Strange Flowers is taking over the world! Well, at least putting pins in map of same.
I’m building on the guides to Berlin and London which saw us walking in the faded footsteps of various kooks. While I would love to carry on this journey around the globe, time and resources are such that it is a journey which I must continue from my desk.
‘Places’, then, is a new feature which will set the coordinates for a different location each time, to a place associated with one of our Strange Flowers. Somewhere they lived, performed, worked, drank, triumphed, failed, died.
I’m cursed, I must admit, with an exaggerated sense of place, an inflated expectation of what a physical location can impart about lives which have passed through it. I was that nerdy child who was always poring over atlases and as an adult I still long to linger in the places where the subjects of my obsession once also loitered. I honestly think spending time with the genius loci enriches contemplation and creates a connection – however brief, however nebulous. And though our visits will be virtual, I still feel these disparate places have a lot to tell us, even if it is an account of loss and destruction.
Over time these visits will build into an atlas, an alternative view of the world just like our Strange Flowers together form an alternative cultural history.
The first pin sticks out of Italy’s warm flank, sunk into the western shore of Lake Garda. We’ve come to see the extraordinary memorial Il Vittoriale degli italiani, a huge complex of buildings, tombs, even a landlocked boat, with phalanxes of cypresses forming a guard of honour. Officially dedicated to Italy’s military victories, it was also the creation, home and last resting place of Italian writer, adventurer, politician and military commander Gabriele d’Annunzio.
I’ve considered, and rejected, the idea of writing about d’Annunzio before. True, he bore many characteristics which would recommend him to the company of other Strange Flowers. But if you take d’Annunzio the Decadent poet, dandified cosmopolite, lover of Eleanora Duse and Marchesa Casati, you also have to take d’Annunzio the fanatic nationalist, war criminal and enabler of Fascism. Sure he was eccentric, but he was far from harmless – his idiosyncrasies and caprices came with a body count.
What I’m trying to say is we’re going to have to chalk this one up to “guilty pleasures”.
Mussolini cribbed much of his style and many of his tactics from the older man but was disinclined to have the dangerously charismatic war hero around to challenge his authority. Il Vittoriale was generously-funded busy work for d’Annunzio, an al fresco manifestation of the creation myths of totalitarianism. We will never know what Wagner thought of the later Nazi appropriation of Bayreuth, but the ethos of Il Vittoriale is explicitly aligned with Italo-Fascism. A 2008 Bayreuth production of Götterdämmerung explored the connection, taking visual cues from d’Annunzio’s citadel.
D’Annunzio arrived at Villa Cargnacco, overlooking Lake Garda, in 1921 and after a mysterious accident the following year it became both his permanent residence and the focus of his obsession. He spent the last quarter of his life building a monument to the greatness of the other three-quarters. With architect Giancarlo Maroni, d’Annunzio expanded the house, landscaped the gardens and added statuary, an amphitheatre, a mausoleum as well as a cruiser, a souvenir of d’Annunzio’s Irredentist adventure to annex the city of Fiume (now the Croatian city of Rijeka), the kind of foolhardy mission that so endeared him to his countrymen. The symbolic gestures reach into every corner. The doorway to the library, for instance, is unusually low, so that one must enter bowing to d’Annunzio’s literary genius.
Separate Il Vittoriale from its memorial function (not easy, admittedly) and it presents itself as a bonkers yet appealing collection of follies and other decontextualized architectural elements ranging from folksy to monolithic. Spanish architect Gustau Gili Galfetti visits Il Vittoriale degli italiani in his excellent book My House, My Paradise (to which we will no doubt return). In his opinion, the complex is “made up of a sum of copies, doubles, clones manipulated and distorted by d’Annunzio, and in this lies its extraordinary suggestive power.” There’s a San Simeon quality to the variety and overabundance; Philippe Jullian saw the Vittoriale as “a sort of porter’s lodge for one of Ludwig II’s castles”, calling it “one of the most bizarre creations of the heroic Decadence.”
For d’Annunzio, personal glory and the glory of Italy were indivisible, nationalism inseparable from narcissism, and both found expression in the immoderate visual polemic of the age. Galfetti: “In the same way that the Romantic nationalism of the 19th century and the totalitarian ideology of the Fascist state apparently needed a double-jointed contortionist reasoning to establish their association with one another, Il Vittoriale brings together the picturesque intimacy of a miniaturized Italian village with the abstract monumentality of the public buildings.”
D’Annunzio’s memorial still wasn’t complete when he died in 1938, but Galfetti claims that the master continued to dictate his plans to Maroni after his death – by means of séance (eventually the architect ended up in a tomb here as well, swallowed by his own monster).
Of course Fascist Italy represented d’Annunzio’s legacy as much as Il Vittoriale, and for a reminder of how well that turned out, you need only go a couple of miles along the shore, to Salò. This was the town which lent its name to a rump republic set up in 1943, the last gasp of Fascist power in Italy, and to the 1976 Pasolini film which burlesqued its sadistic insanity.
Amazingly there is footage of d’Annunzio at his estate, or “his odd Vittoriale sea castle” as the newsreel intertitle calls it. There may be more remarkable sights than seeing Gabriele d’Annunzio reciting Dante on a land-bound steamer in the huge estate that would become his tomb, but nothing comes to mind right now: