Gabriele D’Annunzio’s tumultuous life elicited great fascination from his contemporaries and nourished the works of his biographers with a number of romantic anecdotes. D’Annunzio himself orchestrated and publicized his “inimitable life,” paying careful attention to the preservation of his legend. His correspondence (more than ten thousand letters) also maintained and renewed, with countless details, the interest in his life.
This romantic aspect of D’Annunzio’s biography appears today outdated and even laughable; nevertheless, beyond the ostentatious facade there are elements of durable truth that bring into proper perspective the man and his work. D’Annunzio’s thirst for new experiences corresponds in fact to his indefatigable search for new literary solutions, and his existential adventures represent the prime source of his inspiration.
D’Annunzio was born in Pescara, a small and, at that time, somnolent little city on the coast of the Abruzzi region. His family belonged to the middle class and was wealthy enough to provide him with an excellent education. Young Gabriele did not feel a great respect for his father, nor did he show a particular attachment for his relatives, apart from a deep affection for his mother. It was not the family, but rather the Abruzzi region, with its primitive society dominated by ancestral laws, that influenced him deeply. The landscape, people, and folklore of his native land were to be a recurrent motif in D’Annunzio’s works.
D’Annunzio soon left his hometown for Prato, in Tuscany, where at the renowned Liceo Cicognini he received a solid preparation in the humanities. A brilliant student and a daring young rebel, D’Annunzio excelled in all his classes, protested against the strict discipline, and led his classmates in knavish escapades. Later, the recollection of these years would give substance to some beautiful pages of his memoir prose. D’Annunzio’s years in Prato culminated in 1879 with the publication of a collection of verses, Primo vere (early spring), which was very well received by the critics.
This first success opened the way to a brilliant literary career. In 1881, D’Annunzio was in Rome with the intention of pursuing his studies at the university, but soon he abandoned academia to embrace the elegant and worldly life of the capital. Brilliant contributor to journals and magazines, cherished guest of aristocratic and literary circles, D’Annunzio succeeded in combining an effervescent social life with unrelenting literary activity. After a romantic elopement, his marriage in 1883 to Maria Hardouin, duchess of Gallese, crowned the success of his social ambitions, and the publication of The Child of Pleasure (in Italian in 1889) consolidated his literary reputation. The marriage, which saw the birth of three children, was to last seven years. For the first four years, D’Annunzio seemed to accept an approximation of conventional domesticity, but in 1887, the encounter with Barbara, the wife of Count Leoni, precipitated the end of his already precarious union with Maria. His sensual passion for “Barbarella” inspired in part the novel The Triumph of Death and all the verses of Elegie romane (1892).
Naples, where D’Annunzio moved in 1891, represents another step in his life and writings. There he collaborated with his friend, Eduardo Scarfoglio, the editor of Il corriere di Napoli, in which he published his novel The Intruder in installments. D’Annunzio’s first engagement in politics dated from this time, with the publication of an article, “La bestia elettiva.” In this article he attacked universal suffrage, restating Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the inevitable supremacy of one group over another. These aristocratic ideas constantly recur in his writings, and the influence of the German philosopher is particularly evident in the works of the next decade.
While in Naples, the love affair with Barbara came to an end, and the writer became involved with Princess Maria Gravina, who left her husband to live with him more uxorio. Two children were born from this union, but his love...