Portraits of the Artist

Dionysian Creativity in Selected Works by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Thomas Mann

by Jessica Wood (Author)
Monographs XII, 294 Pages


The Dionysian – an impetus towards abandon, intoxication and creativity, but also chaos, death and dissolution – captured the imagination of both Gabriele D’Annunzio and Thomas Mann, two authors whose work otherwise seems antithetical. Both admired Friedrich Nietzsche and engaged with his iconic yet enigmatic idea of the «Dionysian» in their depictions of writers and artists. Like many of their own fictional characters, D’Annunzio and Mann appear to have been drawn towards this idea and its significance in an artistic context. In their novels and short stories, both portray writers and artists who rely on the precarious form of creativity that results from interactions with the Dionysian. This book argues that the portraits of the artist offered by D’Annunzio and Mann, and the depictions of creativity found within these portraits, demonstrate that these two giants of European literature were more alike than has hitherto been acknowledged – and more alike than they would perhaps have liked to think.
This book was the winner of the 2016 Early Career Researcher Prize in German Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Nietzsche’s Dionysian and Its Reception
  • Chapter 2: The Dionysian Artist and Liminality
  • Chapter 3: Dionysian Creativity and Primitive Regression
  • Chapter 4: Dionysian Creativity and Sublimation
  • Chapter 5: Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


I thank my thesis supervisors, Dr Nick Martin and Dr Clodagh Brook, to whom I remain indebted for their feedback, advice and encouragement, and for kindling my enthusiasm for this subject. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for Peter Lang for their helpful comments and suggestions. Thanks are also due to the AHRC, for funding my doctoral studies, and to the University of Birmingham, for allowing me continued use of its resources in order to complete this book.

I am grateful, too, to my family and friends for their support and patience. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


Works by Gabriele d’Annunzio

FIl fuoco [The Flame], 1900
TMTrionfo della morte [Triumph of Death], 1894

Works by Thomas Mann

TTristan, 1903
TKTonio Kröger, 1903
TVDer Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice], 1912

Works by Friedrich Nietzsche

References to Nietzsche’s writings are to the texts as they appear in the electronic version published in the Nietzsche Source collection (<http://www.nietzschesource.org/eKGWB>), edited by Paolo d’Iorio.

Citations are identified by abbreviations of the titles of the works in which they appear, followed by Arabic numerals referring to the relevant sections or paragraphs. Where necessary, Roman numerals are used to identify the parts of the works in which they are located. This form of citation should enable the reader to find the passages cited in German or English editions of Nietzsche’s works. Nietzsche’s letters are identified by ← xi | xii → the abbreviation BVN (‘Briefe von Nietzsche’), followed by the year in which the letter was written, which is followed by the number given to the particular letter in question by d’Iorio. Nietzsche’s notes are identified by the abbreviation NF (‘Nachgelassene Fragmente’), followed by the year in which the note was written, which is followed by the number given to the note by d’Iorio.

← xii | 1 →


In an essayistic work of 1918 titled Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man], Thomas Mann (1875–1955) recounts an anecdote concerning the Italian writer, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938), a near contemporary of Mann’s. Mann recalls that a review of his first book, Buddenbrooks (1901), had compared it to a novel by d’Annunzio that had just been translated into German1 – and in terms highly favourable to the German author. Mann informs us that he took to carrying this article in his breast pocket, delighted that his book had been contrasted with that of an author whose artistic practice and outlook were so foreign to himself, and that it had been found to be the superior work: ‘[s]o war ich und wollte ich sein’ [that what was I was and how I wanted to be2], Mann explains, ‘[s]o wollte ich auch gesehen sein’ [that was how I wished to be seen] (1974, p. 537).

If Mann is to be believed, he and Gabriele d’Annunzio occupied very little – if any – common ground, a view that scholarship treating the two writers has tended to uphold. Consequently very few studies exist that consider d’Annunzio and Mann in constellation. Viewed superficially the two may well seem unlikely bedfellows for a comparative study: while the former is most commonly regarded as an aesthete or decadent, as well as a warrior-poet, the latter is generally seen as a writer of highly psychological and intellectual works, and while the biography of the former contains many wild and bohemian episodes (including dodging creditors, participating in air-raids, and, famously, much womanizing), the latter pursued a seemingly more conventional way of life, settling down with a wife and family (at least until 1933, when the Manns were forced to relocate to avoid National Socialist persecution). This book aims to unsettle some of the assumptions that ← 1 | 2 → have arisen from these apparent differences, and to demonstrate that these two giants of European literature had more in common than has previously been acknowledged – both by literary scholarship and by Mann himself.

No extensive comparison of Mann and d’Annunzio pre-exists this book, and the few (fairly brief) articles which do compare the two writers tend merely to highlight affinities and similarities between specific texts, often in rather general terms. Such affinities are largely noted without any suggestion of influence or interaction between the two writers; only Santoli (1971), Riccobono (2006) and Galvan (2007) go as far as suggesting that Mann’s encounter with d’Annunzio’s works may have impacted upon his own literature. Santoli’s brief study highlights themes common to the two writers (such as beauty, Schopenhauer and Wagner), and suggests that Mann inherited the technique of incorporating ‘ausgedehnte Umschreibungen und Interpretationen von Werken des großen sächsischen Meisters und andere Musiker’ [extensive descriptions and interpretations of the works of the great Saxon maestro [Wagner] and other musicians] (1971, p. 196) into his narratives. Santoli does not pursue this theory, however, and offers very little by way of evidence. He also points out that the technique was not unique to d’Annunzio. Riccobono (2006) posits Mann’s Tristan (1903) as a parody of d’Annunzio’s Le vergini delle rocce [The Virgins of the Rocks (1895)], and Galvan claims that Mann’s exposure to d’Annunzio’s fame (during the former’s stays in Italy) may have left ‘Spuren’ [traces] (2007, p. 262) in Mann’s literature. While Riccobono fails to offer a thoroughly convincing argument (largely relying on slightly tenuous links such as the use of similar names in both texts), Galvan’s consideration of Il fuoco [The Flame (1900)] and Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice (1912)] highlights striking and intriguing affinities, particularly regarding the shared dual focus of each text, namely ‘Liebespassion’ [passionate love] and ‘ästhetische Produktion’ [aesthetic production] (p. 264). These shared pivotal threads will be discussed throughout this book as the affinities indicated by Galvan are explored and advanced.

Even among the few studies that discuss d’Annunzio and Mann together, parallels drawn are often fairly superficial. Schoffman, for example, finds that, ultimately, ‘fundamental [differences]’ (1993, p. 514) divide the two writers, despite their common interest in Venice and Wagner. What ← 2 | 3 → is perhaps overlooked, though, by some of the scant existing comparisons of the two writers, is the ambivalence and ambiguity of both: neither is entirely dogmatic in his aesthetic, political and social views, and both undergo shifts in their artistic values and practices. Schoffman arguably fails to note this when he summarizes the substantial differences that he finds between the two writers:

Mann’s characters are bourgeois; D’Annunzio’s [sic] are bohemians. Mann’s artists are sickly and isolated from society; D’Annunzio’s [sic] are supermen. […] D’Annunzio [sic] relishes decadence; Mann confronts the problem of decadence. D’Annunzio [sic] celebrates the sensuous life; Mann ponders the human condition. (p. 514)

While rapturous depictions of sensuality, for example, are mainly d’Annunzio’s terrain, reflections on sensuality are certainly to be found in Mann’s literature, as will be seen. Equally, while d’Annunzio may portray ‘decadence’ more often than Mann, he does so with varying degrees of ‘relish’, and Mann’s feelings regarding decadence are far from straightforward, resulting in frequent portrayals (often coloured by fascinated disapproval) of this cultural phenomenon in his literature.

This book argues that d’Annunzio and Mann lie closer together than has hitherto been maintained, based on an analysis of selected texts. The works selected to illustrate this argument are Thomas Mann’s Tristan, Tonio Kröger (1903), and Der Tod in Venedig, and Gabriele d’Annunzio’s Trionfo della morte [Triumph of Death (1894)] and Il fuoco. The central point of comparison will be the two writers’ shared engagement with the idea of the Dionysian developed by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and their (critical) portrayal of this drive as one that can promote artistic creativity. This study will therefore offer the first comparative exploration of the two writers’ receptions of Nietzsche. It demonstrates that both view the Dionysian as a potentially valuable source of creative inspiration, but also as a drive that can promote death and destruction, and that striking affinities exist in their literary portrayals of ‘Dionysian creativity’. Throughout this book various aspects of d’Annunzio’s and Mann’s versions of the Dionysian are compared: the second, third and fourth chapters each deal with a different – but related – aspect of the Dionysian as depicted by the two writers. Mann and d’Annunzio will be seen to portray the Dionysian functioning in ← 3 | 4 → similar ways for the artist, and to involve the same dangers. Both also offer comparable strategies for dealing with the Dionysian in the most creatively beneficial way. The affinities uncovered here will allow for a better understanding of d’Annunzio’s and Mann’s respective conceptions of creativity, and of the psychological processes that lie behind artistic production; in shedding light on the hitherto overlooked relationship between d’Annunzio and Mann, this book simultaneously seeks a better understanding of the two writers individually.

An important link between d’Annunzio and Mann is the prominence with which art and the artist feature in their literature. Mann explicitly discusses the artist through characters such as Tonio Kröger (Tonio Kröger), Detlev Spinell (Tristan), Gustav von Aschenbach (Der Tod in Venedig), and Adrian Leverkühn (Doktor Faustus [Doctor Faustus, 1947]). He also offers implicit comments on the artist through characters such as Klaus Heinrich (Königliche Hoheit [Royal Highness, 1909]), Cipolla (Mario und der Zauberer [Mario and the Magician, 1929]), and Felix Krull (Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull [The Confessions of Felix Krull, 1954]). In d’Annunzio’s (fewer) novels, conventional artists include the characters of Andrea Sperelli (Il piacere [Pleasure, 1888]) and Stelio Effrena (Il fuoco), but almost all of d’Annunzio’s protagonists are highly artistic, and are profoundly moved by art. Giorgio Aurispa (Trionfo della morte) and Claudio Cantelmo (Le vergini delle rocce) are examples of these figures, artists by sensibility if not by profession. Of course, d’Annunzio and Mann were not the only writers of their time to have offered literary reflection on the nature and role of the artist: Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891), Fogazzaro’s Il mistero del poeta [The Mystery of the Poet (1888)], Hesse’s Gertrud (1910) and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1913), to give just a few examples, also offer studies of the artist. As this book argues, though, a more interesting and valuable comparison between d’Annunzio and Mann can be drawn when their portrayals of the experience of creativity are more closely compared.

Before turning attention to these portrayals of creativity, however, consideration must be given to d’Annunzio’s and Mann’s views regarding the role of art and the artist, for it is here that the two writers appear most divergent and irreconcilable. An understanding of the two writers’ beliefs ← 4 | 5 → regarding the purpose and responsibility of art and creativity allows for a deeper understanding of the experiences of creativity that will be seen in their literature throughout this book, and enables us to gain a clearer idea of the two writers’ understanding of the relationship between life and art.

Mann’s views regarding the role and social responsibilities of the artist were to undergo significant transformation during his career. Broadly speaking, while Mann was to find an overt political voice with the rise of National Socialism, his opposition to which was vehement and outspoken, at the time of the First World War (and at the time of the publication of the texts under discussion in this book) Mann believed the politically engaged artist to be an abhorrent figure, and lambasted artists who use (or abuse) their position to argue social or political causes. This belief placed Mann in stark opposition to d’Annunzio but also to his own brother, Heinrich Mann, resulting in a notorious Bruderzwist, or brotherly dispute, which lasted several years.


XII, 294
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
creativity Dionysian literature Thomas Mann Gabriele D’Annunzio
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 294 pp.

Biographical notes

Jessica Wood (Author)

Jessica Wood completed her PhD in German Studies and Italian Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her article «The art of dying in Il trionfo della morte» will appear in a special issue of Forum Italicum dedicated to Gabriele D’Annunzio in August 2017.


Title: Portraits of the Artist
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