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  • Multimedia Archaeologies: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Belle Époque Paris, and the Total Artwork by Andrea Mirabile
  • Ronjaunee Chatterjee (bio)
Multimedia Archaeologies: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Belle Époque Paris, and the Total Artwork. By Andrea Mirabile. Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2014. 215 pp. $64.

Andrea Mirabile’s Multimedia Archaeologies examines the verse-plays of Gabriele D’Annunzio, particularly Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and La Pisanelle. D’Annunzio—twentieth-century Italy’s most famous demagogue, poet, artist, and proto-Fascist celebrity—moved to France on a self-imposed exile from 1910 to 1915, during which he composed a number of now-forgotten works both in French and Italian. The verse-plays from this period are a veritable mélange of archaic references from the Renaissance and medieval period, shot through with a Decadent penchant for aesthetic sensuality and spectacle. These dramas fixate on the erotic martyrdom of saints, a theme for which there is a strong precedent in the works of Wilde, Flaubert (who wrote about St. Sebastian in particular), Swinburne, and most important, Richard Wagner. Mirabile’s study produces a compelling claim that D’Annunzio’s French plays are “total artworks” or Gesamtkunstwerk following the aesthetic ideals of Wagner, and that they “test the distinction between the literary, the musical, and the visual” (25).

The book offers a rigorous comparatist framework from which to reexamine D’Annunzio’s works from his period in France, a prolific set of writings that have been overshadowed by the salacious elements of his life and political affiliations, which included an awkward alliance with Mussolini. The recent publication of a new critical biography (Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War from Knopf) and a Penguin Classics edition of his early novel Pleasure have reintroduced his work to critics and readers outside of Italian Studies. Yet more scholarship is certainly required in order to parse out D’Annunzio’s complex relationship [End Page e-12] to different national movements of Decadence, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde in his varied writings. Mirabile’s study makes use of many unpublished documents housed at the Vittoriale degli Italiani, D’Annunzio’s estate and museum–archive, including D’Annunzio’s large collection of Wagner’s volumes, to advance some of his arguments. The resulting study is dense with archival material and scholarly references, if rather difficult to follow in its opening chapters.

Multimedia Archaeologies is divided into three sections that trace the different artistic mediums in which Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien participates: literature, visual art, music, and cinema. In “The Verbal: Saint Sebastian, Adonis, and Christ,” Mirabile contends that this French play writes a “Genesis story of Modernism” (46) through a complex interweaving of erudition, ambiguity, violence, and stillness. It is worth noting that D’Annunzio wrote and published in French not only because of a cultural attraction, but also due to pressing financial concerns. Yet the five-act mystery play debuted in 1911 in Paris to lukewarm reception, with critics citing its androgynous star Ida Rubenstein as the center of the play’s “lack of decency” (22). Rubenstein, along with the lesbian artist Romaine Brookes (whom D’Annunzio managed to briefly seduce) and aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou form a trio of erotic liaisons that heavily influenced all of D’Annunzio’s work from his exile in Paris. Mirabile argues that these somewhat androgynous figures from D’Annunzio’s personal life shadow the central motif of the Christian martyr St. Sebastian—“a textual and an existential sign”—and contribute to a “typical Dannunzian fusion of art and life” (72). Mirabile also argues throughout the book that this integration of semiotic realms produces a unique type of emerging Modernism and waning Decadence that showcases D’Annunzio’s “total artwork,” one that is distinct from other writers who harbor similar fixations, such as Oscar Wilde (whose decadent verse drama Salome predates D’Annunzio’s by twenty years). Yet it is unclear how this claim arises from a focused discussion of the “verbal,” since much of the chapter is a continuation of the Introduction’s more general discussion of the myth of Saint Sebastian and the messy trajectory of D’Annunzio’s...


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