Our decision to go to Gardone last Monday was capricious: the boat trip across Lake Garda seemed about the right length, the departure time was civilised and on a Monday we knew that most of the visitor attractions in the area would be closed. Although Keir knew a little of Gabriele d'Annunzio's history, he knew nothing of the local connection and I (like many people, I suspect) had never heard of this extraordinary man: politician, poet, philosopher, photographer, philanderer, air pilot, collector, self-publicist, soldier and man of action.
His house, gardens and citadel of Il Vittoriale stands just above Gardone and although the Prioria, his actual house was closed (it being a Monday), we found the visit wholly fascinating. He had a distinguished career in World War 1: after losing his right eye in a flying accident in 1916, he continued flying, undaunted, and two years later led the daring raid that dropped 400,000 pamphlets in Italian and German over Vienna. In September 1919 he led 2000 men to occupy Fiume (now Rijeke) and was received as a deliverer by the Italian nationalist faction of its population, who named him governor. Although he was expelled at the end of 1920, it was an extraordinary episode. He later became infamous for his relationship with Mussolini, although it emerged that they were poles apart on many issues, and d'Annunzio was contemptuous of Hitler, whom he called "that evil clown".
Between 1921 and 1938 d'Annunzio built his last residence here, collecting symbols and relics of his own life and of various campaigns. This led to some strange exhibits in his garden, for example one building houses the motor torpedo boat MAS96 of his Buccari hoax "beffa di Buccari" and over a round theatre space hangs the airplane from his daring flight over Vienna. And the most surprising garden ornament I've ever seen, built into the hillside, is the bow section of the warship Puglia (used as a minelayer in World War 1 and retired in 1923), donated by the Italian Navy. The epic story of how this cruiser was dismantled, transported and installed is told in the display room at the foot of a mast.
D'Annunzio was a brilliant self-publicist, and when sales of his first, self-published book were flagging, he announced his own death in order to boost sales of the new edition, a ploy that worked brilliantly. (I wondered about this idea to increase sales of Rucksack Readers, but have been discouraged by kind friends from trying.) But I've just discovered a website devoted to his memory, and found that you can, 74 years after his death, sign up for a monthly newsletter about him. How delighted would he have been? Doubtless he would also have had a blog, a Facebook wall and have been a prolific tweeter.