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“. . . chilling political parallel to current events . . .”
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s dense, detail-laden biography of poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose mesmerizing words and media manipulation fed the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascism, weaves World War I events with d’Annunzio’s perverse, talented and intrigue-filled life.
D’Annunzio (1863-1938), a revered Italian poet, journalist and playwright, had the ability to stimulate mass hysteria, even influence the ejection of top Italian officials who did not agree with him. A war hero, d’Annunzio cherished war as “ecstasy.” He led a bomber squadron during World War I, glorified troops willing to die for a “greater Italy” and even killed his own soldiers who dared raise the white flag.
After the war, amnesty was granted to defectors, a decision that angered d’Annunzio and motivated him to lead an invasion of Fiume (an Adriatic port now in Croatia named Rijeka), while the inter-allies (America, Great Britain, France) were negotiating the boundaries of newly formed Yugoslavia. Fearing this Italian-dominated area would be allocated to the Yugoslavs, d’Annunzio in 1919 led 2,000 Legionaries (former Italian soldiers) into the city and declared it a city-state to be annexed to Italy. But Italy opposed the takeover and ultimately mounted military operations against d’Annunzio.
“The conjunction of a war hero and a returning army is a danger to any civilized state,” Hughes-Hallett writes. D’Annunzio was not stopped because the Allies were in a “muddle” while the Italian government was not interested in going to battle against a popular poet whose appearances generated audiences in the tens of thousands.
For more than a year, the Duce of “The City of the Holocaust”, presided over Fiume, which became a party town with drugs, gambling and prostitution. The palace was his harem where he entertained women in flamboyant rooms filled with flowers, perfumes, damask pillows and drugs. Italy subsequently prevailed, but rather than charge D’Annunzio with treason, he was given land and a villa for the remainder of his life.
D’Annunzio’s prolific writings included numerous novels, plays and poetry books, but the author devotes most of the text to her research of his personal journals, which reveal a lust for blood, war, depression and constant intake of drugs, primarily cocaine, and, of course, his sexual exploits.
This comprehensive book is a challenge to read because it is divided into chapters on d’Annunzio’s various life experiences, such as “Cruelty,” “Sickness,” and “Speed,” rather than in chronological order. This layout required repetition, and often, I was lost in the identity and role of some of the characters.
However, it is an important read, especially its chilling political parallel to current events, such as the West stood by as soldiers move into Ukraine like in Fiume. As the author notes, d’Annunzio’s use of the media is “akin to that of a modern mass-media pundit.”
Reviewer: Kate Padilla