BORN: 1863, Pescara, Italy
DIED: 1938, Gardone, Italy
GENRE: Poetry, fiction, drama
New Song (1882)
The Child of Pleasure (1888)
The Daughter of Jorio (1904)
Italian novelist, poet, dramatist, and political agitator, Gabriele d'Annunzio is one of the most flamboyant personalities of twentieth-century literature. The press reported his romantic scandals, and scholars criticized the moral delinquency of his works. Nevertheless, d'Annunzio was celebrated in his lifetime as one of Italy's greatest authors, an accomplished stylist who combined the poetic splendor of Dante and other classical writers with such literary movements as naturalism, Symbolism, and Decadence.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Father's Influence Provides Opportunities for Education D'Annunzio was born March 12, 1863, in the small town of Pescara on the Adriatic coast in central Italy. His father, a prosperous landowner and a dealer in wine and agricultural products, became mayor of the town. His wealth and influence allowed d'Annunzio the opportunity to study with private tutors and to be educated in Latin by priests of the local diocese. Later, d'Annunzio was educated in a prominent boarding school in Prato: the Liceo Cicognini.
Uninhibited Poetry Brings Success A precocious child, d'Annunzio excelled at Latin and Greek. At the age of sixteen, he wrote his first collection of verse, Primo Vere (1879; In Early Spring), which was published by his father. Because of its uninhibited approach to sexual themes, the poems were a commercial hit; because of their linguistic skill, they were a critical success. After graduating from Cicognini in 1881, d'Annunzio attended the University of Rome and began writing for newspapers. The following year, he published Terra vergine (1882; Virgin Land), a collection of regional stories, and Canto novo (1882; New Song), a collection of poetry that contains details of his first romantic relationship. In 1883, he married the duchess Maria Hardouin de Gallese, with whom he had three sons. D'Annunzio wrote popular stories, light verse, and a society news column, all under pseudonyms, in order to support his family. In 1888, after determining that his journalistic writing was consuming too much time, d'Annunzio quit his job as a reporter so that he could finish his first novel, The Child of Pleasure (1888–1889).
During the 1880s in Rome, d'Annunzio perfected his metamorphosis into what some have called a fop, or dandy. Often writing under a pseudonym, a penchant he extended by immediately renaming women acquaintances, d'Annunzio sharpened his writing and shamelessly blended his flamboyant image and experiences into his sensual poetry and stories; the frank depiction of his seduction of his wife, Maria Hardouin, here named “Yella,” in Intermezzo de rime (1883), brought accusations of pornography, but boosted sales.
D'Annunzio's literary career flourished in overlapping phases, each dominated by a genre. Following sensual verse and naturalistic short stories, the second phase began with the publication of his novel, Il piacere (The Child of Pleasure), an examination of the sexual and sensual pleasures of the facile lover Count Andrea Sperelli, a fictionalized d'Annunzio. His other novels, including the psychological study L'innocente (1892; The Intruder), the basis for Luchino Visconti's film (1979), also incorporate autobiographical elements and descriptions of the crumbling urban world of the aristocrats and reflect d'Annunzio's growing interest in Nietzsche's concept of the superman.
Public Affairs Throughout the 1890s, d'Annunzio began writing for the theater. The leading roles typically featured Eleonora Duse, a noted actress of the day whose relationship with d'Annunzio was widely discussed. By 1891, his marriage with Maria Hardouin had ended. In 1904, The Daughter of Jorio garnered a great deal of attention for both d'Annunzio and Duse, and the drama was commonly imitated. Duse was also the inspiration for the character Foscarina in the novel The Flame of Life (1900). A fictionalized account of his liaison with Duse, this novel created a great furor when it was published. In 1910 he and Duse separated, and Duse would no longer in his plays. D'Annunzio continued to live extravagantly even though he did not have much income. As a result of accumulating large debt, he fled to France in 1910, where he remained until the advent of World War I.
War and Politics: Defying Orders D'Annunzio was elected to the Italian parliament in 1897 and became a nationalist of high profile. When he returned to Italy at the outbreak of World War I, d'Annunzio reentered the political scene, delivering speeches and writing pamphlets. He joined the air force and became one of Italy's most popular heroes. During a forced landing, d'Annunzio was blinded in one eye by a fragment from the plane's propeller. While recovering from the injury, he composed Notturno (1921), a collection of prose meditations. In 1919, believing that the Allies had shorted Italy in the postwar division of land, d'Annunzio defied Italian government orders and led several thousand volunteer troops to reclaim the town of Fiume (present day Rijeka, Croatia). He held his position and even declared war on Italy before being overthrown by Italian troops in 1921. After Fiume, d'Annunzio was allowed to retire to a villa on Lake Garda, where he spent his last years writing. In 1924, with Benito Mussolini's approval, d'Annunzio was named Prince of Montenevoso and, in 1937, he was made president of the Italian Royal Academy. On March 1, 1938, d'Annunzio died of a cerebral hemorrhage while writing at his desk.
Works in Literary Context
D'Annunzio's tendency to adopt artistic trends resulted in his being influenced by a number of writers and movements throughout his career. Primo Vere, for instance, was inspired by Odi Barbare (1877; Barbarian Odes), a volume by Giosué Carducci, an Italian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. D'Annunzio's early short stories are regional tales influenced by French writer Guy de Maupassant, Italian writer Giovanni Verga, and the naturalist movement of the late nineteenth century. The stories are characterized by a conviction that the everyday life of the middle and lower classes deserve serious literary treatment. Because of his artistic fickleness, d'Annunzio's work often reflects contradictory movements and themes. For example, his novels were influenced by Decadence, which encouraged sensationalism and held that art was superior to nature, a movement contrary to naturalism. The Child of Pleasure is written in the style of such French novelists as Joris-Karl Huysmans, while The Maidens of the Rock (1898) carries echoes of French Symbolism.
The Superman Nietzsche's philosophy includes the concept of the superman, an individual who discovers that it is in his best interests to reject any outside ideas about ethics, trusting instead what he finds within him-self. Ultimately, the superiority of the superman sets him apart from others, as he has created his own realm of good and evil. It follows, then, that the superman is contemptuous of the masses, as well as any democratic system of government. Intrigued by the model of
Nietzsche's superman, d'Annunzio personifies the motif in several characters who act outside the limits of decency and the law. Their amorality is supposedly justified by their superhuman capabilities. Throughout his novels and dramas, d'Annunzio perverts the superman persona by creating characters who perform atrocious acts of violence.
Dramatizing the Superman Almost all of d'Annunzio's plays elaborate on the superman rationale. While often dreadful, the plays are also interesting. Such works include d'Annunzio's third novel, The Intruder (1893), whose characters exemplify qualities of the superman taken to horrific extremes, Glory (1899), which depicts Ruggero Flammo, a Roman dictator who rules with cruelty until he is assassinated, and More Than Love (1906), which focuses on a heroic explorer who, in addition to seducing his best friend's sister, is revealed to be a fraud. The Ship (1908) is another drama that typifies an unethical superman. In this play, the character of Marco Gatico is presented as a hero who is not bound to the moral standards of lesser mortals. In all of d'Annunzio's Nietzsche-inspired dramas, neither the restraint nor the plight of the common man is of concern to the superman.
Discussing d'Annunzio's immense popularity, Giuseppe Prezzolini writes that many Italians suffered from “d'Annunzianism,” the “Italian disease” of imitating his extravagant lifestyle. They copied his neckwear and goatee, adopted his diction and scorn for creditors, walked dogs with languorous eyes, and associated with ladies with high sounding names. In addition to the influence he had on his contemporaries, d'Annunzio holds an important place in twentieth-century literature today and continues to be a topic of study for scholars in the field.
Works in Critical Context
No critical consensus about d'Annunzio's writing exists. Though rejected for his moral depravity by some, others praise him for bringing an unknown vitality to Italian literature. In general, d'Annunzio is commended for his semiautobiographical novel, The Child of Pleasure, and his poetry is noted for its linguistic virtuosity. Unquestionably, though, the dramas are regarded to be d'Annunzio's most offensive and least successful works. Today, d'Annunzio's works, as a whole, are largely for-gotten, and his plays are rarely performed. Instead, it is his life, especially his political affiliations, that has fascinated academics.
Ties to Myth From the onset, d'Annunzio's work shocked critics and audiences alike. While several scholars have praised their inventive use of classical mythology, other academics disagree. According to Benedetto Croce, a critic during d'Annunzio's time, “Ancient Greek tragedy and mediaeval mysteries are the means used in a vain attempt to excite violent and troublous moods.” Instead of achieving literary magnificence, “feelings supposedly heroic are contaminated,” continues Croce.
The Child of Pleasure The preface of d'Annunzio's first novel, The Child of Pleasure, is a letter addressed to his friend Francesco Paolo Michetti in which d'Annunzio says that his work is, in essence, a study of corruption, depravity, and of “many other subtleties and falsities and vain cruelties.” From one perspective, the novel is an attempt to define what love is. The answer, of course, is disheartening, as love seems to be “nothing more than a masochistic or sadistic experience, a form of punishment inflicted upon another human being—an experience utterly devoid of any uplifting elements,” claims Croce. Indeed, even the narrative of the novel assesses Andrea Sperelli, the main character, accordingly: “Each of these loves brought him to a new degradation; each inebriated him with evil rapture, without satisfying him; each taught him some special subtlety of vice yet unknown to him. He had in him the seeds of all infections. He corrupted and was corrupted.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
D'Annunzio's famous contemporaries include:
Joseph Conrad (1857–1924): Conrad's works, which include the story “Heart of Darkness,” (1899) lead readers into morally dark worlds.
Thomas Mann (1875–1955): Some critics believe that the main character in Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947) represents the whole of German culture during Nazism.
Ernest de Sélincourt (1870–1943): A professor of poetry at Oxford, Sélincourt's work as an academic includes his well-respected editions of the letters and poetry of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): While in a mental institution, van Gogh painted Starry Night (1889), one of his most famous works.
William Taft (1857–1930): As the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Taft supported strengthening America's position in the Caribbean and the Far East by expanding private American investments.
Benito Mussolini (1883–1945): Mussolini was the Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943.
Cruel Dramas D'Annunzio's dramatic works are most commonly criticized for lacking humanity and for their excessive depictions of such ferocities as sadism, murder, and mutilation. Frank Moore claims that The Dead City, one of d'Annunzio's earliest plays, offends “not our morals but our taste” with its eye-gouging, decapitation, and
incest. In such plays as More Than Love (1906) and The Ship (1908), affection and kindness are, according to Croce, “submerged by the sensuality which steadily prevails and dictates to the author, forcing him to delineate not persons but bodies, and not even idealized bodies but bodies heavily fleshy, radiating attraction for the senses but also that disgust and recoil which flesh does sometimes excite.” Surely much of the repulsiveness of d'Annunzio's plays is a result of the characters' desensitized view of the people and violence surrounding them.
Responses to Literature
- Decadence as a literary movement has multiple explanations and definitions. With the help of a dictionary of literature, compose a working definition of Decadence as it relates to the work of d'Annunzio. What sort of connotations has decadence come to have in contemporary society?
- Early in his career, d'Annunzio was criticized for writing works that were imitative of other writers. Discuss why you think he felt the need to rely so heavily on other authors. What did his critics say about his imitative style? Do you agree or disagree with their assessments of his work?
- Critic Benedetto Croce claims that d'Annunzio's works “pass criticism on themselves” because of their wantonness, ferocity, and violence. What is d'Annunzio's purpose for including violent or repulsive acts in his dramatic works? Compare these works to movies produced today, which often are filled with gratuitous violence and torture.
- Read The Child of Pleasure, which treats love and pleasure as processes of corruption, and consider what statements the novel is making about the nature of corruption. What is corruption, for d'Annunzio? What is its source? Is this another way of trying to understand the source of “evil” in humanity? Why do you think d'Annunzio takes “love” as his vehicle for an exploration of evil and corruption?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Viewed by some critics as representations of d'Annunzio himself, the protagonists of d'Annunzio's novels and dramas frequently consider themselves beyond ordinary rules of society. In these works, d'Annunzio's interest in Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the superman is evident. Other works of art that demonstrate an interest in the disregard for the values of society include the following:
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a novel by Tom Wolfe. Set in New York, this novel features a variety of amoral characters: corrupt politicians, dishonest lawyers, self-serving activists, and greedy stockbrokers.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), a novel by Patricia High-smith. The manipulative, murderous actions of Tom Ripley defy all moral standards as he assumes the life of the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf.
Poems for Men Who Dream of Lolita (1992), a poetry collection by Kim Morrissey. Based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita (1955), the poems in this volume are told in the voice of twelve-year-old Lolita, the girl who becomes the object of obsession for her stepfather.
Carmen (1875), an opera by Georges Bizet. For an audience accustomed to moral plots and sentimental happy endings, Carmen was considered scandalous with its amoral characters and tragic ending.
Bonadeo, Alfredo. D'Annunzio and the Great War. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Ledeen, Michael. D'Annunzio: The First Duce. Edison, N.J.: Transaction, 2001.
Rhodes, Anthony. D'Annunzio: The Poet as Superman. New York: Astor-Honor, 1960.
Woodhouse, J. R. Gabriele d'Annunzio: Defiant Archangel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Books and Writers. “Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863–1938).” Retrieved April 10, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dannun.htm. Last updated in 2002.
D'ANNUNZIO, GABRIELE (1863–1938), Italy's most important playwright and poet from the 1880s to World War I.
At age sixteen Gabriele D'Annunzio published his first book of poems, Primo vere (In early spring). Initially, he was influenced by Giosuè Carducci, but his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche responded to a self-image of tragic heroism, a cult of oneself, and the cultivation of basic passions. The D'Annunzian hero was a superior being who dominated the mass of humanity. Starting in the 1890s D'Annunzio published a series of dramas (Dead City, The Flame, The Daughter of Jorio, The Ship, Glory, Beyond Love, and Fedre) that confirmed his status as Italy's major playwright. The poet also gained equal fame for his scandalous love affairs with leading actresses, most notably Eleonore Duse.
D'Annunzio entered politics during the turbulent decade of the 1890s. These years were marked by banking scandals, Italy's defeat in Ethiopia in 1896, and protest against the rising cost of living followed by the imposition of martial law in May 1898. Elected initially as a right-wing deputy to Parliament in 1897, D'Annunzio proclaimed a new kind of aesthetic politics: "The fortune of Italy is inseparable from the destinies of Beauty, of which she is the mother…. The Latin spirit cannot reestablish its hegemony in the world without reestablishing the cult of One Will" (Witt, p. 36). In March 1900 D'Annunzio, dubbed the "deputy of beauty," confirmed his reputation for theatrical politics by walking from the benches of the extreme right to the far left with the explanation, "I go toward life." His experience among the Socialists was relatively brief. By the end of the decade he took up positions close to the far right imperialist Italian Nationalist Association and published a collection of poems, Canzoni della gesta d'oltremare (Song of deeds beyond the sea), justifying Italian expansion. In 1910 D'Annunzio fled his creditors in Italy and took up residence in Paris, where he staged The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, with music by Claude Debussy.
D'Annunzio's blend of aesthetics and politics appealed to those who were impatient with the mundane struggle to build the infrastructure of the new Italian state. He encouraged the belief that politics was an act of will by which a superior individual could shortcut the path to greatness and world power. The notion that politics could be reduced to style over substance, to rhetoric over achievement, proved alluring to young intellectuals who chafed at the seemingly base political deals and cautious foreign policy that marked the many governments of Giovanni Giolitti from 1903 to 1914. The poet moved center stage in April and May 1915, when he returned from France to lead the mass demonstrations to bring Italy into the war on the side of the Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia). Arrayed against him in favor of continued neutrality in the Great War were the parliamentary majority, controlled by the former prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, the Catholic Church, and the Italian Socialist Party. Italy's entry into the war in May 1915 against the will of these powerful institutions confirmed the notion that determined elites could overcome the passive majority.
D'Annunzio volunteered for service in World War I. With a flair certain to capture the popular imagination he undertook several aerial missions over enemy territory, the most notable in August 1918, when he dropped leaflets urging surrender over Vienna. His romantic stature was enhanced by the loss of an eye on one of these flights. In 1919 D'Annunzio, at the head of a group of veterans, right-wing nationalists, and some revolutionary syndicalists, seized the disputed city of Fiume, which both Italy and the new Yugoslav state had claimed at the Paris Peace Conference. With this rag-tag army D'Annunzio held Fiume from September 1919 to December 1920, when a resolute government headed by Giovanni Giolitti finally ousted him from the city. Briefly, in 1919 and 1920, it seemed that D'Annunzio, not Benito Mussolini, would lead the movement to overthrow the Italian parliamentary state, but it soon became clear that D'Annunzio was incapable of the kind of sustained leadership that could mount a successful coup.
With the advent of Mussolini's government D'Annunzio retired from political life, accepted a gilded exile in a villa at Gardone di Riviera, and in 1924 was nominated to the Italian Senate.
Becker, Jared M. Nationalism and Culture: Gabriele D'Annunzio and Italy after the Risorgimento. New York, 1994.
Drake, Richard. Byzantium for Rome: The Politics of Nostalgia in Umbertian Italy, 1878–1900. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980.
Witt, Mary Ann Frese. The Search for Modern Tragedy: Aesthetic Fascism in Italy and France. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001.
Alexander De Grand
The Italian poet and patriot Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) was one of the last major representatives of fin-de-siècle decadence in European literature.
Gabriele D'Annunzio was born on March 12, 1863, at Pescara of well-to-do parents. He was educated at the Convitto Cicognini of Prato; he then attended the University of Rome but did not take a degree. Of small physique, bald at an early age, he nevertheless lived in Rome the life of a dandy and ladies' man. In 1883 he married the duchess Maria Hardouin di Gallese, with whom he had three sons. His daughter Renata (the Sirenetta of the novel Notturno) was born out of wedlock by a married woman, Maria Gravina Cruyllas, one of his many companions.
In 1910 D'Annunzio was forced to sell La Capponcina, a sumptuous villa near Florence, where he had lived since 1899. He moved to France, settling finally in Arcachon. In 1915 he returned to Italy to campaign for its entry into World War I. He made famous speeches at Quarto dei Mille and from the steps of Rome's Capitoline Hill. An active participant in the war, he flew over Trieste (1915) and Vienna (1918) and lost the sight of an eye after a bad landing. In 1919 he and his legionnaires occupied Fiume, thus anticipating its later union with Italy. D'Annunzio's rightist leanings made him sympathetic to the Fascist regime, which in 1924 conferred on him the title of Principe di Montenevoso. The government also gave him a villa, Il Vittoriale, on the Lake of Garda, where he resided until his death on March 1, 1938.
One of the most prolific writers of modern Italian literature, D'Annunzio tried all genres with varying success. His accomplished virtuosity in technical matters is evident primarily in his poetry, where the search for new sensual experiences is one of his prime concerns. He also glorified heroic deeds in his patriotic poetry (Odi navali, 1892-1893). A synthesis and symphonic repetition of his earlier poetry is evident in the cycle Laudi del cielo, del mare, della terra e degli eroi (1903-1904; Hymns of the Sky, Sea, Earth and Heroes).
D'Annunzio collected the best of his short stories in the volume Novelle della Pescara (1902). As a story teller, he owes much to Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. His novels are of an extreme autobiographical nature. He is Andrea Sperelli in Il piacere (1889; The Child of Pleasure), Tullio Hermil in L'innocente (1892; The Intruder), and Giorgio Aurispa in Trionfo della morte (1894; Triumph of Death). Il fuoco (1900; The Flame of Life) depicts his relationship to Eleonora Duse. Among D'Annunzio's numerous plays the best are Francesca da Rimini (1902) and La figlia di Jorio (1904; The Daughter of Jorio).
Two major critical biographies of D'Annunzio in English are Tom Antongini, D'Annunzio (1938), and Anthony R. E. Rhodes, The Poet as Superman: A Life of Gabriele D'Annunzio (1959). On D'Annunzio's relationship with Eleonora Duse see Bertita L. Harding, Age Cannot Wither: The Story of Duse and D'Annunzio (1947), and Frances Winwar, Wingless Victory: A Biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Eleonora Duse (1956). □