Five are the fingers, and five are the sins

He was a magician – a twisted Pied Piper. Murano glass is set into windows and makes up chandeliers and pomegranates. Statues of naked women broke up the gardens. The public obliged. In an act of gratuitous power-play, he dropped propaganda from planes over enemy lines, calling for civilians to awake and proclaim the good of Italy. His private bathroom contains 900 objects, including ten silver hairbrushes. Unconcerned by the drama he caused, he reappeared. The overwhelming feeling I had as I walked through the rooms was of restriction. Henry James and Marcel Proust praised his writing; James Joyce believed he was a ‘magnificent poet’. Painted a simple blue, with light wood and clearer surfaces. Mussolini gifted him a torpedo boat, which still stands on a hill above the Vittoriale. When I visited his estate in April, it felt serene. The city of Vicenza donated him a pair of Roman arches. His power came from insisting that he had power. Gabriele   D’Annunzio would never condone being ordinary. It seemed peculiar to imagine a man who had been so obsessed by risk and violence living here. I saw him here, old and slow-paced, shuffling across the paths with the many dogs he loved. The excitement! Pomegranates – a symbol of profusion – are spread, real and fake, around the house. In the years he resided at the Vittoriale he never stopped expanding it, embellishing it and isolating himself. Benito Mussolini described him as ‘the most Italian of hearts’. Or at least, there was always the idea of choice. Crowds would chant his name, and   quote lines back at him from his speeches. When the First World War struck, D’Annunzio was fascinated by the conflict. The woman was to leave in an arranged carriage, swiftly. As I reached the peak, his tomb fierce against the sky, the lake once more my horizon, I heard nothing. On the hills of Brescia, overlooking Lake Garda, stands Vittoriale degli Italiani (The Shrine of Italian Victories), the estate of Gabriele D’Annunzio, a poet, novelist, warmonger, lothario and bloodthirsty rhetoricist born in 1863.  
Gabriele D’Annunzio’s determination to be famous started early. He was publishing frequently – not just poetry but novels, tragedies, short fictions. His assertions and peculiarities only seemed to provoke allure. He was an awkward-looking man – shorter than five foot four, balding at a young age, and always wearing his glass eye after the war – and yet people were drawn to him. ‘We have no other value’, he raged, ‘but that of our blood to be shed’. In life, he played. His body deteriorated. Everything is intricate and overwhelming. What would scare others intoxicated D’Annunzio. Once he was finished, timekeeping was crucial. In September 1919 he took over Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), arriving with two thousand nationalists and occupying the city for fifteen months. Mussolini became a key funder of D’Annunzio’s lifestyle. On the left, the Waiting Room for Welcome Guests. Though D’Annunzio was one of the first in Italy to own a telephone, it sat in an alcove, rarely used. Beyond the oppression of the house, beyond the material affirmation of D’Annunzio, there was something else. He was no longer just drawing women to his bedroom, now he was sending children to the battlefields. There was a stillness. He was an early celebrity. Looking out the narrow strip window of the veranda, the light feels intrusive, the conversation of a few tourists in the square invasive. He was obsessed with overstatement, with grandeur. His children, following his instruction, addressed him as ‘maestro’. His power was in his rhetoric, and that rhetoric maintained riches. Lepers were touched by the hand of God, so naturally D’Annunzio identified with them. Vases crowd tables. The man who prototyped fascism, who tested, in deep apathy, what effects could be provoked by power and fame, grew weak. There’s always an ample choice of reading material in the Vittoriale; 33,000 books are contained in the house. He meticulously created an environment that he was comfortable in, or, and perhaps this is the same thing, meticulously created an environment that others were uncomfortable in. Shortly after he had his first poetry collection published at sixteen, he spread rumours that he had died. The regime! He stopped a bomb from going off with his bare hands. He was repugnant, and his repugnance was rewarded – with fame, with money and with sex. The door to D’Annunzio’s study is small and low, ensuring that any guest who wished to enter would have to bow their head to him as they did, an enforced reverence. In D’Annunzio’s absence, guests were to eat in moderation. It stands as a warning. D’Annunzio ensured that his guests were forced to experience how he navigated the world, isolating them just as he was isolated elsewhere. It rests at the head of the dining room table, grotesquely large, propped on an ornate rug. He dressed impeccably and rehearsed the witticisms and postures he would perform to crowds, and before the duchesses and actresses he courted. In speeches he demanded that children must be sacrificed. The wooden front door is framed by a stone arch. Each room is muffled and dimmed, anything natural stifled. He borrowed more and more money, persuading friends, influencers, lovers and publishers to send him cheques. But this serenity was disrupted as the tour guide ushered me into the entrance hall of the house and shut the door. This was not a space for others, and it feels safer, less hostile. It could be a chapel. Walls are indented with hollows, display space for yet more trinkets. The lake blue, distant, sweeping across the top of my sight as I stood on the outskirts of the amphitheatre. Picture frames cover walls. The First World War was revelatory. Large artillery shells framed the sides of paths. Calm. D’Annunzio only exaggerated his own strange entrapment. He was an atheist, but that didn’t stop him from believing he was sacred. At the age of thirteen, he wrote that his two aims in life were ‘to teach the people to love their country,’ and to ‘hate the enemies of Italy to the death’. With no inherited fortune, and only sporadic advances for his writing, D’Annunzio relied on others to fund him. He was stagnant. In The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s expansive, Samuel Johnson prize-winning biography of D’Annunzio, she writes: war brought him peace. The Marchesa Casati (an Italian heiress and, inevitably, one of D’Annunzio’s lovers) gave him a large tortoise. Sex was a cultivated ritual. On the right, for the Unwelcome. When D’Annunzio’s tortoise died from overeating, he preserved its shell, embellishing it with bronze head and feet. Stopping to look at the lake that I stood admiring then; walking around a violin-shaped pool specially built in the gardens; sitting in a room just off his bedroom alone, eating his dinner slowly, steadily, swallow by swallow. When he wrote, he would cover it with a veil. The war was his stage. Mussolini looked on as well. He cultivated an eccentric, aristocratic identity. Sacks and sacks of fan mail would arrive every week. The entrance to the Priory, the main building where D’Annunzio lived, is sharp-lined – painted yellow with white columns and a flat roof. Sparsity would never do.  
Images © Marco Beck Peccoz It was the perfect combination for D’Annunzio – exercising his love of risk in stylised performance. The leper has the face of D’Annunzio. The house – in darkness, with gridded ceilings and low, thin spaces – reeks of captivity. In some of his writing, rape is evoked with lust rather than disgust. D’Annunzio established a performance of power; he tested and perfected the manipulation of a crowd through words. D’Annunzio cared only for his own libido; he had little respect for women. At seventy-four he died of a brain haemorrhage, after twenty years at the Vittoriale, time enough to rest, to extend his already extravagant home, to walk, to read, to debauch, but not, it seems, to regret. Two entrances were ahead. He was intensely erotic and   frequently obsessed with these women, particularly those   with a sickly pallor. White, monastic stone formed arches and paths. Her beauty must not distract him. With the spark of Fascism set in the early 1920s, D’Annunzio retracted into the still hills of his estate. I, short of stature, having until this point in my life always ignored warnings to mind my head, was suddenly careening my neck, fearful of the ceiling. Modern. D’Annunzio had no hair, but the brushes are there, just like much else in the house, for their beauty, and that alone. He disagreed with the idea of seven deadly sins, for you only have five fingers, and thus the number of sins must surely correspond. Years later, Mussolini immaculately copied the Fiume constitution, down to the introduction of black-shirted followers. In the Waiting Room for the Unwelcome there is a gramophone, a radio, rich decorations and nine hundred books. In the exterior world he felt disadvantaged because of his stature, and the photophobia that left him averse to bright light. For D’Annunzio, character comes through the detail. How easily, he showed, could those packages have been bombs. This was D’Annunzio’s mantra. Mussolini, I learned, was always directed to the right. The collection, seen to be by a poet lost tragically young, took on new significance. But he inverted these disadvantages in his estate. The speeches stopped, but the writing continued. The facade is covered with fading coats of arms and shields, like a teenager’s jacket, over-adorned, badges extending far beyond the lapels. His rhetoric grew louder. He led a 700-mile round trip to Vienna in a fleet of planes – a mission seen as suicidal. For the last four years of his life, one of his lovers was, unbeknownst to him, a Nazi agent keeping him under close surveillance. As D’Annunzio aged and retired to Lake Garda, Mussolini transitioned smoothly into the space he once occupied, leaving D’Annunzio a figure of historic significance rather than one of active change. Alala!’, borrowed from the Homeric epics. Women – fans, past lovers, strangers – would travel to him and freely offer their bodies. Rugs cover carpets. Perhaps that was it. The Vittoriale, where D’Annunzio resided for the last twenty years of his life, less stands in the hills than sprawls. But when I raised my head on the other side, I was taken aback. The sound of birds was persistent but muted, as if arriving from a distance. D’Annunzio was not to interfere. Even the unwelcome guests were provided with abundant entertainment. Many items in the house are useless; meant only to impress, not to be engaged with. Not, it would seem, out of kindness, but instead, pride. Although not a strong logic, it was certainly a helpful one. This was his first taste of fame, but it was certainly not the last. There was no one else for him to call. Above the door of another room reads the words: Five are the fingers, and five are the sins. Rooms were filled with roses before lovers arrived. Thick curtains were bunched between doors, rooms separated by low corridors. The Vittoriale is closer in appearance to an antiquated theme park than the home of an aging writer. He is disturbingly pertinent still – a monumental example of how a man’s insistence can be enough to achieve anything. In one deer-skin-lined room there is a painting of Saint Sebastian touching a leper. Everything remained a performance. The estate’s grandeur is not in its large windows or broad doorways, nor the sweeping staircases, but in the way D’Annunzio compacted and added and filled every available space. As I left the house, back into the light of the garden, and wound my way up to the mausoleum to D’Annunzio’s tomb, I felt unsettled. It allowed him to erase two of his key pursuits from the list: greed and lust. It was only as I began to traverse more of the grounds that I noticed irregularities – hints of D’Annunzio’s persona. The money was an unspoken agreement. His lovers persisted, ever-renewing and overlapping, among them servants and heiresses. This was not a place where D’Annunzio marched. It was not just his character that seduced – for others, it was his work. It’s unclear what to focus on as you enter each room. Suddenly we were in darkness. It is immense: consisting of numerous villas for himself, his children and his lovers; labyrinthine paths; lakes; an amphitheatre; a mausoleum and an auditorium with a plane suspended from the ceiling. Light and sound were suppressed. He was quietly, slowly dying. But he succeeded. D’Annunzio had no empathy, no sense of repercussion. He repeated D’Annunzio’s phrases, imitated his gestures. The peace. There is too much. Poetry is written across ceilings; numerous copies of Dante and interpretations of Michelangelo appear again and again. He used power to showcase power. It seems, as you walk across the deck, as if you are sailing the sky. The bloodshed! Behind his desk is a sculpture of the head of one of his lovers. Deep brown wood lined the walls and ceiling, red carpet folded over sharp steps that led up to a stone column. Settling in as dictator, there he created the rituals that would become fascism: the saluting; the extravagant addresses made from balconies; the war cry he encouraged in response, ‘Eia, eia, eia! Unlike the rest of the house, the study was bright.