Il Vittoriale degli Italiani

Museum in Gardone Riviera

Poet, soldier, hypochondriac and proto-Fascist, Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863–1938) defies easy definition, and so does his estate. Bombastic, extravagant and unsettling, it's home to every architectural and decorative excess imaginable and is full of quirks that help shed light on the man. Visit and you'll take in a dimly lit, highly idiosyncratic villa (for which the tour is guided), three distinct museums and tiered gardens complete with full-sized battleship.

By 1914 d'Annunzio was an established poet, but his fame was cemented by a series of daring military adventures in WWI. His most dramatic exploit was an unsanctioned occupation of Fiume, now Rijeka, on the Adriatic. Outraged that it was to be handed over to Yugoslavia, not Italy, at the end of the war, he gathered a mini-army, invaded the port and proclaimed himself the ruler. Despite eventually surrendering he was hailed a national hero. In the 1920s d'Annunzio became a strong supporter of Fascism and Mussolini, while his affairs with wealthy women were legendary.

In his main house, the Prioria, stained-glass windows cast an eerie light on gloomy rooms with black-velvet drapes (he had an eye condition that made exposure to sunlight painful). The rooms are crammed with classical figurines, leather-bound books, leopard skins, gilded ornaments, lacquer boxes and chinoiserie. Highlights include the bronze tortoise that sits on the guests' dining table (in admonition of gluttony; it was cast from a pet that died from over-indulgence); the bright blue bathroom suite with more than 2000 pieces of bric-a-brac; his spare bedroom where he would retire to lie on a coffin-shaped bed and contemplate death; and his study with its low lintel – designed so visitors would have to bow as they entered. Guided visits, in Italian only, tour the house every 15 minutes and last half an hour.

If you aren’t already overwhelmed by d’Annunzio’s excesses, the estate's Museo della Guerra is housed nearby in the art-nouveau Casa Schifamondo ('Escape from the World'). It is full of mementoes, banners and medals of d'Annunzio's war-time exploits, while the gardens offer the chance to wander the deck of the full-sized battleship Puglia, which d’Annunzio used in his Fiume exploits.