“We artists are only then astonished witnesses of eternal aspirations, which help raise up our breed to its destiny.”
— Gabriele d’Annunzio, 1863–1938
Gabriele D’Annunzio, unique combination of artist and warrior, was born in 1863 into a merchant family He was a Renaissance Man par excellence. This warrior bard was to have a crucial impact upon the rise of fascism despite his not always being in accord with the way in which it developed.
The lad who in later years was to be heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche displayed an iron will at an early age. Learning to swim, he would go against the current or head for the biggest waves to discover his limits. His career as a poet began early. At 16, he was known in Rome as an up and coming poet. When 19 D’Annunzio travelled to Rome, leading a bohemian lifestyle, working as a gossip columnist, and writing his first novel Il Piacere. A set of short stories followed, Tales of the Pescara, celebrating the sensual and the violent. Then came his novel Le Vergini Delle Rocce, which was important because it introduced Italy to the ideal of the Nietzschean Overman.
D’Annunzio’s first visit to Greece in 1895 inspired him to write a national epic that he hoped would bring Italy into the twentieth Century as a great nation. “I was to write a volume of poetic prose which will be a war cry of the Latin peoples.” Laus Vitae expressed a pagan, Nietzschean ethos of “Desire, Voluptuousness. Pride and Instinct, the imperial Quadriga.”
Around this time, new ideals for the coming century were emerging, especially among young artists who were rejecting the bourgeois liberalism of the nineteenth century. In response to the comfort seeking, security conscious bourgeois and merchant-minded politicians, the young artists, writers and poets were demanding nationalism and empire. They were represented by the Futurist movement with its provocative style and abrasive manifestos, and led by the poet Marinetti demanding a rejection of “pastism.” They stood for a new age based on speed, dynamism, and martial valor. D’Annunzio wrote his play La Nave that celebrated the Venetian city-state of the Renaissance and called for action with the slogan:
Arm the prow and sail toward the wind.
The impact of the play was so powerful with the actors coming to real blows and the populace of Rome shouting its slogans. The King congratulated D’Annunzio, and Austria officially protested to the Italian Foreign Office. D’Annunzio was now a major influence on Italian youth and on the Futurists. The climate created by the movement and himself and the Italian Nationalists enabled the Prime Minster Crispi to embark upon imperial adventures in Africa, which culminated in the resurgence of an African Italian empire under Mussolini several decades hence. D’Annunzio inspired both the general population and the Italian soldiers with his writings
Although not fitting into the conventional Left or Right, which can also be said of the emerging Italian nationalist movement, D’Annunzio entered Parliament in 1899 as a non-doctrinaire conservative with revolutionary ideas. Nonetheless, he had contempt for Parliament and for parliamentarians as “the elected herd.”
He had written in La Vergine:
A State erected on the basis of popular suffrage and equality in voting, is not only ignoble, it is precarious. The State should always be no more than an institution for favouring the gradual elevation of a privileged class towards its ideal form of existences.
He took his seat and forced a new election in 1900 by crossing the floor and joining with the Left to break a political impasse. He then stood for the Socialist Party, among whose leadership at the time was Mussolini, although continuing to speak of a “national consciousness” that was contrary to the internationalism of the mainstream Socialists, as indeed Mussolini was to do. Although he was not re-elected D’Annunzio had contributed to the formation of an ideological synthesis, along with the nationalists and the Futurists that was several decades later to transcend both Left and Right and emerge as Fascism. D’Annunzio expressed the new synthesis of the coming politics thus:
Everything in life depends upon the eternally new. Man must either renew himself or die.
The First World War
D’Annunzio was living in France when the war broke out. He visited the front, and resolved to return to Italy to agitate for his country’s entry into the war. Like Mussolini and Marinetti, D’Annunzio saw the war as the opportunity for Italy to take her place among the great powers of the twentieth century. D’Annunzio was invited to speak before a crowd at an official opening of the Garibaldi monument, declaring his own “Sermon on the Mount”:
Blessed are they, who having yesterday cried against this event, will today accept the supreme necessity, and do not wish to be the Last but the First! Blessed are the young who, starved of glory, shall be satisfied! Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be called on to quench a splendid flow of blood, and dress a wonderful wound . . .
The crowd was ecstatic.
At 52 and considered a national treasure, having reestablished an Italian national literature, there was pressure to dissuade him from enlisting in the army, but he was commissioned in the Novara Lancers, and saw more than 50 actions. Such was the daring of his ventures that Italy’s leading literary figure soon became her greatest war hero. He flew many times over the Alps at a time when such a feat was considered extraordinary. The Austrians put a bounty on his head. He responded by entering Buccari harbour with a small band of hand picked men in a motorboat, firing his torpedoes and leaving behind rubber containers each containing a lyrical message in indelible ink. D’Annunzio was especially noted for his air excursions over enemy lines dropping propaganda leaflets. It was during his flight over Pola that he first used the war cry, “Eja! Eja! Eja! Alala!”
This was said to be the cry used by Achilles to spur on his horses. It was later adapted by D’Annunzio’s own Legionnaires when they took Fiume and eventually by the Fascists. After serious damage to an eye, he was told not to fly again, but within several months had returned to the air and was awarded a silver medal. He then slogged it out on foot in the assault from Castagna to the sea. He returned from the war an international hero; having been awarded a gold medal, five silver, a bronze, and the officer’s cross of the Savoy Military Order. He also received the Military Cross from Britain with many other countries adding to his decorations.
After the Allied victory, Italy did not receive the rewards she had expected. Fiume was a particular point of contention. Venetian in culture and history, the city port had been occupied by the French, English, American, and Italian troops; yet the Italian Government favored turning its administration over to Yugoslavia. Mussolini, Marinetti, and D’Annunzio again joined forces to agitate on the common theme that Italy should annex Fiume. Young officers formed an army with the motto: “Fiume or death!” D’Annunzio was asked to lead an expedition to take the city for Italy.
At dawn on 12th September 1919, D’Annunzio marched off at the head of a column of 287 veterans. As they marched through Italy towards Fiume, they picked up soldiers and supplies along the way. By the time D’Annunzio reached they city he had gathered an army of 1,000. D’Annunzio confronted the Italian commander of the city and, pointing to his medals declared, “Fire first on this.” General Pittaluga’s eyes filled with tears and he replied: “Great poet! I do not wish to be the cause of spilling Italian blood. I am honored to meet you for the first time. May your dream be fulfilled.” The two embraced and entered Fiume together. Once D’Annunzio had taken Fiume others from all over Italy flocked to him, nationalists, anarchists, futurists, syndicalists, soldiers, and men of the arts. “In this mad and vile world, Fiume is the symbol of liberty,” declared D’Annunzio.
Renaissance City State
D’Annunzio the Renaissance Man recreated Fiume as a twentieth Century renaissance city-state. It would be the catalyst for a “League of Oppressed Nations” to counter the League of Nations of the bourgeois powers. The Free State of Fiume was proclaimed with the Statute of the Carnaro. This instituted physical training for youth, old age pensions, universal education, aesthetic instruction, and unemployment relief. Private property was recognised but on the condition of its “proper, continuous and efficient use.” Corporations and guilds after the medieval manner were established to represent workers and producers in place of the old political parties. Both freedom of religion and atheism were protected. A College of Ediles was “elected with discernment from men of taste and education,” who would maintain aesthetic standards in the architecture and construction of the city-state. The parliament, or Council of the Best, was enjoined to minimise chatter, with sessions held with “notably concise brevity.” A higher chamber was called the Council of Providers. D’Annunzio oversaw the whole edifice as the Commandante. Music was elevated as “a religious and social institution” by statute. For 15 months, the Commandante held out against allied protests and the blockade erected by his own Government.
The Italian Government eventually tightened its blockade, which resulted in food shortages at the time of the European-wide influenza epidemic. To counter the blockade D’Annunzio formed the Usccccocchi (from an old Adriatic name for a type of pirate), who captured ships, warehouses, stole coal, arms, meat, coffee, and ammunition, even army horses, in daring raids all over Italy. D’Annunzio planned to march on Rome and take the entire country. Indeed, the Legionnaire’s song had the refrain, “with the bomb and the dagger we will enter the Quinirile.” D’Annunzio had hoped for the support of Mussolini’s Fascists, who had been propagandizing for D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume, but Mussolini considered such a march on Rome premature, and possibly looked upon D’Annunzio as rival to his own aims.
Government troops now moved on Fiume. D’Annunzio ordered a general mobilisation. He hoped that Italian troops would not fire on fellow Italians. Such a notion was repugnant to D’Annunzio, as it had been to General Pittaluga when he gave way to D’Annunzio’s occupation. Military operations began on 24th December 1920. “The Christmas of Blood” as D’Annunzio called it. 20,000 troops began to move against D’Annunzio’s 3,000. The Andrea Dona sailed within firing range. D’Annunzio was given an ultimatum to surrender or suffer bombardment. After some shelling of the balconies of the city began, the women came forth holding aloft their babies, shouting, “This one Italy! Take this one. But not D’Annunzio!”
The Commandante gathered his Cabinet together and announced his capitulation. Although his men had repulsed the Governments troops for five days, the city could not withstand heavy shelling. “I cannot impose on this heroic city its ruin and certain destruction,” said D’Annunzio.
D’Annunzio retired to a secluded house he called “The Shrine of Italian Victories.” He resumed his writing. He remained the most popular figure in Italy whom both Fascists and anti-Fascists tried to recruit. Despite what he considered Mussolini’s betrayal over Fiume, he refused to assist the anti-fascists. On 27 October 1922, the Fascists marched on Rome. The new regime established on a more realistic and pragmatic basis than the romantic and visionary ideals that D’Annunzio had briefly realized at Fiume. Many of the trappings of the Fascist movement were first used by D’Annunzio, including the revival of the Roman salute and the use of the blackshirt. Mussolini adopted D’Annunzio’s style of speaking to the populace from balconies with the crowds responding.
Italy was organised as a Corporate (guild) State as Fiume had been, and cultural figures were especially esteemed. In 1924 most of Fiume was secured from Yugoslavia. This and such actions as the Rome-Berlin axis, the withdrawal from the League of Nations, and the invasion of Abyssinia drew D’Annunzio closer to the Fascist regime. Although he refrained from participation in public life, the regime bestowed D’Annunzio with honors, made him a prince, published his collected works, and made him an honorary general of the air force and president of the Academy of Italy. On 1 March 1938, D’Annunzio died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. At D’Annunzio’s funeral, Mussolini said:
You may be sure Italy will arrive at the summit you dreamed of.
Chapter 2 of K. R. Bolton, Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism (Luton, England: Luton Publications, 2003).