by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
In September 1919, charismatic poet, serial seducer and war hero, Gabriele d’Annunzio, marched into the Croatian city of Fiume (now Rijeka) at the head of 186 deserters from the Italian army and made himself its ruler. For the next 15 months, Fiume would be the stage for a citywide political drama in which some of the darkest themes of the next century’s history were played out.
D’Annunzio announced that he was creating a model city-state – one so culturally brilliant and politically innovative that the whole drab, war-exhausted world would be dazzled by it. He called it a “searchlight, radiant in the midst of an ocean of abjection.”
Fifty-six years-old, small, bald and half-blind (he’d lost sight in one eye in a wartime plane crash) d’Annunzio may not have looked like a romantic hero, but his charm was irresistible. One of his many lovers once remarked that he was the only the man she’d ever met with teeth in three different colours – black, yellow and ivory. It didn’t hold him back. For eight years he lived with Eleonora Duse, one of the two greatest actresses in Europe (the other being Sarah Bernhardt, with whom d’Annunzio also had a fling).
A truly gifted poet (though perhaps not quite as great as he thought himself to be) he published his first two books while he was still in school.
Novels and plays followed, bringing him international celebrity. In middle age he turned to politics. An ardent nationalist and a bloodthirsty militarist, longing for a conflict in which the newly unified Italy could prove its great national status, he welcomed the onset of the First World War. He became an aviator, dropping propaganda leaflets over Austrian-occupied cities along the Adriatic coast and bombing Austrian ships.
He “adored” the war (his word), but the terms of the ensuing peace treaties infuriated him. He, like many Italian nationalists, had hoped that all of the eastern shore of the Adriatic would become part of a ‘Greater Italy’ with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead it was taken over by the new state of Yugoslavia. Italy, in his opinion, had been cheated of her due. And so he seized Fiume, ostensibly for Italy, but as it turned out, for himself.
Thousands of volunteers came to join d’Annunzio’s ‘legion’ – war veterans and poets, drug dealers and prostitutes, freedom fighters and secret agents, thrill-seeking aristocrats and politicians on the make like Mussolini.
In the city’s streets bands played and fireworks exploded. Every day d’Annunzio would appear on the balcony of the governor’s palace to harangue crowds of supporters before leading them on marches out into the hills behind the town, and then bringing them back belting out anthems down to the quayside. There he would drill them, teaching them war cries derived from Homer and the straight-armed salute that would soon become familiar all over Italy.
The constitution he drew up for his little city-state was visionary. It promised universal adult suffrage and absolute sexual equality. Many socialists (including Lenin, who sent d’Annunzio a pot of caviar) supported it. It placed art, music and the cult of beauty at the centre of public life. But it was also a dictatorship, which would later be seen as a blueprint for Italy’s fascist state.
His dream of an ideal society would eventually deteriorate into a nightmare of ethnic conflict, hunger and ritualised violence. D’Annunzio saw himself as a national hero, but his rogue dictatorship was an embarrassment to the Italian government, which urgently needed to come to terms with Yugoslavia. On Christmas Eve of 1920, an Italian warship shelled d’Annunzio’s palace, driving him out of Fiume. His moment of power was over, but his understanding of the role of spectacle and news manipulation in the modern political process, his privileging of publicity over policy and his linking of nationalist rhetoric with the cult of the superman (himself) all look ominously prescient now.
photo by Archivi Vittoriale