Even visiting it every day would not fail to amaze you, so many are the surprises that the Vittoriale degli Italiani holds. It is absolutely one of the best things to do on Lake Garda.
Much also depends on you, on what you are looking for. In this article you will learn many interesting facts about the Vittoriale and its host: the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Thanks to Marisa Fanconi (a licensed tour guide working on Lake Garda and the entire rest of the province of Brescia), who wrote this article, you will be able to get into the spirit of the place by discovering D’Annunzio’s life and the great connection with his home: the Vittoriale.
The allure of the Vittoriale degli Italiani
You may have been attracted to D’Annunzio’s reputation as “tombeur de femmes“, his worldly, chatty side, or it may have been his passion for history and literature that drove you. Or it may simply have been word of mouth that landed you in old Gardone.
It is said that the Vittoriale degli Italiani is a unique, inimitable place, and it is: where else have you ever boarded a real ship moored among the trees in a forest, or taken off in a plane hanging from the ceiling? You may like this place or be puzzled by it, but you will never forget it.
What is the Vittoriale in Gardone Riviera?
The Vittoriale holds many realities at once. It is thefinal resting place of a poet, a monument to Italy’s Victory in the Great War, a place where sacred and profane hold hands, a shrine that preserves the memory of the fallen, a private graveyard where beloved greyhounds rest not far from their master.
But that’s not all. The Vittoriale degli Italiani is also an oasis of greenery overlooking the spectacular blue of Lake Garda, with Borghese Island providing a scenic backdrop. But to fully savor it, to grasp its essence, one must immerse oneself in the spirit of its “magnificent inhabitant.”
Curiosities about the Vittoriale and D’annunzio
One enters the citadel in silence, a terracotta figure bringing his index finger to his lips reminds us, walking down a slightly uphill driveway. After a few steps, you come to a fork in the road. It is up to you to decide whether to continue downhill or uphill, whether to take the right or the left. This will not be the only choice you will be called upon to make in this place that will leave an indelible mark on you.
In fact, you will leave the Vittoriale with a new vigor, “not humble before life but humble before art” to use the words of the poet D’Annunzio himself.
The origin of the name
You may have wondered about the origin of the name Vittoriale degli Italiani.
The Vate left no precise indication and hypotheses have been made. Certainly the name pays tribute to Italy’s Victory in World War I by celebrating the genius and daring deeds of the poet-soldier. A strong analogy with the Vittoriano in Rome, which celebrates the Father of the Fatherland, King Victor Emmanuel II, and the entire Risorgimento.
There is also mention of theinfluence of a book with a chivalric theme, titled Victorial, which tells the life of a Spanish nobleman. The poet had read it during his stay in France and was so fascinated by it that he had a copy in his library.
At the Vittoriale the references to the Great War are many and touching. There we find the Water of the Piave, the Fiumana Land, a flag bloodied by a comrade in battle, the fragment of a grenade that missed its target, the boulders of the Karst, the mountains on which they fought. All sacred relics for D’Annunzio.
The noble coat of arms: a bit of history
In designing his noble coat of arms, the Vate inserted a helmet and a snow-capped peak, two obvious reminders of the conflict. That peak, now in Slovenia but once the extreme border between Italy and Yugoslavia, inspired the noble title “Prince of Montenevoso” with which he was awarded in 1924, when Fiume, now Rijeka and a city in Croatia, was finally annexed to Italy. He who was not born a nobleman managed to elevate his wife, who was born a duchess, to the rank of princess.
His surname was not the same as that of his ancestors known instead as Rapagnetta. It was his father who had taken it from a maternal uncle, a fishing boat owner, who had adopted him.
I always like to highlight the happy combination of his first and last name that he also liked to emphasize: Gabriel as the Archangel who announced to Mary that she would become a mother. The representations of the Annunciation scattered throughout the Priory are thus a veiled tribute to the owner.
How to visit the Vittoriale degli Italiani
Where to start the visit and how much time will it take?
Ideally, you should be able to stay in D’Annunzio’s house for a full day, with the possibility of having lunch in a trattoria in the village. But if you only have half a day at your disposal, that’s fine too; it will be enough to give you an idea and vow to come back. The “Holy Factory” is vast and articulate, full of quotations and subtle references. It is an ongoing challenge to our knowledge, the more you know the more you see.
The realization of the complex kept busy for several years the architect Giancarlo Maroni, who was responsible for “the framework,” and the poet who reserved instead “the decoration.” A four-handed work thanks to which the original house “more suitable for a country curate” was transformed into the complex we admire today.
It was his friends who had used that ironic expression to remark how the style of this simple building was a far cry from the pageantry of the aristocratic palaces he had inhabited until then. “Hic manebimus optime” (here we will be just fine) D’Annunzio instead uttered when he saw it. If the countless books left by the previous owner impressed him, the sight of the polished grand piano electrocuted him. The mansion, once owned by art critic Heinrich Thode, held within it that rare jewel that had belonged to the great composer Listz. “I was born on the knees of music” he said of himself, and to music he reserved ample space in the Priory, as he called his new residence. Visiting it, you will pass through the “Gasparo Camerata,” soundproofed with precious damasks, and in other rooms you will find the organs loved by pianist Luisa Baccara, the poet’s last companion.
The Priory is definitely to be included in the program of visiting the Vittoriale degli Italiani. It will be an experience that I like to call “mystical,” with the leitmotif of the penumbra and a single clear room, the workshop, in which D’Annunzio forged his works.
Writing was his craft, he called himself “worker of the word” and the allusive presence of the anvil testifies to this. The Virgilian verse“hoc opus, hic labor est” (this the work, this the toil) is written on the outside to emphasize that no great undertaking is accomplished without commitment and industriousness.
The entrance is tiny and low, one must bow to pass. Thinking about writing in the old days, besides being an intellectual effort, it was also a great physical effort. Everything was composed by hand with quill pen dipped in ink. No automatic correctors, no copy and paste. D’Annunzio devoted himself unceasingly to writing, from adolescence until old age. It was one of the most conspicuous sources of his income.
D’Annunzio: writing, successful works, women
Visitors to the Vittoriale on Lake Garda often wonder what miraculous spring D’Annunzio drew on to invest in such ambitious projects. First and foremost, he wrote. He worked diligently, many hours a day.
His works were highly successful, printed and reprinted.
The edition of his Opera Omnia edited by Mondadori yielded him the astounding sum of ten million liras. Even today it is hard to imagine what that sum meant in 1926. He was undoubtedly a capable, charming, multifaceted man, a creative genius, and many were the admirers who vied to pay homage to him.
And then…there were the women. He surrounded himself with aristocratic women, those of the high nobility with two or three last names to be clear, all beautiful and very rich. It cannot be said of him that he was handsome, nor that he had an armorer’s physique, but he knew how to speak to their hearts, he won them over with poetry, he designed dresses for them that enhanced their femininity.
D’Annunzio looked forward, he was brave, he could shape the unimaginable, for many he was “The Commander.” The one who had “dared the inosable” in the Bay of Buccari, risking his life to sink Austrian submarines, the one of the daring Flight over Vienna to launch tricolor leaflets, the one of the Regency of Fiume. His great and risky exploits had the effect of boosting the morale of soldiers at the front and, when the war was over, of holding high the honor of the homeland.“Memento Audere Semper,” remember to always dare, is one of his most famous mottos.
Why the Vittoriale in Gardone Riviera?
After World War I, considering the Italian victory unjustly mutilated on the eastern border, D’Annunzio, in a show of force hostile to the Italian government and the Allies, disobeyed. He feverishly set out for Rijeka followed by his loyal legionnaires and occupied it. The occupation, which lasted just over a year, ended with the tragic “Bloody Christmas” in which the occupying Italians were forcibly evicted by other Italians, the regular army troops.
It was then that D’Annunzio was forced to abandon the governors’ palace on Rijeka’s hill and look for a new home. He wanted it this time away from the clamor, a secluded refuge in which to store the remains of his shipwrecks; he found it in Gardone Riviera, on Lake Garda. He initially rented it and then bought it. It was the only home he owned and he made a gift of it to the Italians “considering it a testament of soul and stone.” Here then is revealed the meaning of the curious motto “I have what I have donated” found at the beginning of the visit and of the name “Vittoriale degli Italiani.”
The colors of the lake must have reminded him of those of the city of Rijeka, overlooking the Adriatic and once under Venetian rule just like the Garda Riviera. Here, too, the same clear blue of the Gulf of Kvarner, the rarely impetuous wind, the play of light of that sea beloved already in his native Pescara.
The unbridled life of the poet at the Vittoriale
D’Annunzio had already frequented the lake at the time of his overwhelming passion for Alessandra Starabba di Rudinì. Alessandra, daughter of the then prime minister, lived in the Carlotti villa in Garda inherited from her late husband, Marquis Carlotti. It was an incredible scandal for her family; he was used to it. Already his marriage to Maria Hardouin of the Dukes of Gallese had caused a huge stir. It was Alessandra Starabba di Rudinì, nicknamed “Nike” for her statuesque beauty who supplanted the famous actress Eleonora Duse, companion of the writer’s most fruitful years. But soon she too was abandoned and retired to a Carmelite convent. Women, women, women…seduced and abandoned, fickle, capricious, friends, generous, an endless list.
For the incorrigible playboy, even the automobile is female. One day he wrote to Senator Giovanni Agnelli:
“The Automobile is feminine. This has the grace, the slenderness, the vivacity of a seductress; it has, moreover, a virtue unknown to women: perfect obedience. But, by contrast, of women it has the casual levity in overcoming all roughness.”
And he pleased him. He owned several, some today are at the Vittoriale on display. As an adventurous man, he loved to race, to experience the thrill of speed whether he was aboard a speedboat, a plane or a car, and pressing on the accelerator, almost emulating the drivers of the Mille Miglia, he collected several fines. He wittily called them the “new scourge.” Who knows what the local fishermen and peasants must have thought of him when they saw him arrive at full speed, leaving behind a cloud of dust…in that 1930s Gardone, with its dirt roads full of potholes.
A few tips for discovering the Vittoriale
Now that you have gotten closer to the spirit of the place and its creator, you are ready to dive into the adventure. If you have half a day at your disposal, I recommend you don’t miss the Theater, the Priory, the gardens with the Nave Puglia, the Anti-Submarine Motorboat of the Beffa di Buccari, the Mausoleum on the hill, the historic cars, and the Flight over Vienna plane.
If, on the other hand, you can stay all day, move also to the Arengario, the Portico del Parente and the rest of the gardens leading down from the Acqua Pazza valley to the Rivano Portal. The Pond of Dances, shaped like a violin, will seal your visit with a musical reminder.
“I live and work, and make music, in the solitude of the Vittoriale and dedicate to my walls the assiduous love that binds me to the pages of my new books.”