by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Bid for Immortality


By Roderick Conway Morris
GARDONE RIVIERA, Italy 12 May 1996

 

'Il Vittoriale degli Italiani', to give its full title (a name concocted by D'Annunzio, which might be roughly translated as the 'Victory Monument of the Italians'), is in reality principally devoted to the memory of D'Annunzio himself and what he styled his 'glorious defeats'. He emerges from the bizarre personalized environment he constructed around himself here as a kind of combination of Marcel Proust, Casanova and Walter Mitty.

Born in 1863 in Pescara on the Adriatic coast, D'Annunzio went to study in Rome in 1881 and first won fame as a lyric poet. A dandy, shameless self-publicist and incorrigible philanderer, he embraced during his lifetime both fin-de-siècle aesthetic hedonism and the Futurists' fascination with machines and technology. His career was characterized by his infatuation with women, motor cars, airplanes, high-powered boats and other writers (including Nietzsche, whose philosophy encouraged him to try to prove himself a modern Superman). D'Annunzio's prose works soon established him as a leading representative of Decadence, and after he wrote 'The Martyrdom of St Sebastian', a scenario (with music by Debussy) infused with a vaguely perverse eroticism, all his works were placed on the Papal Index of books.

D'Annunzio's fiery nationalistic exhortations were influential in bringing Italy into the conflict on the Allied side in 1915, and although his subsequent war record was more marked by dramatic gestures than solid results, D'Annunzio displayed consistent physical courage and was good for morale. During the hostilities Italy was promised Dalmatia as a spoil of war (before the creation of Yugoslavia had been envisaged). Exasperated by his country's failure to press this claim afterwards, the writer rallied a band of volunteers, whom he dubbed his 'Legionaries' and commanded a private expedition to seize Fiume (Rjeka), a city with a majority Italian population but with an overwhelmingly Slav hinterland. They held Fiume between September 1919 and January 1921, when they were forced to with

Disillusioned by this debacle, D'Annunzio ostentatiously turned his back on the world, renting, and soon buying, a villa and gardens on Lake Garda, which had been confiscated during the war from a German art critic Henry Thode. He spent the rest of his days there, his much-vaunted solitude alleviated by his live-in lovers, Luisa Baccara and Aélis Mazoyer, who had superseded the great amours of his younger days (notaby the celebrated actress Eleonora Duse), transient young prostitutes, former comrades-in-arms friends and other admirers.

To assist him in his ambitious scheme for the transformation of the original fairly modest villa and grounds, D'Annunzio recruited the young local architect Giancarlo Maroni, himself a decorated war veteran. Maroni continued to work on this fantastic conglomeration of houses, pavilions, tombs, memorials, museums, follies, theaters and landscaped gardens until his own death in 1952. The results are often strange, sometimes amusing, and on occasion, especially given the lovely natural settings, quirkily attractive.

After the Vittoriale's main gateway is a double arch in the form of a bridge pier on the River Piave - the line held by the Italians against the Central Powers between 1917 and 1918. To the right is a 1,500-seat open-air amphitheater. Beyond is a large courtyard, within which is the front door of D'Annunzio's house, which he called the 'Prioria' (Priory), a suitably preposterous allusion to his new, supposedly monk-like, existence - the facade of which is virtually covered with coats of arms.

In a portico to the left are two rather splendid vintage motorcars: the Fiat Type 4 in which D'Annunzio drove from Italy to Dalmatia to conquer Fiume, and his Torpedo Isotta Fraschini. The door beside them leads to the Auditorium, suspended from whose dome is the biplane he flew in his 'Raid on Vienna' during the First War. This flamboyant but militarily ineffectual gesture culminated with the dropping not of bombs but tricolor propaganda leaflets. Apart from manuscripts and memorabilia, the neighboring Museum also contains some of D'Annunzio's martial outfits, which remind us that their owner was remarkably diminutive in stature, perhaps 5ft 3 (In fact, the Polish portrait painter Tamara de Lempicka having rebuffed the Great Seducer's advances on her visit to the Vittoriale, referred to D'Annunzio as 'that ghastly dwarf in uniform').

The author's house itself, which is more or less just as he left it on the night of his death, with his clothes still hanging in the closets, medicines in his cabinet and glass and bottle of mineral water on a tray in his study, is an extraordinary warren of rooms crammed with books, pictures, bronzes, plaster casts, wood carvings, chinoiserie, brocades, tapestries, oriental carpets, ceramics, musical instruments, war trophies, and assorted knick-knacks. Given that these total tens of thousands of items - there are 900 alone in the Blue Bathroom - it is not surprising that one can enter here only on guided visits in small groups (which last about 25 minutes).

D'Annunzio lost his right eye crash-landing an airplane in the Adriatic during the war, and subsequently suffered photophobia, hence the Romantic gloom into which most of the Priory is plunged, with diffused light coming from outside through stained glass windows, and a variety of exotic lamps, including illuminated bowls of glass fruit. Odd-ball mementos further enliven the weird scene: in the Globe Room (a library), for example, an Austrian heavy machine-gun, rifle and plumed helmet, and in the Relics Room, where statuettes of Buddhas and Christian saints vie for attention with a marble relief of the Lion of St Mark and a leopard skin, the central gilded baroque altar displays the twisted steering wheel of the boat in which Sir Henry Segrave was killed in England on Lake Windemere in 1930 trying to break the water-speed record.

A walk in the Vittoriale's extensive and diverting park, where visitors can roam freely for as long as they like - preceeded, perhaps, by a stroll in the Priory's Private Gardens, only recently reopened to the public after many years of closure - confirms D'Annunzio's extraordinary powers of persuasion when soliciting souvenirs.

For here, among the cypresses and olives is the entire bow section and bridge of the warship 'Puglia', projecting out of the mountainside and pointing across the lake to the Adriatic, where the vessel was involved in an incident in 1920 in which the Captain and Engineer heroically lost their lives rescuing some sailors trapped ashore. When the ship was decommissioned, D'Annunzio asked if he could have it, and the Italian Navy duly obliged, dismantling the forward section so that the architect Maroni could have it built.

Yet another nautical gift, in which the writer at one time used to take visitors on high-velocity tours of the lake, is now in a nearby pavilion. This is the celebrated MAS 96, the MTB with which he made an audacious raid, braving minefields, on an Austrian naval installation - but finding no ships to torpedo, he had to retire, leaving behind three bottles of Italian wine, adrift on cork floats, with a provocative message.

At the summit of the Park, which contains many other curiosities, wooded paths, streams, fountains and tranquil corners, stands the Mausoleum. This substantial circular ziggurat - which blends elements of classical, eastern and Futurist forms - is crowned with the raised sarcophaguses of ten of D'Annunzio's Fiume Legionaries, with his own tomb raised above them at the center. Like everything else at the Vittoriale, the monument is somewhat over-the-top. Yet the views from here over Lake Garda are truly majestic, and Maroni's architecture finally transcends the eccentricity, not to say egocentricity, of D'Annunzio's dottily engaging bid for immortality.

A version of this account of 'Il Vittoriale' appeared in the New York Times.


First published: New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016