Gabriele d’Annunzio –poet, dictator and proto-fascist – wasn’t good to his women. He was a serial seducer who wrote to one of his numerous mistresses ‘Your beauty is spiritualised by illness… when you are dead you will reach the supreme light of beauty.’ He ruined women financially. He disgraced and abandoned them and drove them mad. But he chose well. Most of his longer term relationships were with women who were variously rich, grand or brilliantly talented. Here is what four of them said to, or about, him.
Maria di Gallese, a duke’s daughter, lived in Rome’s splendid Palazzo Altemps until, aged eighteen, she eloped with d’Annunzio. After he abandoned her she wrote ‘When I married Gabriele, I thought I was marrying poetry. I would have done better to have bought, for three and a half lire, each of his volumes of verse.’
Eleonora Duse was, by general agreement, one of the two greatest actresses of her generation (the other being Sarah Bernhardt, another of d’Annunzio’s conquests). A great diva but an abjectly masochistic lover, she put her celebrity at d’Annunzio’s sevice. ‘I have given it to you, for you, for your beautiful destiny – and if my heart shatters into tiny pieces – it doesn’t matter!’
Romaine Brookes, the American painter, was a lesbian, but such was d’Annunzio’s allure she made an exception for him. After they parted she wrote to him ‘I imagine, dear poet, you are hoping that when you arrive in heaven you will be met by an octopus-like creature with no head, but the legs of a hundred different women’.
The Marchesa Luisa Casati was immensely rich and almost equally strange. She gave fantastic dressing-up parties in her Venetian palazzo (now the Guggenheim Museum) and posed for portraits by Boldoni and Man Ray. She didn’t like sex much, but she and d’Annunzio were partners in making spectacles of themselves. He hung the bushes in her garden with flowers made of Murano glass. She wrote to him ‘the glass-maker has given me two large green eyes as beautiful as the stars, do you want them?’ He said she was ‘the only woman who ever astonished me’.
Words by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War
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