If one were to think of a visual representation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s character and artistic inclinations, an appropriate illustration would undoubtedly be a bronze statue crafted in 1906 by his friend Clemente Origo, depicting a centaur wrestling and subduing a stag by the antlers. As Lucy Hughes-Hallett explains in her fantastic biography of the Italian writer, The Pike, this image can be seen as a metaphor for D’Annunzio’s engagement with literary tradition, which he mastered, conquered and bent to his very own artistic design.
Born in the coastal city of Pescara, D’Annunzio spent his life in Rome, Naples, France and ultimately settled in the Lombard town of Gardone Riviera, where he built a massive palace-cum-amphitheater, overlooking the Garda Lake, called “Vittoriale degli Italiani”. Associated to an ever-evolving and experimental literary style, just as fascinating as his own life, full of debts and contentious love affairs, the author was first and foremost a brilliant self-publicist, as he constantly sought to be under the spotlight. At the age of 16, for example, after the publication of his first collections of poems, “Primo Vere”, he faked reports of his own death, hoping to gain wider recognition. In 1914, he committed to a vigorous support of Italy’s intervention in the first World War. Having already praised the country’s military initiatives in Libia and Turkey in his collection of poems Canzoni delle Gesta d’Oltremare, he offered strong support to interventionist groups, both via his literary output, by composing Canti della Guerra Latina, via imperious public speeches, held on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, and via symbolic gestures, such as the flight over Trieste, when he dropped propaganda leaflets on the city. Soon after the war, in 1919, disappointed with the proposed handing over of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), whose population was mostly Italian, D’Annunzio occupied the city with 2000 men, imposed a blockade and ultimately declared it an independent state, having carefully drafted its own constitution, which, to a large extent, anticipated many themes commonly associated to the Italian fascist system.
The complexity and diversity of the author’s life is clearly reflected in the amalgamation of a number of literary styles in his prose. His first experiments are close to Naturalism. The nature of this association is quite intuitive: during the second half of the XIX century, positivism rapidly grew to be Italy’s leading philosophical climate. The problems of the country after the unification, social inequalities, economic disparity and cultural fragmentation were certainly perceived as urgent, but were generally countered by a strong belief in the speeding technological and scientific progress. Consequently, a rejection of all metaphysical, idealistic or religious tendencies of previous literary currents took place and writers sought to elaborate a much more scientific and realistic style.
D’Annunzio, however, soon rebelled against the cold, impersonal canons of naturalism, proposing a rehabilitation of passions: lust, love, heroism, animosity, courage, fear, pleasure, were seen as necessary tools to voice and actively engage with the social inequalities and cultural fragmentation plaguing Italy at the end of the XIX century, in plan contrast with naturalism, relegating them to the background of the fictional world, if not excluding them at all.
D’Annunzio’s adherence to literary decadentism, therefore, is neither a matter of sheer chance, nor a “nostalgic return” to the romantic ideals the author grew up with, but a deliberate attempt at swimming against the mainstream. Decadent tendencies first emerged in the author’s first full-length novel, Il Piacere (1898), where a very sensual subject matter and “colourful” prose are adopted to narrate episodes of the life of Andrea Sperelli. The protagonist already begins to prefigure the traits of that aesthetic superomism, which will characterize D’Annunzio’s literary output until 1900, positing extensive attention on the poverty of rural areas of the country and economic inequalities, and countering them, at the same time, with the praise of the ancient Roman glory, its heroes and aristocracy.
Decadentism and the cult of the past, however, were evidently not enough for the author: in 1891 he admittedly was on the lookout for a new style. This quest inevitably entailed the appropriation of foreign literary elements. Much as, during the 1880s, he developed a fascination for Russian literature, to such an extent that the character of Giovanni Episcopo in the eponymous novel is often seen as a derivative of Marmeladov of Dostoevskij’s “Crime and Punishment”, D’Annunzio’s post-1891 novels are profoundly illustrative of his discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche. He encountered the works of the German philosopher in 1892 and read some of his texts in a French translation by Henri Albert, appeared in Mercure de France. Nietzschean Superomism seemed to be a suitable alternative to enhance his aversion to post-risorgimental Italy, as it constituted a philosophical basis on which he could develop arguments in favor of political aristocracy, heroism and imperialism.
Already in the short essay of 1892, La Bestia Elettiva, D’Annunzio points at democratic ideals and universal suffrage as the causes of contemporary decadence and cultural fragmentation, arguing that the extension of the right to vote “was invented with extraordinary foresight in order to strip the populace of their rights”. Systematically referring to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and his views on master and slave morality, D’Annunzio concludes that the majority of the population, the “plebs”, “will always be a slave and fated to suffer”. Unlike the “plebs”, however, the aristocracy, the “autocracy of consciousness”, is composed of free men and “sooner or later, will always regain the reins of power”, thanks to its “personal nobility”. This is because he believes that the “free man, stronger than things, is convinced that personality – in itself – exceeds any accessory attribute” and is able to sever the ties with slave morality exclusively thanks to the “self-governing force” of one’s own will. Based on this premise, the author presents his own vision of the future, characterized by a dramatic split between a superior and an inferior race: “Men will be divided into two races. To the superior race, which shall have risen by the pure energy of its will, all shall be permitted; to the lower, nothing or very little. The greatest sum of well-being shall go to the privileged, whose personal nobility will make them worthy of all privileges”.
From the 1894 novel Il Trionfo della Morte onwards, Nietzschean themes are increasingly prominent in D’Annunzio’s poetics: already in the book’s prefatory letter, the protagonist is compared to “the Numidian king Syphax and the last Macedonian king, the cruel Perseus”; later in the novel, the “marvelous and terrible spectacle” of the Italian countryside, “so violent and incongruous that it exceeded the most troubled dreams of nightmare”, is juxtaposed to the hope to witness the coming of the Overman, a “being superior to man, the ideal form, toward which the species tends in continuous ascension”.
Yet, Il Trionfo della Morte can also illustrate the differences between D’Annunzio and Nietzsche’s Overmen: the author’s intention to craft a “work of beauty and poetry”, coupled with the passionate praise of Richard Wagner at the end of the story contribute to an understanding of this character as merely functional to art. This intuition ought to be seen in plan contrast to the prospected creation of a new morality, as illustrated by Nietzsche in a section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled Old and New Tables.
The 1895 novel Le Vergini delle Rocce further consolidates the dichotomy between D’Annunzio’s Overman, on the one hand, turned toward the heroic affirmation of past glory, and Nietzsche’s, on the other, stretching toward the future overcoming of humanity. The protagonist of the book, for example, perceives the Overman to be the perpetuation of an ancient Roman genus: “I firmly believe that the greatest height of power in the future will be that which shall have its base and its apex in Rome; for I, a Latin, glory in having set at the head of my faith the mystical truth expressed by the poet; It is certain that Nature disposed one place in the world to be suitable for universal empire, and that that place is Rome”. For Zarathustra, instead, the Overman embodies the vision of a future distinct from man’s past and its traditions: “Man is a rope, stretched between beast and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss”. And as the protagonist of Le Vergini identifies his goal as the transformation of his energy into “living poetry”, fuelled by “the sensibility and the thought of a few superior men”, one can undoubtedly distinguish a certain degree of continuity in D’Annunzio’s prose: Much as Il Trionfo della Morte prefigures superomism as an aesthetic concept, Le Vergini delle Rocce cements it as a form of intellectual elitism, by turning the aristocratic contempt toward post-Risorgimento bourgeoisie into a vision of a cultural avant-garde.
This is particularly evident in the 1900 novel Il Fuoco, in which the aristocratic cult of the past, cultural elitism and sensationalism depict the coming of the Overman as an artistic process: “He was only translating in the rhythm of the words the visible language with which the ancient artists had already set forth, in that very spot, the prayer and aspiration of the race. Those men would now contemplate the world, for an hour at least, with different eyes; surely they would think and dream with a different soul. It was the highest benefit of beauty made manifest; it was the victory of art, the liberator, over the misery and anxiety and tedium of ordinary existence; it was one of those happy intervals in which the stabs of necessity and pain seem to cease and the clenched hand of destiny slowly to relax its hold”. Perhaps, the final scene of the book, when the protagonist is seen carrying Richard Wagner’s coffin in Venice, can serve as a counterweight to Origo’s centaur and stag: D’Annunzio’s hero, thanks to his noble origin, his willpower and ambition, is able to create a new artistic paradigm, capable of overcoming the perceived insufficiencies of the decadent contemporary cultural landscape and affirm the superiority of his genus over the dying spirit of German art.
The paradigm of the D’Annunzian Overman can be subject to a number of readings: from a ‘political’ standpoint, this character can be depicted as a forerunner, albeit constrained to the realm of art, of a nationalist feeling which will eventually fall into the experience of fascism. At the same time, a literary understanding of this character will undoubtedly show the author’s remarkable talent in amalgamating several currents of European literature. However, it is from a philosophical point of view that this Overman appears rather vacuous, constituting little more than a rhetorical device to amplify D’Annunzio’s own political and aesthetic views. Il Superuomo is certainly a great artist, but fundamentally non-moral and, consequently, no Nietzschean Übermensch.
© Alessandro De Arcangelis, 2015
(Modified from the author’s MA dissertation: “The Centaur and the Stag: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Presence in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Poetics”)