Italians in Fiume cheering D’Annunzio in September 1919
There murmur swarming through my drowsy head
In this vast furnace of a summer day
Relentless verses clamoring to be said,
As beetles round a putrid carcass play.
It can be hard to reconcile the incredible charisma of Hitler written about in history books with recordings of his speeches in which he looks like a madman. Some might conclude that perhaps Germans didn’t notice how off-putting he was because his style was widely used at the time and has simply fallen out of fashion.
But Hitler’s speeches weren’t normal or spontaneous. Neither were Mussolini’s. Both of them were to a large extent imitating one man: an Italian poet named Gabriele D’Annunzio. He was a war hero and famous libertine, and he essentially invented Fascism as an “art project” because he felt representative democracy was bourgeois and lacked a “romantic dramatic arc.”
One doesn’t often run into a Fascist poet although Ezra Pound was considered one. Usually poets tend to be dreamers of leftish persuasion – not Fascists. Yet the “John the Baptist” of Italian fascism was a poet, His was the model on which Benito Mussolini would later build the full Fascist state.
Gabriele D’Annunzio was born in the township of Pescara, in the region of Abruzzo, the son of a wealthy landowner and mayor of the town, Francesco Paolo Rapagnetta D’Annunzio and his wife Luisa de Benedictis . His father had originally been born plain Rapagnetta (the name of his single mother), but at the age of 13 had been adopted by a childless rich uncle Antonio D’Annunzio.
Gabriele D’Annunzio would grow up an Italian poet, novelist, dramatist, short story writer, journalist, war hero and political leader. He became the leading writer of Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century.
At the age of 16, while at the University of Rome he published his first book of poetry, Primo Vere (Early Spring) to enthusiastic reviews bringing him into public view. The poems in his second book, Canto Nove (New Song) had more individuality and were filled with exuberance and passionate, sensuous descriptions.
The autobiographical novel Il Piacere (The Child of Pleasure) introduces the first of D’Annunzio’s passionate Nietzschean superman heroes; another appeared in L’innocente (The Intruder). D’Annunzio became famous when his best known novels. Il Trionfo della Morte (The Triumph of Death) and Le vergini delle rocce (Maidens on the Rocks) featured viciously self-seeking and wholly amoral Nietzschean heroes.
From 1889 to 1910 he occupied a prominent place in Italian literature. The first world war would transform D’Annunzio from an Italian literary giant to a war hero to a Fascist.
He was also a famous libertine, carrying out scandalous affairs with well known Italian actresses and then writing about their mutual sexual proclivities. He is said he slept with over 1,000 women.
“D’Annunzio was a thrill-seeking megalomaniac best described as a cross between the Marquis de Sade, Aaron Burr, Ayn Rand, and Madonna. He was wildly popular. And he wasn’t like anyone who came before him.”
D’Annunzio was an Irredentist – an Italian nationalist who believed his country must take it’s “rightful place” in Europe and the world; who believed that adjoining territories, especially in what is now Slovenia and Croatia were really “unredeemed Italy” inhabited by yokels who needed to be taken in hand. With the coming of war D’Annunzio supported joining the allied cause against Germany and Austria. He assumed that once victorious, Italy would receive the lands across the Adriatic as compensation – especially the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) which had a large Italian population.
Mussolini too supported joining the war for which he was drummed out of the Italian Socialist Party. When war came, both of them joined the military.
D’Annunzio (left) with a fellow officer
D’Annunzio had taken a flight with Wilbur Wright in 1908 – he was in love with aviation. He joined the newly formed Italian flying corps, winning fame as a fighter pilot and losing an eye. On 9 August 1918, as commander of the 87th fighter squadron “La Serenissima”, he organized one of the greatest feats of the war, leading 9 planes in a 700-mile round trip to drop thousands of propaganda leaflets on Vienna.
Italy was on the winning side – but got nothing at Versailles. Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of “self determination” created the new Kingdom of the Croats, Slovenes and Serbs – Yugolaavia. Fiume was outside of Italian territory. Italians, especially D’Annunzio were enraged.
On September 12, 1919 the poet and now war hero led 2,600 military men and Irredentists into a seizure of the city and the expulsion of the allied forces occupying it The same day he announced that he was annexing the city to the Kingdom of Italy. He was enthusiastically cheered by thousands of Italians in the streets.
There was only one problem. Italy refused the gift and blockaded the city with naval forces, demanding that D’Annunzio surrender the city.
Instead he proclaimed the city independent, calling it the “Italian Regency of Carnaro” (the city was on the Gulf of Carnaro) under a constitution foreshadowing much of the later Italian Fascist system.
He was the first to call himself Il Duce.
“D’Annunzio is often seen as a precursor of the ideals and techniques of Italian fascism. His own explicit political ideals emerged in Fiume. The constitution established a corporatist state, with nine corporations to represent the different sectors of the economy, where membership was mandatory, plus a tenth corporation devised by D’Annunzio, to represent the “superior” individuals – intellectuals, poets, “supermen”. One of the fundamental “principles” of the new state was “music”.
“Virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D’Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the Italian Regency of Carnaro.. These included the balcony address, the Roman salute, (later adopted by the Nazis) the cries of “Eia, eia, eia! Alala!”, the dramatic and rhetorical dialogue with the crowd, the use of religious symbols in new secular settings. It also included the economics of the corporate state; large emotive nationalistic public rituals; black shirted followers, the Arditi, with their disciplined, bestial responses and strong arm repression of dissent. He was even said to have originated the practice of forcibly dosing opponents with large amounts of castor oil.”
You’ve seen what it looked like, because you’ve seen the imitators. D’Annunzio made stylized, inflammatory speeches full of rhetorical questions from balconies flanked with pseudo-religious icons. He outfitted his troops in embellished black shirts and soft pantaloons, and told them to march through the streets in columns, palms raised in a straight-armed Roman salute that would be plagiarized by the Nazis.
He called himself Il Duce. He encouraged his troops to brutalize “inferior” people to rally everyone else’s morale, and attempted to found an Anti-League of Nations to encourage continual revolution instead of peace.
In short, we see a poet as dictator.
He finally surrendered the city in 1920 after bombardment by the Italian navy.
D’Annunzio returned to Italy where he was as popular as Mussolini but never ran for office as a Fascist although he had great influence on the policies of Mussolini. He considered the fascist mobs as an underclass to be ruled by their superiors.
In 1922 shortly before the March on Rome he was pushed or fell from a window in his home; although there is no definitive proof, it was considered an effort by Mussolini supporters to kill him because of his popularity among the masses of fascists. By the time he recovered Mussolini had been appointed Prime Minister by the King. At this point our poet essentially retired from politics although he wrote several letters to Mussolini begging him not to join the Axis with Hitler.
Mussolini saw to it that D’Annunzio received a generous monthly stipend for the rest of his life, provided he stay out of politics. When asked about the payments Mussolini is reported to have said “If you have a bad tooth you have two choices – you pull it out – or you fill it with gold.”
D’Annunzio died of a stroke at his home in 1938 and was given a state funeral by Mussolini.
In Italy, and especially in Pescara, he is still quite famous. There are two D’Annunzio universities, a music conservatory, a library, a gymnasium, a soccer field and even a chess club named in his honor. There are a number of pre-schools in the Abruzzo named for him as well.
D’Annunzio believed that a country was sustained by faith, not trust. Therefore instead of trying to govern kindly or honestly, he thought a leader should act like the head of a religion – not simply a Pope or Grand Mufti – but a Messiah. It’s unclear whether he structured his government as a personality cult because it would be effective or because he was so self-obsessed it became inevitable.
Italy’s greatest poet is now largely forgotten outside of his own country.
The legacy of his approach to government unfortunately lives on.