The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919
Allies – an agreement that ministers did not know was already in his pocket. The repudiation followed on 4 May. Next day, the poet D’Annunzio gave a well-trailed, bloodcurdling speech in Genoa. Even though Salandra kept the King and his ministers away from Genoa, the portent was clear to everybody. Cadorna hurried to Salandra’s office. ‘But this means immediate war!’ he said. ‘Yes indeed,’ said the Prime Minister, ‘we have to go to war by the 26th of this month.’
    ‘What! But I don’t know anything about it!’
    ‘Well, you should hurry up …’
    In a last bid to avert war, the Vatican persuaded Vienna to reiterate its offer of 27 March, bolstered with German guarantees. But the Austrians were flushed with recent success over the Russians and more interested in crushing Italy than bargaining. Berlin, too, had lost interest; the German foreign minister wished they only had enough troops ‘to rebuff those knaves’. After the first clash, he said, they would scamper away to southern Italy and the people would overthrow the government that had pitched them into a senseless war.

THREE
Free Spirits
‘There’s no such thing as a Latin. That is
“Latin” thinking. You are so proud of your
defects.’ Rinaldi looked up and laughed .
    H EMINGWAY , A Farewell to Arms (1929)
    D’Annunzio and Mussolini: Demagogues for War
    Salandra and Sonnino had no more charisma than the King. Incapable of stirring the crowds themselves, and still needing (as members of a minority government) to keep the extreme warmongers at arm’s length, they wanted to turn their conspiracy into a mass movement. Even with the support of the press, the agitators and intellectuals could not reach a broad enough public. Eventually this vital task was contracted to Gabriele D’Annunzio.
    Between the death of Verdi in 1901 and Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, D’Annunzio became the most famous Italian in the world. Born in 1863, he started publishing verse in his teens. By his thirties, he was the country’s best-known poet, most acclaimed novelist and glittering dramatist. He had a matchless ear for the mellifluous, incantatory qualities of the language. Artistically bold and highly intelligent, he owned all the talents for a brilliant career. An exuberant, insatiably acquisitive personality, he lived in fine villas and had countless love affairs. Magnetised by his reputation, society ladies reserved rooms in hotels where he stayed, hoping to catch his eye. He was a committed dandy; his collars were the stiffest, his creases the sharpest, his buttonhole carnations the whitest. His greyhounds wore livery tailored by Hermès. His correspondence with his jeweller has been published as a separate volume. Even his debts were legendary.
    His status was always controversial. Accusations of plagiarism were hard to shake off. In Rome, the Catholic Church placed his works – rife with decadent sensuality – on the Index of Prohibited Books. In Dublin, the student James Joyce claimed that D’Annunzio had broken new ground in fiction. (He would later call him one of the three greatest natural talents among nineteenth-century writers.) In London – where at least one of his plays was banned – Henry James reviewed his novels. In Paris, the young Marcel Proust hailed him as a great writer. His steadiest biographer, John Woodhouse, catches the glitter of his celebrity before the flight to France in 1910: ‘For almost thirty years not a week had passed without D’Annunzio’s name appearing in the newspapers, and for almost as long his name had been held before the public thanks to the undeniable fact that his works had been on display in the windows of every bookseller in Italy.’ In short, he acquired fame, salted with notoriety, on the scale that Byron and Liszt had enjoyed: glamour of the kind now reserved to film stars, rock musicians or footballers.
    If this glamour is now hard to convey, it is partly because his work has

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