- Dante in Gabriele D’annunzio’s Poetry and ProseFrom Mystical Lover to Poeta Vate
Dante is a recurring presence in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s prose and lyric works, both as a literary echo and as the object of creative refashioning. One only needs to think of the innumerable more or less literal quotations from the medieval poet that D’Annunzio inserts into his poetry, novels, and personal diaries. Dante inhabits D’Annunzio’s imagination from his early poetic production to his theatrical work Francesca da Rimini, a retelling of Canto 5, his war prose, and his prose poem Il Notturno, which in its structure repeats the three cantiche of the Divina Commedia.
In this article, I do not discuss Dante’s literary influence on D’Annunzio—a topic on which much scholarship has been produced1—but present D’Annunzio’s reinvention and representation of the character of the Florentine poet. Drawing on Paolo Valesio’s theoretical premise in Gabriele D’Annunzio: The Dark Flame, I consider Dante in D’Annunzio’s literary production as a “cultural sign,” that is, “some–body who finds himself or herself in the process of sign production set into motion by somebody else.”2 The sign Dante appears in a multiplicity of contexts, as throughout the centuries many authors have used both the life of the poet and the theme of the Commedia to comment upon their own existential or political situation, or else they have made Dante a trope for specific elements in the cultural discourses of their time. For instance, nineteenth-century European Romanticism, in particular Thomas Carlyle in his Hero and Hero Worship, made Dante a crucial element in the creation of the myth of a “national genius.” Indeed, the manipulation of a given “body” results in a cultural operation that turns that body into a sign.
Here, I show that D’Annunzio’s use of Dante reflects his relationship with the political establishment of post-unification Italy and his [End Page 111] views on the role and function of the poet in Italian society at the turn of the twentieth century. In D’Annunzio’s writings, the Florentine poet appears as two different characters: Dante as the mystical lover of Beatrice, and Dante the exile and the writer of the Commedia. Both of these representations of Dante convey D’Annunzio’s critique of the political situation of Italy and of the ruling class governing the country. However, the two images of Dante embody two different attitudes on the part of the modern poet with regard to political engagement, as they are embedded in two different cultural and ideological contexts, that of fin de siècle aestheticism and that of early-twentieth-century nationalism. In fact, the two representations of Dante reflect D’Annunzio’s ideological shift at the end of the nineteenth century and his changed views on the problem of the intellectual’s role in society.
I will begin my analysis by briefly outlining the political vicissitudes of Italy at the turn of and in the early twentieth century, and their repercussions on the intellectual circles of the newly founded country. Interestingly, the figure of Dante works as a barometer for the degree of political activism among Italian intellectuals: Dante is evoked to represent the ideal image of the man of letters in his relationship with politics. In the nineteenth century, Italian intellectuals played a pivotal role in the process that led to the unification of the peninsula. For many of them, Dante had been an inspirational figure, as he represented the prototype of the engaged intellectual. His political passion and troubled existence mirrored the patriots’ own vicissitudes and their fight for a unified Italy. For instance, both Giuseppe Mazzini and Giosuè Carducci proposed an interpretation of Dante that highlights almost exclusively his political passion and his experience of exile.3
The accomplishment of Italy’s unity did not lead to the creation of the strong nation that poets, artists, and patriots had envisioned. The myriad problems that arose with unification, the social inequalities, and the perceived mediocrity of the ruling class, composed of bureaucrats and professional politicians rather than intellectuals, engendered a deep discontent among...