You need to create your life the way you create an artwork.
Mr. Guerri is President of the Foundation “Il Vittoriale degli Italiani” on the Gardone Riviera. He is in London during the week of the 2015 Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show for a reception organised by members and friends of Grandi Giardini Italiani, a network of fine Italian gardens.
Why are you here?
Because the Vittoriale belongs to the Grandi Giardini Italiani network, and in 2012 it won a prize for the most beautiful Italian park. I am not the owner of the Parco del Vittoriale, but in the important writer Gabriele D’Annunzio’s will it’s written that his estate, including his royalty rights, belong to the Fondazione del Vittoriale. Past presidents were half-jokingly called “D’Annunzio’s widows”.
Did the garden have an important place in the poet’s life?
Yes, because he really loved nature, and he didn’t want to have neighbours around. And so, little by little, he bought ten hectares of land. More than a garden, it’s a true park. Like all along Lake Garda, which had so enchanted Goethe, there are lemon trees, palm trees, and olive trees. D’Annunzio also made an open-air museum dedicated to the First World War in the park. There are enormous rocks from all fronts where fighting took place in Italy, and then there are cannons and a torpedo boat from the incident known as the “Bakar mockery.” We even have the biplane D’Annunzio used in his famous flight over Vienna distributing leaflets. And, most importantly, we have the warship “Puglia”, a cruiser from the First World War complete with cannon, which he had taken apart. He took it up on a hill over Garda and had it embedded in the hillside. It has been there for ninety years.
As president of the foundation, do you oversee the gardens?
I have a poisonous thumb! But I have a great team of gardeners, and I’ve carried out two main initiatives. The first was to enrich the garden with works of contemporary art, such as Mimmo Paladino’s “Cavallo Blu”, Arnaldo Pomodoro’s “Obelisco”, or Velasco Vitali’s “I Cani”, and now a Proust Chair by Alessandro Mendini who created a special version dedicated to D’Annunzio in a shade of “violato”, a soft purple hue invented by the poet. Mendini says that this colour has managed to bring together Proust and D’Annunzio who met in Paris in 1910 but who obviously didn’t like one another. I also had them fill in the valley under the “Puglia” ship. It had been closed since 1938 and had become an impenetrable forest. There are two streams – the “stream of crazy water” and “the stream of silent water”, which end in a little lake shaped like a violin.
You have been in charge of the foundation for eight years, and have written two books on D’Annunzio – “The Warrior Lover” and “My Carnal Life”. Why are you so fascinated with this famous and much-discussed poet?
Because of his life, which was a masterpiece. He’s a man who used to say, “You need to create your life the way you create an artwork.” It’s a phrase taken from his first novel “Pleasure” which he wrote at age twenty five in 1888 (a new English translation has just come out, published by Penguin America). I like to say D’Annunzio is a man who not only managed to fulfill all of his fantasies, but he also was able to make other men dream about his fantasies. He influenced the culture and social lives of Italians and many Europeans for half a century. He died the year they announced the racial laws, in 1938.
What did he think about the alliance with Hitler?
He died in March, and the laws were announced in the autumn, so he didn’t know. When Hitler came to power, he wrote a poem defining Hitler as a dauber with his head dirty with whitewash. And he last left the Vittoriale in 1937 to meet Mussolini who was returning from his first trip to Germany to meet Hitler. D’Annunzio went to Verona and stopped Mussolini’s train to tell him he shouldn’t make an alliance with Hitler. Unfortunately, Mussolini didn’t listen.
Did politics have an important role in his life?
It did during the times of nationalism. At the beginning of the 20th Century – and then with interventionism – he played a determining role with his fiery speeches spurring Italy to enter the war. Then he became a hero. He enlisted as a volunteer at age fifty-two and then after the war acted as a sort of Renaissance warlord and occupied the city of Fiume, which the Versailles accord didn’t want to hand over to Italy. He held Fiume for sixteen months (the only poet in charge of a state in the history of humanity). He came up with a constitution, one of the most advanced of the 20th Century. For example, it said that women could be elected at the same time they were still talking about women being allowed to vote around the world. He became a cocaine addict in Fiume also because Fiume was a city with no rules. It was like a little preview of 1968. Everything was allowed – sex, homosexuality, drugs were rampant, and at that time, cocaine wasn’t prohibited.
With whom did D’Annunzio live?
It was at the beginning of his romantic relationship with Luisa Bàccara, a Venetian pianist who stayed with him until his death. But there was a curious thing about that.
In 1922 she pushed him out the window because D’Annunzio, who was a sex maniac and a great seducer, was messing about with one of Baccara’s sisters. He always had the most beautiful women at his feet. From the time Baccara pushed him out the window, which he defined as “the flight of the archangel”, he never touched her again. That incident perhaps changed the course of history in Italy because, three days later, he was to have met with Mussolini to convince him not to march on Rome. And he might have been successful because, at that time, he was the most popular man in Italy, and perhaps one of the most popular in the world. In 1921, the Fascist leaders went to ask him to take Mussolini’s place, while Antonio Gramsci had just founded the Communist Party in 1921 and asked him to lead it.
Was D’Annunzio a man of action or a man of the pen?
He was more a man of the pen. Writing was what he loved the most in the world, and after that it was women. After the “flight of the archangel” he summoned his French governess nicknamed “Aélis” – the governess lived alongside the pianist Baccara for seventeen years, right next door to one other with a shared bathroom. But he never laid a hand on the mistress of the house, Baccara, again while the governess was called upon every evening to provide her nightly services.
How was D’Annunzio seen by other writers?
Proust, Joyce and Hofmannsthal said that he was renewing the novel and Italian poetry, and even Eugenio Montale took inspiration from him. He invented the modern intellectual who could tackle any topic. He invented the concept of “cultural heritage.”
Why did he close himself off at the Vittoriale?
Because he was disgusted by public life, and he wanted to leave behind something in stone, beyond just his military exploits and literary works. There are three-thousand square metres inside. By law, the house where he lived can’t be touched. He stopped time and achieved his goal of stopping time on 1 March, 1938, when he died.
Why was he not very much loved either as an intellectual or as a man?
He was loved and hated like all successful men. He was a star that was so loved and hated that after the war he was erased for at least thirty years.
Why was he linked to Fascism?
He accepted to be adulated by Fascism, and also because in Fiume he had invented some rituals and legendary behaviours that Mussolini coopted. For example, the speech given from the balcony or the glorification of those who had died in war. He was an incredibly generous man, and at the entrance of the Vittoriale there’s one of his most famous mottos: “I have what I’ve given.” He was also very rich. Publishing houses threw money at him, and even Mussolini gave him money. He gave him twenty million euros for the Vittoriale. All in all, that wasn’t that much. Perhaps the value of his collection of thirty-three thousand books. The economy of the Vittoriale and with its visitors, maintains an entire town – Gardone Riviera. There are forty-seven employees of the foundation, two hundred thousand visitors who pay sixteen euros per ticket. It is one of the very few museums that earns money without asking the government for a cent.
Have biographies of illustrious, interesting men always been a passion of yours?
Yes, because telling about a special life always makes for a wonderful story. And I choose people who haven’t been done justice.
May 18th, 2015
Colour photos by Marco Beck Peccoz unless otherwise stated.