GUARDIAN OF THE PATRIMONY OF A SUPERMAN. Giordano Bruno Guerri is an Italian writer, journalist, and historian. He is an important scholar of twentieth-century Italy, in particular of the Fascist period and the relationship between Italians and the Catholic Church. He is president of the Fondazione Vittoriale degli Italiani, a hillside estate in the town of Gardone Riviera overlooking Lake Garda in the province of Brescia, Lombardy. It is where the Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio lived until his death in 1938.
Giordano Bruno Guerri, for how many years have you been president of the Fondazione Vittoriale degli Italiani?
It will be thirteen in October.
Gabriele d’Annunzio was a legendary, unique person who sequestered himself at Il Vittoriale. Why did D’Annunzio he do so, and what is it about his home that makes it so famous?
This is the only home that D’Annunzio owned in his life. He built it where there was an old farmhouse with a bit of garden. Over seventeen years he turned it into ten hectares of park, with 3,000 square metres of inside space containing 20,000 objects and 33,000 of his books. He built Il Vittoriale as a monument to himself. His history is also the history of Italy, specifically, the history of World War I and the Endeavour of Fiume, a self-proclaimed state in the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) led by d’Annunzio between 1919 and 1920. D’Annunzio came here right after the Endeavour of Fiume, so also after his heroic acts in World War I that made him famous throughout the world, such as the Bakar Mockery and the Flight over Vienna. He would conquer a city without firing a shot, much like a Renaissance-era mercenary captain. In Fiume he carried out a cultural revolution by writing an extremely modern constitution, but then the government sent him packing. He was so disgusted, he decided to retire to private life and dedicate himself to what he called “the book of living stones”. Il Vittoriale is “the book of living stones”, his final work.
Why did he choose Lake Garda?
The friends tasked with finding him a home were given two criteria: the house had to be on the water – though not on the sea; and in northern Italy. Lake Garda was an easy choice because D’Annunzio had carried out his flight training over the lake, and it seemed to him to be “…as shimmering as the silk stockings of a lady.” With him there’s always a sexual reference.
What is Il Vittoriale today?
Il Vittoriale is not only a memory of D’Annunzio and that era, but also a cultural powerhouse that carries out many activities. It holds many events, for example, not just our festival but also Elisabetta Sgarbi’s La Milanesiana, and the Verona Beauty Festival; it is home to conventions and conferences, promotes many different studies, acquires documents and works of art.
“D’Annunzio’s remembered for his life. He loved luxury, women, gambling, and dogs, and he was debt ridden.”
Giordano Bruno Guerri, is Il Vittoriale a private or a state museum?
It is a foundation that has been privatized. When I got here I began the bureaucratic process of privatizing it, which all of the governments since the 1980s had been asking foundations to do in order to save money. By privatizing I gave up public funding, but it’s easier to manage, with a more streamlined board of directors and fewer public restrictions. I have to say it’s been a success because Il Vittoriale has had a surplus, meaning we make money.
How do you make money?
With tickets. In 2019, before the pandemic, we had almost 300,000 visitors. The current ticket price is 16 euros so it is easy to do the maths. That’s enough to pay for 43 employees and quite a lot of maintenance.
What does a visit to Il Vittoriale entail?
The ten hectares of park are wonderful. In 2012, we were recognized as having the most beautiful park in Italy. As well as D’Annunzio’s home and the battlecruiser boat that he owned there are various museums, many of which were opened by me, putting all of D’Annunzio’s private things on display, from jewels to dishes to clothing to robes. Then there’s the Museo L’Automobile è Femmina, with his three splendid cars. First and foremost there’s the Fiat T4, an imposing car that he drove into Fiume triumphantly. This is a car that only he, Agnelli, and the king had. When D’Annunzio wanted to impress someone, he’d have them picked up in this car. Then there’s the Isotta Fraschini, which is an extraordinary car, indescribably beautiful, that he called “La Papessa”; and recently we also got his Alfa Romeo “Soffio di Satana”, one of only three manufactured. There is an interesting story behind this car, known as “Satan’s Breath”, that was the last car D’Annunzio bought:- In 1945, many believed that D’Annunzio was a Fascist, a dangerous theory that I’ve debunked. They even wanted to knock down the Vittoriale and turn it into a school or a nursing home, so they made Eucardio Momigliano president here, thinking that would help destroy Il Vittoriale because Momigliano was Jewish and had been persecuted by the Fascists. However, he was a great scholar, and I’ve had a garden in the city dedicated to him. He fought every which way to save Il Vittoriale, but the state wouldn’t give him money. There were no ticket sales and a lot of expenses. At great personal risk he sold the Alfa Romeo, and could have gone to jail for it. The car disappeared, and reappeared at an auction in Florence in 2017 with a base price of 500,000 euros. Somebody bought it, but I intervened legally, based on the fact that the car should be part of the immovable property of Il Vittoriale. The judiciary brought it home. It was a wonderful act that I call a “reconquering”, allowing the Vittoriale to be as complete as it was in the times of D’Annunzio. And even better.
There’s a museum of objects and personal things, and one dedicated to automobiles. What else?
There’s the D’Annunzio Eroe museum focused on the war and the Endeavour of Fiume. There’s also a small museum which brings together a lot of forgeries. We have had to deal with many forgeries of D’Annunzio’s autograph. We found them, reported them, and those doing the forging were given the maximum penalty. The judge even made an exception by allowing us to keep the forgeries so we turned them into a nice permanent exhibition.
Who was the architect that built D’Annunzio’s home?
Giancarlo Maroni. He was a young, unknown architect from Trentino, but what he had going for him is that he had been in the war, he was wounded, he had been around Garda, and D’Annunzio knew him. His museum is called the Museo della Santa Fabbrica, which is what they called Il Vittoriale.
Where is Il Vittoriale located?
Gardone Riviera. But Maroni was from Riva del Garda, on the Trentino side. For seventeen years, he was D’Annunzio’s architect, confidante, assistant, and man Friday. He had to have a great deal of patience as you can imagine. D’Annunzio used to say of himself, “I’m the best decorator, publisher, poet, and writer.” It would not have been easy for an architect to work with him, he was very demanding. But Maroni, who is famous because he only ever worked here, was a great architect. In 1929, he built himself a house here at Il Vittoriale that was never open to the public, and in the 1980s it became the quarters for the presidents of the foundation. I lived there for twelve years, and then I “evicted” myself – even if it was painful for me to do so because it is such a fascinating house. It is called the Casseretto because it is built like the cassero (bridgehouse) of a boat, full of hiding places for books, drawings, and works by Giancarlo Maroni, with his objects, his clothing, his drawings, and all of the things that were found.
Your foundation survives off ticket sales. What impact did the pandemic have?
Before we had almost 300,000 visitors. In 2020, we had 113,700. But the good news is that at the end of August we surpassed that number, so we are seeing growth again.
“Despite all of the stories about his vices, I believe that what he loved the most was to write, study, and sit at his desk.”
Giordano Bruno Guerri , you won the Prix Médicis for your biography of Curzio Malaparte, another writer who left behind a legendary house?
And my book has just been reprinted in Italy. It’s coming out again with Tascabili Bompiani.
The Villa Malaparte in Capri is quite a status symbol. It was used in Godard’s famous 1963 film, “Le Mépris” (“Contempt”). Many artists and architects have visited this extraordinary home and the same goes for D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale. What makes D’Annunzio so fascinating? He wasn’t particularly handsome but he had many women. He was full of debts but he lived like a king. Today, we don’t have anyone like Malaparte or D’Annunzio.
No. I think there is a link between Malaparte and D’Annunzio: Malaparte is the most D’Annunzio-like of the writers of the twentieth century. D’Annunzio was a Renaissance-era genius who found himself in the period between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He could take on everything from war to love, from poetry to literature, from innovation to marketing. He was an innovator, but his life is his masterpiece. This is why D’Annunzio’s name has a certain allure and why he’s remembered, not so much for his literary works but for his life. At that time, he was considered unscrupulous because he loved luxury, women, gambling, and dogs, and he was debt ridden. So a debauched lifestyle according to how the small-minded, provincial bourgeoisie saw things in Italy in the nineteenth century. However, if we look at D’Annunzio’s story through modern eyes, he’s our contemporary because today we all live the way he did. We have debts, sexual freedom, we like to break the rules, each of us in our own individual way. He was truly ahead of his times.
What does it mean to be D’Annunzio-like?
It means excess, being many things and a lot. It’s a full life, and desires met without shame or limits. I see a link among D’Annunzio, Malaparte, and even Pasolini. They are three men of letters who took action. D’Annunzio invented the figure of the intellectual who took action, taking on politics. He launched a campaign to defend cultural heritage.
Pasolini also had a tower, then he had a house built with the writer Alberto Moravia, using architect Dante Ferretti. There’s always this thing of leaving a house behind?
For a writer, it’s a place to keep one’s works.
D’Annunzio had a strong relationship with Mussolini. Was he a Fascist?
D’Annunzio considered himself a superman, so he couldn’t have belonged to a party or an ideology. What’s more, Fascism clashed with his sense of aesthetics. He never spoke of black shirts. He talked about “sordid” shirts. He loved children, but he hated seeing them dressed as Fascist youth. He denounced the regime publicly and privately more times than can be counted. He respected Mussolini as the demiurge he could never be. First, D’Annunzio wanted to annex Fiume from Italy and then wanted to bring Italy to Fiume. There was definitely no love lost between these two men, so much so that when Mussolini was told on the phone that D’Annunzio had died, he replied, “Finally.” D’Annunzio accepted praise from the regime because he was vain. He even accepted money from Mussolini to make Il Vittoriale.
Mussolini paid for Il Vittoriale?
Mussolini gave the equivalent of five million euros, which seems like a lot, but it’s not much if you consider that, today, with five million you can buy a nice house with a little swimming pool on Lake Garda, but here we have a priceless heritage property full of objects, land, history, that provides employment for dozens of people. It maintains the economy of a town, is a cultural force. Mussolini got a deal.
D’Annunzio had debts because he spent a lot, but didn’t he also earn a lot too?
He earned a lot. He was paid handsomely. Keep in mind that Nocturne, a masterpiece finished here in the Vittoriale, sold 50,000 copies in its first print run in 1921, which would be a lot today and was a smashing success at the time. An American publisher gave him an advance of $1 million to write a biography that he never wrote. He kept the money, and the American publisher had to try to get it from Arnoldo Mondadori (D’Annunzio’s Italian publisher) who showed up here at the Vittoriale unannounced. D’Annunzio sent a note out to the gate that said, “Do you have 500,000 lire? If not, go away.” He liked to play with money, to run up debts. That’s how he had fun. He actually bought Il Vittoriale with a mortgage he never paid off.
To whom did he leave the Vittoriale when he died?
In 1923, Il Vittoriale was donated to the Italian state by D’Annunzio, so Mussolini was authorized to finance the work. But he never managed to see it finished, as depicted in the film The Bad Poet, shot here at the Vittoriale covering the last two years of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s life, where he showed all of his hostility toward the Nazis and disdain for the alliance between Italy and Germany. What greatly bothered him in that final period, beyond that alliance, is that they weren’t giving him the money to finish the amphitheatre. I’m quite proud to say that I was able to finish the amphitheatre in 2019, paving it in very expensive red Veronese marble just as he wanted, at great cost. And now Il Vittoriale is finished.
Are D’Annunzio’s plays put on in the amphitheatre?
Yes, but most of all, there are concerts that attract large crowds. Due to the pandemic, this year we only had Italian artists, but everyone has been here: De Gregori, Baglioni, Nannini, Paolo Conte, Battiato. We’ve had international artists too, like Joan Baez, Lou Reed, and Keith Jarrett. The festival held at Il Vittoriale is now considered one of the most important in Italy.
The theatre at Il Vittoriale
Gian Carlo Maroni
“We also have D’Annunzio’s DNA thanks to one of his lovers.”
Giordano Bruno Guerri , how do you still have time to work on your own writing projects?
Thankfully, I like working more than anything in the world, so I don’t mind it, and I work a lot. Typically, I write in the evening and into the night. I write and study. I’m just beginning a book so it’s not worth talking about, but I’m also rewriting and updating some of my books. Now I’m working on my least successful book, ‘Eretico e profeta’, the book on Ernesto Buonaiuti that was unlucky enough to come out on 11 September 2001. Nobody knows about him because people would like him to be forgotten. Buonaiuti was a very pious, very cultured priest, the head of Italian modernism, in other words the school of thought that aimed to renew Catholicism. So he was excommunicated, and in the worst way – a vitandus, which meant that no good Christian could speak to him. He wasn’t just shunned from the church but was cast out from his role at the university teaching about the history of Christianity.
When was this?
We are talking about the 1920s. At the beginning of the 1930s he was still teaching the history of Christianity, and he was one of eleven professors that refused to pledge loyalty to Fascism. Eleven out of 11,000. This is something crazy, and he lost his job over it. He lived out the rest of his life in poverty and, after the war, all of the professors who hadn’t pledged loyalty got their jobs back except for him, because he was against communism and the Christian Democrats. He was persecuted for life, and the church wanted his memory cancelled out despite the fact that he’d written extraordinary books. The irony is that his ideas were partially adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1962; John XXIII had been with him at the seminary. Now we have a Jesuit pope. It was the Jesuits who persecuted him. Now we have a Jesuit, modernist pope that is doing everything Buonaiuti advocated for.
Was he ever redeemed?
No, Francis has never even mentioned him, but he knows all about him. I think that one day he will be redeemed. My first book on him was very heavy and took on theological issues. In order to raise more awareness about him, I’m writing something more streamlined, with more of a narrative, so that a wider audience can learn about this extraordinary man.
Have you devoted your life to study and writing and rewriting your books?
I also have a family I love very much, with two wonderful children and my beloved wife.
You said that you really enjoy working a lot. Did D’Annunzio also work a lot?
D’Annunzio worked sixteen, twenty hours per day. He’d stay closed up in his study where nobody could get in. Despite all of the stories about his vices, I believe that what he loved the most was to write, study, and sit at his desk. But his life will always be fascinating.
He had an exciting life that many could only dream about, but he most certainly irritated some of his contemporaries?
To quote Malaparte again, he said “Italian writers hate me because I’m thirty centimetres taller than they are.” D’Annunzio was not thirty centimetres taller. Actually, he was shorter. But he had a much better life, so his colleagues disliked him for that.
Was he ever nominated for awards or prizes?
Even if he was offered them, he’d refuse. He also refused Carducci’s tenured position at the University of Bologna. But the funny thing is, if Pascoli was offered 100 lire for an article, D’Annunzio was offered 300. For many years he wrote for Corriere della Sera. His articles, especially in 1914 and 1915, contributed to Italy taking part in the war. He had that kind of following.
Did he also have friends?
Maroni was a friend. Then there was his secretary Tom Antongini. Claude Debussy the composer was a friend; Paolo Michetti the painter was a friend. Those who worked for and with him were friends. His male friends were almost exclusively tied to work. His real friends were all women.
Who were the most important women in D’Annunzio’s life?
First and foremost, Eleonora Duse.
Are there documents and photos at the Vittoriale of his women?
We have more than we know what to do with. While searching through the archives, I found a letter from a Venetian noblewoman lover from the war period, a letter and a ripped handkerchief that had been used, but not to blow his nose. I went to the carabinieri and asked for D’Annunzio’s DNA. They said it wasn’t possible after 100 years, but they would try. And they were successful. It ended up in scientific journals. So we also have D’Annunzio’s DNA thanks to one of his lovers. Legend has it that I’m raising twenty little D’Annunzios in a secret house in order to make them guides, but of course this isn’t true. So what is D’Annunzio’s DNA useful for? Five hundred years ago, doctors that carried out autopsies to study the human body were condemned to death because it was believed that the body shouldn’t be touched so it could be resurrected. If we hadn’t had these heroic doctors who risked their lives, we’d still be dying at age forty. We have no idea what will happen in 500 years. Cloning isn’t possible today, but it may be one day, and in the meantime, we’ve got the DNA.
If Duse was the most famous of his women, who else?
There was Ida Rubinstein, the great ballerina; and Duse’s rival, Sarah Bernhardt, the French stage actress. These are perhaps the most famous. Then so many noblewomen; many of whom went wild for him, were cut off from their families and ended up in convents because their love for him was so intense and devastating.
What kind of family man was he?
He had three sons with his wife, and a daughter that resulted from an affair with a Sicilian princess. He took care of them, or at least, he made sure they were not poor. Quite the contrary! He sent all of them to the private Cicognini National Boarding School, but when he realized they weren’t worthy heirs, he said, “I should have produced more books and fewer children.” I must confess that I would say just the opposite: “I should have produced more children and fewer books.”
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