The demonstrators of “La nuit debout” have such an inventive poverty, between the hackneyed slogans of the radical left and the obsolete practices of participative democracy, that we propose to them, in the guise of a meditation – if this word still has meaning to their conformist spirits – a shot of adrenaline, a pleasurable more-than-life that they are unlikely to encounter in their “convivial” assemblies whose debilitating gestures have even gone so far as to replace the hollow words.
“Having reached my destination, I offered red roses to Frate Francesco in the Vatican, I threw more red roses, as proof of love, for the Queen and the People above the Quirinal. Over the Montecitorio [the Italian parliament], I threw a rusty iron utensil attached to a red rag, with a few turnips attached to the handle and a message: Guido Keller – from the wings of the Splendor – offers to the parliament and government that has ruled thanks to lies and fears for quite some time, a tangible allegory of its merit.”
Rome, 14th day of the 3rd month of the Regency.1
That’s how Guido Keller – adventurer and futurist aero-poet – recalled the “bombardment” of the Italian parliament that he accomplished on November 14th 1920 on board his Ansaldo SVA 5.2 monoplane, to protest against the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo on November 12th 1920 by Italy and Yugoslavia. The “aero-romantic” escapade of Gabrielle D’Annunzio’s principal lieutenant symbolically marked the end of one of the most surprising post-war enterprises: the seizure and occupation of the frontier city of Fiume and the transformation, for a year, of the city into a vast field of aesthetic – political experimentation, that we can consider more as a womb of radical European avant-gardism than as a womb of the new political phenomena that emerged as a result of the conclusion of the First World War, in particular Italian Fascism.
The city of Fiume, or Rijeka in Croatian, had benefited from its status as an autonomous free port accorded to it by the decree of Charles VI of Austria in 1719, and then renewed by the empress Maria Theresa. In 1848, Fiume had been briefly occupied by Croatia before regaining its independence in 1868. An international city par excellence, Fiume was, in 1919, inhabited by Italians, Croats Hungarians, and Germans. Italian remained the dominant language and the local dialect, “Fiumian,” was similar to Venetian, while the dialect of the surrounding countryside corresponded more to a variant of Croatian. This mixture conferred a very strong identity to the city and Fiume could be considered as an example in miniature of the multiculturalism that marked, and also undermined, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1919, the prime minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando left Paris, where the peace conference between the victors of the First World War was held, appalled by the decisions taken regarding his country. Denying their promises from 1915, the allies had in effect ignored the conditions by which they had negotiated Italy’s entry into the war on their side against the Central Powers,2 notably the cession of the famous irredentist territories, including Fiume, to Italy. Nevertheless, the president of the council, Francesco Saverio Nitti, more concerned by the social troubles that shook Italy in the Biennio rosso3, accepted the conditions offered to Italy by the allied powers and officially signed the armistice on September 10th 1919.
Among all the voices that were raised at this moment to denounce the policy of Nitti, was that of the “poet-warrior” Gabrielle D’Annunzio, which seemed to overpower all the others. Not content with publicly accusing Nitti of cowardice, he surrounded himself with a small group of faithful followers and at the head of a veritable personal army of demobilized soldiers and adventurers, made the decision to march on the city of Fiume, from which he expelled the American, English, and French expeditionary corps that occupied it without difficulty, with the goal of restoring the city to the Italian state. However the Italian government disappointed his expectations by refusing his offer. Then D’Annunzio made the decision to establish a government in Fiume based on the charter composed by the anarcho-syndicalist Alceste de Ambris, taking the place of a constitution for the city of Fiume, and presaging the creation of an “anti-League of Nations” allied with all the “oppressed peoples of the earth.” The “Regency of Carnaro,” thus created and named by D’Annunzio, initiated a political experience singular in Europe that would run from September 1919 to December 1920. Around D’Annunzio the new masters of the city of Fiume thronged: the Arditi4, but also Futurists, Dadaists, anarchists, monarchists, and all sorts of adventurers from every ilk. Bolshevik Russia was the only state to recognize the existence of this insurrectionary city-state in which local notables observed, terrified but powerless, their city transforming itself into an immense stage where baroque settings in honor of the Vate were performed and public debates in which free love, the liberation of women, and the abolition of prison were discussed. “Masquerade, raillery, and derision serve as their language,” wrote Claudia Salaris. “Futurists, Dadaists, and anarchists experiment in the laboratory of Fiume, discussing themes as daring for the era as woman’s liberation, drugs, the abolition of money and prisons.”5
In general, the escapade of Fiume is only considered as a proto-Fascist demonstration of the spirit of revenge that animated a part of the Italian elites mutilated by the victory. But, it is suitable to understand the episode from a much less reductive angle. From the foundation of the Regency of Carnaro, the principal artisans of the adventure of Fiume actually considered their enterprise as the point of departure for a revolutionary movement that should respond to both to the political, as well as the most radical social and aesthetic, aspirations of the postwar avant-gardes and déclassés, conscious of being part of a devastated country which henceforth only belonged, in their opinion, to the rearguard of the victors. A heteroclite mixture of nationalist claims, anarchist passions, libertine sensibilities, a tumultuous aggregate of soldiers on the loose, adventurers, artists of the grenade, enraged Futurists, Dadas of combat, frenzied monarchists, fantastic criminals, poets in uniform, revolutionaries without a cause, and some veritable candidates for the insane asylum, the “republic of Carnaro,” decreed by D’Annunzio on September 12th 1919 from December 30th 1920 constituted a unique experience in the chaos of post-war Europe. Proclaimed as a place of love and perpetual festivity, it stirred the curiosity of Mussolini who remained doubtful, but didn’t forget to draw essential lessons from the permanent theater organized by D’Annunzio throughout his revolution for himself. On the other hand, it excited the disdain of Marinetti who only saw in the activists of Fiume a collection of gypsies thrown into the same hysterical fray of anarchists, Futurists, and monarchists. The charter of Carnaro, drafted by the Italian anarcho-syndicalist Alceste De Ambris, showed Fiume’s new masters’ contempt for the modern state and intended to truly base itself on popular sovereignty, but it also inscribed in the new constitution a certain number of social advances hardly imaginable for the era. Besides the fact that the charter was famed for having declared music as a fundamental principle of the state, it authorized divorce, gave women the right to vote, legalized homosexuality, the usage of drugs, and nudism. The Belgian poet Léon Kochnitzky, close friend of D’Annunzio, saw “Fiumanism” as a universal revolutionary enterprise, capable of overthrowing the established order of the old world:
To rally the forces of all the oppressed peoples, nations, races, etc, of the world into a compact formation. And use it to fight and triumph over the oppressors and imperialists who want their financial interests to prevail over the most sacred sentiments of man: faith, love of country, individual liberty, and social dignity.6
Ludovico Toeplitz, Italian filmmaker and polyglot, was charged with the foreign relations of the Regency of Carnaro and, as such, he was also tasked with establishing the League of Fiume, a veritable “anti-League of Nations,” according to Gabrielle D’Annunzio’s wish:
I made contact with all the malcontents of various countries around the world: with Zaghloul Pasha, not yet prime minister but then leader of the party of Fellah; with Kemal Pasha, the power leader of the Young Turk party, who would doubtlessly take power next. In Fiume, we founded the Anti-League of Nations, in opposition to the iniquitous treaty of Versailles.7
The resupplying of this modern pirate city, besieged since the start of 1920 by the Italian army, was assured by audacious surprise attacks, supervised by the D’Annunzio’s principal lieutenant: Guido Keller, a personality so fantastic that he still seems today only capable of existing in a novel. Veteran of the Italian air-force, Futurist aero-poet and fantastic mystic, Keller reinvented in the air a form of the courtly duel consisting of taking the lead over his opponent before letting him nobly flee. He was also the founder of a fraternity of barbers, which he joined after having demonstrated that he was capable of cutting his hair in flight, and had installed a tea set in his plane, which he piloted most of the time in his pajamas.
In Fiume, within the beautiful milieu of joyous anarchy constitutionally established by the Regency of Carnaro, it was not rare to see Keller spending a part of the day in the simplest garb or eventually made up as Poseidon. He slept in the trees, was a vegetarian, and considered any opportunity to detonate a grenade as a manifestation of joy. “When he he had free time,” Atlantico Ferri wrote in the Testa di ferro, “he climbed trees, completely nude, and performed all functions that most men fulfill at the ground level– including the most natural – in his airplane.” Thick black hair, Mephistophelian beard, Keller seemed nearly more Faun than human being. One of his favorite pastimes also seemed to be scaring the young couples who went to kiss near the cemetery of Fiume by making the howls of beasts at night to the point where commander D’Annunzio had to order a company of soldiers to prove that no zombie or werewolf hid there. Specialist in surprise attacks and acts of piracy through which the city survived, Keller also drafted a circular inviting all of Italy’s insane and asylum bound to demand their freedom in order to join Fiume8 and was also the founder of a secret Yoga society that entertained relations with Futurists of all stripes and nationalities as well as the German Dadaists9 and Russian and Hungarian Bolsheviks. Lenin declared before the war that he considered D’Annunzio as the only true revolutionary leader in Italy10; he forgot to mention the indispensable companion of the Vate, Guido Keller, who was as capable of organizing a romantic and theatrical assault – entitled “The Castle of Love” – on the presidential palace of Fiume, as he was of stealing fifty horses from under the nose of the Italian army. Keller was convinced that Fiume had become both “the city of Holocaust” and “the city of Love,” the epicenter of an earthquake that would shake history, liberate peoples, and overthrow the assassin states and impostor governments.
The episode of Fiume, anachronistically modern, seems both suspended beyond time and at the same time installed at the heart, at the hinge, of European history. The revolutionaries of Fiume united together to establish the complete invasion of existence by art, and at the same time the complete politicization of art. The gesture of revolt became the artistic manifestation of revolution, war, combat an aesthetic demonstration: the ultimate allegory of life’s movement, from death and chaos. The Futurists, the Dadas of combat, the revolutionary monarchist, anarchist, or nationalist poets that one could encounter in Fiume had predecessors in the 19th century whose slogans they reprised, reproducing their poses and reissuing in part their engagements, on a city-wide scale and in a somewhat crazy experience during which aesthetics and action formed a single gesture.
The establishment of the government of Fiume was accompanied by the partial seizure of power within the city by the Yoga society which had the duty of affirming the avant-garde and internationalist vocation of the Fiumian movement. In la Testa di ferro, magazine of the Yoga society directed by the Futurist Mario Carli, nicknamed “Our Bolshevik” or “the Little Father of Bolshevism,” they celebrated “the Italian city of Fiume – city of new life- liberation of all the oppressed (peoples, classes, individuals) – discipline of the spirit against all formal discipline – destruction of all hegemonies, dogmas, conservatisms, and parasitisms – crucible of new energies – few words, much substance.”11 The Yoga Union designated its wishes as a “lyrical order” capable of liberating both peoples and the creativity of the individual by fighting any form of alienation. “Revolutionaries not for or against a party, but revolutionaries against what we are,” proclaimed the first issue of the magazine, published November 13th 1920. The motto that the members of the Yoga society gave it demonstrated the art of rhetoric as much as the art of war. It was “conquer the adversary through irony, expose it to ridicule by depriving it of any barbaric authority, as well as the foolishness it deserves,” 12 in other words, to oppose conservatism with irony and to speak out:
Against golden safety goggles
Against ‘goodbye my dear’
Against throaty ‘r’s
Against madness proper, organized in the serious and spiritual home for exhibitionist purposes13
The Yoga Society transformed the atmosphere of the city of Fiume into a permanent theater, proliferating surprise actions and spontaneous public demonstrations that latter day avant-gardists would call “happenings,” in the middle of the street, under the eyes of the stunned population and to the great dismay of the city’s notables. They also organized public consultations during which they touched upon every subject, where they spoke of everything, quickly, with the enthusiasm of those who imagined that liberated speech would accelerate the fall of the old world or simply with the ardor of the forlorn who basically knew that “end times” were doubtlessly coming soon.:
At the heart of the old city of San Vito we found the plaza to gather. A big tree protected the harmony of speech under its expanse… One night, we spoke of the abolition of money, another of free love, another yet, of the politician, the regulation of the army, the abolition of prisons, the embellishment of the city… That was how conversation flowed, admirably, on the old plaza, in perfect harmony between the prostitute and the poet, between the navigator and the antiquarian, between the banker and the intellectual, while the presence of animals, in their silence, was appreciated.14
Thus Margherita Keller Besozzi, Guido Keller’s cousin and feminist figure decreed that: “The woman of Fiume is nothing other than the mother of the modern woman,” the revolutionaries, via their magazine, launched always more radical slogans, in a measure that seemed to follow the tragic fate of the adventure of Fiume:
So block the trains and ships, flood the obscene mines, close the workshops (cages of fools invented by devils), set fire to offices, ministries, stock exchanges where they earn what isn’t worth earning … and save life! … With what voluptuousness would I set fire to your stupid “academies,” your putrid “museums,” full of the remains of faded beauty (created by workers for princes) that you are no longer capable of understanding, to your “schools of art,” where in grand pomp buried corpses teach those without genius how to become more mediocre than their master.15
The “bloody Christmas” of December 24th 1920 ended the adventure of Fiume and D’Annunzio’s attempt at an esoteric and a-historical revolution, forcing the evacuation of the city after a week of rough combat against the Italian army. The Vate would end his life nearly confined to his home on Lago di Garda, having become an invalid after having mysteriously “fallen” from his window on the night of August 13th or 14th 1922.
For Guido Keller, the failure of Fiume was the beginning of a wandering that would lead him from Italy to South America, where he attempted to give life to his libertine dreams. He firstly tried to establish a flying circus show entitled “The Conquest of the Sun,” and then exiled himself to Turkey to establish a pilot school, before becoming a military squadron officer in Benghazi Libya. Defeated by the rebels, he would sympathize with them before embarking for South America and Peru – “Fatherland of coca – the generous princess” – where he would launch a revolutionary attempt, bloodily crushed. “The dead are similar to those in Fiume,” he wrote to Sandro Pozzi. “I am on the route traced by destiny: I sought out my distant land, and like Ulysses, I exchanged a one-eyed horse for a blind mount.” The last act of his existence saw him associate with the painter and sculptor Hendrik Andersen in order to create a “city of life” on a lost island in the Aegean where no law or form of order should exist and where only artists and adventurers would be authorized to live. The project never came to fruition. In 1929, Guido Keller died, victim of a motorcycle accident on a road in Italy, like Thomas Edward Lawrence, called Lawrence of Arabia, six years later. As for D’Annunzio he died in 1938 and Mussolini accorded him a national funeral, which he doubtlessly wouldn’t want, he who had become a political undesirable confined to his home by the Fascist regime. The time of dreamers and poets was no more and Europe was once again handed over to the confrontations of empires, carnivorous ideologies that would devour whole peoples and utopias.
1) Guido KELLER. Signed notes. in Janez JANSA. Il porto dell’amore. Texts by Domenico Cuarenta. Quis contra nos 1919-2019. www.reakt.org/fiume
2) Negotiations that promised Italy, in exchange for its participation in the conflict, the cession, after the war of the regions of Trentino, South Tyrol to the Brenner, Istria, Dalmatia, the cities of Trieste, Gorizia, and Gradisca, a protectorate over Albania, sovereignty over the port of Vlora, the province of Anatolia in Turkey, plus the Dodecanese and other colonies in East Africa and Libya. The near totality of these agreements would be ignored at the Paris Conference in 1919.
3) This expression designates the two years, from 1918 to 1920, which after the end of the war were marked by very strong social agitation in Italy and the fear of a communist seizure of power, henceforth named “the Red Biennial.”
4) The “Ardent.” Companions of D’Annunzio, for the most part former soldiers, whose uniform, rallying cry, “me ne frego,” and organization became the major inspiration for Mussolini during the creation of his Fasci of Combat.
5) Claudia SALARIS. A la fête de la révolution. Artistes et libertaires avec D’Annunzio à Fiume. Paris, Éditions du Rocher, 2006. p. 11
6) De Felice, D’Annunzio politico 1918-1938, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1978, p. 73. Cited by Janez Jansa. Il porto dell’amore. Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana
7) Ludovico Toeplitz, Cial a chi tokka, Milano, Edizioni Milano Nuova, 1964, p. 49
8) At the same time, Marinetti proclaimed: “It is time that we also make a conscious and evolved art from madness (the overthrow of logical relationships).” This type of declaration of course recalls the surrealist declarations and attempts in Germany realized by SPK at the end of the 1970s to liberate psychiatric hospitals. Attempts that ended in the armed intervention of the German GIGN against an establishment “self managed by the ill.”
9) The expedition of Fiume was warmly saluted by the Dada Club in Berlin, in a telegram sent to the Correrre Del Sierra : “Conquest is a great Dadaist action, and we will employ all means to assure its recognition. The Dada Dadaco global atlas already recognizes Fiume as an Italian city.”
10) The illegal government of Fiume quickly made contact with Bolshevik Russia which was the only state to recognize its existence.
11) Slogan appearing in a number of issues of La Testa di ferro.
12) Sandro Pozzi in La Testa di ferro.
13) Manifesto-poster: “The Founding of the Yoga in Fiume”
14) Giovanni Comisso. Il Il porto dell’amore. Longanesi [Biblioteca di narratori]. 2011.
15) Yoga n°2. 20 novembre 1920.