I arrived to Vittoriale degli Italiani on 13 August, exactly 111 years after Gabriele D’Annunzio was (in)famously defenestrated from his villa. This – yet unresolved – act of violence in Gardone della Garda is one that arguably led to Mussolini’s rise to power -as his much more charismatic and accomplished rival was left incapacitated during key political events – and certainly led to creation of this intriguing and above all impressive complex.
To appease D’Annunzio the Fascist government lavishly funded his vision for his grandiose memorial/golden cage. In the end in Vittoriale, along with D’Annunzio’s grandiose tomb/chapel and a museum, you can find his airplane, parts of ship mounted upon a hill, along with several theatres, all surrounded by a delightfully laid out garden. Following the fashions of the time, the complex is mostly constructed in Rationalist/Modernist style by Giancarlo Maroni, but is a very boastful, romantic project, much like the guy to whom it was dedicated.
Walking through it offers a lot of food for thought. You can muse whether D’Annuznio’s flamboyance and vanity ultimately cost him political power and what sort of time could create someone like D’Annunzio, who aspired to attanining the Nietzschean ideal of the Ubermensch, and in the process became one of the most successful artists, warriors and politicians of his era. Given my love of memorials and political architecture, was struck by how much Italy expended efforts in crafting a national identity using architecture.
These efforts much predate Fascist push towards very symbolic monumental modernism. You can see the idea in Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which was designed just as the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861 (the construction was finished in 1877), and was copied in Naples to give a sense of unified national identity. The wish to show off wealth, technological progress along with patriotic symbols carried through to Vittoriale – which is basically a shrine to Italian victories, built at a very strange time for the country.
Italy emerged as a victor in WWI, but many, led by D’Annunzio thought it was hard done by having to renounce its ambitions towards much ofthe Eastern coast of the Adriatic. The resentment of seeing much of it fall into Yugoslav hands, spurred D’Annunzio to create his short-lived city state around Fiume (Rijeka) and you can still see traces of Italian irredentism in the complex. The wall of the courtyard around the main house/museum contains memorials to Italian populations of not only Fiume and Spalato (Split) – which were lost after WWI – but also more recent ones to Italians who left Istria and Zadar after WWII.
Still the general feeling of the place is quite upbeat and showy, in order to spur Italians (and Italophiles) to copy D’Annunzio’s various feats of courage in service of his beloved country (they included several ruses during WWI). The magical views over the Lake Garda, of course help with raising spirits so much that you wonder whether Salo was declared the capital of rump Fascist Italy simply because Vittoriale provided a steady stream of copium as everything crumbled.
The next day I went to Brescia and was equally impressed by its Victory square, also built to show Italian excellence in a city whose resistance to foreign rule inspired Italian unification. The square, built after an unsanitary medieval quarter was levelled, includes the oldest skyscraper in Italy and some of the most impressive pieces of Rationalist architecture. After WWII the most overt symbols of Fasicsm were removed, including a giant male nude statue (called the Spirit of Fascism), but much of the very patriotic symbolism is still there and the square manages to be breathtaking – no small feat in a city as beautiful and interesting as Brescia.
Even without consciously patriotic architecture, it is buildings that make Italy amazing and give it its charm. Driving back through Slavonia and Syrmia, down the old Brotherhood and Unity highway I could not but imagine how nicer this dull ride would be if the rolling hills and Fruška gora were dotted with towns and villas like those between Brescia and Venice (serving as a borderland between Ottoman Empire and the West did not help). Given the importance of buildings to the country’s identity it is hardly surprising that Italy has the highest number of architects per capita in the world (roughly 0.25% of Italians of architects compared to the European average of between 0.1% and 0.05%).
Maybe states with crumbling national identities could import some to help them with very concrete state-building?