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,"...