By Professor Susan Bassnett
‘It was still evening, the time he had described in one of his books as Titian’s hour, because everything seemed to be gleaming with its own rich inner glow, like that painter’s naked bodies, almost lighting up the sky rather than taking light from it. The octagonal temple of the Salute, designed by Baldassare Longhena from the Dream of Polifilus, rose up out of its own glassy reflection, with its dome, its scrolls, its statues, its columns, its balustrades, as rich and strange as one of neptune’s buildings with its tortuous sea-shapes, glistening with mother-of-pearl. Salt and damp had spread over it, and seemed to have left something fresh, silvery and jewel-like in the hollows of the stones that gave the vague impression of open oystershells lying in their pearly bed.’
This passage from the opening pages of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s novel, Il Fuoco (Fire) establishes Venice as the focal point for what will follow. The city is not only a setting for the doomed love story of the two protagonists, Stelio Effrena, a rising young writer and his mistress, the great actress La Foscarina, it also assumes the role of a character, and as the mood of Venice changes with the end of summer and the onset of winter, so D’Annunzio’s extravagantly sensual descriptions mirror the stages of the break-up of the relationship.
Il Fuoco first appeared in 1900 and caused a scandal immediately, with one critic referring to it as ‘the most swinish novel ever written’. D’Annunzio sent a copy to Sarah Bernhardt, who pointedly returned it unread. For the novel was based on the actual relationship between D’Annunzio and Eleonora Duse, one of the greatest actresses of her age, and was heavily autobiographical, despite D’Annunzio’s public denials. The problem was not with the veracity of D’Annunzio’s fictionalised account of his love affair with Duse, a relationship that had begun in Venice in 1894, but with the way in which the novel exposed intimate secrets that Duse had confided in him about her early life and her emotions. Moreover, D’Annunzio had contrived to translate the four year age difference between himself and Duse (he was 31, she was 35) into a yawning gap, depicting Stelio as the personification of springtime and La Foscarina as an ageing autumnal figure, jealous and possessive, all too aware of her fading beauty. The golden light of Venice in September with which the novel opens turns into the clinging fogs of November; by the end, the lovers shiver as their gondola ‘slid into the dampness of the dark canal, sailing under the bridge that overlooks the island of San Michele, brushing past the black gondola cabins putrefying beside the decaying walls.’ The humiliating portrayal of an ageing actress struggling to hold on to her youthful lover outraged Duse’s friends and supporters.
Gabriele D’Annunzio was an extraordinary character, even in an age of flamboyance and fin-de-siècle excess. Born into a middle-class family in Pescara in 1863, he established a reputation for himself very early as a poet, then moved on to novels and plays. He married well, but was serially unfaithful to his wife and many lovers, and his passion for self-dramatisation seems to have worked as an aphrodisiac, despite his physical shortcomings. Short, balding and far from handsome, he nevertheless was able to charm women of all classes of society into his bed, including the great Duse. Isadora Duncan remarked that listening to D’Annunzio’s own brand of flattery must have been ‘something like the experience of eve when she heard the voice of the serpent in paradise’.
Duse, on the contrary, guarded her private life closely, but seems to have been drawn to D’Annunzio not only by sexual attraction but by a shared passion for art. D’Annunzio wrote a play for her in 1895, La città morta (interestingly, the plot of this play is the same as the play Stelio Effrena is writing for La Foscarina) but then changed his mind and gave it to her great rival, Sarah Bernhardt instead. Despite this betrayal of trust, Duse performed in several other of his plays, regularly losing money because his dramatic output was not a success. Ironically, the one play he wrote that was a hit, La figlia di Iorio, starred another actress, Irma Grammatica, because Duse was ill on the opening night and he would not postpone it.
D’Annunzio’s novels and plays shocked because of their combination of sex and violence. His female characters are raped, tortured, driven mad, killed, dismembered, or abandoned, and in Il Fuoco Stelio fantasises about La Foscarina being possessed by other men. Il Fuoco was more shocking because it was so obviously a roman à clef, and because it exposed so much about Duse’s private life. She agreed to publication, however, on the grounds that her suffering was less important than the creation of a great work of Italian art, as she put it in a letter to her agent. Both she and D’Annunzio were passionate nationalists, an ideological stance that led D’Annunzio to embrace Mussolini’s fascism, his flamboyant over-the-top rhetoric appealing to the mood of the time. For a time they planned to create an Italian national theatre, but the animosity of their break-up in 1904 ended that possibility, and in any case, D’Annunzio’s financial profligacy and unreliability could no longer be ignored. Duse, the child of travelling performers, had a strong sense of financial management and had brought up her daughter Enrichetta as a single parent, so although she had invested a lot in D’Annunzio’s plays, she knew when to draw the line. She backed his six-hour epic, Francesca da Rimini in 1901, but the problems between them led Adelaide Ristori, the grande dame of Italian theatre to remark that ‘nobody would be surprised if it ended with a revolver’.
The Duse-D’Annunzio affair had begun in Venice, so using the city as the setting for the affair between Stelio Effrena and La Foscarina both reflected reality and served a particular purpose. For the city changes radically as the seasonal light changes, a phenomenon noted by many other writers and artists. As they move towards their final parting, the suspense of the situation is mirrored in the lagoon:
‘They rested on a low wall, overlooking the water. the lagoon was so calm and still in the solstice that the shape of clouds and shores reflected in it seemed to take on an ideal quality, as though imitated by art.’ After their conversation, when la foscarina realises that they can never build a life together, her sadness is depicted through another description of the lagoon:
‘The lagoon and the gathering darkness were swallowing all shapes and colours. All that interrupted that monotony of greyness were the rows of posts, like a procession of monks on a path of ashes. in the distance, Venice was smoking like the remnants of a vast pillage.’
The language of Il Fuoco is as excessive as the plot, but the descriptions of Venice are the best part of this often unreadable book because they are so beautifully wrought and so recognisable. D’Annunzio was, and remains a fine poet, though his prose and drama are dated and almost absurd in their hyperbole. And although he undoubtedly committed a cruel act of betrayal of the woman he claimed to be in love with at the time, the passages where La Foscarina talks about her early years as a child actress, most notably her appearance in the Arena at Verona playing Juliet, give us some insight into the otherwise very private life of the great Eleonora Duse.
‘The city is not only a setting for the doomed love story of the two protagonists ... it also assumes the role of a character,and as the mood of Venice changes with the end of summerand the onset of winter, so D’Annunzio’s extravagantly sensual descriptions mirror the stages of the break-up of the relationship.’
Susan Bassnett FRSL has just retired from Warwick where she was Professor of Comparative Literature and a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor. She began her academic career in Italy, moving via the United States to the University of Warwick. She is one of the leading figures and founding scholars in the discipline of Translation Studies. She is author of over 20 books, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a council member of the Academia Europaea. Her translation of D’Annunzio’s ‘The Flame’ appeared in 1991.
Professor Susan Bassnett FRSL
Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies
s dot bassnett at warwick dot ac dot uk