D'Annunzio, Fiume & Fascism: Robert Pearce Examines the Career of Mussolini's Forerunner

By Pearce, Robert | History Review, September 2009 | Go to article overview

D'Annunzio, Fiume & Fascism: Robert Pearce Examines the Career of Mussolini's Forerunner


Pearce, Robert, History Review


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In September 1919 an escapade began that left statesmen 'fiuming' and transformed the fortunes of an Italian adventurer. Soon the name Gabriele d'Annunzio was on everyone's lips. As a celebrated Italian poet, novelist, dramatist and philosopher, as well as an infamous libertine and lover--not to mention soldier, aviator and self-styled superman--d'Annunzio was no stranger to publicity. Indeed he had courted it all his life. Now his bold action meant that this very Italian personality was strutting on a world stage. He outraged world opinion, but warmed the hearts of Italian patriots, by seizing the disputed Adriatic port of Fiume. It was, he averred, 'the finest exploit since Garibaldi's Thousand'. Nor would anyone dislodge him, for he determined to hold Fiume 'for as long as I live'. It was, he insisted, the beginning of a new dawn in world history. It was certainly the pinnacle of one of the most amazing careers in modern European history.

How was it that this swashbuckling individual, with at first only around 200 followers, was able to defy the 'Big Three' peacemakers of Versailles (dubbed by d'Annunzio 'three old idiots'), who insisted that Fiume should be part of a new Yugoslav state? What was it about d'Annunzio, and the circumstances of the time, that made the seizure possible? In addition, we have to examine the consequences of the episode. How far did d'Annunzio prepare the way for the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini?

Literary Adventurer

D'Annunzio was born on 12 March 1863 at Pescara, on Italy's Adriatic coast. He later insisted that he had been born on a barque on the high seas during a gale, and that his ancestors were 'anchorites ... who flagellated themselves till the blood came; they filled their fists with snow, and ate it; they throttled wolves'. The reality, of course, was far more prosaic. His father was a merchant, who became Mayor of Pescara before succumbing to bankruptcy, and an earlier forbear had eked out a living by restuffing mattresses. The son disapproved of his sensual father's reputation as a serial seducer but nevertheless had reason to be grateful to him. For d'Annunzio senior recognised his son's abilities and paid for him to receive a good classical education, sending him to Cicognini college in Prato. From an early age Gabriele showed not only imagination but literary skill. He wrote his first poem at the age of 13, a romantic paean of praise for King Umberto, and from then onwards he was responsible for an amazing outpouring of literary works.

D'Annunzio's first book (Primo Vere) was published when he was only 16 and, with an instinctive understanding of the value of publicity, he started rumours that the volume's brilliant but tragic author had died falling from his horse. Many newspapers published complimentary obituaries, including details of his first love affair. Further volumes of poems soon followed, and in addition he went on to write short stories, novels and plays, as well as a plethora of newspaper articles. Critics particularly praised the three novels he published in 1889-92, the greatest of them being Il Fuoco (The Flame of Life), glorifying the city of Venice. Citta Morta (1898), written for Sarah Bernhardt, was considered his greatest play, until he produced Francesca da Rimini in 1901, described at the time as the first real tragedy the Italian theatre had seen. After 1910, when he fled to France to avoid Italian creditors, he collaborated with Debussy and Mascagni on musical plays and operas.

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D'Annunzio was not only prolific but undoubtedly talented. To his fervent admirers, he was a genius. But his works also offended many. The novels in particular seem fixated on unwholesome violence, including rape and mutilation, and all of his works were placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books. The stories in one of his volumes, he noted, 'alternate between the church and the brothel, between the odour of incense and the stink of decay'. …

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