New statue unsettles Italian city: Is it celebrating a poet or a nationalist?
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New statue unsettles Italian city: Is it celebrating a poet or a nationalist?
Rosa Cacioppo Mantini, 92, after arranging an Italian flag on a statue of the writer Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose introduction in Trieste, Italy, has not been universally welcomed, on Oct. 12, 2019. Boasting a proud literary pedigree, Trieste is populated with statues. But none has provoked passions like that of d’Annunzio, who inspired Fascism and briefly ruled his own state last century. Francesca Volpi/The New York Times.

by Jason Horowitz

TRIESTE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On a recent afternoon, a little girl gently patted the shoulder of a statue of Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio, depicted sitting cross-legged and reading on a bench in a central square.

“This is a girl who shows respect,” said Rosa Cacioppo Mantini, a 92-year-old retired high school literature teacher and committed Fascist who nearly every day stands guard over the statue and adorns it with an Italian flag.

Then the little girl stepped back, stomped on d’Annunzio’s bronze foot and slapped his bald head.

“Disrespectful!” Mantini seethed.

Such are the passions provoked these days by d’Annunzio, whose introduction into Trieste’s Piazza della Borsa in September has anguished many local residents.

Once the cosmopolitan port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste boasts a proud literary pedigree. The city is populated with statues; James Joyce, who wrote some of his masterpieces while living in Trieste, is among them, strolling across the Grand Canal on the Ponterosso bridge.

As a poet, d’Annunzio is considered among the great Italian stylists. But some residents complain that it is d’Annunzio’s politics, not his letters, that motived the initiative to place him in their city, to which he had little connection.

On Sept. 12, 1919, 100 years to the day before his statue was unveiled, d’Annunzio led his company of black-clad rebel Italian soldiers and irregulars into the city of Fiume on the Adriatic coast. The expedition, filled with unapologetic militarism, inspired Fascism and Mussolini.

For 15 months straddling 1919 and 1920, d’Annunzio ruled as a poet-soldier-dictator over the autonomous Free State of Fiume in a small patch of what is today Croatia.

With Italian nationalism back in vogue, so apparently is d’Annunzio, at least among Italy’s right wing, which has claimed the decadent, priapic and prolific literary genius as one of their own.

“The great d’Annunzio,” Matteo Salvini, Italy’s most popular nationalist politician, has called him.

Some of d’Annunzio’s modern-day fans have sought to rescue the poet, sometimes referred to as “The Bard,” from the stigma of Fascism.

Last spring, the president of the Vittoriale degli Italiani, the museum that has been made out of d’Annunzio’s former pleasure palace on Lake Garda, curated an exhibit on Trieste’s waterfront to mark the 100th anniversary of the Fiume campaign.

“The Fiume campaign wasn’t Fascist, just like Gabriele d’Annunzio wasn’t,” the president, Giordano Bruno Guerri, wrote in the exhibit’s catalog.

In an interview, Guerri said that during his visit to Trieste in preparation for the exhibit, he walked with Trieste’s center-right mayor, Roberto Dipiazza, past a statue of one the city’s native poets. The mayor then proposed a statue of d’Annunzio for Trieste and the curator told him he was in luck, he had a spare mold to make one from.

At the statue’s inauguration, Dipiazza called d’Annunzio a “great Italian,” and the criticism “unbelievable.”

His office deferred comment to the city’s cultural assessor, Giorgio Rossi, who said the exhibit and statue were “an occasion to recognize d’Annunzio not only as a literary figure, but above all as a historical figure.”

But there remains uneasiness about the statue — and that history — in a city where newspapers are draped over wooden racks in cafes, bookish tourists follow the footsteps of literary giants, and aspiring writers are still drawn to the brooding, nowhere-place appeal and legacy of lost empire.

Protesters have signed petitions against the statue. Vandals have broken beer bottles over it. Unhappy residents ridicule the fact that the statue’s legs don’t reach the ground, requiring an inelegant footboard to keep his shoes from dangling and earning the likeness a new nickname: “The Short Bard.”

Then there is the more serious fallout, like the protest from neighboring Croatia, which complained that the statue “undermines the friendly and neighborly relations” between the countries.

After the statue was unveiled, the Croats summoned Italy’s ambassador in Zagreb and condemned it as celebrating irredentism, the turn-of-the-20th-century Italian movement to reclaim “unredeemed” lands.

The response is part of the complicated legacy of d’Annunzio, a World War I veteran and pilot who, among his exploits, dropped his own propagandistic poetry over Vienna.

Until the Italian navy finally bombed him out of power, d’Annunzio held choreographed parades, mandated poetry readings and concerts and gave grand speeches from balconies. He introduced himself, Messiah-like, with a pronouncement of “Ecce homo.”

A highly libertine proponent of sexual conquest, phallus-themed slippers and cocaine use, the dandy conqueror — whose leisure wear is on show at “The Fabulous Joy,” a pavilion dedicated to all things d’Annunzio in an amusement park called Gardaland — turned Fiume into a Bohemian hot spot.

But Fiume also became a test run for the trappings of Fascism.

“In the movement which calls itself ‘Fascist,’ has not the best been engendered by my spirit?” d’Annunzio wrote Mussolini after the Duce’s 1922 March on Rome.

Fascists revered him as a John the Baptist figure. Mussolini gave d’Annunzio the title of Prince of Montenevoso and mourned his death in 1938 by proclaiming at d’Annunzio’s funeral, “Italy will arrive at the summit you dreamed of. I swear it.”

Instead, Italy ended up in ruins.

Adjacent to the square where d’Annunzio now sits, a place marker in Trieste’s Piazza Unità d’Italia notes: “On September 18 1938, Mussolini chose this square to announce the issuing of the anti-Jewish racial laws, an irremovable stain of the Fascist regime and of the Italian monarchy.”

In the south of the city, Nazis converted the San Sabba rice factory into the Italian territory’s only concentration camp.

Those associations are downplayed by d’Annunzio’s admirers. A member of Salvini’s League party, Susanna Ceccardi, a European Parliament member from Tuscany, has insisted the statue has nothing to do with politics.

After Croatia’s protest, she appealed for European officials to show support for the statue, “the sole aim of which,” she wrote, “is to commemorate an important Italian writer.”

Still, some wonder why here. “d’Annunzio didn’t engage much with Trieste,” said Mario Cerne, 78, the owner of a bookstore named for the Triestine poet Umberto Saba, a statue of whom stands nearby. As a result, “people have been cold to the new statue,” he said.

That is something of an understatement.

“Some people are mad,” said Cristina Buonaccorsi, 71, who took a selfie with the statue of Joyce to send to her daughter in Ireland.

Joyce, who worked on his masterpieces including “Dubliners,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses” during his years here, admired d’Annunzio’s prose and his shared experimentation with the novel.

But unlike d’Annunzio, Joyce lived all over Trieste, a place he loved for its white wine and mix of languages, religions and ethnicities.

Plaques, above a door on Via San Nicolò, mark the spot where Joyce lived and taught English in the Berlitz School, now the site of a Zara clothing store.

Among his students was Italo Svevo, the pen name of the Jewish writer and businessman Ettore Schmitz, the possible inspiration for Leopold Bloom. Once Joyce discovered him, Svevo, the author of “Zeno’s Conscience,” went on to be recognized as a comic modernist master.

While Joyce and Svevo are woven into Trieste’s skeptical and ironic fabric, d’Annunzio “doesn’t have anything to do” with the city’s literary tradition, said Marina Nadali, 77, a retired literature teacher.

“It’s politics,” she said, standing in front of a statue of Svevo across town.

To a certain extent, Mantini agreed.

As she showed off her lapel flag pin of the Republic of Salò, the Nazi-propped puppet state led by Mussolini, and chased away children tying balloons to d’Annunzio’s head, she looked with adoration at the statue, the legs of which she said may be “too short,” but are beautiful.

“He is a great Italian poet, and thanks to him Fiume returned to Italy,” she said, referring to its subsequent annexation by Mussolini. “And then what happened, happened.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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