World Literature

Gabriele d’Annunzio

 

BORN: 1863, Pescara, Italy

DIED: 1938, Gardone, Italy

NATIONALITY: Italian

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, drama

MAJOR WORKS:

New Song (1882)

The Child of Pleasure (1888)

The Daughter of Jorio (1904)

Halcyon (1904)

 

 

Gabriele D’Annunzio. D'Annunzio, Gabriele, photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Italian novelist, poet, dramatist, and political agitator, Gabriele d’Annunzio is one of the most flamboyant personalities of twentieth-century literature. The press reported his romantic scandals, and scholars criticized the moral delinquency of his works. Nevertheless, d’Annunzio was celebrated in his lifetime as one of Italy’s greatest authors, an accomplished stylist who combined the poetic splendor of Dante and other classical writers with such literary movements as naturalism, Symbolism, and Decadence.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Father’s Influence Provides Opportunities for Education. D’Annunzio was born March 12, 1863, in the small town of Pescara on the Adriatic coast in central Italy. His father, a prosperous landowner and a dealer in wine and agricultural products, became mayor of the town. His wealth and influence allowed d’Annunzio the opportunity to study with private tutors and to be educated in Latin by priests of the local diocese. Later, d’Annunzio was educated in a prominent boarding school in Prato: the Liceo Cicognini.

Uninhibited Poetry Brings Success. A precocious child, d’Annunzio excelled at Latin and Greek. At the age of sixteen, he wrote his first collection of verse, Primo Vere (1879; In Early Spring), which was published by his father. Because of its uninhibited approach to sexual themes, the poems were a commercial hit; because of their linguistic skill, they were a critical success. After graduating from Cicognini in 1881, d’Annunzio attended the University of Rome and began writing for newspapers. The following year, he published Terra vergine (1882; Virgin Land), a collection of regional stories, and Canto novo (1882; New Song), a collection of poetry that contains details of his first romantic relationship. In 1883, he married the duchess Maria Hardouin de Gallese, with whom he had three sons. D’Annunzio wrote popular stories, light verse, and a society news column, all under pseudonyms, in order to support his family. In 1888, after determining that his journalistic writing was consuming too much time, d’Annunzio quit his job as a reporter so that he could finish his first novel, The Child of Pleasure (1888-1889).

During the 1880s in Rome, d’Annunzio perfected his metamorphosis into what some have called a fop, or dandy. Often writing under a pseudonym, a penchant he extended by immediately renaming women acquaintances, d’Annunzio sharpened his writing and shamelessly blended his flamboyant image and experiences into his sensual poetry and stories; the frank depiction of his seduction of his wife, Maria Hardouin, here named ‘‘Yella,’’ in Intermezzo de rime (1883), brought accusations of pornography, but boosted sales.

D’Annunzio’s literary career flourished in overlapping phases, each dominated by a genre. Following sensual verse and naturalistic short stories, the second phase began with the publication of his novel, Il piacere (The Child ofPleas- ure), an examination of the sexual and sensual pleasures of the facile lover Count Andrea Sperelli, a fictionalized d’Annunzio. His other novels, including the psychological study L’innocente (1892; The Intruder), the basis for Luchino Visconti’s film (1979), also incorporate autobiographical elements and descriptions ofthe crumbling urban world of the aristocrats and reflect d'Annunzio's growing interest in Nietzsche’s concept of the superman.

Public Affairs. Throughout the 1890s, d’Annunzio began writing for the theater. The leading roles typically featured Eleonora Duse, a noted actress of the day whose relationship with d’Annunzio was widely discussed. By 1891, his marriage with Maria Hardouin had ended. In 1904, The Daughter of Jorio garnered a great deal of attention for both d'Annunzio and Duse, and the drama was commonly imitated. Duse was also the inspiration for the character Foscarina in the novel The Flame of Life (1900). A fictionalized account of his liaison with Duse, this novel created a great furor when it was published. In 1910 he and Duse separated, and Duse would no longer perform in his plays. D’Annunzio continued to live extravagantly even though he did not have much income. As a result of accumulating large debt, he fled to France in 1910, where he remained until the advent of World War I.

War and Politics: Defying Orders. D’Annunzio was elected to the Italian parliament in 1897 and became a nationalist of high profile. When he returned to Italy at the outbreak of World War I, d’Annunzio reentered the political scene, delivering speeches and writing pamphlets. He joined the air force and became one of Italy’s most popular heroes. During a forced landing, d’Annunzio was blinded in one eye by a fragment from the plane's propeller. While recovering from the injury, he composed Notturno (1921), a collection of prose meditations. In 1919, believing that the Allies had shorted Italy in the postwar division of land, d'Annunzio defied Italian government orders and led several thousand volunteer troops to reclaim the town of Fiume (present day Rijeka, Croatia). He held his position and even declared war on Italy before being overthrown by Italian troops in 1921. After Fiume, d'Annunzio was allowed to retire to a villa on Lake Garda, where he spent his last years writing. In 1924, with Benito Mussolini’s approval, d’Annunzio was named Prince of Montenevoso and, in 1937, he was made president of the Italian Royal Academy. On March 1, 1938, d’Annunzio died of a cerebral hemorrhage while writing at his desk.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

D'Annunzio's famous contemporaries include:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941): Revered in India for his poetry and songs, Tagore helped introduce Indian art and philosophy to the Western world.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924): Conrad's works, which include the story ''Heart of Darkness,'' (1899) lead readers into morally dark worlds.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955): Some critics believe that the main character in Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947) represents the whole of German culture during Nazism.

Ernest de Selincourt (1870-1943): A professor of poetry at Oxford, Selincourt's work as an academic includes his well-respected editions of the letters and poetry of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890): While in a mental institution, van Gogh painted Starry Night (1889), one of his most famous works.

William Taft (1857-1930): As the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Taft supported strengthening America's position in the Caribbean and the Far East by expanding private American investments.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945): Mussolini was the Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943.

 

Works in Literary Context

D'Annunzio's tendency to adopt artistic trends resulted in his being influenced by a number of writers and movements throughout his career. Primo Vere, for instance, was inspired by Odi Barbare (1877; Barbarian Odes), a volume by Giosue Carducci, an Italian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. D’Annunzio’s early short stories are regional tales influenced by French writer Guy de Maupassant, Italian writer Giovanni Verga, and the naturalist movement of the late nineteenth century. The stories are characterized by a conviction that the everyday life of the middle and lower classes deserve serious literary treatment. Because of his artistic fickleness, d’Annunzio’s work often reflects contradictory movements and themes. For example, his novels were influenced by Decadence, which encouraged sensationalism and held that art was superior to nature, a movement contrary to naturalism. The Child of Pleasure is written in the style of such French novelists as Joris-Karl Huysmans, while The Maidens of the Rock (1898) carries echoes of French Symbolism.

The Superman. Nietzsche's philosophy includes the concept of the superman, an individual who discovers that it is in his best interests to reject any outside ideas about ethics, trusting instead what he finds within himself. Ultimately, the superiority of the superman sets him apart from others, as he has created his own realm of good and evil. It follows, then, that the superman is contemptuous of the masses, as well as any democratic system of government. Intrigued by the model of Nietzsche’s superman, d’Annunzio personifies the motif in several characters who act outside the limits of decency and the law. Their amorality is supposedly justified by their superhuman capabilities. Throughout his novels and dramas, d’Annunzio perverts the superman persona by creating characters who perform atrocious acts of violence.

Dramatizing the Superman. Almost all of d’Annunzio’s plays elaborate on the superman rationale. While often dreadful, the plays are also interesting. Such works include d’Annunzio’s third novel, The Intruder (1893), whose characters exemplify qualities of the superman taken to horrific extremes, Glory (1899), which depicts Ruggero Flammo, a Roman dictator who rules with cruelty until he is assassinated, and More Than Love (1906), which focuses on a heroic explorer who, in addition to seducing his best friend’s sister, is revealed to be a fraud. The Ship (1908) is another drama that typifies an unethical superman. In this play, the character of Marco Gatico is presented as a hero who is not bound to the moral standards of lesser mortals. In all of d’Annunzio’s Nietzsche-inspired dramas, neither the restraint nor the plight of the common man is of concern to the superman.

Discussing d’Annunzio’s immense popularity, Giuseppe Prezzolini writes that many Italians suffered from ‘‘d’Annunzianism,’’ the ‘‘Italian disease’’ of imitating his extravagant lifestyle. They copied his neckwear and goatee, adopted his diction and scorn for creditors, walked dogs with languorous eyes, and associated with ladies with high sounding names. In addition to the influence he had on his contemporaries, d’Annunzio holds an important place in twentieth-century literature today and continues to be a topic of study for scholars in the field.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Viewed by some critics as representations of d'Annunzio himself, the protagonists of d'Annunzio's novels and dramas frequently consider themselves beyond ordinary rules of society. In these works, d'Annunzio's interest in Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the superman is evident. Other works of art that demonstrate an interest in the disregard for the values of society include the following:

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a novel by Tom Wolfe. Set in New York, this novel features a variety of amoral characters: corrupt politicians, dishonest lawyers, selfserving activists, and greedy stockbrokers.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), a novel by Patricia High- smith. The manipulative, murderous actions of Tom Ripley defy all moral standards as he assumes the life of the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf.

Poems for Men Who Dream of Lolita (1992), a poetry collection by Kim Morrissey. Based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita (1955), the poems in this volume are told in the voice of twelve-year-old Lolita, the girl who becomes the object of obsession for her stepfather.

Carmen (1875), an opera by Georges Bizet. For an audience accustomed to moral plots and sentimental happy endings, Carmen was considered scandalous with its amoral characters and tragic ending.

 

Works in Critical Context

No critical consensus about d’Annunzio’s writing exists. Though rejected for his moral depravity by some, others praise him for bringing an unknown vitality to Italian literature. In general, d’Annunzio is commended for his semiautobiographical novel, The Child of Pleasure, and his poetry is noted for its linguistic virtuosity. Unquestionably, though, the dramas are regarded to be d’Annunzio’s most offensive and least successful works. Today, d’Annunzio’s works, as a whole, are largely forgotten, and his plays are rarely performed. Instead, it is his life, especially his political affiliations, that has fascinated academics.

Ties to Myth. From the onset, d’Annunzio’s work shocked critics and audiences alike. While several scholars have praised their inventive use of classical mythology, other academics disagree. According to Benedetto Croce, a critic during d’Annunzio’s time, ‘‘Ancient Greek tragedy and mediaeval mysteries are the means used in a vain attempt to excite violent and troublous moods.’’ Instead of achieving literary magnificence, ‘‘feelings supposedly heroic are contaminated,’’ continues Croce.

The Child of Pleasure. The preface of d’Annunzio’s first novel, The Child of Pleasure, is a letter addressed to his friend Francesco Paolo Michetti in which d’Annunzio says that his work is, in essence, a study of corruption, depravity, and of ‘‘many other subtleties and falsities and vain cruelties.’’ From one perspective, the novel is an attempt to define what love is. The answer, of course, is disheartening, as love seems to be ‘‘nothing more than a masochistic or sadistic experience, a form of punishment inflicted upon another human being—an experience utterly devoid of any uplifting elements,’’ claims Croce. Indeed, even the narrative of the novel assesses Andrea Sperelli, the main character, accordingly: ‘‘Each of these loves brought him to a new degradation; each inebriated him with evil rapture, without satisfying him; each taught him some special subtlety of vice yet unknown to him. He had in him the seeds of all infections. He corrupted and was corrupted.’’

Cruel Dramas. D’Annunzio’s dramatic works are most commonly criticized for lacking humanity and for their excessive depictions of such ferocities as sadism, murder, and mutilation. Frank Moore claims that The Dead City, one of d’Annunzio’s earliest plays, offends ‘‘not our morals but our taste’’ with its eye-gouging, decapitation, and incest. In such plays as More Than Love (1906) and The Ship (1908), affection and kindness are, according to Croce, ‘‘submerged by the sensuality which steadily prevails and dictates to the author, forcing him to delineate not persons but bodies, and not even idealized bodies but bodies heavily fleshy, radiating attraction for the senses but also that disgust and recoil which flesh does sometimes excite.’’ Surely much of the repulsiveness of d’Annunzio’s plays is a result of the characters’ desensitized view of the people and violence surrounding them.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Decadence as a literary movement has multiple explanations and definitions. With the help of a dictionary of literature, compose a working definition of Decadence as it relates to the work of d’Annunzio. What sort of connotations has decadence come to have in contemporary society?

2. Early in his career, d’Annunzio was criticized for writing works that were imitative of other writers. Discuss why you think he felt the need to rely so heavily on other authors. What did his critics say about his imitative style? Do you agree or disagree with their assessments of his work?

3. Critic Benedetto Croce claims that d’Annunzio’s works ‘‘pass criticism on themselves’’ because of their wantonness, ferocity, and violence. What is d’Annunzio’s purpose for including violent or repulsive acts in his dramatic works? Compare these works to movies produced today, which often are filled with gratuitous violence and torture.

4. Read The Child of Pleasure, which treats love and pleasure as processes of corruption, and consider what statements the novel is making about the nature of corruption. What is corruption, for d’Annunzio? What is its source? Is this another way of trying to understand the source of ‘‘evil’’ in humanity? Why do you think d’Annunzio takes ‘‘love’’ as his vehicle for an exploration of evil and corruption?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bonadeo, Alfredo. D’Annunzio and the Great War. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Ledeen, Michael. D’Annunzio: The First Duce. Edison, N.J.: Transaction, 2001.

Rhodes, Anthony. D’Annunzio: The Poet as Superman. New York: Astor-Honor, 1960.

Woodhouse, J. R. Gabriele d’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Web Sites

Books and Writers. ‘‘Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938).’’ Retrieved April 10, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dannun.htm. Last updated in 2002.