Prolific poet, prince, politician; rampant philanderer, pilot, flâneur and fame hunter; home decorator, thrill-seeker, romantic, rogue; conman, cocaine addict, social climber and proto-Fascist — Gabriele D’Annunzio’s exotic and overwhelming tendency to aestheticise every aspect of his life places him on the verge of being a parody of the worst vices of the stereotypical Italian male. Even today, 76 years after his death in 1938 at his Lake Garda villa — the estate a gift from the Italian government — he remains a controversial and divisive figure in Italy: for some, a symbol of all that is irrational, corrupted and decadent; for others, the blueprint of an appealingly louche mode of living that is integral to some quarters of Italian culture.
D’Annunzio was born in 1863 in the Italian city of Pescara, where his father was Mayor as well as being a landowner and wine merchant, a figure whom D’Annunzio later despised for his self-indulgent excesses. Certainly, D’Annunzio was a self-made — indeed, self-obsessed — man, unflaggingly conscious of his image to the point of preposterous vanity. He declared himself to be Italy’s greatest poet since Dante, and likened himself to Caesar, Nelson and Byron. He wrote to the newspapers giving news of his own tragic death following a fall from a horse in advance of the release of his first publication, just to drum up publicity. And, he was a die-hard disciple of Baldassare Castiglione, the author of the 16th-century The Book of the Courtier, in which the writer posited what he referred to as the ‘universal rule’ in all human affairs — sprezzatura, a facade of nonchalance that concealed the artistry required to pull off challenges with aplomb, regarded even at the time as both romantic and deceptive in almost equal measure.
D’Annunzio clearly lived out Castiglione’s doctrine, which was described, disparagingly, by Henry James as “beauty at any price, beauty appealing alike to the sense and the mind”. As much as his often violent and sexually explicit books titillated, D’Annunzio himself aimed to make a quick and forceful impression: short, balding, with discoloured teeth and a high-pitched voice, he countered his shortcomings by always being formally dressed — as men of his rank, time and place were — but also immaculately, and with small but noticeable excesses that ensured his desire for attention would never go unsated.
“beauty at any price, beauty appealing alike to the sense and the mind”
A fin de siècle dandy at heart — his clothes always meticulously clean at a time when what we now know as hygiene remained a relatively novel idea — his club collars, of which he was particularly fond, were just that little bit larger than normal, his bow-tie just that extra touch more flamboyant, the favoured peaked lapels of his jacket always slightly wider than typical. His use of the latest pomades and colognes — he loved the scent of oranges — was widely noted, and he refused to wear any item of clothing that was not imported. Decades before Italy became a much sought-after global fashion and textiles powerhouse, native cloths were shunned in favour of those from France or Great Britain.
His manservant described the master for whom he would lay out his daily dress each morning as “so obsessed with his appearance that his attitudes and gestures were so affected as to be perilously near effeminacy”. One slightly unnerving image of the poet has him posed like a cut-price Charles Atlas in just moustache and pouch in an attempt to define the Nietzschean Übermensch he thought he represented. Another, in military uniform, has him wearing a ceremonial dagger in his belt so that it points — pointedly — towards his well-employed genitals. Whether this was deliberate or not isn’t recorded.