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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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
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: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine