Il Vittoriale degli Italiani (Shrine to Italy’s Victories) might well win the dubious prize for the site that generates the most controversy in all Italy. Eccentric, bizarre, over the top weird but interesting, barmy (had to look that one up – it’s British for crazy), a Fascist Luna Park, megalomaniacal, a lakeside fantasy fit for a libertine and the idiosyncratic creation of a supreme solipsist are typical reactions to a visit. One Italian described it as un tuffo nella lucida follia (a dive into lucid folly), which is what my journey to get there felt like.
I was staying in Lake Garda because there were two gardens I wanted to visit that were conveniently located within walking distance of each other. Less convenient was that they were in Gardone Riviera on the west side of the lake, which made my decision to stay on the east side something of a head-shaker until you took into account that after Lake Garda I was going to a garden in Merano which is almost in Austria – in more ways than just geography. It was a fairly long drive and the shortest and fastest route was from the east side of Lake Garda.
My original plan had been to take the ferry that goes back and forth from Torri on the east side to Maderno almost straight across on the west side. From Maderno it was a short bus ride to Gardone. But when I mentioned this plan to the hotel owner he got a worried look on his face. It turned out the local buses were not a reliable option. Much better if I took the autotraghetto (car ferry) and drove down to Gardone. For some reason I found this option unappealing. Why bother fussing with the car and ferry schedule for a couple of kilometres? Three to be exact. So instead I decided to drive.
Blame it on a sense of distance forged by Canada’s vast expanses. And ignorance. Who knew it would take over two hours to drive 66 km? Or that part of the route along the west side had been considered perilous enough to be used for the race scenes in ‘Quantum of Solace’?
The Via Gardesana is punctuated with warning signs – Rocce Sporgenti (Hanging out Rocks) showing smashed-up cars, and long, narrow tunnels – some several kilometres and many so narrow and the roof so low they are essentially sense unico (one way). I got lucky. Two cars ahead of me was a tour bus. One of those enormous things that are no longer allowed on the Amalfi Coast. The driver had obviously done the route before. In some tunnels he would go over as far to the right as he could. We’re talking inches from the rough cut walls. Others were so narrow he started leaning on his horn as soon as he approached the entrance. This was to warn oncoming traffic there was only room for one vehicle and it was the one he was driving. If he slowed down at the entrance I didn’t notice it. I just tried to keep up as he barrelled down the middle, horn blaring and ricocheting off the walls the whole time. When we got to the end of these tunnels, I was amazed to see a line of cars waiting patiently by the side of the road. How did they know?
By the time I arrived in Gardone, I was more than a little the worse for wear. And hungry. At the entrance to the Vittoriale was a bust of the man behind all the controversy – Gabriele D’Annunzio. Depending on how you look at things, he was one of Italy’s most illustrious writers, a brilliant military hero and propagandist, a remorseless seducer and predator of women, a self-serving narcissist, debtor, Fascist and/or all-round degenerate.
Close by were a couple of plaques, extolling the delights that awaited visitors.
To fortify myself for what lay ahead, I decided to have a bite to eat – maybe a bit of wine – beforehand. The trattoria/pizzeria on the other side of the piazza was doing a brisk business and I heard a lot of Italian being spoken as I got closer. Just the place.
The property is 9 hectares. 22 acres. And, as many visitors have, not too happily, written there is a lot of climbing involved. I still had one more garden to visit in Gardone and didn’t want to waste any time – or energy – retracing my steps. It took a lot of flipping back and forth to figure out the visitors’ guide I was given at the ticket office, which unlike the plaque below was unhelpfully on two sides – with the explanation of what the letters stood for – the various sculptures in the Galleria d’Arte – on the map side and the numbers which represented the permanent elements of the property on the other.
Finally I came up with a plan. Instead of continuing along the main path directly to the Prioria (Priory), which is what D’Annunzio, in typical grandiose fashion, called his home, I followed a smaller path sloping down to the right which would take me to the Parlaggio, the open air theatre meant to recall the wonders of Ancient Rome. But first…
…an enormous blue horse and Ugo Riva’s ‘Angeli‘.
Having seen the interior of D’Annunzio’s home years ago, I had no desire to wait around for the guided tour. Apart from an overall sense of morbid, macabre self-indulgence bordering on insanity, and thousands of objects that one visitor described as ranging from high art to il trash più assoluto, I have no idea how anybody can remember more than an iota of what they’ve seen. Unless they manage to sneak in some kind of tiny recording device, which is highly unlikely because you have to surrender all your possessions to the no-nonsense people at the guardoroba – purses, cameras – and don’t think you can sneak something in kangaroo-style. Even the smallest marsupio (fanny pack) has to be handed over. One detail did stick for me – D’Annunzio’s bedroom, a dark, unsettling space, is three steps up from the room next to it. But the lintel above the door is not raised accordingly, which means that all but the youngest visitors have to bend over, in effect bow, when they enter the room. The effect was not lost on Mussolini, who already had a lot of issues with D’Annunzio.
While Mussolini admired D’Annunzio’s bravery and intellect, he also saw him as a serious potential rival and one that he would have liked to get rid of. But Mussolini’s hands were tied. D’Annunzio was a national hero. His fearlessness – recklessness, some might say – during World War I had done wonders for the Italian morale, even though from a strictly military point of view his two most legendary excursions were, as one military man put it, sterile.
In the first, which became known as la beffa di Buccari, (the Bakar prank) he captained one of three motor boats that in February of 1918 managed to enter the Austrian- controlled Bay of Bakar along the Croatian Adriatic Coast and set off six torpedoes, one of which actually exploded, before beating a hasty retreat, all under the incredulous eyes of the Austrians who didn’t attack because they didn’t believe enemy boats could have possibly come so close. No material damage was sustained by the Austrians, but non importa! The stunt was as great a morale booster for the Italian troops as it was devastating for the Austrians. If it hadn’t taken place in the context of war it could have been made into a comedy sketch. Later that year D’Annunzio came up with another beffa that was equally ludicrous.
As well as an able seaman D’Annunzio was also an experienced pilot, who despite having lost an eye on a previous mission, proposed a 1,000 km flight, 800 of which would be over enemy territory. Despite D’Annunzio’s reputation, the comando supremo initially nixed the plan. They didn’t have any motors that could carry a plane that far. But the ever resourceful D’Annunzio had already taken care of that glitch, having hired an up and coming young technician, Ugo Zagato, (who would later go on to work with Alfa Romeo as well as design his own vehicles), to tinker with the plane’s motor. Somehow, war rations and all, D’Annunzio managed to get a plane and fuel for a trial flight and the commander gave what must be one of the most bizarre go-aheads in war history. The operation was to be of a strictly political and demonstrative nature; there was to be no damage whatsoever to the enemy. So, one might wonder, they were going to fly 800 km into enemy territory to do … what? To drop leaflets on the city of Vienna, exhorting the locals to come to their senses and acknowledge the predestined Italian victory. D’Annunzio of course felt he should author the leaflets, but what he came up with was so florid and convoluted no-one could understand it, let alone translate it into German. This of course created a sticky situation but eventually another, more prosaic author was found and 350,000 leaflets – and not a single bomb – were dropped on the city, whereupon the Italians turned around and flew back home. With no counter attack by the Austrians. Two Austrian fighter planes had seen the little formation approaching and had raced back to warn HQ, but again, no-one believed it could be done.
Eventually Mussolini came up with a solution. ‘D’Annunzio is like a bad tooth,’ he explained. ‘Either you pull it or cover it with gold’. He decided to cover D’Annunzio with gold, showering him with titles – Prince of Montenevoso, Duke of Gallese – as well as all sorts of three lettered honours – OMS (Military Order of Savoy), CMG (War Merit Cross), MVM (Gold Medal of Military Valour). And, perhaps even more astutely, he provided him with more or less unlimited funds to do whatever he wanted at the Gardone property, and plenty of drugs, including cocaine, all of which was designed to keep him occupied and, like Cardinal Ippolito d’Este who had been sent by a worried pope off to govern Tivoli centuries earlier, far from Rome and the seat of real power.
From the rose terrace it was all uphill and the path got fairly uneven in places.
On the other side of the laghetto was a flat grassy area, the setting for another art installation. Whatever were they?
I’ll let the artist explain.
From the turtle meadow it was a lot longer and steeper uphill climb that it had looked like from the entrance. Good thing there were lots of great views to stop and take in along the way.
When I finally reached the top I was speechless. And it had nothing to do with being out of breath.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, on the way down, among the olives and cypresses, is what looks remarkably like a ship’s mast. Impossibile, you say.
I know we’re supposed to keep an open mind, but this was way, way too over the top for me. A naval ship anchored half-way up a hillside!?
A plaque along the path ‘explained’. Nave Puglia – the Ship of Puglia – was donated by the Italian Navy in 1925. The Commander had it ‘mounted’ on the promontory with the bow facing the Adriatic, ready to set sail and liberate the Croatian Coast…
Not surprisingly, I suppose, a fountain nearby was getting significantly less attention. It is called the Fontana del Delfino and is meant to recall the Oval Fountain at Villa d’Este in Tivoli. (A Cure for Road Rage and Other Ailments, March 1, 2015) An Italian visitor turned to her friend and muttered, Mah. Senz’ acqua non è un gran che. (Humph. Without any water it isn’t much.) Even with water I still didn’t think it would be un gran che.
As I continued down the hill, the sense of disconnect between the Vittoriale and the natural beauty and serenity that surrounded it became stronger and stronger. In ‘History’s People’ Margaret Macmillan examines how the personal attributes of powerful individuals have, for better or for worse, shaped our world. What if the life goal of the obviously brilliant D’Annunzio had been something other than self-glorification and glory? What if il Poeta, who for all his failings, was adamantly opposed to Hitler, had been Il Duce instead of Mussolini in the years leading up to World War II?
If you’d like to know more about D’Annunzio, check out ‘Nine Ways of Looking at D’Annunzio’, a fascinating article by Luciano Mangiafico – love the name – ‘Fig Eater’ – in Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review. And if that leaves you wanting more, try ‘The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War’ by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. In the words of one reviewer, Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio might have been a repellent human being, but he’s perfect for a page-turning biography. (Ian Birrell, Feb. 4, 2013, The Observer)
Next – a Botanical Garden that doesn’t feel like a Botanical Garden