One of the most celebrated characters to strut the stage of modern Italy is the remarkable Gabriele D’Annunzio. He is known as the vate (poet) and profeta (prophet). It is difficult to capture the totality of his work and distinguish fact from fiction.
During an extraordinarily active life he managed to become many things: a child prodigy (published first poems at 17), orator, journalist, political agitator, literary genius who wrote poems and plays, a man who had affairs with many women, and war hero remembered for daring exploits. His literary production fills 48 volumes.
At 5 feet, 4 inches and bald, he was not handsome, but his fame dazzled women. His love affairs included the famous actress Eleonora Duse. He is the proud son of the region of Abruzzo – a common theme in his writings. His native city of Pescara (born in 1863) designated itself the Città di Gabriele D’Annunzio in 2020, sketching his face and signature on the city logo. There is also a university in his name.
D’Annunzio was a hero in World War I, losing an eye flying in combat. During the war he led a squadron of nine rickety aircraft in a 700-mile round trip to drop propaganda leaflets over the enemy capital of Vienna. For good luck he brought with him a book of letters written by the medieval St. Catherine of Siena. The German-speaking Viennese had to read the leaflets in Italian. Perhaps his greatest stunt (beffa) was marching with a militia to occupy the city of Fiume in 1919, in an effort to make it part of Italy. For 15 months he ruled the city as Duce (a title which Mussolini would adopt), with a constitution which anticipated the fascism of Mussolini. The Italian Navy put an end to the political experiment. Fiume is now Rijeka in Croatia.
To be fair, there was a dark side to his career, and his life is not without controversy. Biographers either love or hate him, some calling him the first Mussolini. He assisted in the rise of Fascism, not with his political ideas, but more with his showmanship. His theatrical stunts influenced Benito Mussolini. It was D’Annunzio who pioneered the distinctive blackshirts (camicie nere) which the fascist party adopted for the uniform. He also invented the Roman salute, which he imagined to be connected with ancient Rome. There is no historical evidence that the Romans used the salute. Later, Hitler and the Nazis adopted the so-called Roman salute. Today’s neo-Nazis also use it. Haranguing crowds from the balcony was a tactic that Mussolini borrowed.
However, to his good sense he opposed Mussolini’s military alliance with Hitler, an alliance which would be disastrous for Italy, since it dragged the country to defeat in World War II. But D’Annunzio died in 1938, before he could witness the tragedy of the coming war.
He was a master of the Italian language. Every Italian schoolchild learns to recite his poem about the shepherds in Abruzzo, following in their ancestors’ footsteps to the wild Adriatic Sea.
… The air is still. The sun makes golden the living wool so that it hardly appears different from the sand. The sloshing sea, the trampling, the sweet sounds. Ah, why am I not with my shepherds?