Il Vittoriale: A lakeside fantasy fit for a libertine

As daredevil 'poet-soldier' and proto-Fascist Gabriele D'Annunzio hits the headlines once more, Nick Bruno tours his strange former home

On the wilder Lombard (western) shore of Lake Garda, monolithic slabs of beige Botticino marble cluster atop a hill. From this circular mausoleum platform can be seen a very strange citadel. Below are cypress-studded garden terraces, an open-air theatre and a sprawling honey-stuccoed country pile with dark recesses. Metallic masts, foghorns and guns aboard the prow of First World War warship Puglia float in the tree canopy. Beyond this fantastical landscape, with its bombastic interventions and collections of art and artillery, the shimmering lake lies calm.

This is Il Vittoriale, the final home of Gabriele D'Annunzio, the daredevil "poet-soldier", philanderer and proto-Fascist who created this lakeside fantasy, inspiring Mussolini and many megalomaniacs since.

Last week Lucy Hughes-Hallett's biography of D'Annunzio, The Pike, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Her book certainly opens up D'Annunzio's life to the English-speaking world, but no reading would be complete without a visit to his home, playground, museum and national monument to the cult of personality.

Born in Pescara in 1863, the precocious poet and self-publicist launched his career in Rome, stirring up the press by announcing his own fatal fall from a horse. A literary career and the first flirtations with decadence brought initial notoriety before debt forced D'Annunzio to flee to France in 1910 where he collaborated with Debussy and wooed the dames. French writer Romain Rolland dubbed him a predatory "pike" – "afloat and still, waiting for ideas". D'Annunzio got his kicks and inspiration from sex, death and superman deeds.

The First World War started and he returned to serve in the Italian army, navy and air force, losing the sight in one eye, stoking nationalism and leading audacious missions – including a flight over Vienna dropping propaganda leaflets and a torpedo boat raid.

In 1919, he led the occupation of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) where he established the Regency of Carnaro, with himself – Il Duce (leader) – at the helm. Between 1922 and D'Annunzio's death in 1938, Mussolini and the Italian state funded the transformation of his lakeside home, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani: the Shrine of Italian Victories – mainly so that the troublesome and popular hero could be kept away from Rome and the new, shiny-scalped Il Duce demagogue.

A guided tour of Vittoriale begins under the Prioria (priory) façade, pockmarked with heraldic crests. Upon entering the mansion's gloomy rooms – photophobia made D'Annunzio avoid strong sunlight in his later years – a curator/guide briefs us. If you can read a man through his possessions and taste, then a look around Il Vittoriale leaves tangled clues of a libertine life. Some 10,000 books and 3,000 objects – many belonging to former resident of Villa Cargnacco and art historian Heinrich Thode – fill the place. D'Annunzio called it a "book of living stones".

In the entrance hall is a clue to his myth-making as the motto-loving poet and seducer. Guests are welcomed with a Latin inscription that boasts of his calling as a modern-day visionary: "I am Gabriel who stands before the gods, among the winged brothers uniquely sighted."

Each of D'Annunzio's rooms has specific function and hierarchy. Each space presents an array of symbols and artefacts carefully selected and placed. There are two waiting rooms – one for welcome guests, the other for formal visitors called the Mask Wearer's Room. Mussolini, a regular visitor, was shown the latter in 1925. The gramophone and radio here may have kept him amused.

Amid the religious iconography of the Relic Room is the broken steering wheel from the boat in which Sir Henry Segrave was killed while attempting the world water speed record. An inscription edits out lust and greed from the Seven Deadly Sins: "As there are five fingers on a hand, there are only five mortal sins." The series of bedrooms and bathrooms hosted D'Annunzio's many lovers, while a cradle/coffin-shaped bed in the Leper's Room was where D'Annunzio's body was laid in 1938.

Elsewhere in the grounds the Secret Museum displays clothes, shoes and jewellery – much of it designed by D'Annunzio for himself and his female friends, including the actress Eleonora Duse. Dressing as a dandy aesthete, he produced reams of journalism, poetry, prose and theatre. A nightgown with a boastful aperture and a pair of leather slippers stitched with phalluses make for comic relief after the Art Deco finery of Schifamondo (meaning "Escape from the World") designed by architect Maroni but never inhabited by D'Annunzio. The transatlantic liner decor here backdrops war museum documents, uniforms and the fragile-looking aircraft flown over Vienna.

Like the Futurists, D'Annunzio embraced the speed of modern technology, communications, cinema and transport: cars, planes and weaponry appear all over Il Vittoriale. The warship Puglia, a gift from the navy in the 1920s, juts into the hillside of Gardone Riviera. Below the ship's decks, that hosted D'Annunzio's parties, is a naval museum, while on the hill a mausoleum holds his remains and those of friends.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett describes D'Annunzio's relationship with the place: "Immured in his gorgeous refuge, he likens h imself to Napoleon on St Helena, to Bluebeard in his castle, to Nero the artist-tyrant, or to an ancient king, entombed with his treasure 'according to ancient rites'."

"The Pike" has struck again, still grabbing attention 150 years since his birth – and a visit to Il Vittoriale fascinates and unsettles.

'The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War,' by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, is published by Fourth Estate, £25

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) both fly to Verona from Gatwick, Monarch flies from Manchester and Jet2 flies from Manchester and, as of May next year, from Edinburgh.

Staying there

Grand Hotel Gardone reopens in April next year (00 39 0 365 20261; grandhotelgardone.it). Doubles from €235 (£196), room only.

The Tower of the Old King B&B (00 39 338 7063578; thetoweroftheoldking.it) has doubles from €85 (£71), including breakfast.

Seeing there

Il Vittoriale (00 39 0365 296511; vittoriale.it) is open year round, from 8.30am to 7pm in summer, and 9am to 4pm in winter. Tickets cost €8-€16 (£6.60-£13.20).

More information

Bresciatourism.it

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions