a period of rapid expansion and development.

Roman society was undergoing a similar trans-formation; in an attempt to catch up with the rest of the world, Italian society in general began to model itself on that of other Western nations, such as England and France. This was especially true of the Italian aristocracy, which abandoned the near-feudal lifestyle it had led for centuries in an attempt to fit in with the values of the new regime. “The Kingdom was new, life seemed to be changed, new industries and fortunes were being built, railroads were reaching out everywhere—it was necessary to be more modern. The old traditions seemed to have been left behind and appeared dangerous to the principles of unification. Everybody was looking for foreign models to imitate” (Barzini in Rhodes, p. 26).

Italian aristocrats often chose to model their behavior on that of their English counterparts. Many began to observe a more rigid adherence to the social hierarchy; for example, servants who waited upon the family’s at dinner were now expected to remain silent throughout the meal, whereas they had previously been permitted to participate in the conversations if so inclined. Some emulated English lords by embarking upon such pursuits as voyages of exploration and hazardous big-game hunts, while others redecorated their ancestral palaces and turned these palazzi into elaborate showplaces, threw grand parties, traveled through high international society, and contracted marriages between their daughters and foreign nobles. Yet another element of the aristocracy engaged in extravagant acts like dueling and reckless gambling. “In other words, the Italian nobles for the first time set about acting the part of ‘nobles’; they ceased to be patriarchal, with a place in the people’s ancient way of life, in order to live a fictitious literary and choreographic existence” (Barzini in Rhodes, p. 27). It is this highly artificial milieu that inspires The Child of Pleasure. Indeed Rome is almost a character in the novel, brooding over the action and ensnaring its inhabitants with its beauty and its potentially corrupting sensuality: “Rome appeared, all pearly gray, spread out before him, its lines a little blurred like a faded picture, under a Claude Lorrain sky, sprinkled with ethereal clouds…. Under this rich autumnal light everything took on a sumptuous air. Divine Rome!” (D’Annunzio, The Child of Pleasure, p. 178).

The Aesthetic and Decadent Movements

During the late nineteenth century, many European intellectuals became involved in a philosophical and artistic phenomenon known as Aestheticism. Its roots could be traced back to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who proposed in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (1790) that a disinterested contemplation of an object, without reference to reality or consideration of the object’s utility or morality, represented a pure aesthetic experience. The French, however, appropriated and refined that theory during the nineteenth century, perhaps around the time that Theophile Gautier claimed that art itself lacked all utility in his 1835 preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). Other French thinkers, including the authors Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Stéphane Mallarmé, further developed the idea. The slogan for French Aestheticism subsequently became “I’art pour I’art”—art for art’s sake—again emphasizing that works of art had no purpose beyond their own existence and beauty.

A related movement flourished in Italy in the late nineteenth century. Called Decadentism, it stressed the individual, the subconscious, and the instinctual, and cultivated the irrational impulse. An offshoot, the Decadent-Aesthetic Movement, focused on artificiality and art for art’s sake, and showed a preference for the exotic and the refined, as well as a lack of moral scruples. As its name suggests, members of the movement associated Decadence (in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek way, for they proudly believed themselves to be not only great artists but also absolutely modern) with the artistic qualities of declining, even decaying civilizations, such as the later Roman Empire and Byzantine Greece. The typical Decadent writer employed a highly polished, elaborate style and bizarre subject matter, and rejected the natural and organic in favor of the artificial and ornate. Sometimes the writer indulged in drugs or sexual deviation “in an attempt to achieve (in a phrase echoed from the French poet Rimbaud) ’the systematic derangement of all the senses’” (Abrams, p. 8).

Both the Decadent and the Decadent-Aesthetic Movements spread beyond France to other European nations, including England and Italy. Indeed, the new Italy’s eagerness to adopt foreign models inspired writers such as D’Annunzio to steep themselves in French Decadent writings and thereby redefine themselves, breaking away from the established naturalistic mode of literature that had predominated since the unification. Certainly, The Child of Pleasure reveals a Decadent influence in its depiction of a corrupt, decaying society which has lost its morality while retaining its beauty.

D’Annunzio and high society

D’Annunzio first came to Rome in 1881. He soon fell under the city’s spell, delighting in the warmth, splendor, and stimulating atmosphere of his new surroundings. “A brilliant red gaiety glows around me,” he wrote to his sweetheart Giselda Zucconi (D’Annunzio in Woodhouse, p. 37). While in Rome, D’Annunzio struck up a close friendship with Edoardo Scarfoglio, editor of the weekly newspaper ll Capitan Francassa, to which D’Annunzio quickly became a contributor. D’Annunzio also met Angelo Sommaruga, a young Milanese entrepreneur who


Despite the similarity of their experiences, D’Annunzio did not intend for everyone to identify him with the aesthete anti-hero of his novel, Andrea Sperelli There were significant differences: Sperelfi was an aristocrat, born to mingle effortlessly in high society, while D’Anminzio achieved admission to more exalted circles through talent and force of personality. Also DyAnnunzio was more interested in politics than his character. In 1897 D’Annunzio was elected as a deputy to the Italian parliament He proved, however, to be a somewhat inconsistent and unpredictable politician, and his tenure in parliament ended in 1904, Forced to flee to France in 1910 to escape his creditors, D’Anriunzio returned to Italy in 1915 to protest his country’s neutrality in the First World War, He published eloquent and ornate interventionist poems and articles in important newspapers such as Sera, and became the most vociferous advocate of Italy’s entrance into the war an the side of France. When Italy did In fact enter the conflict on the side of the Allies, D’Annunzto served in the Air Force, taking part in several daring and highly publicized missions over Pola, Trieste, and Vienna, for which he received decorations from France and Britain as well as Italy.

D’Anminzto achieved further fame and notoriety after the war, In 1919, outraged over the Treaty of Versailles’ refusal to recognize some of Italy’s territorial claims, D’Annuozio—accompanied by several thousand irregular troops—seized the town of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia), The occupation lasted more than a year, during which Fiume was transformed into a strange libertarian state (where free love, yoga, nudism, war games, and cocaine use were practiced). As a result, O’Annunzio became the most visible of the Italian war veterans, a rival of Mussolini himself for the charismatic leadership of the Fascist Movement In fact, much of the revolutionary rhetoric and ritual of Fascism (including the Roman salute and the black shirt) was forged in Flume, though Fascism absorbed none of Fiurne’s free-thinking, permissive, anti-practical spirit The Flume episode ended D’Annunzto’s political career, After Italy’s central government sent troops that put a stop to his occupation of Fiume, D’Annunzio was allowed to retire to a vilfa on Lake Garda (II VJttofiah degli Italian” now a museum). He filled the villa with war memorabilia, elegant crafts, and artwork (mostly copies) that he had collected all his life, transforming the place into an extraordinary monument to himself When Benito Mussolini assumed control of Italy in 1922, he compensated D’Armunzio for his withdrawal from public life by arranging for a government-sponsored edition of all his works (released beginning in 1925). Although he privately expressed dislike for Mussolini, in public D’Annunzio re framed from criticizing the dictator or his regime.

introduced D’Annunzio to English literature (Sommaruga was an expert on English Romanticism) and in the next few years published D’An nunzio’s next two works, Canto Novo (New Song) and Terra vergine (Virgin Earth). D’Annunzio’s journalistic and poetic endeavors established him as a rising literary figure. Consequently, higher circles of Roman society began to take an increased interest in the young man.

The fascination was mutual; eager to impress his new acquaintances, D’Annunzio—who was an expert in identifying new cultural and social trends—soon adopted the dress and demeanor of a dandy. Scarfoglio noted his friend’s transformation with disapproval, writing in his memoirs:

Gabriele, who was modest, kind, ingenuous, is now becoming foppish, cunning and affected. The child-like grace, half-wild, half-timid, from the Abruzzi has been transformed overnight into the perfumed elegance, the capering mannerisms of the dandy. He has abandoned himself to the smart crowd, from whom his artist’s instincts should have fatally divided him. When the doors of the great Roman houses open, he gives himself up entirely to female blandishments…. Now, for six months, he has been going from one party to another, from one ball to another, from a morning’s riding in the Campagna, to a supper-party of some pomaded old idiot furnished with nothing more than a set of quarterings. Gabriele never opens a book. Not one serious thought enters his head. He is a puppy-dog on a silken thread.

(Scarfoglio in Rhodes, pp. 30-31)

Despite Scarfoglio’s harsh criticism, D’Annunzio continued to pursue his new lifestyle, attending glittering social functions and paying extravagant court to fashionable women. The early part of his amorous career reached a climax in 1883 when he married Maria Hardouin, the only daughter of the Duke of Gallese. Within a month of making her acquaintance, D’Annunzio severed his relationship with Giselda Zucconi, whom he had regarded as his unofficial betrothed since early 1881.

Maria’s father, Jules Hardouin, had been a French army officer before his marriage to the widowed Duchess of Gallese, who obtained the permission of the pope for her new husband to assume the title of duke. After his first wife’s death, Duke Giulio—as he now preferred to be styled—married Natalia Lezzani, daughter of a marquess, by whom he had two children, Luigi and Maria. It was through his acquaintance with the second duchess that D’Annunzio met the rest of the Gallese family’s in 1883. Nineteen-year-old Maria soon became infatuated with the up-and-coming young poet; they enjoyed secret trysts that resulted in Maria’s becoming pregnant. Knowing that her parents disapproved of the romance, the couple attempted to elope but were apprehended in Florence and brought back to Rome under police escort. Given Maria’s condition, the marriage was inevitable. The duke, however, refused to give his daughter a dowry or attend the small wedding ceremony in the family’s private chapel; and never did he acknowledge D’Annunzio as his son-in-law or reconcile with Maria.

The newlyweds stayed for some time in the young husband’s native Pescara, where Maria gave birth to their first child six months after their wedding. However, they eventually returned to Rome and D’Annunzio resumed his former way of life, which included intrigues with other women. His experiences in high society—amorous and otherwise—would form part of the backdrop for The Child of Pleasure.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

At a dinner party held by his cousin, the Marchesa d’Atelata, Andrea Sperelli, Count of Ugenta, meets the beautiful Elena Muti, the widowed Duchess of Scerni, and conceives an immediate passion for her. The attraction is mutual They meet again at an auction, where Elena persuades Andrea to buy an elaborate clock shaped like a death’s-head (human skull). The next time they meet, at a ball, Elena falls ill and departs early.


For many decades, women remained seconds lass citizens in the new Italy, They did not receive the right to vote until 1945, Marriage and motherhood were still extolled as the pinnacles of achievement for Italian women, and their realm of activity was to be limited entirety to the private sphere. Un-chaperoned women were not supposed to appear in public, and going out and walking in the streets or going to the theater alone favorite activities of the modern dandy, who could only be male) was frowned upon as a breach of female morality. This sensibility, added to a Catholic interpretation of the proper female as a devoted wife and mother, is reflected in the 1880s setting of The Child of Plemum. Donna Maria Ferres, who is faithful to her husband and devoted to her daughter, suffers agonies of guilt and remorse over her forbidden attraction to Andrea Sperelli, vowing at one point, “I shall renounce [him]—my daughter shall keep possession of my whole life, of my whole soul. That is the path of duty, and I will walk in it” (The Child of Pleasure, p. 155), Wealthy, childless widows such as Elena and Andrea’s cousin, the Marchesa d’Atelata, had more autonomy and mobility, especially if they came from the aristocracy; nonetheless, they were expected to appear above reproach in public, whatever their activities in private.

Andrea visits the ailing duchess at home and they begin a passionate affair. During this time, Andrea—an aesthete and amateur artist—creates engravings and composes poems, drawing on Elena as his muse. After several months of intense involvement, Elena abruptly breaks off the affair and leaves Rome without explanation.

Angered and bewildered by Elena’s defection, Andrea throws himself into a series of casual liaisons with other society beauties, one of which results in his being seriously wounded in a duel. Accepting the Marchesa d’Atelata’s invitation to recover at her villa in Schifanoja on the Adriatic Sea, Andrea experiences a spiritual renewal for a time, disdaining women and rededicating himself to art. However, he becomes attracted to another guest at the villa: Donna Maria Ferres, a Sienese friend of the Marchesa’s and a Guatemalan politician’s virtuous wife. Maria is likewise drawn to Andrea, which distresses her because she is determined to be a faithful wife. In her diary, Maria records her growing attraction to Andrea as they engage in long walks, horseback rides, and sightseeing expeditions. Driven at last to admit her love for Andrea, Maria nonetheless resists temptation and leaves the villa before they can consummate their passion.

Back in Rome, Andrea renews his former way of life, dabbling in art and casual affairs. He meets Elena again and learns she has entered into a marriage of convenience with Lord Humphrey Heathfield, a wealthy Englishman. While Elena swears she still loves Andrea, she also insists that they can never be together again. His vanity piqued, Andrea vows to win her back. The appearance of Donna Maria, now visiting Rome with her husband, furnishes the count with the perfect means to do so. Hoping to make Elena jealous, Andrea pays extravagant court to Maria, who once again falls under his spell and longs to redeem him from the dissolute life he has led. Despite his ulterior motives, Andrea begins to return her feelings, even fantasizing about winning both women for his own. Memories of his Roman idyll with Elena impinge upon his present wooing of Maria, until the latter’s purity merges with the former’s inconstancy in his mind: “Where Elena Muti had passed, there Maria Ferres passed also. Often enough, the sights they visited suggested to the poet the same eloquent effusions which Elena had once heard. Often enough, some recollections carried him away suddenly from the present and disturbed him strangely” (The Child of Pleasur p. 268). For her part, Maria senses that Andrea and Elena share a history but fears to inquire as to its true nature.

As with Elena, Andrea carries out his pursuit of Maria against the backdrop of Rome’s most famous and beautiful sights. The romantic triangle reaches a crisis, however, when Don Manuel, Maria’s husband, is caught cheating at cards. The resulting scandal and financial ruin means his departure from Rome, and as his wife, Maria must accompany him. Meanwhile, after further struggles with her conscience, Maria has finally decided to give herself to the man she loves. Unfortunately Andrea utters his former mistress’s name at the exact moment Maria yields to him:

All at once she struggled free of his embrace, her whole form convulsed with horror, her face ghastly and distraught as if she had at that moment torn herself from the arms of Death. That name! That name!—She had heard that name!

(The Child of Pleasure, p. 306)

Heartbroken and disillusioned, Maria leaves Rome without ever seeing Andrea again.

In the last scenes of the novel, Andrea attends the auction of Don Manuel’s possessions and bids for several furnishings. Feeling oppressed and oddly sickened, he hides from a large party of visitors, which includes Elena and her new lover. Later, he returns to the auction rooms but finds them deserted. Fleeing to his own house, he walks slowly up the stairs behind the cabinet he has purchased, conscious of a sense of sterility and emptiness in his life.

The dandy, the femme fatale, and the decaying aristocracy

In a letter to his friend Francesco Paolo Michetti, D’Annunzio described Child of Pleasure as a study of corruption and “of many other subtleties and falsities and vain cruelties” (D’Annunzio in Kepos and DiMauro, p. 28). The corruption in the novel is inextricably linked to the Decadent sensibility that, in D’Annunzio’s imagination, informs Roman high society and its denizens.

Two of the main characters, Andrea Sperelli and Elena Muti, may be said to personify the Decadent Movement. Andrea embodies the dandy. While the well-dressed man about town had been a fixture in high society throughout the centuries, Charles Baudelaire modified the popular concept of the dandy in his 1863 essay “Le Dandy.” According to Baudelaire, the dandy’s elegant clothes reflected something—the “aristocratic superiority of his mind”; also the dandy found his greatest pleasure in shocking others with his original appearance and opinions (Baudelaire in Beckson, p. 35). Embraced by the Decadents like Oscar Wilde, who added their own modifications, the dandy of the late nineteenth century emerged as a sophisticated man who worshipped the modern city and all things elegant, graceful, and artificial. Sincerity, industriousness, and moral energy were anathema to the dandy, who cultivated a fashionable air of idleness and languor. In The Child of Pleasure, Andrea Sperelli possesses many dandyish attributes; art may stir him to unfeigned passion, but, once ensconced in Roman high society, he readily assumes the persona of the idle young man about town. He succumbs without resistance to sensual pleasures and drifts through a series of dissolute, immoral affairs whose increasingly refined perversity is as removed as possible from the romantic and bourgeois cult of the ethical, authentic, productive, and sincere self: “By degrees, insincerity—rather towards himself than towards others—became such a habit of Andrea’s mind, that finally he was incapable of being wholly sincere or of regaining dominion over himself” (The Child of Pleasure, p. 25).

If Andrea embodies the modern dandy and the antithesis of the productive bourgeois individual, Elena represents the femme fatale (fatal woman), a figure especially prominent in art and literature around the turn of the twentieth century. She undergoes many mutations through D’Annunzio’s own body of work, including the novels ll Fuoco (1900; The Flame) and Forse che si forse die no (1910; Perhaps Yes, Perhaps No). Sensual, exotic, sterile, and corrupt, the archetypal fatal woman of the turn of the century was the opposite of the model maternal bourgeois woman and an eloquent expression of male anxiety. The femme fatale seduced and destroyed the many men who succumbed to her deadly charms. From the beginning of D’Annunzio’s novel, Elena is linked with the forces of death and destruction. On beholding her, Andrea is struck by her beauty, com paring her lips to “the mouth of the Medusa of Leonardo, that human flower of the soul rendered divine by the fires of passion and the anguish of death” (The Child of Pleasure, p. 8). According to the classic myth, however, Medusa was transformed into a snake-haired Gorgon, whose horrific appearance turned all beholders to stone. While Andrea’s romance with Elena does not result in such a fate, their entanglement damages him nonetheless. Unable to deal with her mysterious departure from Rome, he indulges in some meaningless liaisons, one of which results in a near-fatal duel. Later, Andrea’s frustrated passion for the now-married Elena causes him to destroy the sincere love that Donna Maria offers him. Meanwhile, indifferent to the havoc she has caused her former lover, Elena moves on to her next “victim,” Galeazzo Secinaro, in whose company she is seen at the end of the novel.

Not only are Andrea and Elena representations of decadence, but they also embody a decaying social order, the landed aristocracy, as seen by the middle classes. The middle classes both despised and envied this aristocracy, never ceasing to fantasize about it. D’Annunzio’s novel concerns a phenomenon in late-nineteenthcentury Italian society (though the novel does not explicitly portray it): the old landed aristocracy or pseudo-aristocracy (monied non-nobles who styled themselves as aristocrats) to which these characters belonged was losing importance in the social and political realms. As the aristocracy declined, the middle and professional classes became more prominent, so much so that, in 1878, Leone Carpi, author of an 1878 contemporary study of Italian society, described the middle class as “the life, the strength, and the backbone of the nation” (Carpi in Davis and Ginsborg, pp. 222-23). The Unification created new opportunities for Italians seeking to improve their status. Industry was still in its infancy, but prestigious, lucrative professions like law and medicine became more accessible to the sons of lesser professional men (notaries, chemists, surveyors) and tradesmen. New laws also insisted on mandatory primary education for all Italians, though these laws proved difficult to enforce, especially in poor, rural areas of the country. Nonetheless, the decades following the Unification witnessed a dramatic rise in power among an expanding professional elite, who increasingly replaced the aristocratic landowners in parliament and government.

As the middle classes expanded, the importance of the old landed aristocracy in Italy dwindled. The scions of the old aristocracy sought to improve their fortunes through employment in such traditional forums as the diplomatic corps, the judiciary, and the military, or by marrying other wealthy aristocrats (as Elena Muti does in The Child of Pleasure). Meanwhile, the new government conferred noble titles upon families and individuals who had distinguished themselves during the Unification by contributing in some way to the new country’s formation. This new minor nobility, who, beyond their newly minted titles, gained no special privileges, began to merge with the professional classes, either by independent employment or marriage, ultimately narrowing the overall gap between the middle class and the aristocracy.

Sources and literary context

While not autobiographical in the strictest sense, The Child of Pleasure was based upon many of D’Annunzio’s own experiences. Like his protagonist Andrea Sperelli, D’Annunzio had immersed himself in the glamorous and dissipated world of Roman high society during the 1880s. Also like Andrea, D’Annunzio had love affairs with numerous society beauties, several of whom furnished inspiration for his fictional characters. The sensual Elena Muti was partially inspired by two of the women with whom he was involved after his marriage: the journalist Olga Ossani (D’Annunzio called her Elena Muti in a letter he wrote her February 27, 1932) and Elvira “Barbara” Leoni (thought by some biographers to have been D’Annunzio’s greatest love).


For much of his life, D’Annunzio engaged in flirtations and casual affairs with beautiful women. According to various accounts, he was quick to become infatuated and equally quick to discard his lovers when the novelty wore off. The American dancer Isadora Duncan, who encountered D’Annurzio in France, described his effect upon women: “The tady he is talking to suddenly feels her very soul and being are lifted, as it were into an ethereal region, where she walks in company with the divine Beatrice, Above ordinary mortals, she goes about with a kind of imaginary halo. But, alas, when the caprice is over and he moves on to another lady, the halo dulls, the aureote diminishes, and she feels again of clay. She does not quite understand what has happened, but seems to be back on earth searching desperately for her transfiguration, aware that never in her whole life will she meet this kind of love again” (Duncan in Rhodes, p. 30).

Despite the semi-autobiographical slant of his novel, D’Annunzio’s literary models for The Child of Pleasure were mainly French writers. Various critics have detected in The Child of Pleasure the influences of Joris Karl Huysman, Alphonse Daudet, Josephin Peladan, Jean Lorrain, Guy de Maupassant, and Gustave Flaubert. D’Annunzio admired Flaubert especially; some of D’Annunzio’s detractors (Guy Tosi, for example) charged that he had gone so far as to plagiarize certain passages from Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale. Literary scholar Mario Praz, a near contemporary of D’Annunzio and one of his severest critics, also detected the influence of English Romantic and Decadent writers, specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. D’Annunzio himself admitted, “I am the mythical composite of all fruits, of all secret gardens—a bee that plundered freely from French flower-beds” (D’Annunzio in Jullian, p. 64). Within the context of Italian literature, The Child of Pleasure represents a major artistic departure for D’Annunzio, whose earlier prose work was written in the realistic vein so much in vogue during the nineteenth century. As noted, The Child of Pleasure is considered representative of Italian Aesthetic-Decadentism, which has often been compared with end-of-the-nineteenth-century movements in England and France. In D’Annunzio’s time, Decadentismo carried somewhat negative connotations; Italian critic Benedetto Croce associated the phenomenon with “a morbid cultivation of insincerity and irrationality, politically cynical with respect to liberal democracy, and, ultimately, a mere outer display around an inner void” (Hainsworth and Robey, pp. 174-75). Scholars after Croce offered a political and moralistic interpretation, considering works like The Child of Pleasure reflections of the decaying values of a corrupt society, whose collapse led to the rise of Fascism in the early twentieth century. Even later scholars have reevaluated D’Annunzio’s work in the larger context of the evolution of modernist European culture around the turn of the twentieth century; D’Annunzio himself has been seen as a pivotal prophet of modernism. Recent scholarship regards him as representative of a generational search for new values.


When it was published in Italian in 1889, The Child of Pleasure received a cool reception from Italian critics, partly because of its bold subject matter, partly because of its emphasis on the aesthetic, which made it very different from the realistic novels then in vogue. However, the novel enjoyed great popular success, not least because readers delighted in discovering and dissecting the story’s more scandalous and autobiographical elements. D’Annunzio would go on to gain distinction as the first writer in Italy to have a truly mass audience.

The Child of Pleasure garnered more critical success abroad, mainly in France, where it was published as L’Enfant de volupte in 1894. This translation was, it should be noted, not exactly the novel as written. Prepared by Jacques Herelle in close consultation with D’Annunzio himself, it censored some of the original text, among other reasons, to suit general moral tastes in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The French translation also reordered some of the first chapters to make them more strictly chronological. All the effort appears to have been worthwhile;h French critics embraced this hand-tailored edition, curiously for the same lush sensuality the Italian critics had deplored.

D’Annunzio’s novel earned guarded praise when it first appeared in England, where Arthur Symons pointed out flaws, crediting them to inexperience: “[D’Annunzio] has begun, a little uncertainly, to mould a form of his own…. There is still much that is conventional and unskillful in a book which, it must be remembered, was written at the age of twenty-five; but how … the imaginative feeling of the description of Rome struggles with the scraps of tedious conversation” (Symons in Hall, p. 128). Others complained about the writing style in such works by D’Annunzio, comparing it to “a beautiful tropical morass, filled with luxuriant vegetation … whose air … is heavy with subtle poison” (Rose in Kepos and DiMauro, p. 3). Later critics, however, showed appreciation for what The Child of Pleasure manages to achieve. Sergio Pacifici singles it out as D’Annunzio’s most representative and probably his finest novel, sizing up the reasons for its sweeping success:

Seldom before (or for that matter since) has another writer managed to match d’Annunzio’s re-creation of the incredibly pretentious, sophisticated, and bored life of the Roman aristocracy in the 1880s. We move amidst the “beautiful people” of post-Risorgimento Rome; we hear their conversations about futile matters—mistresses, objets d’art being auctioned, the latest gossip—and we are privileged to be present as invisible observers of the gaiety of their drawing rooms and the intimacy of their bedrooms.

(Pacifici in Kepos and DiMauro, p. 27)

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988.

Beckson, Karl. London in the 1890s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

D’Annunzio, Gabriele. The Child of Pleasure. Trans. Georgina Harding. New York: Howard Fertig, 1990.

——. Il Piacere: The Pleasure. Trans. Virginia S. Caporale. Bloomington: First Books Library (Online Library), 2000.

Davis, John A., and Paul Ginsborg, eds. Society and Politics in the Age of the Risorgimento. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hainsworth, Peter, and David Robey, eds. The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hall, Sharon K., ed. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Jullian, Philippe. D’Annunzio. Trans. Stephen Hardman. London: Pall Mall, 1972.

Kepos, Paula, and Laura DiMauro, eds. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 40. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.

Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Trans. Angus Davidson. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Rhodes, Anthony. The Poet as Superman. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959.

Woodhouse, John. Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

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