Today, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) is little known to most American readers, being remembered, if at all, as some sort of decadent poet and novelist who enjoyed a stormy love affair with the great actress Eleonora Duse. But in his time, he was as famous as a rock star and in Italy remains to this day a figure of huge literary, cultural and historical consequence. D’Annunzio was arguably the finest Italian writer of his time, an aesthete who made Oscar Wilde look like a bourgeois, a sexual charmer of Casanovan suavity and appetite, a World War I aviator and war hero, and a political zealot and spellbinding orator from whom Mussolini learned how to become “Il Duce.”

As Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography makes clear, d’Annunzio never did anything by halves, and reading about his buying sprees, love affairs, bestsellers and military exploits can leave one feeling a very dull dog by comparison. This “poet, seducer, and preacher of war” lived life on an operatic scale, even if he was usually, in Hemingway’s carefully considered judgment, “a jerk.”

Short and bald, with discolored teeth and waxen skin, usually reeking of scent and eventually blind in one eye, rather fussy and fluttering in his gestures, d’Annunzio could nonetheless charm almost anyone, male or female. His early literary celebrity helped, of course. But repeated testimony reveals that women found him unprepossessing, almost repulsively gnomelike at first — until he began to speak in his enchantingly “soft, supple, velvety” voice. Theatrical goddesses, such as Duse and Ida Rubinstein, would submit to his erotic whims, married women would abandon their children to join his household, infatuated young girls would ruin themselves and be tossed aside. One of the most famous lesbians of the time, Romaine Brooks, became d’Annunzio’s lover, while the notorious homosexual Robert de Montesquiou (the model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus) offered to be his vassal for a year. D’Annunzio’s mistresses, it was said, could never leave, despite his infidelities, because they had grown helplessly addicted to his love-making. He once took three women to bed at the same time.

Gabriele d’Annunzio — Gabriel of the Annunciation — doesn’t seem to have had friends, only lovers, acolytes, servants and enemies. He was the son of the mayor of the provincial town of Pescara and smart from the get-go. “When he was sixteen he wrote six letters to his parents for Easter, one in Italian, the others in Greek, Latin, English, French and Spanish.” As a youth he revered Napoleon, yearned to emulate the English romantic poets and mooned over erotic Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Throughout his life, he adored music, especially Wagner, but turned down Puccini’s request for an opera libretto — though Debussy did compose the music for his “choreographic poem” entitled “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.”

As a young man, d’Annunzio would sometimes pose nude — this new biography includes one cheesecake snapshot in which he resembles a Hollywood bathing beauty. Was he bisexual, as some have suspected? Despite the fey mannerisms, Hughes-Hallett concludes that he probably wasn’t. He did possess a strong sadistic streak and always enjoyed watching a beautiful woman weep and suffer. At 23, he eloped but was almost immediately unfaithful to his new wife. By the time she left him, they had three young sons, whom he essentially never saw again until they were adults and he was famous.

“Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War” by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Knopf)

At first, d’Annunzio earned his living as a journalist, often reporting on high society. His early poetry, lubricious yet subtly misogynistic, brought him critical esteem, but his first novel, “Pleasure” (1889) — recently reissued by Penguin in an unbowdlerized translation — made him famous. As Hughes-Hallett points out, this chronicle of a young libertine is constructed from “a sequence of lucidly visualised scenes. It employs flashbacks and abrupt cuts, distant views and voice-over-like meditations.” Though an innovative, even groundbreaking work of literature, its cover design verges on the pornographic: A greyhound licks the naked breast of a voluptuous sleeping woman.

D’Annunzio shrewdly used such shocks to get his name in the papers, and to establish himself as mad, bad and dangerous to know. In a later novel, “The Innocent,” the hero actually kills a baby. His plays include heroines who are blinded, mutilated, driven insane, murdered and burned alive. At a dinner, he once proposed a toast to putrefaction.

During his 40s and early 50s, d’Annunzio bought grand houses and went bankrupt, dwelt in regal splendor for five years in Paris, published his great poetic cycle “Laudi” (Praises), acquired 22 dogs and eight horses (all at the same time), and collected thousands of books. In 1909, he attended the famous air show at Brescia, where Kafka glimpsed him as he took a ride with Glenn Curtiss. More and more, though, he was also growing increasingly nationalistic.

When World War I broke out, d’Annunzio campaigned against Italy’s initial neutrality and later fought as a soldier and aviator. He dropped leaflets from planes and machine-gunned ground troops, memorialized the Italian heroes of the clouds, and eventually became a squadron leader. “When he bombed Pola in August 1917 he did so at the head of thirty-six planes, all of them under his command.” He wanted to bomb Vienna.

After the war ended, the still blood-intoxicated d’Annunzio organized his own army and in 1919 invaded Fiume — a major port of the Austro-Hungarian empire — and demanded that it be restored to Italy. For two years, “the Commandant” ruled this little city-state like a Roman emperor, with daily speeches from his palace’s balcony and order maintained, or disorder created, by his own elite corps of SS-like soldiers, the Centurions of Death. Half showman, half shaman, d’Annunzio essentially created the 20th century’s emotionalist politics of spectacle and established the style of fascism ever since. As Hughes-Hallett writes, “The black shirts, the straight-armed salute, the songs and war-cries, the glorification of virility and youth and patria and blood sacrifice, were all present in Fiume three years before Mussolini’s March on Rome.” She even argues that Hitler learned from d’Annunzio’s manipulative, call-and-response oratory.

Hughes-Hallett speculates that d’Annunzio could have marched from Fiume to assume the political leadership of all Italy. But he dithered. When one of his former disciples, a journalist named Benito Mussolini, did take over the government, d’Annunzio rather scorned the upstart. He himself never became a member of the Fascist party, even though fascism was profoundly d’Annunzian.

In his last dozen years, exiled from power, the increasingly decrepit writer cultivated his garden, overdecorated his country house, edited his complete works and took lots of cocaine. His final mistress, it was eventually discovered, was a blond Nazi agent, who left Italy for Berlin on the day he died. People still wonder if she poisoned him.

No less an authority than Lenin once called d’Annunzio the “only revolutionary in Europe.” With studied blasphemy, this priapic popinjay sometimes compared himself to Jesus, to the latter’s disadvantage. Nonetheless, he remains one of the glories of modern Italian literature. These things happen. Exhaustively researched and as compulsively readable as today’s gossip page, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s “Gabriele d’Annunzio” brings this horrible man to vivid and repulsive life.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.


Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Knopf. 589 pp. $35