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This Italian Villa Is a Shrine to Best of the Worst

June 19, 1988|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American author and newspaperman living in Vienna .

LAKE GARDA, Italy — He is one of the most incredible tourist attractions in Italy, having left behind the world's largest collection of kitsch.

He cut off the front half of an Italian war vessel and installed it in his garden. He made his home into a phantasmagoria of bric-a-brac, the likes of which the world has never seen.

He left behind 72 silk shirts, 57 pairs of custom-made shoes, 1,500 neckties, 10 green umbrellas and 42 bathing suits. He was the subject of an Italian postage stamp. He made love to a cavalcade of famous women, having boasted of more than 1,000 conquests. He was ugly and bald (from age 23) and had one eye.

He was a painter, a dress designer, a simplified Latin version of Superman, a tyrant, a composer of music and a librettist for operas, a poet, an aviator, a novelist, a short-story writer and a playwright.

Seized Port of Fiume

He single-handedly seized the port of Fiume with a small band of adventurers in 1919 and ruled it for nearly a year as a self-styled dictator.

He penetrated the Austro-Hungarian Adriatic defenses at Bakar with a single torpedo boat while standing on its deck with shells exploding all over.

He flew his own biplane over enemy Vienna during World War I to drop propaganda leaflets over the city, amid flak and heavy artillery.

He was one of the most hated and one of the most admired men in Italy's history.

He is known as Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938), whose villa, inappropriately called Vittoriale degli Italiani, you can visit for an admission fee of 5,000 lira in the small town of Gardone Riviera on the west bank of Lake Garda.

This name couldn't possibly arrest the attention of tourists, so the residents have pinned a more fitting label on the place--D'Annunzio's Museum of Kitsch.

No matter what you've heard about D'Annunzio, good or bad, be totally prepared, as you tour his home and garden, for a succession of dazzling rooms that are in the style of a bad dream. They come across strongly as what a junk dealer with aspirations to an antique shop of immortality would drum up.

Accumulated Weirdness

It's a collection of grotesque, overloaded, wall-to-wall kitsch, exquisitely in bad taste, done in garish Art Deco beyond imagination--seven decades of accumulated weirdness and collected hyper-abundance, as befit their bombastic, eccentric, satanic owner.

Admire him or sneer at him, D'Annunzio left behind perhaps the world's greatest collection of kitsch.

The rooms in his mausoleum-home, 19 of them, are a maze, each one carrying a name such as Dalmatian Oratory, Mascheraio, World, Labyrinth and Workshop.

With a wealth of intriguing items that need a thick book to catalogue, your guide comes to grips with it all as you go through the rooms to see D'Annunzio's works of art, bizarre objets d'epoch , bibliographical and antiquarian rarities and curiosities.

Called Bagno Blu, the bathroom contains hundreds of objects, most of which are colored in many shades of blue, ranging from Persian bricks, Arab daggers, Chinese drinking cups, ceramic vases and ivory art to a seven-foot-long bathtub in dark blue. He carried the blue theme so far that he took baths in blue-tinted water.

The entrance to the study is marked by a very small door that forced people to kneel to enter, D'Annunzio's way of compelling his visitors to bow in reverence before meeting him.

This included Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was an ardent admirer of D'Annunzio. The office is crammed to bursting.

Near his writing table is a bust of actress Eleonora Duse (they had a long relationship), which he would keep veiled whenever he wrote.

The office stands exactly as D'Annunzio left it on the day he died. On the desk are his glasses, a pen and pencil, and several sheets of manuscript paper of a poem he had in preparation.

Outdoor Theater

As if the interior of his home is not enough to overwhelm your senses, the outdoor part of the villa is well-stocked with D'Annunziana.

Using Lake Garda as a panoramic backdrop is a magnificent Greek-style outdoor theater where plays are given each summer. Another flamboyant building is an auditorium used for concerts and stage performances, and overhead, hanging from the ceiling, is the plane he used when flying over Vienna with his pamphlets.

In another building is the torpedo boat. Taking up a large part of the grounds is the bow of the ship Puglia, amid trees and other lush vegetation that point toward the lake, seemingly ready to leave port. (This land-bound half-ship is used by the Italian navy to put sailors through some basic training before they go onto real ships at sea.)

Still another building has the D'Annunzio Museum, replete with artworks of all kinds (heavy on nudes), reproductions of Michelangelo's works and D'Annunzio's death mask.

At the top of the garden, which he designed and built exactly to his taste, is the massive white-marble mausoleum shaped like a castle in which D'Annunzio's remains rest (built and paid for by Mussolini).

D'Annunzio left behind garden waterfalls and fountains, the most notable of which is a fountain in the form of a violin.

As you leave the house that D'Annunzio built (and in which he died on March 1, 1938, at age 74 from a cerebral hemorrhage while busy at his cluttered desk), you will have all sorts of conflicting notions about him.

This was a man who spent most of a lifetime immortalizing his name by cocooning himself with the fruits of his indefatigable search for artistic rubbish.

His bad taste became his monument--the best collection of the worst kitsch the world will ever see.

Right there in front of your eyes is the junk-art museum in which D'Annunzio turns out to be, ironically, what he least expected . . . a successful failure.

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