One April years ago, I visited the Vittoriale degli Italiani, which looks out over Lago di Garda and was the last home of Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938), ornate poet and self-proclaimed world’s greatest lover. April is the time of gite scolastiche (‘school trips’) in Italy and I was bemused to find myself alongside nuns instructing their pupils that D’Annunzio was a magnificently Italian and acceptably Catholic writer. What, I asked myself, did teachers and students make of the grenade soulfully placed underneath a Renaissance Madonna in the bathroom or his statement at one dinner that the food reminded him of the taste of newborn child?
D’Annunzio’s greatest political claim to fame is his ‘poetic dictatorship’ in the northern Adriatic port of Fiume (now Rijeka). After the First World War it had been decided by the Great Powers and the Italian government that Fiume, a mixed Italian-Croatian city, would become part of a new Kingdom of