- Words by Mr Colin McDowell
Poet, politician, blazing orator, sportsman, serial lover (even, in his great days, considered a sexual superstar) and adored war hero, Mr Gabriele d'Annunzio had a lot for Italian men to identify with - that was if they could forget that he was also a hectoring warmonger and in many respects, a con man. But let's not forget that he was a real dude when it came to dressing. He loved clothes (what Italian male does not?) and used them as an essential prop in his many, many sexual liaisons. He was a multifaceted writer and rabble rouser, but also a figure who commanded attention and a great deal of respect across the whole of Europe for most of his life, as well as hysterical idolisation from many of his fellow Italians.
Mr d'Annunzio was born in 1863 in the small country town of Pescara in Abruzzo, then mainly inhabited by peasant farmers in the late 19th century. Mr d'Annunzio's family, however, was more comfortably off thanks to links with the aristocracy of the area. Despite this, though, there was nothing in his background or childhood to suggest the decadent rabble rouser he was to become, and certainly no hint at all of the demigod - even prophet - he managed to persuade people he was, long before he reached middle age. So persuasive was his way with words and his ability to enflame passions that he actually, for a period, had his own state and private army. In defiance of the Allied powers in 1919, with a band of at least 2,000 soldiers ready to lay down their lives in battle for him, he ruled the Croatian town of Fiume as a dictator and its Duce for just under a year and a half. He had no authority to do so but he had passion and conviction enough to gain the support of his troops (not the most impressive military body in the world it must be admitted), who were as besotted as he by the dreams of heroism and fame that he quite erroneously offered them in his inflammatory speeches.
He would wear nothing that was not imported and no perfume touched his body except the most outrageously expensive
The signs of how he would develop showed themselves early. Although Mr d'Annunzio was not quite a prodigy in the manner of Mozart, he was a precociously gifted child, who developed an almost mystically spiritual relationship with flowers, wrote poetry and was steeped in the classics as well as the works of the great contemporary writers and thinkers of Europe, all of whom took him and his talents very seriously, even in his teenage days. As he said, he stood for "Beauty, Life, Love and the Imagination". Many subsequent commentators would probably see him as also standing for lust, manipulation, power and bellicosity. Both would be right. But, au fond, Mr d'Annunzio's personality was fatally flawed. Excited by violence and total abandonment, in and out of the bedroom, meant that wherever he was he always had a stream of besotted women at the door waiting to be seduced.
Almost everything that Mr d'Annunzio achieved was the result of a will of iron and a pathological determination to succeed, even if ethics had to be ignored. He was not only manipulative but also deceptive in all his dealings. As a young man, he sent a story to the newspapers saying that he had been killed by falling from a horse. The reason was that he wanted a novel he had written to be favourably reviewed and become a bestseller on the back of the sympathy the news would create in literary circles. It was the sort of self-promotion that kept him in the limelight throughout his entire lurid life.
A portrait of Mr d'Annunzio hints at his fondness for sophisticated dress, Francavilla al Mare, Italy, 1896
As a young man, although short, he was not unattractive. He had curly hair, was always in clean clothes. He married young and had three sons but the love of his life was Europe's most famous actress, Ms Eleonora Duse, with whom he had a long and tempestuous affair. In fact, Mr d'Annunzio was always ready for sex and when entertaining a woman he made taking any opportunity easy by always drifting around ethereally, wearing nothing but an easily removed kimono. But like so many of us, Mr d'Annunzio looked better when clothed and he knew this, which is why he took so much care over his appearance. When he was young, he was described as "graceful... soft voiced, with chestnut locks, smoothed and scented with unguents" and having the "beardless velvety cheeks of a virgin". The description ends with the comment that he "contemplates himself with complacency and enjoys listening to his own words". As he grew older the magic of the military and the power it bestows took hold. Like his sometime friend and rival, Mussolini, he loved dressing up in uniforms adorned with improbable medals, decorations and military honours - and that tells its own psychological story about his power play - and he was well aware that a man wanting public adoration (and he did not just want it, he needed it) had to know how to dress to get it. His servant described him as a Beau Brummell who, until well into his forties, was "so obsessed with his appearance that his attitudes and gestures were so affected as to be perilously near effeminacy". He made a cult of luxury, elegance and comfort and spent a fortune on his appearance. He would wear nothing that was not imported and no perfume touched his body except the most outrageously expensive. He was always formally dressed, as were all his contemporaries, in suits or uniforms.
When Mr d'Annunzio died in the Gardone Riviera in 1938, these affectations of his youth were forgotten. He was much mourned, praised and honoured. Even today, Mr d'Annunzio is still remembered and respected by Italians who saw his dreams for their country as the leader of Europe as being honourable and realisable, just as he did.