Il Vittoriale degli Italiani

Gabriele d’Annunzio was an Italian aesthete, poet, soldier and, at least for some, a national hero. Known simply as The Poet, he worshipped at the altar of action and movement and was associated with the famed Italian Arditi stormtroopers during the First World War and took part in the audacious Italian aerial raid over Vienna in August 1918, when he and 11 colleagues dropped propaganda leaflets on the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In a protest against the Paris Peace Conference in September 1919, he led 2,500 Italian troops and nationalists who seized the Dalmatian city of Fiume (present-day Rijeka, Croatia), which he declared to be the Regency of Carnaro and part of the Italian state. Mussolini was an early supporter of the occupation and an admirer of the poet leader: indeed, d’Annunzio’s fiefdom and the Charter of Carnaro through which it was governed, were to have a great influence on the future dictator. The Fiume adventure was finally brought to an end when it was attacked by forces loyal to the Italian government in December 1920. Nevertheless, Fiume became part of the Kingdom of Italy, and d’Annunzio and his legionnaires returned home to a hero’s welcome.

In February 1921, while at the height of his political fame, d’Annunzio rented the Vittoriale degli Italiani (Shrine of Italian Victories), a magnificent estate and house overlooking Lake Garda in the town of Gardone Riviera. The Italian government, seeking to keep the poet as far from the political centre as possible, made large amounts of money available to d’Annunzio with which he expanded and improved the property.

Italian man sitting on a throne beside a pond in a villa near Lake Garda.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 7.1mm f/5.6 1/480s

I arrived there with my friend Raffaello on a beautifully warm May morning about two hours after leaving Milan. Given our mutual interest in history, we decided to take the guided tour of d’Annunzio’s home, the Prioria, but first we had to walk past the amphitheatre with its spectacular view over Lake Garda and which hosts concerts by internationally-recognised stars, and the beautifully maintained formal gardens. No photography is allowed in the Prioria, and while you may keep your mobile phones with you, it is worth remembering – if you do not want to be told off by the guide – to put them on silent before beginning the tour.

Bronze bust of Gabriele D'Annunzio outside his home at Il Vittoriale degli Italiani near Lake Garda
Gabriele d’Annunzio.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 18.7mm f/4.5 1/900s

D’Annunzio was a complex and rather insecure man, and the Prioria reflects this. The first private quarters are reached via a steep dark and narrow staircase at the top of which, in the centre, is a pillar, with “welcome guests” directed to a room on the right and “unwelcome guests”, which included Mussolini in 1925, directed to a room on the left where they were presented with relics and decorations intended to make them feel uncomfortable and to encourage them to think about themselves and their actions. Welcome guests were treated to comfortable couches and immediate entry to the poet’s private quarters, a warren of dark and cluttered rooms with painted windows, dark damasks and subdued lighting. Almost every inch of space is filled with books, lamps and icons. Nothing is placed by chance, nothing exists in the Prioria for its aesthetic value alone. Everything is symbolic; everything has meaning. It is a fascinating insight into the busy and claustrophobic mind of this man who demanded everyone enter his workplace with their heads bowed, which he achieved simply by making the entrance through a low doorway and a short steep staircase. Of all the rooms in the Prioria, his study is the only one with light wood and natural light – and while there is no shortage of ornaments and clutter, it is the only room that is not claustrophobic.

A view over a villa, church and cypress trees to Lake Garda.
View over the villa to Lake Garda.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 19.5mm f/5.6 1/640s.

Using money given to him by the Italian state, d’Annunzio set about rebuilding the rest of the house with large bright rooms. However, as fate would have it, he died shortly before the work was completed, so never got to move in. These rooms are now home to a military museum and offer spectacular views over the lake and the grounds.

MAS-9. One of the torpedo boats involved in the Bakar Mockery in 1918
MAS-9. One of the torpedo boats involved in the Bakar Mockery in 1918.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 7.1mm f/2 1/250s.
D’Annunzio’s brief account of the Bakar Mockery
D’Annunzio’s brief account of the Bakar Mockery.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO200 7.1mm f/2 1/160s.

The main house is set in a large and rather steep garden that houses a number of oddities and follies. Immediately behind the house is a large structure that was built by the Poet to house one of the three torpedo boats used in the daring “Bakar Mockery” incident of February 1918. D’Annunzio was one of the 30 men aboard the Italian ships that attacked, but failed to damage, some Austrian ships in the harbour at Baccara (present day Bakar). While the raid had no military value, the boost to Italian morale was great, leading d’Annunzio to proclaim MAS no longer meant motoscafo armato silurante (torpedo armed motorboat) but memento audere semper (always remember to dare) – which was one of the poet’s many mottos.

Mausoleum to the fallen at Fiume and D’Annunzio’s final resting place
Mausoleum to the fallen at Fiume and d’Annunzio’s final resting place.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 7.1mm f/5.6 1/550s.

Just up the hill from this structure is the mausoleum d’Annunzio had built to honour the lives of his Legionnaires and friends who died during the Fiume adventure, and in which d’Annunzio was interred in 1963, 25 years after his death. This striking structure is set on the highest part of the property offering commanding views over the surrounding countryside. It was from there that we captured our first glimpse of the warship, Puglia. This ship, which had seen action in the First World War was assigned to patrol the Dalmatian coast after the war ended. In 1923, Mussolini gifted the bow of the ship to d’Annunzio, who had it embedded into the hillside beside his home, where it sits facing out across Lake Garda with its guns pointing towards the Dalmatian coast. It is as surreal a sight as one is ever likely to see, yet it still feels like it belongs exactly where it is.

The bow of the warship Puglia set into the hillside at Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, Lake Garda.
The warship Puglia.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 7.1mm f/6.4 1/550s.

Immediately below the Puglia there is a beautifully calm gorge with a well-maintained steep footpath that winds its way alongside a small stream to a series of man-made ponds that mark the lower extent of the property. The shade offered in the gorge was refreshing, while the escape from symbolism was welcome. We paused for a while, listening to the sound of the water and the breeze weaving through the tall cypress trees to catch our breath and contemplate the steep climb back up to the house and the exit.

A view of Lake Garda from the mausoleum built by Gabriele D'Annunzio at his home near Lake Garda.
Lake Garda from the mausoleum.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 10.4mm f/5.6 1/450s.
View of the Il Vittoriale degli Italiani villa from the gorge
View of the house from the gorge.
Fujifilm X20 | ISO100 7.1mm f/4 1/250s.

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