Gabriele D’Annunzio and the World
War I Rhetoric of Heroism in
Visualising War: The Iconography of Conflict and the Italian Nation
The Association for the Study of Modern Italy (ASMI), The British School
at Rome, and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea,
18th -19th of September 2014
Marja Härmänmaa, University of Helsinki, Finland
The social role of the writer
Against the social escapism of the fin de siècle
Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883)
Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907)
Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938)
Gabriele D’Annunzio
- Poet and writer
- Politician
- Hero of the First
World War
D’Annunzio and politics
• MP in 1897
• World War I interventionist
• Founder of the city state of Fiume (1919-1920)
D’Annunzio and modern politics
• Mass society
• Participation of masses in politics
D’Annunzio and modern political
• Founder of modern political discourse in
• To arouse enthusiasm
• No facts, nor rational analysis
• Melodramatic and poetic style
• Myths and symbols
D’Annunzio’s political program
• Aestheticization of politics
• Nationalism in the post-unification era (1861)
– Italy must be a great nation
Pre World War I political writings
• Armata d’Italia (1881)
– political articles
• Odi navali (1893)
– militaristic poems
• Merope / Canzoni della Gesta d’oltremare
– poems about the Italo-Turkish war in Libya
Italy and World War I
Allied with the Central Powers
Neutrality till May 23, 1915
Ally of the Triple Entente
The last war of unification
”Maggio radioso” 1915
• D’Annunzio returned from France to Italy
• Joined the interventionists
• Speeches
– Per la più grande Italia
• Poems
– Canti della guerra latina / Asterope
Asterope (1914-1918)
D’Annunzio’s last poems
23 lyric poems and rhythmic prose
Gli inni sacri della guerra giusta
Canti della guerra latina
In the collection Versi d’amore e di gloria
– The Pleiades: Maia, Elettra, Alcyone, Merope,
The purpose of Asterope (1933)
• To stress Italy’s participation
• Glorification of the war
• Public: the Italian middle class
– First published in Il Corriere della Sera
– ”D’Annunzio, Italy’s pseudo-official orator”
Rhetorical devices
• Self-quotations
• (Ideological and political) traditions of Italy
– Dante
– Risorgimento, Garibaldi
– Popular songs
– Bible
– Ancient Rome
Characteristics of Asterope
• emotional (instead of rational)
• allusive (instead of direct or concrete)
• highly metaphorical (instead of literal), in
order also to mystify war
• persuasive (instead of imperative)
• only occasionally polemical, but generally
descriptive, employing a technique that
persuades by sublimating war
World War I a turning point for
• From ”dandy” to ”war hero”
• No more fiction, but glorification of present
– War as a moment of epiphany for the Nation
Il Vate
• D’Annunzio aspired to become the spiritual
leader of Italy
• High ideals or personal cult?
– ”le culte de moi” Maurice Barrès
• The illuminated first-person narrator is
present in several poems
The illuminated D’Annunzio
”Je suis une offrande d’amour, / je suis un cri vers l’aurore, /
je suis un clairon de rescousse / aux lèvres de la race élue.”
[L’Ode pour la résurrection latine, vv 18-21]
[I am an offering of love,/I am a cry toward the dawn,/
I am a trumpet sounding alarm/at the lips of the chosen
race. Ode for the Latin resurgence, verses 18-21]
The abuse of history
• No nostalgia for the past
– War a turning point in D’Annunzio’s production
• Justification of the special role of the Latin
• As a person, references, comparisons, quotes
• To sublimate and to dishonor
• To stress the Italian national character
• To emphasize horror (Inferno)
An Italian city
• ”Mia nell'alpe è la città che Dante cuopre”
[”Salmi per i nostri morti 1”, strofa 46]
• [Mine is the city in the Alps that Dante guards]
[Psalms for our fallen 1, stanza 46]
The wretched war
• ”Ma dall'immondo Barbaro la viva / guerra sepolta fu come
carogna /truce, posta a marcire nella fogna / buia, stivata
nell'orrenda stiva, // soffocata nel tossico fumante /e rituffata nella
lorda pozza /come quell'ira che del fango ingozza /nello Stige
implacabile di Dante.” [”Per i combattenti”, strofe 25-26]
[«But the living war was buried by the filthy Barbarian/ as if it
were rotten flesh,/ left to rot in a gloomy sewer,/ stowed away in
the horrendous pit,//stifled in fuming toxin,/and plunged
into the filthy pool/like the wrath that gulps down mud/ in
Dante’s implacable Styx.»] [«For the combattants,» stanzas
Ancient Rome
• The myth of Rome is constantly present in
• Derived from Giosuè Carducci
• Justification of nationalistic aspirations
Rome in war propaganda
• France and Italy are Latin ”sisters”
• The chosen people fighting against the
Teutonic barbarians
• Mainly in abstract form: “idea,” “spirit”
The horses of the Dioscuri
• ”Et j’entends les chevaux des Dioscures
hennir.” [”L’Ode pour la résurrection latine”, v 42]
[”And I hear the horses of the Dioscuri
neighing.”,”Ode for the Latin resurgence”, verse 42]
The goddess Victory
• ”ó Vierge, accompagne mon message, affermis
ma voix!” [”L’Ode pour la résurrection latine”, v 84]
[O Virgin, sustain my message, give confirmation to
my voice!” ”Ode to the Latin resurgence”, verse 84]
The enemy within
• ”The intellectual use of war” = war as a
remedy for collective and individual
pathologies [Isnenghi]
• Disappointment with the unification of Italy
• Collapse of great ideals of the Risorgimento
• Degradation (corruption) of the political class
and the failure of democracy
D’Annunzio’s ”inner enemy” in L’Ode
• ”vêtu d’ignominie et de paix” [vv 74-75; adorned with
ignominy and peace]
• ”l’astuce et la peur, vaches baveuses, / [qui] ruminaient le
mensonge” [vv 78-80; guile and fear, slobbering
cows/(who) chew the cud of lies]
• Italy is: ”Corrompue et pollué par les mains des vieillards”
[v 81; corrupted and polluted by the hands of old men]
The external enemy
• The rationale of the war: the annexation of certain territories
in the north and northeast territories to Italy
• The war between the chosen Latin race and the bestial
Teutonic barbarians
• “Nous sommes les nobles, nous sommes les élus; / et nous
écraserons la horde hideuse.” [“L’Ode pour la résurrection latine”, vv
• [We are the nobles, we are the chosen;/and we will eliminate
the hideous horde.” “Ode for the Latin resurgence” vv. 211-212]
The Dalmatian ladies in
“Cantico per l’ottava della vittoria,” (1918)
E le città di Dalmazia si scingono sul mare /cantando dai bei veroni veneti,
bionde e chiare / nell'ambra di Vettor Carpaccio. [strofa 10]
E Zara è la prima, [...] /tutta bella al davanzale della sua Riva Vecchia,/ ridorata
come quando Venezia si rispecchia /nell'oro sciolta dal caligo [strofa 11]
O Traù, mia dolce donna, tu che sei tra le donne / dàlmate la più dorata! Sei
nelle tue colonne / come il fuoco nell’alabastro [strofa 14]
[And the cities of Dalmatia spread themselves upon the sea/singing from
the lovely Venetian balconies, golden and illustrious/in the amber light of
Vittore Carpaccio.]
[And Zara is the first...all lovely at the windowsill of its Ancient Shore,/
gilded anew as when Venice is reflected/in gold, suspended in the haze]
[O Trogir (Trau`),my sweet lady, you who are the most golden /of all the
Dalmatian ladies! You stand among your columns/like fire inside of alabaster]
• Traditional connotations of the ”barbarians”:
– Livestock
– Sexual orgy
– Alcohol abuse
• The image of disgust: a vulture vomiting a
rotting carcass
The Barbarians
• ”La force barbare nous appelle / au combat sans merci. / Comme la horde
traînait / dans ses chariots couverts de peaux fraîches / les concubines
innombrables / pour les rassasier de carnage / et les enivrer d’hydromel, /
ainsi elle amène toutes les hontes / derrière ses hommes comptés en
bétail à deux pieds , / pour qu’ils couchent avec toutes dans leur sang
èpaise / qui est le rouge frère de la boue, / tandis que le vautour à deux
têtes, / le maître puant au double cou dénudé, / pousse son cri lugubre et
rejette / la charogne mal digérée.” [« L’Ode… », vv 133-145]
• [The barbarous force calls us/to pitiless combat./Just as the Horde once
dragged innumerable concubines/ in its chariots covered with fresh
hides/to satiate them with carnage/and intoxicate them with
hydromel,/indeed the barbarous force brings every shame/along with its
men who are no better thanlivestock on two feet,/since they couple with
everything/having turbid blood that is the red twin of mud,/while the twoheaded vulture,/the fetid ruler with its two naked necks,/sends forth its
mournful cry and vomits up/its poorly digested putrid meat.]
• Beautiful and horrifying
• A moment of epiphany for the renaissance of
the Latin people
• A holy experience
The beauty and horror of war
• ”Quelle horreur et quelle mort / et quelle
beautés nouvelles / sont partout éparses dans
la nuit?” [L’Ode pour la résurrection latine, vv 1-3]
• [What horror and what death/and what novel
beauties/are scattered everywhere in the night?
Ode for the Latin resurgence, vv. 1-3]
War as epiphany
• The rebirth of the Latin race
– France after the Franco-Prussian war
– The recently unified Italy
• Agricultural metaphors:
– Battle juxtaposed to harvest
– ’Bread’ as new life
– Soldiers as coarse grain in the east wind
The holy harvest
• ”Car, pour les Latins, c’est l’heure sainte / de la
moisson et du combat. O femmes, / prenez les
faucilles et moissonnez! / Apprêtez le pain
nouveau / à la faim nouvelle! Vos hommes /
frapperont fort, serrés comme les épis, / dans la
bataille, rang contre rang, / comme les blés drus
sous le vent d’est.” [L’Ode pour la résurrection latine, vv 215-222]
[Because, for the Latins, it is the sacred hour/of harvest and combat. O
women,/take up your sickles and reap!/Prepare the new bread/for the new
hunger! Your men/will strike hard, arrayed like stalks of corn,/in battle, rank
against rank,/like the strong corn under the east wind. ]
The Christian religion
Most important rhetorical device
Beginning in Merope, culminating in Asterope
To persuade the Catholics?
Religious imagery in interventionist speeches
The ”religion of the Fatherland”
• From Mazzini and the Risorgimento
• In D’Annunzio’s political discourse, the sacred
and profane are merged together
• Merope: the war against the Turks is a holy
war of the Christians against the Muslims
Religion in Asterope
• The apex of the abuse of religion
• Thematics, terminology, symbols, images
• References to the Bible and direct quotes from
• Poems entitled ’prayers’ or ’psalms’ that
follow the style and structure of religious
”Il Rinato” (1918)
• The birth of Jesus Christ in the trenches
– S'ebbe natività nella trincea / cava il Figliuol
dell'uomo; e solo quivi, / messo in fasce da
piaghe, si giacea. [strofa 5; One experienced birth
in the trenches/ the Son was drawn from man;
and only here,/ swaddled because of his wounds,
was he lying.]
• Symbol of the beginning of a new era
The new era
• E sanguinava in fasce; ed il rossore / si dilatava
come immenso raggio, /sicché tutti i ghiacciai
parvero aurore, // tutte le nevi parvero il
messaggio /dei dì prossimi, l'ombra fu
promessa /di luce, il buio fu di luce ostaggio.
[«Il Rinato», strofe 9,10]
[And he was bleeding in his swaddling clothes; and the red stain/ was
spreading like an immense ray of light,/so that all the glaciers seemed like
the dawn,//all the snows seemed like a message/from the coming days,
the shadow was a promise/of light, the darkness was a hostage of light.]
The horrible war
• ecco t'appare / più vicina dei sogni / la trincea
tetra, la penosa bolgia, / tra maceria e steccaia
/ il fango imputridito / le piaghe non fasciate /
i morti non sepolti /gli smorti vólti / dei vivi
senza sonno / fitti nel limo sino all'anguinaia
[“Per i cittadini” (1918)]
[now it appears before you, closer than dreams:/the gloomy trench, the
agonizing pit,/amid rubble and pilings/the stinking mud/the unbound
wounds/the unburied dead/the pallid faces/of the sleepless
living/immersed in slime to the hip]
Death in war
Death and horror are constantly present
”the beautiful death” from Nietzsche
Sanctifying death for the holy Fatherland
A path to immortality, as the dead
pantheistically merge with the Fatherland
• The only right and desirable death
The beautiful death
• Una corona brilla sopra esse, come sopra la chioma
delle vergini. Il sorriso precede la prodezza, e riappare
dopo l'agonia. La morte è chiara come una vittoria.
[«Salmi per i nostri morti 1», strofa 25]
[A crown gleams above them, as above the
hair of virgins. A smile precedes the gallant
deed, and it reappears after the agony. Death is
as illustrious as victory.]
• E allora udita fu dall'alto una voce senza carne,
che diceva: «Beati i morti.» Fu intesa una voce
annunziare: «Beati quelli che per te morranno.»
[«Salmi per i nostri morti 1», strofa 50]
[And then a disembodied voice was heard from on
high, that said: «Blessed are the dead.» A voice was
heard to announce: «Blessed are those who will die
for you.»]
Ma presi erano nella terra, tenuti erano dalla terra, profondati
in essa, intrisi con essa, carname con zolle, ossame con selci.//
E morivano. E come i corpi loro formavano il tuo corpo, così gli
spiriti loro facevano il tuo fiato, o Patria, il tuo fiato possente.
[«Salmi per i nostri morti 1», strofa 36, 37]
[But they were taken into the earth, they were
held by the earth, buried deep in it, steeped
with it, rotten flesh with clods, scattered bones with flint.
And they were dying. Just as their bodies formed your
body, so their spirits made up your breath, o Fatherland:
your powerful breath.]
The missed death
• Son nel carcere dell’ossa, nei lacci delle vene, / e non
diffuso nei vènti, nelle acque, nelle arene, / in tutte le
tue creature. // Con una meravigliosa gioia tesi le mani
/ a rapir la morte. E sempre diceva ella: “Domani.” /
[Salmi per i nostri morti 1, strofe 27, 28]
[I am in the dungeon of bones, in the snaresof veins,/and
not yet dispersed in the winds, in the waters, in the sands, in all
of your creatures.//With a marvelous joy I extended my hands/ to snatch
death. And always she said: «Tomorrow.»]
The logic of D’Annunzio’s war imagery
Traditional semantic fields
Civilization – Barbarism
Agriculture, animals
Women – men
D’Annunzio hero and demagogue
• bridged the gulf between intellectuals and the
• his boldness was not mere rhetoric
• Italy mobilitated 5,500,000 men, of whom
947,000 wounded, and 460,000 died
• Regardelss the message of Il Vate they hardly
became immortal
Thank you!
A special thank to professor Matteo D’Ambrosio
for his comments, and to professor Christopher
Nissen for his linguistic advice, translations and

Gabriele D*Annunzio and the WWI Rhetoric of Heroism in *L*Ode