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Rijeka: a decadent poet and Italian land claims

‘Posing for his sexual partner as a martyred saint, Gabriele d’Annuncio was titillating himself with the image of a young man tortured and killed.’

The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annuncio, is an unrivalled story of decadence and hedonism requiring, at times, a suspension of disbelief. Death, sadism and eroticism are constant and intertwining themes, to the extent that I wondered, when d’Annuncio urged young Italians into World War 1, whether he did so for the glory of Italy or for his own sexual pleasure. Hughes-Hallett has no scruples on the matter. ‘Throughout the Great War, d’Annuncio was to refer over and over again, and in increasingly exulted tones, to dead soldiers as “martyrs”, whose deaths must be honoured by the sacrifice of further beautiful youths. What had begun as an erotic fantasy shaped by an aesthetic trend would become a motive for slaughter.’ (1)

Before World War 1, Italy was a poor, politically unstable country wracked by feudal lords and mafiosi, and the exodus of families looking for a better life had already begun to give the world its plethora of Italian restaurants. (Read Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi (2), written after Mussolini had locked away the mafia and made the trains run on time.) Abiding by a belief that war, hatred and bloodshed would strengthen it and in order to redeem territory promised to it at the Secret Treaty of London in 1915, Italy deserted its allies, Austria-Hungary and Germany, and sent its young men to World War 1 on a salary of a third of a lire per day (3). My husband’s grandfather travelled from Turin to fight on the northeastern frontier. Because he was illegitimate he was put on the front line in the hope that he would be shot first. It was not until he died in 1971 that the Italian government sent his daughter his war medals which she promptly sent back.

Italy is a strange country, held together by dreams of ancient Rome, the Renaissance and a hasty revision of its modern history textbooks. The last time I was in Turin I went for a walk along the Po and read there a series of mounted plaques glorifying the Risorgimento and the rise of the Italian military, both historical failures and examples of the importance to Italy of its own propaganda. Indeed, what would Italy do without words? It is built entirely upon them, as The Pike proves. It is a very long book, but it is d’Annuncio’s self-styled takeover of Rijeka (Fiume) in 1919, surfing in on a wave of alcohol and cocaine, that concerns my study of War in the Balkans.

At the time Italy had a population of over 38 million and Croatia just 3 million. It was hardly surprising then that d’Annuncio and his contemporaries could claim Rijeka, Istria and Dalmatia as Italian merely because a few Italian businesses had crossed the Adriatic and doubled the population in the cities. Yet it is doubtful for how long even this had been going on, for according to Viscountess Strangford who visited Rijeka in 1863, ‘There was but little Italian to be heard, but much more German, and all the rest Slavonic or Hungarian.’ (4) That there had been an increase in Italian settlers since then is likely, because I noticed a steady increase in Italian surnames in the church registries of my mother's village in Istria after Italian unification in 1860. Nevertheless, in 1910, Maude M Holbach, another British visitor to Dalmatia, recorded the following, ‘The population of Dalmatia at the census of 1890 was 507,000 souls of whom 417,000 are of Croatian stock, 90,000 of Serbian, and 16,000 were returned as Italian, the rest being Austrians, Hungarians and Poles.’ (5)

The chapters in The Pike concerning the fate of Italian soldiers during the war are horrifying and, after the bloodbath when Italy demanded the Slavic territories promised it in 1915, America's Woodrow Wilson retorted, ‘Why does Italy want all these countries that don’t speak Italian?’ (3)

The answer in part was Gabriele D’Annuncio, the voice of irredentism. Irredentism was an Italian word which meant land that should be considered unredeemed Italian territory. The criteria were: i) it had once been part of the Roman Empire, ii) it had once been part of the Venetian Empire, iii) a few Italians lived there, iv) a few Slavs lived there who wanted to be Italian (my grandmother) v) it was south of the Alps and thus its acquisition made the map of Italy look better (the South Tyrol and the western third of Slovenia). Istria was a good fit for points i) to iv). My mother, however, felt displaced in Italy and after World War 2, took on Yugoslav citizenship. Of Istria she said, ‘We were Austrian then Austria lost the war, then we were Italian and Italy lost the war.’ These Venetian-speaking Istrians lived on the west coast in a strip so thin that my mother told me that Croatian speakers came to her village of Tar in the 1920’s to buy fish. In the days before refrigeration, they couldn't have lived very far away.

It is evident from The Pike that Gabriele D'Annuncio was a metaphorical magician. Though small and unattractive (some would call him odious and repellent) he cast his spell over countless women who didn’t like the look of him but slept with him anyway, actresses, editors, musicians, politicians, the great mass of the Italian populace and sundry minor aristocracy. His mastery with words and manipulation of emotions invariably got him what he wanted, and it’s only a shame that he didn’t live long enough to see Italy after World War 2 lose all the territory his efforts had gained it.

But let us return to Rijeka in 1919.

The war was over and d'Annuncio was 'foremost among those shaping the story of the war's end as one of Italian humiliation, Italian victimisation.' (1) In Paris, the Allies allowed Italy only temporary occupation of the Croatian coast but delayed in granting it the territory promised in the Secret Treaty of London. D'Annuncio 'swore to fight on for the cause of an Italian Dalmatia' even as Italy slumped into depression and civil war. In an ugly mood, a million and a half demobbed soldiers trained in violence filled the cities and countryside, including the elite Italian troops, the arditi. Feared by the people, these arditi were unwelcome at home, they had nothing to do, and they were itching for a fight. They and d'Annuncio were mutually attracted.

Ignoring Italy's dire economic position, D'Annuncio then produced a series of incendiary speeches in Rome to the effect that Italy should 'seize by force what the peace-makers in Paris refused to grant them.' For his efforts in destabilizing an already unstable country, he was kicked out of Rome by the military authorities and sent back to Venice.

Anxious to belong to a Greater Italy, Rijeka's Italian population wrote to d'Annuncio asking him to lead them. The local arditi prepared to mobilize. Emotions ruled the day and violence towards non-Italians quickly overcame the city. D'Annuncio's ego was fueled and, although the government in Rome would not sanction any action against the city by him, on 11th September 1919 he decided to satisfy his fans and enter Rijeka. As if under d'Annuncio's spell, the Italian general protecting the city for the Allies let him and his arditi pass.

Once installed, however, the poet had no idea how to run a city in ways that didn't mimic his own lifestyle, and Rijeka swiftly became 'a bordello, a refuge for criminals and prostitutes...disorder, corruption and craziness.' 'D'Annuncio ‘staged pseudo-sacred ceremonies in the cathedral…and encourage a cult of his own personality so fervid that the Bishop…noted furiously that his flock were forsaking Christ for this modern Orpheus.’(1)

After three months, the government in Rome offered the citizens of Rijeka the option to remain a free city under the protection of Italy, and a plebiscite voted d'Annuncio out. Yet still he remained, ruling his totalitarian city-state by intimidation while the government commenced a blockade.

Finally, as the new wave of violent fascism erupted around Trieste and Italian ships trained their guns on Rijeka's harbour, d'Annuncio was ordered to vacate the city by 6pm on Christmas Eve 1920. Three days of fighting came to end when the city begged him to leave.

Gabriele d'Annuncio departed Rijeka on 18th January 1921 and in October 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome.


1. Hughes-Hallett, Lucy The Pike WF Howes 2014

2. Levi, Carlo Christ Stopped at Eboli, Einaudi 1945.

3. Duggan Christopher The Force of Destiny, Penguin 2008

4. Strangford, Emily Anne Beaufort Smythe The Eastern Shores of the Adriatic in 1863. Richard Bentley, London 1864

5. Holbach, Maude M Dalmatia, the Land Where East Meets West, 1910. William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London.


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