Issue 75, Spring 1979
Gabriele d’Annunzio was born in 1863 in Pescara, a town in the Abruzzi. He died in a villa overlooking Lake Garda in 1938.
Ariel. A name he called himself and often signed, sometimes as Gabriel Ariel. In every poet, to some degree, there is this lyric angel and the sheer beauty of words is his domain.
Baccara, Luisa. The last of the women. She was a young pianist that he met in Venice during the war and who was with him thereafter. d’Annunzio was passionately devoted to music. He believed that the Italian language possessed musical elements Wagnerian in their power. He felt himself, in fact, to be the heir to Wagner whose death in Venice with the hero carrying the coffin is the closing scene of one of the novels.
Bernhardt, Sarah. She ruled the French stage for more than fifty years, her noted voice lasting considerably longer than her beauty. In 1897 she accepted d’Annunzio’s play La Citta Morta (The Dead City) with a telegram of repeated “admirable’s.’’ He went to Paris for the opening, carefully writing the addresses of the important critics in his notebooks. The play ran for twelve performances.
CapponcinaThe villa outside Florence where d’Annunzio settled in 1898 to remain for twelve years, the most productive in his life. It was the periodo solare, his years of the sun. Eleonora Duse, then his mistress, had a house close by. She was, next to Bernhardt, the most celebrated actress in the world and in some respects surpassed her rival. “A noble creature, chosen by me, who mined herself for me,” he later wrote.
The villa was rented but d’Annunzio remodeled it extensively to conform to his taste. The rooms were various shades of gold with heavy furniture, statuary, brocade and bric-a-brac everywhere. He had horses, servants, and two apartments in town. He lived the life of a gran signóre, traveling frequently, often with Duse, and writing prodigiously, plays, novels, his greatest poems. From the furnace of his mind, as he said. Towards the end, when Duse had been replaced, the scale of living went from extravagant to ruinous and favorite horses were sleeping on Persian rugs. In 1911, when he had gone to France, the contents of the villa were put up at auction to satisfy the creditors. Everything was sold, furnishings, pictures, even the dogs.
Canto Novo (New Song). The second book of poems, published when he was nineteen. In it was exuberance, sensuality, and a full, assured voice which cried, ”...Sing of the immense joy of living/of being strong, of being young/of biting the fruits of the earth/with strong, white, ravenous teeth. ... ” Suddenly he was famous.
Carducci, Giosuè. The great, classical poet who was the early model for d’Annunzio and to whom he sent a copy of his first book, published when he was sixteen and still in school, with a very flattering inscription. They met in Rome in the offices of d’Annunzio’s publisher. Carducci was middle-aged, with a large stomach, a professor of Italian literature in Bologna. Later he was to become a senator. In 1906 he won the Nobel prize and died the following year.
Croce, Benedetto. Critic, historian, and a kind of philosopher king and true conscience of Italy. He lived in Naples. He was three years younger than d’Annunzio whom he characterized as impotent, despite enormous talent. In his opinion, d’Annunzio simply had nothing to say.
Duse, Eleonora. She was born in a hotel and died in one. The child of traveling players, her name was on posters when she was six. At sixteen she played Juliet in Verona and scattered roses on the body of Romeo: her ascension had begun. She was plain, with a high forehead, faded-looking, austere. She used no make-up. She made herself up morally, she used to say. She was Bernhardt’s great rival, playing in competition in the same city on many occasions and once in the same theatre. They died within a year of each other, Bernhardt in 1923, Duse in 1924.
When she was twenty she was seduced by a newspaper publisher and had a child, who died. She carried the coffin to the cemetery herself, it was in Marina di Pisa, a small seaside town where she would later go with d’Annunzio. When she was twenty-three she married a minor actor. They had a daughter. The husband, whom she ultimately left in Buenos Aires, said it was not that she was bad but simply drunk with the stage and the glory of other actresses. She formed her own company and became the mistress of the poet, Arrigo Boito. Divorce was non-existent in Italy then, they could not marry. She was playing Ibsen, Shakespeare, Sardou and Dumas and reading the morning papers in an old shawl and tortoise-shell glasses. There were tours to England, America, Russia, all of Europe.
She had been urged to read d’Annunzio by a friend and found herself both attracted and repelled. Boito was eighteen years her senior, wise, idealistic, paternal. Now came the incandescent young poet trailing scandalous relationships and an immense reputation. Amori et dolori sacra 26 Settembre 1895—Hotel Royal Danieli—Venezia is written in his note- books with an asterisk. Sacred love and pain. It was the night they became lovers. Even before this she recognized in him the inspired poet the theatre had been waiting for and he at last found his heroine. She was physically and spiritually enthralled. All her life, her manager used to say, on stage and off, she was a victim of love.
In the nine years that they were together, he wrote many plays for her, almost one a year, and she determinedly kept them in her repertoire even though they were unsuccessful, sending him money and false reports from half-empty houses in America. His best play La Figlia di lorio, he gave to another actress, just as he had given La Città Morta to Bernhardt. Still they traveled and went on tour: Egypt, Athens, Zurich, Frankfurt. They planned a national theatre they would have at Albano—a Bayreuth of Italy, immortal plays beneath the stars. Meanwhile he was writing the poetry that is considered to be his imperishable achievement as well as, beneath her nose, the novel that exposed her, almost naked before the world.