Gabriele d’Annunzio

An Excerpt from Actionism by Lennart Svensson


actionism svenssonGabriele d’Annunzio was something of a larger than life character. He was a person prompting the idea: “if he hadn’t existed, you would have to invent him.” He has been described as a fake superman, an operetta hero and a chauvinist. He wasn’t free from fault and he had a histrionic strain to him but in all, like Stelio Effrena, he didn’t pose.

Gabriele d’Annunzio was born 1863. The surname was originally Rapagnetta. The new surname seems to have something to do with nuncio, a Papal emissary. Already at age 15, d’Annunzio was an adroit poet who knew how to use the Italian language for vivid images and scenes. Novels, short stories and dramas followed. In a literary sense, d’Annunzio was a combination of Verner von Heidenstam (nationalist lyricist), Ernst Jünger (heroism) and Yukio Mishima (female portraits, drama).

d’Annunzio’s first novels were Il Piacere (1889), L’Innocente (1892) and Il Trionfo della Morte (1894). These bourgeois novels of manners express atheism and emptiness in a sometimes fascinating landscape of emotions and sensations, an aestheticism à la Wilde, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Poe. Then d’Annunzio discovered Nietzsche and this is reflected in the novel from 1895, Le Vergini delle rocce. Here the Italians got to learn a new word: superomismo, the doctrine of the superman (= il superuomo).

Then we had the last novel, The Flame of Life from 1900. As intimated, it portrays the young poet, Stelio Effrena, and his women: the older Foscarina and the younger Donatella. d’Annunzio, as an author, is blind to mysticism and esotericism, to the vertical, invisible dimension of life; however, works of art, ancient myth, shadow and light in the Venice lagoon and the emotional play between humans, this he can capture. You could say that d’Annunzio expresses himself clearly, often with brilliance and evocative power, and always with calm and dignity. Again it has to be stressed that the novel’s protagonist, Stelio Effrena, is an artist, a man touched by the Muses and free from anxiety, and such a figure isn’t so common in the history of modern literature.


– – –


d’Annunzio for a while was occupied as a politician. His rhetorical, impulsive nature was reflected in rousing speeches and party changes. He was a non-confessional radical conservative with a passion for Italy’s greatness during the Renaissance and antiquity.

In 1911, Italy launched its imperialist policies. The North African city of Tripolis was attacked and soon Italy had conquered the whole of Libya and Tunisia. This was the impetus for the 48-year-old d’Annunzio to change careers from both authorship and politics. He was thrilled by this revival of the Roman conquest policy, so he decided to become a warrior himself. Now, if not before, he trained to become a pilot.

But all wasn’t rosy in this adventurer’s life. A wasteful living, as befitted a Renaissance prince, forced d’Annunzio to flee the country. The period between the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and Italy’s entry into the war in 1915, d’Annunzio spent in France. There, he visited the front and he liked what he saw. According to Combüchen (1995), he saw the cathedral of Reims in flames after an airstrike and this delighted him; he thought it was a beautiful sight. An aesthete’s approach to war indeed.

After lengthy internal discussions and negotiations with the two belligerents, in May 1915 Italy decided to join the war on the side of the Western Allies.  d’Annunzio was glad of this, having long been campaigning for an Italian war entry. On May 24, he celebrated the declaration of war at a tavern until dawn arrived. Then he said:

“Now, comrades, dawn is here. Time for goodbyes. So let’s embrace and say goodbye. What’s done is done. Now we have to go in separate directions – to rediscover each other. God will let us meet again, dead or alive, on fairer meadows.”

In the First World War, d’Annunzio participated as a submarine sailor, an army soldier and a fighter pilot.  Physically, he in no way lacked courage. As an aviator he performed a raid over Vienna. The goal was to drop propaganda leaflets. It happened in August 1918. Together with ten other planes, leaflets were dropped, written by d’Annunzio. They read:

On this August morning, while the fourth year of your desperate convulsion comes to an end and luminously begins the year of our full power, suddenly there appears the three-color wing as an indication of the destiny that is turning. Destiny turns. It turns towards us with an iron certainty. The hour of that Germany that thrashes you, and humiliates you, and infects you is now forever passed. Your hour is passed. As our faith was the strongest, behold how our will prevails and will prevail until the end. The victorious combatants of Piave, the victorious combatants of Marna feel it, they know it, with an ecstasy that multiplies the impetus. But if the impetus were not enough, the number would be; and this is said for those that try fighting ten against one. The Atlantic is a path already closing, and it’s an heroic path, as demonstrated by the new chasers who colored the Ourcq with German blood. On the wind of victory that rises from freedom’s rivers, we didn’t come except for the joy of the daring, we didn’t come except to prove what we could venture and do whenever we want, in an hour of our choice. The rumble of the young Italian wing does not sound like the one of the funereal bronze, in the morning sky. Nevertheless the joyful boldness suspends between Saint Stephen and the Graben an irrevocable sentence, o Viennese. Long live Italy!


Not in Australia? Actionism is available here.

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