Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122
Gabriele D’Annunzio was born on the Adriatic coast in the main town of the Abruzzi region, Pescara, to Francesco Paolo D’Annunzio and Luisa De Benedictis of the “pure Sabellian race.” His mother is reported to have said, “My son, you are born on a Friday and in March. Who knows what great things you will do in the world!” The prediction was borne out as he manifested his literary talent at an early age. A brilliant, precocious student at one of the best schools in Italy, the Liceo Cicognini in Prato, he published his first poem, “Ode a Re Umberto” (ode to King Umberto), in 1879. His first book of poems, Primo vere, followed that year. These works exhibited the influence of poet Giosuè Carducci’s Odi barbare (1877; Barbarian Odes, 1939); Carducci had attempted to bring Italian poetry from Romanticism back to its classical roots by experimenting with the rhythmic structure of Greek and Latin verse forms, while intensifying certain Romantic elements.
When he moved to Rome in 1881 to attend the university, D’Annunzio was already well known, having been praised by Giuseppe Chiarini in an enthusiastic article in Fanfulla della Domenica. D’Annunzio further increased his nascent fame by spreading a rumor of his death, showing the flamboyance that would mark his entire life. He became part of the literary and intellectual life of Rome and contributed to newspapers and reviews such as La cronaca bizantina, Il capitan Fracassa, and La tribuna. His second book of poetry, Canto novo, was praised; his third, however, Intermezzo di rime, aroused a fire storm of controversy, the first of many in his life. Considered too sensual, the book provoked a debate on decorum in literature and even drew sharp criticism from Chiarini, who believed that D’Annunzio had betrayed his promise with an immoral work. All this criticism merely made D’Annunzio more famous.
In 1884, his Il libro della vergini aroused another controversy, not only because of its contents but also because of a disagreement between author and publisher concerning the cover design. In 1885, D’Annunzio was wounded in the head in his second duel but went on with his writing, a year later publishing San Pantaleone, a collection of naturalistic sketches and stories influenced by Verga and de Maupassant. It, too, provoked the predictable culture shock, by now a trademark of D’Annunzio’s career. As if literary disputes were not enough, he became involved in politics, publishing L’armata d’Italia (1888; the Italian fleet), calling for Italy to build up its naval power.
His first novel, The Child of Pleasure, remains his most famous and once again whirled him into controversy. Written at the house of painter Francesco Paolo Michetti, it focused on the sensual pleasures of Roman life and has been called a “breviary of decadence,” the hero confusing art with life. D’Annunzio would later recognize his hero as a type of Superman, as defined by Nietzsche. Trying to live out this role made D’Annunzio the greatest of the decadents and resulted in numerous scandals, duels, and his divorce in 1891 from his wife of eight years, Maria Hardouin di Gallese, by whom he had three sons.
During his year of military service, D’Annunzio wrote Episcopo and Company, which shows the influence of Dostoevski. Poema paradisiaco (1893) shows the corresponding influence in poetic form. In 1891, he moved to Naples and continued to waver between the Dostoevskian influence (The Intruder) and the Nietzschean (The Triumph of Death), in which one can perceive a desire to escape decadent sensuality by death. Inspired by Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy, 1968), D’Annunzio set sail in 1895 for the Aegean Islands, a trip that would push him toward the writing of drama and that inspired Maia, a collection of poetry flowing in free rhythms, evoking the heroic glory of ancient Greece.
On his return, D’Annunzio met the great tragic actress Eleonora Duse and began his scandalous affair with her, as well as one of the most productive periods of his life. Duse agreed to act only in his plays, and, settling into a villa in Settignano, near Florence, they worked together in productions of such plays as The Dream of a Spring Morning, The Dead City, Gioconda, and La gloria. He also became more deeply involved in politics during this period, having been elected to the Italian Parliament in 1897 for a three-year term. Called the “representative of Beauty” in some quarters, D’Annunzio switched from ultraconservative to liberal politics with the words “I choose life!” He was not reelected.
His novel The Flame of Life made obvious reference to his ongoing affair with Duse and caused yet another scandal. During the affair, he also wrote his best poetry, in the collection Alcyone, celebrating summer on the Tuscan coast. By 1910, the costs of living “like a Renaissance prince” forced him to flee his creditors. He moved to Paris and wrote several works in French, including Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, which was performed with music by Claude Debussy and dances by Ida Rubinstein.
In 1915, D’Annunzio, after offering his services to France, was given twenty-five thousand francs to pay off his debts and was sent home to Italy to call for Italian intervention against Germany. He made several speeches that were wildly received by those supporting him and on May 24, war was declared. Seeing himself in a heroic role, he immediately left for the front, serving in the cavalry, infantry, and navy. On one occasion, he invaded an Austrian port in a small motorboat. He also flew over Vienna, dropping anti-Central Powers leaflets. Fearless, he was wounded in the wrist and lost an eye.
At the war’s end, D’Annunzio was commander of an air squadron in Venice. When the Treaty of Versailles severed Dalmatia from Austria, he, like many Italians, expected it to become part of Italy. He seized control of Fiume, Dalmatia’s capital, with the proclamation, “Citizens, Gabriele D’Annunzio is here. Not a word. Weep for joy.” Having occupied the city, he established a temporary government, soon dissolved under pressure from the Italian military. Though clearly guilty of treason, he was received as a hero and retired to his home, Villa Cargnacco, on Lake Garda at the foot of the Alps.
Although D’Annunzio’s relationship to fascism is still a matter of debate, there is no question that he publicly supported the regime. He lived as a recluse after 1936, sleeping in a coffin (to get accustomed to it) and thinking of various ways to die flamboyantly, such as being blown from a cannon. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1938 at his desk, writing with an old-fashioned quill.