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The light that blinds: On art in D'Annunzio's La Gioconda.


This article analyzes Gabriele D'Annunzio's 1898 play La Gioconda as a form of modern tragedy with respect to Friedrich Nietzsche's duality of the Apollinian and Dionysian, and with particular emphasis on the motif of light as it appears both in the author's stage directions and in the dialogues. The story of the play revolves around the recurrent Dannunzian theme of the love triangle. A young sculptor of a Nietzschean sensibility struggles with the dilemma between a peaceful family life and the stormy lifestyle of an artist, played out in his relationships with a gentle and caring spouse and his seductive and implacable model, or la nemica. A study of the diverse ways in which the light motif is used and discussed from one act to the next vis-a-vis the Nietzschean duality, while also considering the stylistic contradiction between a bourgeois domestic drama, on the one hand, and a philosophical and lyrical treatise on aesthetic experience, on the other, the article challenges the dichotomy of spouse vs. lover and argues that the artist's imagination conflates the two figures in formulating the ideal of a modern muse, a new 'Gioconda', a timeless figure that synthesizes an ancient primal dynamism, a restrained Renaissance harmony, and a resounding modernity.


art, D'Annunzio, Gioconda, light, Nietzsche

The motif of light is of paramount importance in Gabriele D'Annunzio's 1898 play La Gioconda. As far as the structure of the play is concerned, its function is twofold. On the one hand, it appears in the author's didascalie, or stage directions, as one of the visual components of the envisaged performance. It thus determines the mood of the scene, while the variations in lighting from one act to the next account for crucial differences between the acts, not only in terms of mood but also in terms of narrative development and meaning. On the other hand, it recurs in the dialogues, as some of the characters--those whose intellectual temperament shares something with the author's--consider it a subject worthy of reflection. Hence, character and author complement each other in conveying the thematic significance of light, while together they transport the light motif outside the structural boundaries of the play and into the sphere of intellectual debate. A spectator, of course, whose attention may be drawn mainly to stage sets, costumes, props, sounds, action, and so on may or may not detect the chemistry between stage lighting and dialogues. But if we approach La Gioconda not as an ordinary performance but as a work that desires to be 'read', an essay of sorts, we welcome such chemistry as a vital component of the play's aspiration, as it were, to be an essay about art.

Such a response is to be expected, given the work's title, which makes one wonder what it is that D'Annunzio would like one to learn about Leonardo's Renaissance masterpiece. The author, however, in his signature polyphony of allusions to artworks dating as far back as antiquity, makes no case about Leonardo's work specifically. Rather, he distinguishes this most admired of paintings as an emblem of artistic inspiration, particularly of the kind driven by a mesmerizing woman, and not only as encountered in Leonardo but in a form specific to D'Annunzio's own time. Let us also not assume that the name in the title refers exclusively to one character in the play, the sculptor's model and muse, a seductress who brings havoc to his physical integrity and family life, and whose name is Gioconda Dianti. Rather, I argue, the 'Gioconda' of the title may be sought in the thematic and philosophical tensions upon which the play is built: the tensions between family harmony and the artist's proclivity for a stormy existence; between nature's Apollinian and Dionysian forces, which D'Annunzio had adopted from his reading of Nietzsche; and between the image of the caring spouse and that of the muse, the alluring model, or la nemica (the enemy), to use a distinctively Dannunzian expression. Moreover, these are tensions whose fluidities and overlaps a study of the light motif, one that accounts for its double function as an element of staging and a subject of dialogue, will unravel and elucidate.

The play's essayistic dimension, an 'essay' about artistic inspiration in D'Annunzio's time, is one of the features that distinguish his theater from the traditional stage, speaking to his central role in Italy's theatrical reform at the turn of the century. As innovator, D'Annunzio revived a stage that he saw as dull and anachronistic. His 'theater of poetry' (teatro di poesia)--which aimed, in his own words, to "deliver not that which is expected but that which is unexpected", and to "always disturb, irritate, and sweep away"--refuted an obsolete system that resisted the prospects of experimentation emerging in Europe at the end of the 19th century, a system whose only object of inquiry was the quotidian, with little regard to the latter's theatrical transposition (Angioletti, 2010: 8). (1) He instead sought to revive the ceremonial nature of ancient drama. The seemingly long-winded language infused action with poetry, thus surpassing the model's mere imitation that had dominated the stage. Not imitation but re-elaboration was the goal of his modern tragedies. The word aimed to unveil the poetry that he saw as inherent in daily reality. The quotidian is worthy of inquiry only as the bearer of a hidden lyricism that the artist is able to make manifest. The stage directions themselves display an elevated style, defining an ambiance that interprets--not copies--reality. If scenery ordinarily consisted of rudimentary decor obeying the word, in D'Annunzio no aspect submerges another. Word, scenery, acting, costumes, and music--each preserves its aesthetic autonomy, much as its collaboration with every other aspect is coordinated by a governing concept. (2)

The essayistic approach that characterizes La Gioconda is a particular facet of the systematic move away from a traditional mode of representation--one whose formal components defer to the authority of its clear-cut storyline--toward one that deliberately exhibits the autonomy of each component, thus the dynamic process of their continuous disjoining and re-amalgamation, speaking to the reformist vision of his theater as a whole. This self-referential tendency is frequent in early 20th-century art. Discussing D'Annunzio's "early directorial intuition" (l'intuizione protoregistica), Katia Lara Angioletti (2010: 24) describes the "modernity of his attitude" as "his admission of the specificity of theatrical language, a heterogeneous language that is interwoven with the verbal one". Within a self-conscious and heterogeneous style, modernity in La Gioconda is found specifically in its allusions to a concept of the psyche as disjointed and fluctuating, reflective of the new rhythms, enchantments, and skepticisms brought about with industrialization and new science; a concept of the psyche that was further investigated, among others, by Luigi Pirandello and Italo Svevo, and which found a most ardent expression in Italian Futurism and the European avant-garde movements that followed.

In La Gioconda, this disjointed psyche finds its supreme metaphor in the female protagonist's bodily fragmentation. At the play's 1899 premiere in Palermo, the role was performed by one of Europe's greatest actresses, Eleonora Duse, D'Annunzio's lover and muse at the time, for whom he in fact wrote, and to whom he dedicated, the play. Duse, who had a strong influence on D'Annunzio's dramatic endeavor, was unique in Europe's theatrical scene. She combined symbolism with naturalism in such a way that she brought to the stage "the painful neurosis of modern man" (Angioletti, 2010: 29). Lucia Re discusses Duse's acting as the embodiment of a modern malaise. Her "naturalness", she argues, "was not perceived as the mark of a healthy female animal nature, but, on the contrary, as the surfacing of an inner malady, a sort of gigantic neurosis". The ability to create deeply neurotic and "hysterical" characters corresponded precisely to Duse's "famous modernity". "This was the image of 'modern' woman and, indeed, of modernity itself (Re, 2004: 102).

The play, set "nel tempo nostra" (in our time), is divided into four acts, the first two of which are set in the Florentine home of Lucio Settala, a young sculptor living with his wife Silvia and child Beata. The play opens during Lucio's convalescence from a suicide attempt, after falling prey to the seductions of Gioconda, his model who inspired his latest masterpiece, a statue of the Sphinx. Nearing full recovery, Lucio recognizes the advantages of being in the care of devoted and gentle Silvia. In the second act, however, he confesses to his friend Cosimo Dalbo that he feels powerless against his alluring model, who still waits for him every day in his studio. The third act takes place at the studio, where, unbeknownst to Lucio, Silvia confronts Gioconda. Desperate to protect what she sees as Lucio's salvation under her care, Silvia lies to Gioconda, saying that Lucio has sent her to deliver the message that he no longer loves her. Overcome by anger upon hearing these words, Gioconda rushes into the adjacent room to destroy the marvelous statue whose creation she had inspired. Silvia, overwhelmed by regret for her deceitful act, tries to prevent the statue from crashing by placing her hands beneath it. The tragic act, which in Greek style occurs off stage, leaves Silvia handless. Despite her sacrifice, Lucio leaves with Gioconda. The last act transports us to a house on the seaside in Bocca d'Arno, where a lonely Silvia welcomes the visits of the Sirenetta, a seer emerging from the woods with poems and natural objects gathered from the shore, and of little Beata, whom she can no longer embrace and whose flowers she can no longer grasp.

At once, the stage directions declare the author's intention to establish links between scenery and character, such that a given set or prop expresses the frame of mind of a particular character, a technique akin to what TS Eliot (1928) was to name "objective correlative" in 'Hamlet and His Problems'. The tranquility and harmony of the Settala parlor represent the dominating presence of even-tempered and thoughtful Silvia:
Una stanza quadrata e calma, ove la disposizione di tutte le cose
rivela la ricerca di un'armonia singolare, indica il segreto di una
rispondenza profonda tra le linee visibili e la qualita dell'anima
abitatrice che le scelse e le ama. Tutto intorno sembra ordinato dalle
mani di una Grazia pensierosa. L'imagine di una vita dolce e raccolta
si genera dall'aspetto del luogo. (D'Annunzio, 2013: 227) (3)

The orderly harmony of the interiors reproduces that of the exteriors. Two large windows reveal the little hill of San Miniato, with its Basilica and Convent, and 'la Bella Villanella', for D'Annunzio the purest vessel of Franciscan simplicity. 'La Bella Villanella', or 'the beautiful young peasant woman', is how Michelangelo baptized the church of San Salvatore al Monte, erected in 1499-1503 by Simone del Pollaiolo. Leonardo had also contributed to its architectural structure. (4) The church is also distinguished by its symmetrical facade. Symmetry, order, harmony, simplicity, and tranquility reign in this afternoon, while "Per entrambe le finestre entrano il lume, il fiato e la melodia di aprile" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 227). (5)

At first glance, a dilemma between family and art, incarnated in Lucio's involvement with two women--the gentle and virtuous spouse, and the sadistic and tempting model--is what drives this story, thus resuming the theme of the triangle that defined D'Annunzio's earliest novels, Il piacere (1889) and L'innocente (1892), and other works that followed. The opposition, however, is not absolute. From the very beginning, the character of Silvia is itself assembled through references to the artistic tradition. Indeed, the question is not whether or not, or to what extent, Silvia is associated with art, but with which kind of art she is associated. The idyllic Renaissance landscape, which complements the interiors in conveying her disposition, appears a second time in the opening scene only to reassert the relationship, now less equivocally. During a conversation with the old man and Lucio's sculpture maestro Lorenzo Gaddi, "Silvia, poggiata le reni al davanzale, rimane volta verso di lui; e il suo viso campeggia nell'aria cerulea dove sfonda il bel poggio religioso" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 229; my emphasis). (6) The verb sfondare, with which D'Annunzio describes the function of the hill in the image that he envisions, means, among other things, 'to stave in', 'to pierce through', or 'to make one's way'. It is also used to describe imagistic representations based on perspective, where the image, in its illusionary three-dimensionality, seems to break, or pierce through, the surface upon which it rests. (7) By positioning Silvia against the window frame, with the hill and its churches "piercing through" in the background, D'Annunzio creates an image that not only fixes Silvia into a Renaissance scene but, with its perspective tendency, itself assumes the form of a Renaissance painting, one whose main object is Silvia, while the lyrical landscape, as in Leonardo's Gioconda, instills life into the background.

By making this compositional allusion to Leonardo's painting--which, given the play's title, is easy to discern--D'Annunzio presents Silvia herself as a muse. He thus establishes early on that the rivalry between Silvia and Gioconda Dianti is not simply one between wife and model, family and art, but one between two muses, where each muse represents a different artistic tradition. (8) Surely, the analogy that he draws between the figure of Mona Lisa and Silvia is not plain, just as he is uninterested in a direct analogy between Mona Lisa and Gioconda Dianti. Importantly, Silvia's most riveting trait is not her smile but her hands. As noted, D'Annunzio dedicated the play to his own muse: "Per Eleonora Duse dalle belle mani" ("For Eleonora Duse with the beautiful hands"). He had a fetish for hands, especially when mutilated, as we learn from Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2013: 193): "To Elda, his first love, he wrote: 'Tell me something that would please you and I will do it... would you like me to cut off a hand and send it to you, in a box, by post?'". (9) He was both cruel and passionately in love with Duse. An incident during her tour in Egypt, a few months before she played Silvia in the 1899 premiere of La Gioconda, reveals his enthrallment with beautiful hands found in the midst of agony. During a visit in the Khedive's garden in Cairo, after getting lost in a maze of high myrtle hedges, Duse, in a state of panic, scratched her hands by pushing uselessly through the hedges, while crying in distress. Little did she know that D'Annunzio was nearby, delighting in her pain and taking notes for a similar episode that he was to include in his next novel, Il fuoco (1900). (10)

In diverting the attention from the smile to the hands, he designates a masterwork not of painting but of sculpture as emblematic of his own Renaissance 'Gioconda'. Gaddi, the old maestro, praises Silvia's hands:
Care, care mani, coraggiose e belle, sicure e belle! Sono d'una
straordinaria bellezza le vostre mani, Silvia. Se troppe volte il
dolore ve le ha congiunte, anche ve le ha sublimate, le ha rese
perfette. Sono perfette. Ricordate la donna del Verrocchio, la Donna
dal mazzolino, quella dai capelli a grappoli? Ah, e la! (D'Annunzio,
2013: 232)"

Gaddi notices in a cupboard the reproduction of Andrea del Verrocchio's Donna dal mazzolino, the famous 15th-century bust that foregrounds the woman's silky and slender hands. Its creation perhaps had benefitted also from the participation of Leonardo, who was Verrocchio's most brilliant pupil. (l2) The striking coincidence--that Gaddi compares Silvia's hands to Verrocchio's just a moment before he notices that this very bust is found in the room--congeals the resemblance and ensures our conception of Silvia as a Renaissance figure. To his remarks Silvia replies: "Vivono, e vero?, d'una vita cosi luminosa che il resto delia figura n'e oscurato" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 233). (13) This is not Silvia's first reaction to light. A few moments earlier, while leaning against the window and facing Gaddi, she speaks of her clashing emotions. With Lucio's recovery and revived devotion to her, sometimes the sorrow and the wound seem to vanish into oblivion. Yet other times, the memory of the harsh events thickens and becomes a hard wall, an insurmountable rock. She then turns toward the light and with a deep sigh exclaims: "Come turba quest'aria, che pure e cosi limpida!" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 230). (14) The translucence of this April afternoon, which lets the Renaissance landscape 'make its way' (sfondare, as explained above), is in no way blinding--yet it troubles Silvia. Neither is the glow of the Verrocchio hands, in which she sees the ability to obscure. She finds herself in an idyllic Renaissance scene, yet in the contrasts of its chiaroscuros, even if subtle, she traces the insolent sparkle that drives Lucio the artist. Perhaps she fears that the sparkle of her statuesque hands, unlike those of Verrocchio, has lost some of its insolence.

The drama of light and dark becomes crucial in the third act, which takes place at the sculptor's studio by the Mugnone, a river that runs north of the center of Florence. If Silvia's Renaissance attributes were once Lucio's source of inspiration, the set and props of the third act, clearly contrasting with those of the first, are the objective correlatives of the sculptor's current state of mind, whose new muse is Gioconda Dianti. The high and spacious room has a skylight with the drapes drawn. A dusky, secretive atmosphere dominates, not only because of the scant lighting, but also because of the absent view of the sky and the exteriors, the dark tapestries covering the walls, and a collection of suggestive works of Greek antiquity. A red curtain covers the rectangular opening in the back wall that leads to the adjacent atelier. Fragments of the Phidian frieze of the Parthenon decorate the architrave, while a winged headless figure rises on either side of the curtain: Nike of Samothrace and the one sculpted by Paeonius for the Doric temple of Olympia consecrated to Zeus. The mood sharply differs from the one that softens the other Settala house with its view of the mystic hill. The stage reveals an aspiration to a "vita carnale, vittoriosa e creatrice" ("carnal, victorious, and creative life"). The soothing harmony of the earlier set gives way to a violent upsurge of what I described as the insolent sparkle that steers the artist--which here subjugates the confining and private materiality of the space to a delirious movement of the mind that vigorously refreshes and expands the otherwise still ambience: "Le due Messaggere divine sembrano agitare e ampliare incessantemente l'aria chiusa con la foga del loro volo immenso" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 287). (15)

Silvia arrives at the studio with her sister Francesca Doni shortly before Gioconda. Having not been there for a while, she observes the space so as to refamiliarize herself with it. A secret exit found behind the tapestry on the left wall leads to the models' room, a corridor, and the river. Wishing to confront Gioconda alone, she opens that exit for Francesca to wait outside. Upon opening, a wave of light assaults her. It shines on both of their faces and projects a bright streak on the floor. The play of light and dark, which Silvia encountered previously in Verrocchio's lady, now further intensifies her estrangement. She complains that everything seems larger, higher, and darker. Francesca advises her to draw back the drapes of the skylight, as the shadow probably deceives her, but Silvia refuses. Darkness agitates her less than light does. Light is what assaults her at heart.

She knows that the masterful statue inspired by her rival is hiding behind the red curtain. She contemplates committing an illicit act, which is to enter the atelier. Between her and the curtain, the bright streak of light emerging from the secret exit draws the boundaries between accessible and forbidden territory. For a few moments, she remains immobile and silent against the closed curtain. In the intrusive and prohibiting light, which like a sword cuts in half her once-familiar space, she sees the traces of the implacable sparkle of inspiration, the light that blinds and steers the artist, which she no longer carries for Lucio. She sees the sparkle that is at once bright and obscure, in which radiance and despair, revelation and bemusement, discovery and loss merge into a delirium, awakening in the artist the impulse to convert chaos into meaningful forms.

Francesca's attempts to dissuade her are in vain. Silvia crosses over the shining barrier, raises the curtain, and disappears behind it for a few moments of silence. Then: "D'improvviso, per entro al cupo colore di porpora, riappare la faccia pallidissima dell'eroina, che sembra irradiata dal lume dell'opera sovrana" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 292). (16) She is dazzled and tearful from the joy she experiences at the sight of the supreme beauty. Her tears, the author concludes, are her soul's offering to the masterpiece. The form, drawn out of chaos, is more than meaningful. It bears the trace of lightning that generated its own creation. The great joy that it arouses is inevitable despite the pain. Yet if Silvia transgresses and enters the ethereal space, her rapture is short-lived. When Gioconda arrives, she forcefully proclaims her role as Lucio's new muse. She lays claim to Lucio's atelier, suggesting that Silvia herself is the intruder. She thus reaffirms, in her function as the artist's implacable drive, the same prohibition and delimitation of boundaries that the streak of light has laid out. All the while, her allegedly stunning face is hidden beneath a veil, portraying the irresistible yearning that her enigma instills in the artist, who then embarks on the turbulent voyage of captivating her through poetry. As a muse, Gioconda stands for the light that blinds and obscures, the force that steers the artist. (17)

To be sure, the heated quarrel that ensues between the two women for the possession of one man, where deception and rage lead to the gruesome maiming of the less desired one, strikes one as a scene from a melodramatic thriller. The plot seems banal, according to Barbara Spackman, "and banal it would remain... had the play ended here". She alludes to the enigmatic and lyrical tone of the last act, "in which neither sculptor nor muse is present; there is only the amputee, and the scene of a child's discovery that her mother has no hands" (Spackman, 1989: 194). Piera Perria also addresses the play's stylistic contradiction, which she describes as a "'contrived' mixture" (mistura "forzata") in its relationship between "lyricism and theatricality" (liricita-teatralita). While having to meet box-office demands, she notes, D'Annunzio strives to reconcile the bourgeois theme of the family with symbolist suggestiveness. Quite distinct from the "compact block" that is formed by the first three, the fourth act "becomes for the author the ideal vehicle that gives free play to his taste for the word and its phonic repercussions". The work's poetic language rejects mundane illusionism, and in stark contrast with the otherwise "vaudevillesque" theme "expands the word's semantic substance so as to reinforce its symbolic value" (Perria, 1992: 18-19).

Indeed, the first three acts display a linear sequence of events that are psychologically motivated, tightly joined by clear cause-effect relationships, and involving a domestic drama with a sad ending: a man attempts suicide; the wife hopes to save him from the temptress; a letter from the temptress lures him again; a ferocious clash with the temptress leaves the wife dismembered; the man leaves with the temptress. Hence, the fourth act is an anomaly both narratively and stylistically. It unfolds in a new location that is removed from the rest both geographically and temporally. Minimalist in action, it focuses on the exposition of a new state of affairs, while it stands out with its lyricism. To a lesser extent, and for different reasons, the second act may also be observed as anomalous, specifically the first of its two scenes. It is the only act of the four that does not unfold in a new location. It is set in the same space and at the same time of day as the first act, though a day later. The main change is the weather, which lacks the sunny pleasantness of the previous day. Today's "cielo ingombro e mutevole" ("cluttered and fickle sky") will resonate in Lucio, whose state of mind, despite the rediscovered benefits of family life, is disturbed by his uncontrollable passion for Gioconda. A pattern of repetition and variation relates the second act to the first. Silvia's uneasy response to the translucent afternoon is revalidated by Lucio's "fickle" mental state. Certainly, the value of the second act does not lie in the question of erotic passion per se, but in articulating what it is that eroticism represents for art, as achieved through the private discussion between Lucio and his friend Cosimo. In this manner, minimalist in action like the fourth act, this scene provides the conceptual tools that allow us to properly read what the play's actual conclusion, the dismembered woman by the seaside, teaches about art, ancient and modern, and about art and light.

It must be said that despite their analogies and correspondences, the second act is not as irregular as the fourth. Firstly, it consists of two scenes, the second of which resumes the play's dramatic development. In the middle of the men's discussion, Silvia and Francesca enter the room. After a brief idle talk between the four characters, Cosimo greets them and Lucio escorts him to the garden gate. When the two women are alone, Francesca tells Silvia that she heard of Gioconda's plan to meet Lucio at the studio. Thus they agree to go to the studio and confront Gioconda. At one point, Silvia walks to the window and peeks at Lucio who is still conversing with Cosimo: "Ah, e ancora la, al cancello, che parla, che parla... Sembra fuori di se..." (D'Annunzio, 2013: 281). (18) Secondly, the intimate conversation between the two men is not new. Rather, it resumes the one from the previous day (first act, third scene of four). These formal attributes, however, hardly diminish the unique functionality of the second act, the first scene of which is the only one devoted exclusively to the two men, who thus engage, as we shall see, in a more extensive reflective exchange about desire and artistic creation.

But the earlier conversation is itself critical, as it lays a foundation, structural and thematic, upon which the later one will further build. In the earlier encounter, Cosimo visits Lucio for the first time after the suicide attempt. Silvia leaves the two men alone, thus free to discuss affairs of a personal nature, such as Cosimo's impressions from his recent trip to Egypt. These conversations do not strike one as merely sporadic, but rather as an ongoing state of affairs, a continuous dialogue, one that naturally springs back to life whenever the opportunity arises, in the interludes of their social, professional, and family engagements. This dialogue is essential to the two men's existence. It represents another life that the two men lead, a private, secret life that runs parallel to the one that they routinely recite in the presence of others. It keeps the terrifying truths of their public life securely sealed. It is, in a sense, the story's underlying, suppressed consciousness. We understand, therefore, why Silvia gets uneasy about Lucio's prolonged conversation with Cosimo by the gate: "che parla, che parla... Sembra fuori di se..."

At the first encounter, Cosimo tells Lucio about the Egyptian desert. Glancing at the sunny Tuscan landscape, he begins with a remark about Egyptian light: "cose meravigliose hanno mirato i miei occhi e hanno bevuto una luce al cui paragone anche questa sembra smorta" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 242). (19) He goes on to describe countless exotic things, in a place where "tutto era oblio" ("all was oblivion"), a hallucinatory mixture of aridness and the color white: the white stones of Arab cemeteries, and the swarms of boats in the Nile with their sails that were white like snowflakes. "E a poco a poco mi rapiva un'estasi che tu non puoi ancora aver conosciuto: l'estasi delia luce" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 243). (20) The first time he saw the Sphinx was by night, under the stars. It seemed bellissima--calm, august, cerulean like the night, only because the shadow hid its mutilated face. But when he saw it again by day, its face and back were beastly, the nose and cheeks eaten away, and the droppings of birds stained the fillets. A wingless monster, such as had been imagined by the makers of tombs and embalmers of corpses, it reminded Cosimo of Lucio's masterpiece, which he describes as pure, imperious, and with its living wings imprisoned in the shoulders. The conversation ends with the evocation of a pandemonium of light and sand. Lucio praises the heat of summer, to which Cosimo contrasts the Khamsin, when the desert rises up against the sun.

The second encounter, presented in medias res, exposes Lucio's self-perception as an artist in relation to Gioconda. He explains that what he feels for her is not love but inability to resist: "ella s'e armata di un fascino a cui io non potro sottrarre la mia anima... Il luogo dove ho sognato, dove ho lavorato, dove ho pianto di gioia... e la sua conquista" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 260). (21) For a moment during his convalescence he believed that he would be forever saved if he stayed with Silvia. But he then realized that such a salvation was possible only if he also abandoned art, which for him is like death. Cosimo suggests that a life with Silvia will allow him to regain the "bonta" ("goodness") that will give him light. In a Nietzschean gesture, Lucio--whose name refers to light--replies that light must come not from goodness but "da quell'istinto profondo che volge e precipita il mio spirito verso le piu superbe apparizioni della vita... Io sono nella mia legge, sia pure di la dal Bene" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 266). (22) Gioconda's stunning beauty, whose face we never see, lies also in her body, which is naturally made for art. This is how Lucio reacted when he first saw her: "pensai a tutti i blocchi di marmo contenuti nelle cave delle montagne lontane, per la volonta di fermare in ciascuno un suo gesto" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 266). (23) Like the drive to create, her body is self-proliferating. Like a cloud, she is ever changing without seeming to change. Once in Carrara, watching the wagons that carried the marble down the mountain, he realized that she inspired not one but a thousand statues: "Ogni moto del suo corpo distrugge un'armonia e ne crea un'altra piu bella" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 267). (24) Her affinity with the multiple pieces of marble is interwoven with a blinding light: "Un aspetto della sua perfezione era chiuso per me in ciascuno di quei massi informi... I marmi deposti risplendevano al sole come le nevi eterne" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 268). (25)

The notion of art that we may draw from the exchanges between Lucio and Cosimo represents the Nietzschean ideas on tragedy that D'Annunzio incorporated in his own work. (26) In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche defines the Apollinian and the Dionysian as antagonistic natural forces that in union are responsible for artistic creation and the sublimity of Greek drama. Apollo is god of light and initiator of things visible, hence, of the world of dreams and its expression in the plastic arts and poetry. He is also god of individuation, the separation between bodies, which is itself an illusion. Reality as lived in an awakened state is mere appearance: "Philosophical men even have a presentiment that the reality in which we live and have our being is also mere appearance, and that another quite different reality lies beneath it" (Nietzsche, 1967: 34). Nietzsche invokes Schopenhauer, for whom man is wrapped in the veil of maya--a Sanskrit word that we may translate as "illusion"--where lies the principium individuationis (principle of individuation):
we might say of Apollo that in him the unshaken faith in this
principium and the calm repose of the man wrapped up in it receive
their most sublime expression; and we might call Apollo himself the
glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, through whose
gestures and eyes all the joy and wisdom of "illusion," together with
its beauty, speak to us. (Nietzsche, 1967: 36)

Beneath appearances lies the Dionysian substratum. It is attainable not through reason and consciousness--Apollo's properties--but through intoxication. If the Apollinian is the world of dreams, plastic arts, and poetry, the Dionysian is the world of intoxication and the non-imagistic arts of music and dance. When Dionysus was a boy, the Titans tore him to pieces. He is therefore a suffering god who embodies fragmentation and the strife to regain wholeness. Intoxication dissolves separations and disbands images. Unlike the plastic arts, song and dance promise "primordial unity", which signifies the god's strife for wholeness. The Dionysian reveler is immersed in self-forgetfulness, overcoming the pain of dismemberment inflicted by Apollo's veil and finding relief in the oneness with others and nature: "In song and dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air, dancing." He surrenders reason and the ability to create: "He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: in these paroxysms of intoxication the artistic power of all nature reveals itself to the highest gratification of the primordial unity" (Nietzsche, 1967: 37).

The distinction between Apollinian and Dionysian is not as sharp as it might appear. An ambivalent, if not dialectical, relationship unites the two energies. From the start, Nietzsche (1967: 33) describes them as a "duality--just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations". Such "reconciliation" may be understood, I think, as a process by which the artist, elated by intoxication and its virtues of oblivion and dissolution of boundaries, once he/she regains consciousness, strives--paradoxically--to both refute and recapture that loss of individuality and bodily integrity. She/he does so by projecting an illusion of wholeness in the closed contours of his/her new imagistic artwork. This diachrony, as it were, from a Dionysian state (primal inspiration) to an Apollinian one (image creation) is perhaps what Nietzsche implies when he states that the antagonism between the two energies is "only superficially reconciled by the common term 'art'". Importantly, in a peculiarly historicist gesture, he adds that this process goes on only "till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic 'will,' they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollinian form of art--Attic tragedy" (Nietzsche, 1967: 33). He thus suggests that a genuine attainment of the two forces involves a synchronic state of affairs, a cohabitation whose supreme feature is its "perpetual strife".

D'Annunzio's text is indeed driven by this model, at least in its essayistic aspect, which involves the definition of art that transpires in the discussions of the two male characters. First let me say that the sunny tranquility that defines Silvia's Renaissance afternoon strikes me as an instance of that "superficial reconciliation", one in which a by-now strangulated Dionysian impulse manifests itself in an acquiescent ensemble of Apollinian contours, and which the dramatist, like the philosopher, will contrast with a dynamic, fierce, and ceaseless interplay between two primal energies. Nor would it suffice to seek the sculptor's Dionysian ambition in Gioconda's vaudevillesque recitals just because in that moment a veil, like the veil of maya, separates us from her countenance. Rather, the true artistic occurrence--which is to say, tragedy, or, the dynamic and everlasting play between two energies--is to be found in "life's most superb appearances": in the innumerable blocks of marble, every one of which arrests a gesture of hers; in the sculptor's enraptured mind, where a thousand statues are needed to copy her infinite succession of corporeal harmonies--a thousand statues that the sculptor, in the empirical sense, will never create. The blocks that capture her countless gestures, and the thousand statues that draw her Boccioniesque posture, are the crystalline reflections of her fragmented and reconstituted body, whose fragments open up to the universe to become one with it, all the while closing up and then opening up again, ad infinitum. (27) They conjure up the splendid forms of the Hellenic stage--actors, painting, sculpture, poetry--the Apollinian masks of the shattered Dionysus, the masks whose dignified decline in the course of the festival celebrated the god's reconstitution, only to prepare the set for his next dismemberment.

The light motif, however, assumes diverse forms in D'Annunzio's text, which thus transcends the notion of Apollinian light as guarantor of visibility, knowledge, the ideal images of dreams, the closed contours of individuation, and hence the prospects of social order, restraint, stability, and harmony. We know that the two male characters agree that "light" is the artist's starting point. But we also know that, if Cosimo looks for it in Silvia's bonta, alluding to an agreeable, harmonious light, Lucio finds it in "quell'istinto profondo che volge e precipita il mio spirito verso le piu superbe apparizioni delia vita", seeking, as we have seen, a restless and volatile state. In fact, Cosimo--who wants his friend to overcome his agony, yet at heart shares his outlook--holds an ambivalent stance. Getting "drunk" with the Egyptian light was "marvellous" but, returning to the simplicity of San Miniato, "mi sembra di ritrovar tutto me stesso dopo un intervallo di errore" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 242). (28) Yet he rejoices in recounting that "ecstasy of light" that Lucio in Tuscany "can never have known". This "ecstasy" is not the only way in which D'Annunzio seizes Apollo's prerogative and transforms it into something Dionysian. The Sphinx may seem beautiful by night, but the sun belies its Apollinian intactness. Its mutilated face and its fillets stained by birds yearn to open it up and make it one with the rest of nature. This same yearning, which is never really fulfilled, thus keeping the mythical creature in eternal unrest, is what Cosimo sees in Lucio's own Sphinx, the masterpiece with the living wings imprisoned in the shoulders. Cosimo reflects on the "ecstasy of light" a second time in this conversation:
L'estasi della luce! Te l'ho detto: tu non potrai conoscerla altrove.
Cerchi, ghirlande, rote, rose di splendori, innumerabili faville... I
versi del Paradiso tornano alla memoria. Solo Dante ha trovato le
parole abbaglianti. In certe ore il Nilo diventa la fiumana dei
topazii, il "miro gurge". (D'Annunzio, 2013: 247) (29)

D'Annunzio transgresses the limits of Apollo's light of consciousness, reason, enlightenment, and order. His is an implacable, blazing, blinding light. It unravels a Dionysian land where "tutto era oblio", where the Khamsin, the dazzling aridness, and the whiteness of stony cemeteries meet the marble blocks of Carrara, which "risplendevano al sole come le nevi eterne"; a land where the dissolution of boundaries finds its match, if irreverently, in a Dantean paradisiacal deluge.

The lyricism and enigmatic denouement that distinguish the fourth act represent, I think, the affirmation of La Gioconda as a modern tragedy and the transformation of its protagonist into a contemporary muse, the new 'Gioconda'. If Oedipus's wisdom cost him his eyesight, Silvia's regaining of the sparkle that drives the artist becomes possible--in modern times--with the loss of her exquisite Verrocchiesque hands. As a metaphor, her agonizing physical rupture represents a polyphonic modern sensibility, which evokes the constellation of Apollinian gemstones that portrayed the fragmented Dionysus, the Greeks' supreme tragic hero. It seems that D'Annunzio opens La Gioconda with a distinctly Renaissance scene only to display his wish to circumvent that linearity, harmony, and serenity, drawing his inspiration for the modern more from the ancient, fueling a modern eruption with ancient dynamism. (30) That Silvia is the play's tragic heroine and the title's 'Gioconda' is indisputable. She alone appears, indeed predominates, in each phase of the work, the only exception being the first scene of the second act, whose main function, I argued, is to provide the conceptual tools necessary to read this denouement. Moreover, the play, I repeat, was written for and dedicated to Duse, who played Silvia at its premiere in Palermo. In this view, the character of Gioconda Dianti, who appears but in a single scene, is secondary. She is crucial to the play's naturalist aspect as a domestic bourgeois drama. To its essayistic aspect, however, as a discourse on art, she is indispensable more as a concept than as an individual. D'Annunzio's playful word choice--the Gioconda in the title and Gioconda the nemica--sharpens this distinction. The concept that Gioconda Dianti represents is destined for Silvia, the play's protagonist. Silvia's turmoil, devotion to Lucio, and reverence for art, her rapture upon seeing the Sphinx, which leads to her dismemberment, prepare all along her adoption of that concept, her conversion and rebirth, which the play dramatizes from beginning to end. (31) Thus is explained the absence of Lucio and Gioconda from the final act. Their mission as supporting characters, which was to complement one another in formulating the aforesaid concept, has already been accomplished.

This is not to say that Silvia adopts all of Gioconda's traits as an individual. She will never be a nemica. The fourth act resumes the serene ambience that the opening linked to her gentle disposition. But it also multiplies her pain. This one is not the serenity of order and stability but the kind associated with the wisdom that one gains after an apocalypse. The thing that Silvia inherits from Gioconda is the tragic dynamism that Lucio had seen in her, the body copied into resplendent blocks of marble, shattering and reforming into a thousand harmonies. (32) The character of the Sirenetta, the 'little siren', emerges from the woods wearing an apron filled with objects from the nearby shore: seaweed, shells, and starfish. Silvia loves her poem about the seven sisters whose vanity destroyed them except for the one whose sole desire was to sing. (33) Its lyrical tone, which extends to the scene as a whole, perhaps reflects D'Annunzio's aspiration for a modern rebirth of tragedy. (34) The Sirenetta's role evokes that of the Greek chorus. She is an observer and critic of the domestic drama, but she also shares Silvia's pain. The presence of Verrocchio's bust at the seaside residence does more than deepen the cruel irony of her lost hands. If Gaddi praised their statuesque beauty, how they looked, the Sirenetta recounts the wondrous things they did:
Mi davano il pane, una melagrana, una tazza di latte... quello che
prendevano per donare doventava tutt'oro... Un giorno giocavano con
l'arena tiepida: l'arena passava tra le dita come in un vaglietto e si
piacevano nel gioco... Un giorno sbucciavano un'arancia: e ne fecero
tanti spicchi... Un giorno mettevano una fasciolina intorno a un piede
della piccola, che piangeva perche l'aveva pinzata un gamberello; e il
dolore subito cesso... (D'Annunzio, 2013: 317-318) (35)

As she reignites the life of the missing hands, the broken body, like the mutilated face of the Sphinx, yearns to unite with the rest of nature. This yearning is supreme at the ending, when little Beata offers a bouquet of flowers to her mother. Though unable to grasp it, Silvia is not unable to accept it. We are left suspended amid Silvia's strife to reconnect, through a spiritual--not physical--gesture. The body agonizingly seeks to regain wholeness in a virtual extension into space that aspires to oneness with the universe.

If Silvia earlier felt disconcerted by the limpid afternoon, she now lives in a space flooded with light, surrounded by white walls, where the indoors and outdoors merge:
Una stanza terrena, tutta bianca, semplice, con due pareti - che fanno
angolo - quasi interamente aperte alla luce per un ordine di vetrate,
al modo di un tepidario. Le stoie sono alzate: a traverso i cristalli
si vedono gli oleandri, le tamerici, i giunchi, i pini, le arene d'oro
sparse d'alghe morte, il mare in calma sparso di vele latine.
(D'Annunzio, 2013: 308) (36)

Shortly before the play's ending, the stage directions indicate Silvia's effortless passage from outdoors to indoors: "anelante, guarda per mezzo di rami che il sole obliquo accende. e l'ora estatica. Il giorno e piu limpido che i cristalli della stanza bianca" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 327). (37) In a post-apocalyptic paradisiacal space, she keeps her antique spinet, from Napoleonic times, which she can no longer play. Nonetheless: "Nella stanza solitaria e sensibile la presenza dell'anima musicale che dorme in fondo alio strumento abbandonato, come se anch'esse le corde rinchiuse fossero tocche dal ritmo che misura la calma del mare vicino" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 308). (38) Silvia's soul transcends her body, merges with the spinet's own, resonates in the sea's rhythm, permeates the light, and floods the space. In D'Annunzio's epilogue to the play, a short excerpt from the Iliad presented with the title "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ...", we read of Helen who, wrapped in white veils, leaves her room weeping. When the old men of Troy see her, they acknowledge: "E GIUSTO [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]...] che i Troiani e gli Achei da' bei schinieri patiscano tanti mali e da si gran tempo, a cagione di una tal donna; perocche ella somigli in sua bellezza alle iddie immortali" (D'Annunzio, 2013: 331). (39) Whether in Helen D'Annunzio sees Gioconda's veiled face or the white walls that encircle Silvia, the veil of maya enthralls the Dionysian artist. Muse and artist's vision are one and the same. Like the marbles of Carrara, where he sees Gioconda's body palpitate, the white walls at once arrest and unleash Silvia, who transcends her materiality into a flood of heavenly light. She is more than a modern muse. She carries within her a primal strife, a Renaissance harmony, and the conundrums of modernity, but she also resembles an "immortal goddess". Transcending into heaven, she is a muse for eternity, like her 16th-century ancestor.


(1.) All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

(2.) The scholarship on D'Annunzio's theater is extensive. For the above remarks, I am especially indebted to Angioletti (2010).

(3.) "A quiet, foursquare room, in which the arrangement of everything indicates a search after a singular harmony, revealing the secret of a profound correspondence between the visible lines and the quality of the inhabiting mind that has chosen and loved them. All around seems to have been set in order by the hands of one of the thoughtful Graces. The aspect of the place evokes the image of a gentle and secluded life" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 1). Symons's translation will be in some cases modified.

(4.) See Andreoli's commentary on the text (D'Annunzio, 2013).

(5.) "Through both windows enter the light, breath, and melody of April" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 2).

(6.) "Silvia, leaning back against the window-sill, remains with her face turned towards him; and her face dominates in the blue air where the beautiful religious little hill makes its way" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 4).

(7.) One of the definitions provided by the Treccani (n.d.) online dictionary reads: "With respect to paintings, decorations and sim., to form a perspective representation that gives almost the impression of piercing through [di sfondare] the wall: some frescoes by Tiepolo pierce through [sfondano] the ceiling."

(8.) Customarily the two women are interpreted in terms of a dilemma between family and art. See Perria (1992), Quarta (2003), Radcliff Umstead (1983), and Witt (2007). For a less dichotomous view see Carbonari (1995).

(9.) On the hand motif in D'Annunzio, see also Spackman (1989).

(10.) For more on the incident and its resemblance to the scene in the novel, see Hughes-Hallett (2013) and Woodhouse (1998).

(11.) "Dear, dear hands, brave and beautiful, steadfast and beautiful! Your hands are extraordinarily beautiful, Silvia. If sorrow has too often set them together, it has sublimated them also, perfected them. They are perfect. Do you remember the woman of Verrocchio, the woman with the bunch of flowers, with the clustering hair? Ah, she is there!" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 9).

(12.) This is also noted by Andreoli (D'Annunzio, 2013).

(13.) "They live - do they not? - with so luminous a life that the rest of the figure is darkened by them" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 10).

(14.) "How this air troubles one, and yet it is so limpid!" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 5).

(15.) "The two divine messengers seem to stir and widen the close atmosphere incessantly with the rush of their immense flight" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 84).

(16.) "Suddenly, within the purple depths, appears the white face of Silvia, which seems irradiated with the light of the masterpiece" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 90).

(17.) See also Quarta's analysis of this scene with respect to the light motif. Quarta seems to maintain a clear separation between the connotations of light and dark, whereas I propose the equation between darkness and a light that blinds.

(18.) "Ah, he is still there, at the gate, talking, talking. He seems beside himself (D'Annunzio, 1902: 76).

(19.) "I have seen marvellous things with these eyes, and they have drunk light in comparison with which this seems ashen" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 23).

(20.) "And little by little I was caught up into an ecstasy that you can never have known, the ecstasy of light" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 24).

(21.) "She is armed with a fascination from which I cannot free my soul... The place where I have dreamed, where I have worked, where I have wept with joy... is her conquest" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 47).

(22.) "From that profound instinct which turns and hurries my spirit towards the most glorious images of life... I have not exceeded my own law whether or not I have exceeded the laws of right" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 55). Spackman (1989: 197) describes this gesture as "pseudo-Nietzschean". Schnapp proposes an alternative view to scholarship that attempts "to measure D'Annunzio's Nietzscheanism by the standard of a certain Nietzschean orthodoxy" (Schnapp, 1988: 253). See also Witt (2007). While the broad debate is beyond the scope of my study, I examine the play's propositions on art with reference to Nietzsche's definition of the Apollinian and Dionysian.

(23.) "I thought of all the blocks of marble hidden in the caves of far mountains, that I might arrest in each of them one of her motions" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 56).

(24.) "Every motion of her body destroys one harmony and creates another yet more beautiful" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 56).

(25.) "An aspect of her perfection was enclosed for me in each of those formless masses... The marble shone in the sun like the eternal snows" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 57-58).

(26.) As Witt (2007) notes, under the influence of Nietzsche, Wagner, the French symbolists, and Duse, D'Annunzio's role was major in destroying the predominance of bourgeois drama and naturalism in Italy. However, aware of the need to ground his tragedies in modernity, he experimented with incorporating realist conventions into his apprehension of the Dionysian and Apollinian. At first D'Annunzio read those works of Nietzsche that had been translated in French or quoted in French commentaries. He read Nietzsche more extensively following the French publication of the philosopher's complete works in 1899-1901. His earliest discussions of Nietzsche are found in: "La bestia elettiva" (the elective beast), a critique of parliamentary democracy presenting a fusion of aesthetics with politics, published in 1892 in Il mattino di Napoli; and "Il caso Wagner", a response to Nietzsche's The Case of Wagner (1888), published in three parts in 1893 in La Tribuna (Witt, 2007). See also Schnapp (1988), whose essay is followed in the same volume by "The Beast that Wills", the English translation of "La bestia elettiva", introduced and translated also by Schnapp. A reprint of "Il caso Wagner" appears in Valentini (1992). On D'Annunzio and Nietzsche with a focus on politics and Fascism, see Witt (2001).

(27.) Lucio's description of Gioconda Dianti's body in terms of multiple blocks of marble, as a body that inspires not one but a thousand statues, and as one whose every movement "destroys one harmony and creates another", brings to mind Umberto Boccioni's Forme uniche delia continuita nello spazio (1913).

(28.) "I seem to find myself again, after an interval of wandering" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 23).

(29.) "The ecstasy of light! I told you: you can know it nowhere else. Circles, garlands, wheels, roses of splendour, innumerable sparkles... The verses of the Paradiso recur to one's mind. Only Dante has found dazzling words. In certain hours the Nile becomes the flood of topazes, the 'marvellous gulf" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 29). The reference to Dante is from Paradiso XXX. For more on this, see Andreoli's commentary (D'Annunzio, 2013).

(30.) For discussions of D'Annunzio's association of the modern with the ancient, see Syrimis (2012) and Valentini (1992; 1995).

(31.) See Perria (1992: 62): "Silvia Settala is D'Annunzio's alter-ego in this 'tragedy,' which critics of the time interpreted according to the norms of the bourgeois triangle...".

(32.) See Witt (2007).

(33.) Praz (1970: 266) traces the poem to Swinburne's ballad, The King's Daughter.

(34.) See D'Annunzio's short essay, "La rinascenza della tragedia" (1897), and Morasso's "Un colloquio con Gabriele D'Annunzio" (1897), both reprinted in Valentini (1992).

(35.) "They gave me bread, a pomegranate, a cup of milk... what they gave turned to gold... One day they were playing with the warm sand: the sand ran between the fingers as through a sieve, and they were pleased at playing... One day they peeled an orange; and made it into many pieces... One day they wrapped a handkerchief about the little one's foot, and she was crying because a crab had nipped her, and the pain stopped all at once..." (D'Annunzio, 1902: 125-126).

(36.) "A ground floor room, white and simple, with two side walls making an angle, almost entirely open to the light, which comes through a sort of large window, after the manner of a tepidarium. The blinds are raised, and through the window-panes can be seen oleanders, tamarinds, rushes, pines, golden sands dotted with dead seaweed, the sea calm and dotted with lateen sails" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 112).

(37.) "Breathlessly, she looks through the midst of the boughs lighted by the oblique rays of the sun. It's the ecstatic hour. The light is more limpid than the windows of the white room" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 139).

(38.) "In the deserted room the soul of music sleeping in the forgotten instrument makes itself felt, as if the hidden strings were touched by the calm rhythm of the neighbouring sea" (D'Annunzio, 1902: 113).

(39.) "It is fair that Trojans and fancy-greaved Greeks suffer so many ills and for so long, for such a woman; since she resembles, in her beauty, the immortal goddesses" (my translation; Symons's translation does not include the epilogue).


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Michael Syrimis

Tulane University, USA

Corresponding author:

Michael Syrimis, Department of French & Italian, Tulane University, 311 Newcomb Hall, 1229 Broadway Street, New Orleans, LA 701 18, USA.

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Date:Aug 1, 2017
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