Monday, October 17, 2016

D'Annunzio, Ca' d'Oro, the Casetta Rossa, and Venice

 A panorama of Ca' D'Oro's androne mosaic                                    photo credit: Sandro
The ground floor courtyard (or androne) of Ca' d'Oro is probably the most exotic and evocative space of its kind in Venice. But while the palace's famous facade exemplifies 15th-century Venetian architectural taste at its "most decorative and florid" (according to Deborah Howard in her Architectural History of Venice), the androne displays the connoisseurship and refined turn-of-the-20th-century taste of Baron Franchetti, who restored the "Venetian-ness" to a space that had been gutted by the famous ballerina Mademoiselle Taglioni in the mid-nineteenth century. (Taglioni, to John Ruskin's horror, had torn out the palace's beautiful external 15th-century staircase, its ornate portal over the street entrance, and its wellhead, among many other barbarous alterations.)

In 1896 as Franchetti himself was busy on his hands and knees arranging the rare colored stones of the androne's beautiful mosaic pavement (modeled on the 12th-century floor of Murano's church of Santa Maria e San Donato) another well-known, highly-cultured, connoisseur of the time was often right beside him, helping out: Gabriele D'Annunzio.

The colorful, elaborately-patterned floor of Ca'D'Oro serves as a guiding image of the biographical method of Lucy Hughes-Hallett's excellent 2013 biography of D'Annunzio, entitled The Pike in the UK, and Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War in the US.

Though little-known in the US, where his extravagant language and self-consciously-literary decadence isn't really to the national taste (even if his militarism and twin obsessions with youth and conscienceless individual power might find a ready audience), D'Annunzio serves in Hughes-Hallet's book as a fascinating and complex prism through which to see the young state of Italy at the end of the 19th-century and its disastrous attempts to forge a strong national identity in the first decades of the 20th.

In this sense, it's an overview of Italian culture and politics of this period, using one of the country's most famous and influential figures as a focal point.

Though bearing no physical resemblance to his virile ideal, D'Annunzio was something of a proto-rock star: with all the fame, the crowds, the mass adoration, the groupies, the excess, the drugs (he loved cocaine), the world-famous lovers (eg, Eleonora Duse), the celebrity perks, the influence, the entitlement, and the unquestioned authority.

But not even the most celebrated of rock stars has managed to do what D'Annunzio did after World War I in the former Venetian territory of Istria: establish his own little proto-Fascist nation-state in the port town of Fiume, with himself as dictator, which he held for nearly a year and a half while the allied victors of the Great War tried to figure out what to do with both the region and him.

D'Annunzio's time in Venice makes up just a part of his mad life, but it's such a significant part--and he plays so colorful a part in the history of the city--that I'm tempted to call Hughes-Hallett's entertaining and well-researched biography a must read for any lover of Venice.

Forget about the famous love affairs he carried on here, the theatrical premieres of his work and all the other kinds of drama, the years he spent here during World War I alone will alter your sense of the Grand Canal and the Casetta Rossa: that little red palazzo set back from the water by a small garden right beside the immense facade of the Palazzo Corner (now seat of the Province and Prefect of Venice), and across the water from the Guggenheim Museum.

The Casetta Rossa this afternoon: an engraved commemorative plaque of D'Annunzio's habitation there is set into the garden railing at right, but its worn letters are almost impossible to make out even in person
Having used his celebrity to obtain an officer's commission in the newly-hatched Italian Air Force (though by this time he was already over 50 years of age), D'Annunzio would be chauffeured in a motor boat from what he called this "doll's house" on the Grand Canal--rented for a pittance from his pal the Austrian Prince Frederick von Hohenlohe--to the airport on Lido, from which he would set off on regular bombing raids against those he described in unceasingly inflammatory public pronouncements as Italy's "ancestoral enemies" and the loathsome spawn of a nation he likened to a "vulture vomiting human flesh": the countrymen, that is, of his landlord.

Then after quite literally dropping bombs, or sometimes, in the case of a dangerous foray over Trieste, pamphlets of his own creation; after surviving anti-aircraft fire and the brutally frigid and perilous conditions of early air warfare, he'd return to his palazetto on the Grand Canal to soak in a hot bath, powder and perfume himself and, amid the 18th-century furniture and ornaments collected by his Austrian benefactor, entertain one of his many female friends or admirers.

After a year of increasingly daring raids, D'Annunzio's luck ran out. Temporarily, at least. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and D'Annunzio was blinded when his head smashed into the machine gun mounted in front of his seat. He'd eventually regain sight in one eye, but only after three months of lying motionless on his back in a completely blacked-out room of the Casetta Rossa.

He would, in fact, return, one-eyed, to his bombing raids--against medical advice. And, having escaped death, he'd go on to even greater prominence, power, and influence, not least of all with Benito Mussolini, with whom he had an uneasy relationship. (D'Annunzio recognized that Mussolini had basically stolen some of his best material and methods and, though uncouth and vulgar, was enjoying the power that D'Annunzio believed rightfully should have belonged to himself. Mussolini, meanwhile, keen on presenting himself as the political heir to Italy's world-famous nationalist poet, felt obligated to flatter the older man, and showered him with extravagant gifts (such as installing the front half of an actual battleship, complete with sailors, on D'Annunzio's property near Lake Garda), saying "When a decayed tooth cannot be pulled out it is capped with gold.").

For anyone interested in Venice, Hughes-Hallett's book does what all all the best books about the city do: it enlivens and enriches one's sense of this peculiar little place which, in spite of its long history, can sometimes subside into merely the collection of beautiful monuments and picturesque views it's long been sold as. It re-orients one's personal map of the city, freighting previously unnoticed areas with new significance, and, more generally, it offers a compelling perspective on the early years of the nation of Italy.   


  1. Thanks Steve, this made my day! V. Interesting.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Rob, it really is a good biography of a remarkable, and mostly despicable, character. I just added a link in the second-to-last paragraph of the post to a short American early "talkie" film of D'Annnunzio at his home on Lake Garda, which shows him (dressed in a military uniform of his own design) hosting a party on the battleship that Mussolini gave him, and reciting a bit of poetry.

  2. How beautiful is the Casseta Rossa! I remember it from my travels to Venice, but your photo with the flowers in bloom is spectacular!

    1. It really is a sweet little place on the Grand Canal, and I was surprised myself to find, when I went to take a picture of it for the post, how colorful it becomes in the fall, with its ivy turning red and its garden's leaves yellow. I hadn't remembered that, or hadn't noticed it before.

  3. Do you know that you can now rent the Casetta Rossa?
    Or at least you can have a look inside it on the web site pictures:

    1. I didn't know this, Anonymous, thanks for pointing it out! I'd noticed that the yard, long neglected, had been entirely redone.