Getting up the nose of a poet, novelist and proto-fascist

Both the airports serving Lake Garda in northern Italy are named after poets: for Verona, you land at Valerio Catullo, for Brescia at Gabriele d'Annunzio. These are no random choices of name. The great lyric poet Gaius Valerius Catullus was born in Verona and recorded his passion for Sirmione, the peninsula on the southern end of Garda: "Hail, lovely Sirmio!" He had a house there, though it was certainly not the villa on the tip of the peninsula known as "Catullus's grotto". The ruins of that are worth a visit, even so, and you can enjoy the view over the lake towards the mountains, which has probably not changed much since Catullus celebrated it.

Some two thousand years later, the poet, novelist, playwright, proto-Fascist and self-publicist d'Annunzio set up home on the western shore of the lake, overlooking the town of Gardone Riviera. If little of Catullus remains at Sirmione, there is almost too much of d'Annunzio in Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, the complex of houses and gardens where he lived for 17 years until his death in 1938. In 1924, he bequeathed the estate to the Italian people and persuaded Mussolini to bear some of the refurbishment costs, including the gift of the prow of the warship Puglia, which was hauled up from the lake and incorporated into the hillside. D'Annunzio would fire salutes from its cannon.

You don't need to know much about d'Annunzio to enjoy a visit to Il Vittoriale. The views from the park across Lake Garda are splendid, there is lots to see in the park and d'Annunzio was an obsessive collector, so the place is full of objects that are interesting in themselves: the biplane in which he flew over Vienna in 1918 distributing leaflets, an anti-submarine boat, an open-air theatre, a mausoleum, two vintage cars - and the Puglia's front half. But since all this reflects the personality of the man, it makes better sense if you know something about him, so part of the main complex of buildings includes a cinema, with a biographical film.

This year is the 140th anniversary of d'Annunzio's birth (he was born on 12 March). He was a leading figure in late 19th-century Italian literature, with some fine poetry and novels in which there is a strong element of fin de siècle decadence. But he was never just a pen-pusher. He had a series of mistresses, including a long affair with the actress Eleanora Duse and brief flings with dancer Isadora Duncan and numerous others. He loved taking risks, so he eagerly embraced the inventions of the automobile and the flying machine. During the First World War, he commanded a torpedo boat, then flew planes, losing the sight in one eye in an accident. His most notorious exploit came in 1919, when he seized the disputed port of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) with a group of partisans and held it for more than a year. Young Benito Mussolini was impressed.

Entering La Prioria, d'Annunzio's house at Il Vittoriale, is like climbing inside the man's head. You go up a steep staircase - the nose, as it were, divided by a pillar at the top. During his lifetime intimate friends went to the left of the pillar and ordinary visitors to the right, into an antechamber where Mussolini was famously kept waiting on the poet's pleasure. When you have a bad tooth, Mussolini remarked on another occasion, you either pull it out or cover it in gold. D'Annunzio proved too famous to pull out.

The poet was photophobic, so the light is dim. The interior resembles something between a curiosity shop, a high-class brothel and an opium den - a fairly accurate reflection of the d'Annunzian mind (though he preferred cocaine). There are thousands of books, carpets, ornaments, sculptures, paintings and curios, heavy in art nouveau ornamentation and scarlet plush. The greatest delights, in this temple to literature, art, religion, eroticism and war, are the least expected: a true hypochondriac's medicine cupboard, the surprisingly modern blue bathroom, and the steering wheel from the motor boat in which Sir Henry Segrave died attempting the world water speed record in 1930. And decorating most of the rooms are mottos which d'Annunzio coined, such as "Non nisi grandia canto" ("I only sing great things") and "Memento audere semper" ("Always remember to dare"). A day at Il Vittoriale is a operatic experience, a dizzying ride between the ridiculous and the sublime.

The gardens at Il Vittoriale are open daily except Mondays from 8.30am to 8pm (April-September) and 9am to 5pm (October-March). The Prioria is open (guided visits only) from 10am to 6pm in spring and summer, and from 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm (October-March). You can telephone Il Vittoriale at 00 39 0365 296511, or visit the website at Entry to gardens and Prioria costs €11 (about £7.60). Take the train from Brescia or Verona to Desenzano, then a bus outside the railway station for Gardone. There are two restaurants near the entrance to the park. The best biography of d'Annunzio in English is John Woodhouse's 'Gabriele d'Annunzio, Defiant Archangel' (OUP, £25)