Recently a string of coincidences led me to visit Il Vittorale, the estate of poet, aesthete and political activist Gabriele D’Annunzio. On hearing that I was going to Lake Garda, my brother lent me a guide book to Il Vittoriale, which he himself had chanced on. Knowing my decorative tastes and interests he thought I would appreciate it. I did. The following week Radio 4 broadcast an episode of The Pike, a new biography by Lucy Hughes-Hallett of the “Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War.” The next coincidence came during the last of a lecture series which I had been attending. It was on the theme of Decadence and Dr Allan Phillipson† explored D’Annunzio’s relationship with “The Divine Marchesa,” Luisa Casati.
Phillipson showed images of D’Annunzio’s home, La Prioria, set in the extraordinary complex of gardens, streets, squares and amphitheatre which compose the estate of Il Vittoriale. I determined to go there. The final co-incidence occurred at a B&B in Civenna, high above Lake Como ( see details at end of post) the night before my visit. Our host Eleonora told me that she admired D’Annunzio as a poet – although she did not admire his politics, and drew my attention to La Pioggia nel Pineto (Rain in the Pinewoods). There is a very beautiful rendition here:
As with all poetry – or opera – it needs to be heard or read in the original language for the full beauty and the essence of the work to be appreciated.
During a flight over Lake Garda in 1917 D’Annunzio recorded his impressions:
Tutto è azzurro, come un’ebbrezza improvvisa,
come un capo che si rovescia per ricevere un bacio profondo.
Il lago è di una bellezza indicibile
Everything is azure, like a sudden intoxication,
like a head thrown back to receive a deep kiss.
The lake is indescribably beautiful.
But suffering from photophobia he shut out the light and the view, when he eventually settled in his last home high above the azure lake. Here he created a dark, decadent, but intensely atmospheric environment at odds with the sun-drenched landscape outside the shuttered windows.
I visited on a day when the heat and brilliance of the sun in the courtyards exaggerated the sequestered gloom of La Prioria’s interior. Stepping straight from the light flooded gardens of the Vittoriale into the hush of the dark Ingresso panelled with ancient walnut stalls, I was immediately conscious of entering D’Annunzio’s private world. The narrow enclosed flight of stairs which rises immediately inside the entrance door, is both claustrophobic and intimidating. The owner’s intention is plain: You are entering his personal space, you must humble yourself, you must first climb if you wish to be admitted into the presence, into the inner sanctum.
There is no grand entrance hall such as one might expect. I was totally unprepared by the spaciousness of the bright courtyards with their statuary and grand gestures, by the golden stucco walls studded with plaques and armorial shields, for this small, dark, intimate space.
D’Annunzio conveyed his arrogant contempt for those he was not pleased to receive, by providing them with a waiting area separate from that reserved for favoured guests. The landing at the top of the stairs is divided by a stone column, to the right is the Stanza del Mascheraio, for the unwelcome, to the left the Oratorio Dalmata, for the favoured.
This extraordinary arrangement speaks volumes about the man and sets the tone for the rest of the visit. Mussolini was shown to the right, where a special green marble plaque was placed above the mirror before his second visit in 1925. It bears the following inscription:
Al visitatore/ Teco porti lo specchio di Narciso? / Questo è piombato vetro, o mascheraio. / Aggiusta le tue maschere al tuo viso / ma pensa che sei vetro contro acciaio.
To the visitor: Do you bring the mirror of Narcissus? /This is lead glass, O mask-maker./ Adjust your masks on your visage/ but remember that you are glass against steel.
Through his extraordinary house, crowded with a highly personal collection and arrangement of objets, books, religious artworks and rich textiles, one obtains an insight into the mind of D’Annunzio:
“Io ho, per temperamento, per istinto, il bisogno del superfluo. L’educazione del mio spirito mi trascina irresistibilmente verso l’acquisto delle cose belle.”*
“I have, by temperament, by instinct, the need of the superfluous. The education of my spirit draws me irresistibly towards the acquisition of beautiful things .”
Superfluity abounds at La Prioria where even the Bagno blu, a bathroom with deep lapiz-blue fittings, has Oriental carpets on the pink marble floor, paintings and Persian tiles on the walls, a motto painted on the ceiling and a bewildering array of some ninety ornaments, including many water fowl, covering every available surface. The entire house is an essay in excess, but it is styled with such creativity – each room with its own theme, each room an entire small world unto itself, that it invites admiration.
The poet’s office is the lightest room in the Prioria. Books and plaster casts from the Parthenon line the walls. These latter, in the poet’s own words had: ” [ ] their raw whiteness effaced, skilfully suffused with a shaded patina of ivory”.* This patina was laid on by D’Annunzio himself and was in fact composed mainly of coffee. This revelation gives us some insight into D’Annunzio’s obsession with creating the perfect theatrical setting for his life, by whatever means. A plaster head of Eleonora Duse, arguably his greatest muse, stands on the desk, her face covered by a silk scarf – lest her beauty should distract him from his work.
Short, slight, with a balding head and a glass eye, Gabriele D’Annunzio evidently possessed a sexual magnetism and technique which attracted a string of lovers throughout his life: the great actress Eleonora Duse, the pianist Luisa Baccaria, Romaine Brooks the painter and lesbian lover of writer Natalie Barney, and the aforementioned Luisa Cassati, to name but a few.
Despite knowing what was in store, on entering the extraordinary red dining room which forms the last room of the guided tour of La Prioria, I still gasped. If the brilliance of the shut-out world beyond the veiled windows had not prepared the eye for the darkness within, having become adjusted to that darkness, the final éclat of the Stanza del Cheli almost blinds it . What were the influences? What did D’Annunzio request of his architect Maroni, in designing this brilliantly flamboyant room? Here Frederick Crace’s chinoiserie for the Royal Pavilion meets Frank Matcham’s Art Deco fantasy cinema interiors.
It is a truly astonishing tour de force and takes its name from the tortoise “seated” at the head of the table (Khélis being the Greek for tortoise). According to the guide book, this unfortunate animal which was a gift from Luisa Casati, subsequently died “from a surfeit of tuberores in the Vittoriale garden” and is “placed here as an admonition to moderation.” It is only the shell which is original – the head and feet were fashioned from bronze by the sculptor Renato Brozzi. A decorated tortoise features in J.K.Huysman’s work A Rebours, a book which exerted a strong influence on the decadents of the period – not least D’Annunzio. Huysman’s protagonist the aesthete Des Esseintes, completes the décor of his home with a live tortoise, its shell encrusted with gems.
Il Vittoriale was D’Annunzio’s final home and the only one he ever owned himself. After the failure of his self-proclaimed state of Fiume (now Rijeka) he retreated to the shores of Lake Garda and converted and enlarged the an existing “farmhouse,” the Villa Cargnacco, with the help of local architect Gian Carlo Maroni. His intention was to create a national monument and he envisaged Il Vittoriale as a memorial to himself, the true champion of Italian national unity. He donated it to the Italian state in 1923 and his astounding egotism and self-belief are evinced in the wording of the deed of gift.
This is an extract:
“ [ ] Formerly a vain celebrator of renowned palaces and sumptuous villas, I have come to enclose my sober intoxication and my musical silence in this old farmhouse, not so much to mortify myself as to submit my virtù to a more difficult trial of its power to create and transfigure. [ ] All that is here, truly, has been created and transfigured by myself. All that is here reveals the traces of my style with the significance I wish to give to my style. [ ] My love for Italy, my cult of memory, my aspiration to heroism, my foreshadowings of the future fatherland, are manifested her in the elaboration of line, in every chord or dischord of colour. [ ] Thus, when death gives my body to my beloved Italy, may I be permitted to preserve the best of my life in this offering to my beloved Italy . . .” *
Such breathtaking arrogance, but D’Annunzio did indeed transfigure the simple and structurally unsound Villa Cargnacco into the monument it is today. His collection and his operatic decorative style astounded and delighted me, and every room was imbued with the personality of this monstre sacré.
† Dr Allan Phillipson’s new lecture series: Hatched, Matched and Despatched
* Annamaria Andreoli, 1996. The Vittoriale, Electa Art Guides, Milan.
THE ATTIC APARTMENT, CIVENNA, LAKE COMO.