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The Theater of Politics

ISSUE:  Winter 1978
The First Duce: D’Annunzio at Fiume. By Michael Ledeen. Johns Hopkins. $13.50.

IN September 1919, while the Great Powers were debating the future of Fiume at the Paris Peace Conference, the poet and war hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio, seized the Adriatic city and ruled as a benign dictator for 16 months. Despite his legions of mistresses, this sacra entrata was his most famous penetration; and the city received him with a hedonistic idealism that recalled the glorious days of the Risorgimento. One of his followers recorded: “The city abounded with beautiful girls; the pastry shops were bursting with extraordinary sweets. . . . One ate, one danced, one drank; indeed, it truly seemed that this city, with its life overflowing with gifts, was the reward for all our exertions during the war.”

Though Osbert Sitwell, who visited the city, thought Fiume might develop “into an ideal land and offer an escape from the normal European misery and vulgarity,” D’Annunzio’s rule—with its fireworks, martial music, songs, processions, drama, and oratory—was a noble failure. Though the poet claimed to have established the first direct communication between a leader and his people since the age of Pericles, Fiume never achieved the intensification of intelligence and concentration of culture that characterized Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, Medician Florence, Elizabethan London, or Goethean Weimar. It was closer to Paris under the cultural reign of Malraux, with its ambitious artistic programs and extravagant political spectacles.

Michael Ledeen, the author of two other works on fascism, has translated his own book, which was originally published in Italian in 1975. He has done extensive and valuable archival research and told this remarkably interesting story in a clear and lively style (though he is excessively fond of words like “fascinating” and “great,” and uses the intolerable “minicrisis”). He calls Fiume under D’Annunzio “a microcosm of the modern political world”; clearly distinguishes between the ideas of D’Annunzio and Mussolini; emphasizes the progressive ideology of the Constitution that expressed the emotional as well as the institutional needs of Fiume; shows how close the poet came to seizing power in Italy; and stresses the profound devotion of his followers. But the book does not do full justice to its subject and needs more substantial discussion of the character of D’Annunzio’s lieutenants: Keller, Kochnitzky, DeAmbris, and Giuriati; his relation to Marinetti and Futurism; the events of the Paris Peace Conference; and the postwar Communist revolutions in Russia, Hungary, and Bavaria. The book, with its oilcloth binding, dull photographs, small print, and unjustified lines, is uncommonly ugly; “September” is confusingly printed for “August” in two crucial passages on pages 59 and 61; and the last line of page 65 makes no sense at all.

D’Annunzio personified a number of attitudes and ideas expressed in Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Italian Futurism” (1909), and both of these operatic leaders hoped to regenerate Italy with their vital doctrines. Like the poet, the Futurists also “want to sing the love of danger, the habit of danger and temerity. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, daring and revolt. . . . We want to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the anarchist’s destructive gesture, the fine Ideas that kill, and the scorn of women.” Though Marinetti, who was a fascist, spent two weeks in Fiume in September 1920 and hailed D’Annunzio as the “first truly potent and decisive appearance of Italian pride,” he was soon asked to leave the city and the two great activist poets never formed an alliance.

Mussolini and D’Annunzio exemplify Malraux’s observation that “In Mediterranean countries, politics is linked with the theater.” For the crowd becomes the audience and chorus as well as the instrument of rhetorical manipulation. All the dramatic machinery—the ritual, symbolism, mystique, style, and farce—invented or exploited by D’Annunzio in Fiume was later adopted by Mussolini: the title of Duce, the Roman salute, the phrase mare nostrum, the black-shirted shock-troops, the song Giovanezza, the war cries, the oceanic orations from the open balcony, the dialogues with the crowds, the eulogies to martyrs, the use of relics, and especially the subversion of the Italian army and the sudden coup. As George Macbeth writes: D’Annunzio “was the last major writer who could use the Romantic ideal with its full political relevance before it went bad in the hands of the fascists.”

In “Mario and the Magician” (1930), a perceptive allegory of fascism and portrait of a dictator, Thomas Mann uses this theatrical metaphor and subtly fuses D’Annunzio’s ritual, artistry, and oratory with Mussolini’s ideology, brutality, and lust for power in the deformed figure of the nationalistic Cipolla, whose person and performance suggests that fascism is a disease of the social body. Cipolla’s hypnotic powers, his whip and cognac (symbols of force and fraud), and his dominating will, extract the last vestiges of individual and collective freedom from the blindly enthusiastic crowd, who do not realize the extent of their submission. The theme of sexual perversion, expressed in the humiliating kiss of the handsome waiter Mario, reveals the D’Annunzian connection between lust and power. And the murder of Cipolla, which shatters the hypnotism and liberates the captive audience, is, paradoxically, an assertion of human dignity. In Zarathustra Nietzsche writes that “The Magician” “played the ascetic of the spirit—the poet and magician who at last turns his spirit against himself, the changed man who freezes to death from his evil science and conscience.”

Ledeen argues that D’Annunzio did not pave the way for fascism but did serve as a model for the far shrewder Duce, who also drew his strength from the veterans, the Arditi, and the disaffected intellectuals. “It was only the poet’s lack of political acumen,” Ledeen writes, “that prevented him from eventually seizing power in Italy.”

As the initial enthusiasm subsided and the daring exploits diminished, the situation within Fiume began to deteriorate. The Italian blockade threatened the city with starvation, the legionnaires became seriously divided, and the civilian population turned against the chaotic military regime. In the summer of 1920, Kochnitzky observed: “Under the gaze of a hostile and cowardly world . . . Fiume dances before death,” D’Annunzio’s refusal to compromise and his implacable hostility to the Italian government and to Woodrow Wilson, whom he called “an icy maniac with fourteen dull nails and a hammer borrowed from the German Chancellor,” gradually eroded his political popularity as the government successfully negotiated the Yugoslav question and in November 1920 signed the Treaty of Rapallo that created the Free State of Fiume. Finally, on December 26th, the Italian cruiser Andrea Doria bombarded D’Annunzio’s palace, and he was forced to surrender. But one of Mussolini’s first acts after seizing power was to recapture Fiume early in 1922. Italy held the city until 1945, when it was occupied by Yugoslavia and renamed Rijeka.

When I visited D’Annunzio’s palace, the Vittoriale, on Lago di Garda, in 1971, I met a former legionnaire who has remained deeply devoted to his hero for more than 50 years. He has never stopped dreaming of the greatest moment of his life, the capture of Fiume, which is still celebrated with pomp and solemnity on the September 12th anniversary when the aged survivors gather, with their medals and banners, to honor the memory of their leader’s exploit. Lenin justly called D’Annunzio “the only real revolutionary in Italy”; and E. M. Forster summarized his achievement by stating: “By the time he died he had a number of books to his credit, a still larger number of mistresses, and the city of Fiume. It is no small haul.”


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