When author Rosalyn D’Mello visited the Vittoriale degli Italiani, she could not shake off its fascist history. But a spontaneous visit to Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh had a vastly different effect. She ponders the enduring legacies of two contrasting artists. By Rosalyn D’Mello
A pall of gloomy clouds hung over the perceivable horizon. We braved the chilly winds blowing over the waters of Lake Garda so we could soak in the view from the uppermost deck of the ferry we boarded from Malcesine, a medieval hamlet on the eastern shore. Perhaps because the weather didn’t permit either swimming or lounging, we’d decided on an excursion to Gardone Riviera, on the western shore, north of Salò. For the moment, the sky seemed to exercise welcome restraint.
It was my father-in-law who’d suggested seeing the Vittoriale when we’d told him about our Lake Garda weekend plans, which in turn jogged my partner’s memory of a school trip there years ago. He vividly recollected the sale of fascist memorabilia outside the last home of the Italian writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio. These inappropriate stalls no longer exist. However, without their ostensible presence, a visitor could be none the wiser about D’Annunzio’s legacy as a proto-fascist.
Until then, I, too, hadn’t given much thought to his ideological position. I had inferred,
through osmosis, that as a literary figure Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) enjoyed the same reverential status within the Italian imagination as Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) did within the Indian equivalent. Both were ‘Renaissance Men’. Except, Tagore is celebrated for his iconoclastic repudiation of nationalism and the xenophobic perpetuation of man-made borders. D’Annunzio, on the other hand, was, as Benito Mussolini had suggested, the ‘John the Baptist of fascism’.
D’Annunzio was not just a poet, I would soon learn. He was The Poet (Il Vate) and The Prophet (Il Profeta). The Vittoriale was essentially a self- glorifying shrine, the construction of which he personally supervised with the help of the architect Gian Carlo Maroni. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of a 2013 biography on D’Annunzio, wrote that “the Vittoriale (which has been preserved as he left it) became the outward and visible manifestation of his peculiar personality: all his brilliance and all his perversity rendered in concrete form.”
Months after my visit, when I finally got down to reading The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War, I found in Hallett’s meticulously researched and brilliantly narrated biography, validation for the seething dissonance I felt at the Vittoriale. In its previous avatar, before D’Annunzio moved in, the Vittoriale premises housed the Villa Cargnacco, an 18th-century farmhouse poised on a steep hillside strewn with cypress and beech trees, and belonged to a German art historian, Henry Thode. It was confiscated by the Italian state in 1918 but still contained objects belonging to its original owner. According to Hallett, D’Annunzio saw his move into the Villa Cargnacco as a patriotic gesture: in ‘Italianising’ a German-owned property, he was serving his country.
In October 1921, D’Annunzio, a renowned spendthrift, took a bank loan he would never repay and bought the Villa Cargnacco, the only house he would ever own. Over the next 17 years, he would go about transforming it into a decadent pleasure palace, a site for his innumerable orgies, evolving its exteriors into a garden of earthly delights, planting almost 10,000 rose bushes, commissioning an amphitheatre styled after the one in Pompeii, building an enormous domed room to house the aircraft he used to fly over Vienna, and installing Puglia—a World War I warship given to him by the navy in the 1920s, among other bizarre mementoes. D’Annunzio went on record saying he was a better decorator and upholsterer than a poet or novelist. The Secret Museum offers a glimpse into the spectrum of his aesthetic excesses, from perfume making to glass blowing to designing outfits for his many mistresses to a display of his outlandish wardrobe, including a night smock with a hole in its groin.
D’Annunzio referred to the Vittoriale as a book of living stones. At first, he perceived his new home as a refuge from a world in which his ideology had failed, grandiosely calling it Porziuncola, after St. Francis’s retreat in Assisi. He had arrived there because he had been ousted from Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia), which he had invaded in 1919, much to the Italian government’s embarrassment, as part of his self-proclaimed patriotic mission to conquer for Italy land to which he felt it had even tangential claim. It was during his takeover of Fiume, which he established as The Italian Regency of Carnaro, when he co-authored The Charter of Carnaro, a proto-fascist Constitution that laid the groundwork for Mussolini’s rise. As the nature of his new home shifted from refuge to monument, he renamed it Vittoriale. Hallett translates the word’s significance to ‘of victory, victory-ish, victory-thing’.
At the Vittoriale, one finds little mention of D’Annunzio’s physical condition at the time of his death. He was a cocaine addict with syphilis to boot. On March 1, 1938, aged 74, he finally died of a brain haemorrhage. It was Maroni who, in consultation with D’Annunzio’s spirit (through “seances”), designed the circular concrete mausoleum to house his remains. Funded by Mussolini, it sits atop the hill D’Annunzio called the Keep or the Holy Mount, wholly incongruous with the estate’s aesthetic.
To a feminist visitor, the only ‘victory’ the Vittoriale celebrates and endorses is the mythic, toxic, historical subscription to warmongering as a legitimate mode of validating male virility and its attachment to nationalism. The foundation responsible for Vittoriale’s upkeep, whose first director was Maroni himself, has no qualms maintaining the monument’s official name as ‘Il Vittoriale degli Italiani’ (Shrine of Italian Victories). D’Annunzio’s strategic decision to gift his self-edifying shrine to the Italian public, mostly to escape creditors, continues to bear him dividends by maintaining his legacy. His projection as an eccentric, legendary genius is cast in stone. The Vittoriale could have been the perfect site for Italy to stage an honest intervention with its inter-war history; instead, its present format furthers the fascist propaganda responsible for its existence, whitewashing D’Annunzio’s instrumental role in its perpetuation.
Every despicable detail about D’Annunzio’s life now in my consciousness, I gathered from my own reading. I made the intellectual investment because I was concerned by my visceral revulsion to the property. I had felt cognitive dissonance at the level of intuition. I would feel its opposite when, months later, I would visit Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh.
I’d spent most of the day at the Capitol Complex, designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier—the brain behind the city itself. I began to wonder whether I was inherently prejudiced against concrete as a building material, since my emotive disconnect with Le Corbusier’s aesthetic resonated with my repulsion towards Maroni’s mausoleum. But beyond the use of concrete, it was also the dogmatic allegiance to geometry that contributed to the coldness of the architecture. Le Corbusier’s Tower of Shadows—a structural experiment in concrete conducted to study the passage of sunlight—while magnificent, felt emotionally lacking, like Andrea Palladio’s Villa la Rotonda, which I’d visited in October last year in Vicenza. Was this an architectural manifestation of what the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous referred to in literary theory as phallogocentrism, masculinised over-reverence to logos or an obsession with the phallus?
Did the fault lie with me? Why was it that the highlight of my visit to the Vittoriale was my sudden audience with Federico Severino’s Il Silenzio (The Silence), the sculpture of a seated female figure with the trace of a tear pouring out of one eye, left hand composed in a coded gesture, right hand extending such that the pointer finger sits across her lips, suggesting either a command to keep quiet and maintain a secret or to wilfully suppress either oneself or another’s imagination for fear of possible persecution.
I mentally installed Severino’s sculpture at the entrance to Rock Garden, a site that came to represent for me the true potential of the human imagination when it is not limited by the trappings of ego and ideology or the infinite possibilities a work of art can assume when it has no concomitant relationship to commerce and no desire for audience validation. D’Annunzio was a performance artist in that he was eternally aware of how every word he uttered, alongside every misdeed, contributed to the cult of his personality. On the other hand, the creator of the rock garden, Nek Chand Saini (1924–2015) had tapped into the intellects of grace and vulnerability.
A road inspector for the Public Works Department, while Le Corbusier was structuring Chandigarh, Nek Chand was secretly building the multi-acre kingdom of Sukrani. Nek Chand set up his illegal workshop in a discreet gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake, where he started piecing together, in his spare time, objects found across the city’s expanse, from broken crockery to pottery shards to concrete to stones to glass bangles. Le Corbusier’s masterplan made Nek Chand’s intervention illegal, and when it was discovered by the authorities in 1975, it was slated for demolition. However, Nek Chand managed to secure public opinion in his favour. The city was forced to take heed, changing his designation to ‘Sub-Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden’, staffing him with 50 labourers to enable him to expand his vast creation.
As I was led into Nek Chand’s elaborate labyrinth constructed such that you move effortlessly, one open-air room to the next, glimpsing at the occasional waterfall or the many sentinel swarms of immobile sculptures of various typologies that seem eerily animated, seething with energy, I was overwhelmed by the sensation of awe I failed to feel at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Nek Chand’s illicitly built sculptures moved and unmoored me. I was forced to rush through the maze of assembled objects for fear of getting caught in an impending downpour, but I was cognisant of the wave of emotions rushing through my body, manifesting as goosebumps. I thought of the two vastly dissimilar landscapes—the Vittoriale and the Rock Garden—both “books of living stones.” One designed by a fascist poet, the other by a visionary. Who was the real artist among the two?