My wife and I arrive at Lake Garda in northern Italy on a steamy summer day. The lake is glossy, wooded and spectacular: boats bobbing, sunbathers stretching. But we’re not here for the lake. We climb a winding road under a beating sun in the town of Gardone Riviera, until we reach a complex of small museums and undulating grounds hugging the hillside. It’s called the Vittoriale degli Italiani, and it’s the former home of the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938), who lived here from 1922 to 1938, before bequeathing it to the nation.
D’Annunzio is particolare, as Italians like to say. Whenever I ask my Roman friends about him, a queasy pause ensues. D’Annunzio was a journalist, poet and decidedly decadent novelist who pumped out erotomaniac verse and novels pulsating with epithets like ‘diaphanous’ and ‘scintillating’ before becoming a speed-obsessed futurist, the leader of a cult of heroic manhood and an ultra-nationalist. He led a military occupation of Fiume (now the Croatian port city of Rijeka) after the First World War, declared himself ‘Duce’ and had to be bombed into surrender by the Italian navy. He knew and inspired the other Duce, but had a tense relationship with him, bitterly opposing his alliance with Hitler. D’Annunzio is nonetheless remembered, if vaguely, as the patron saint of fascism. Charmed by Lake Garda’s beauty, he evidently chose the site as a refuge from his exhausting life, buying the house after the Italian authorities had confiscated it from the eminent German art historian Henry Thode. The name he gave his new lair evoked the ultimate victory of the Italian people.
My own reasons for going are totally kosher: research. I’m writing a book about collectors; D’Annunzio was a collector and I want to see what kind. But I can feel the question marks floating over our visit. One isn’t really supposed to come here or be curious about