Il Vittoriale degli Italiani: a very curious monument

By | Category: Travel destinations


A panoramic view of the site. Image © Fondazione Il Vittoriale degli Italiani

Il Vittoriale degli Italiani (The Shrine of Italian Victories) is one of the most popular monuments in Italy. The home of the poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio who died in 1938, the nine-hectare site situated on the Gordone Riviera above  Lake Garda, it is also one of the most bizarre.

Visitors enter the actual house the Prioria, welcomed by a Latin inscription which sets the tone, saying as it does, ‘ I am Gabriel who stands before the gods, among the winged brothers uniquely sighted.” They then make their way via a small lobby with a room on either side: the Dalmatian Oratory where D’Annunzio greeted friends and opposite the Room of the Mask Seller, where less welcome guests, including Mussolini were received. Mussolini had been one of D’Annunzio’s editors prior to going into politics and in fact he learned much from D’Annunzio but they were never allies.

the studio

All the rooms are dimly lit because D’Annunzio had lost an eye in a flying accident and couldn’t tolerate bright light. They are also stuffed with strange decorative items including death masks, Buddhas, saintly icons, Murano glass, some 30,000 books and a miscellany of other rare objects. The atmosphere is suffocating and must have been more so in D’Annunzio’s lifetime as he kept the temperature indoors at around a stifling 40 degrees, it is said, so that he could cavort naked with his lovers.

There is a lot to see including a weird chamber known as The Room of the Leper which contains a narrow bed which is both a cradle and a coffin filled with earth from Fiume in which D’Annunzio wanted to be laid out when dead; the Room of the Relics which is packed with icons and images of many faiths; the dining room where the gilded body of his pet tortoise (which died from overeating) dominates the dining table; his bedroom; which is called the Stanza de Leda, a reference to Jove’s rape of Leda as a swan.

Each item in these rooms is probably a costly treasure which to D’Annunzio had a symbolic meaning but I found any potential aesthetic impact buried in the overall clutter. On top of that, the rooms are surprisingly small and low-ceilinged considering the size of the house. The only simple, unadorned room is the kitchen which of course D’Annunzio rarely entered.

one of three torpedo boats with which D’Annunzio attacked the Austro-Hungarians

Gabriele D’Annunzio was born in Pescara in 1863 to a bourgeois family. He was a brilliantly clever boy who published poetry while still at school and at 16 wrote to his parents in six languages. He launched his career in Rome by announcing his own death from a fall from a horse.  He swiftly became a lauded poet and writer, his ego growing exponentially with his fame – in fact he soon claimed to the greatest Italian writer since Dante.

Although he was small and slight, he was daring and fearless. He loved modernity, fast cars and planes and in WW1 he was first a mascot and  later in command of a squadron of Caproni bombers, at one time 36 of them, for which he was decorated.  His activities were always controversial; he relished fighting and gloried in the idea that a great nation was created with the spilled blood of martyrs.

Gardone Riviera dining room in Vittoriale

One of his best-known campaigns involved trying to regain the Adriatic city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) for Italy. He proclaimed the ‘Italian Regency of Carnaro’ with himself as overall commander and made his first broadcast to the world from Marconi’s ship the Electra. Ultimately however, his Fiume campaign failed although in 1924 it did become part of Italy and D’Annuzio was created Prince of Monte Nevoso; delighted, he lost no time in having a new coat of arms designed.

He was a narcissist, a spendthrift, and a cocaine user. On the other hand he loved flowers, planted some 10,000 roses, designed clothes and made his own perfume. He had many odd ideas and fetishes. He was obsessed with St Francis – he loved animals and had horses and dozens of greyhounds and great danes. He was also obsessed with Saint Sebastian and his arrow wounds. He enjoyed visiting hospitals and preferred his women pale and ill, for in spite of being described by the courtesan Liane de Pougy, as “ a gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth and bad breath…” plenty of other women fell for him.

the mausoleum

He  married but had dozens of mistresses including the famous actress Eleonora Duse not forgetting his housekeeper, known as Aelis who doubled as his domestic  concubine when no one else  was available. We know all this because D’Annunzio was an inveterate note-taker and letter writer and he wrote very frankly about his most intimate activities.

He undoubtedly had enormous charisma for as well as seducing women with ease he was able to seduce crowds with his oratory. His vanity and egotism knew no bounds he was self-promotion personified.  All this is reflected in the Vittoriale  which is effectively a concrete expression of his self-aggrandisement.

I found it quite a relief to get out of the house to explore  the extensive grounds. These too are also full of oddities, culminating with the fascist-style marble mausoleum designed by D’Annunzio’s resident architect Gian Carlo Maroni. Amongst the cypresses. flower beds, streams, and orchards  there is a huge amphitheatre; seventeen stone pillars to commemorate Italian WW1 victories; a set of stone benches known as the Arengo, arranged in a circle with a throne for D’Annunzio to hold court  when dignitaries come to visit and a pets’ cemetery for D’Annunzio’s dogs.

part of the Puglia that sits in the garden

Then there are the presents from Mussolini; a plane similar to the one which in which D’Annunzio flew, a seaplane and lastly the enormous prow of the battleship Puglia. This D’Annunzio manned  with sailors and set sticking out above the rose garden where it still manages to amaze visitors today. When D’Annunzio died aged 74, his body was laid in state on this ship  guarded by soldiers while mourners filed pas to pay their respects.

Of all the house museums I have visited, this was far from being the most beautiful but it did come closest to expressing the strange personality of its erstwhile owner than any other I had seen.

An intriguing place, not to be missed.






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