The Decadent Renaissance: The Antimodern Seductions of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Vernon Lee
This dissertation explores the phenomenon of Renaissance mania in Decadent and Aestheticist literature of the 1880s and 1890s. It locates a variety of works by the Italian poeta vate Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Anglo-Italian intellectual Vernon Lee within what it terms the “Decadent Renaissance,” a version of Renaissance Revivalism that privileges fantastical transformation and anachronistic revelry over positivist approaches to historiography. Concerned with the possibility of embodied, often dangerously erotic, encounters with the past, this fin-de-siècle literary and artistic current merges its interest in aesthetic freedom and sexual perversions with its backward-looking gaze.
“The Decadent Renaissance” identifies in the works of these two writers a web of interrelated questions about the power of the aesthetic imagination, the imbrication of erotic and historical knowledge, and the simultaneous lingering in and lingering of the past. As this study argues, both D’Annunzio and Lee negotiate the past through the female figure, which comes to serve as a bodily site of contested chronology and aesthetics and further underscores the sexual dimension of fin-de-siècle Renaissance fantasies. It is in their shared preoccupation with staging this encounter with the past — an encounter that is at once powerfully corporeal and disquietingly ghostly — that the dissertation finds a major source of its inspiration. In placing these concerns against the backdrop of British and Italian Aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelitism and the criticism of Walter Pater and Angelo Conti, “The Decadent Renaissance” follows a comparative and interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the transnational, cosmopolitan character of Decadence as well as its interweaving of the verbal and the plastic. Throughout its chapters, the dissertation returns to its core questions: what promise does the Renaissance come to hold for these Decadent writers, and what do their works gain from the tentative channels of transhistorical communication that they seem to open?
Chapter One focuses on the turn to the Renaissance in D’Annunzio’s illustrated poetry collection Isaotta Guttadàuro and Lee’s fairy tale “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,” arguing that these works center on a Paterian notion of the Renaissance as a sensibility rather than a concrete historical period. In conceiving of the Renaissance past as a type of magical fairyland, these texts disrupt the binary opposition between the real and the imaginary even as they gesture towards the fragility of this realm. Chapter Two shifts from utopic visions to violent confrontation, as it concerns the impingement of the past onto the present through female revenants who erupt into the modern scene and embody antimodern sensibilities. It posits that Lee’s supernatural tale “Dionea” and D’Annunzio’s play La Gioconda transform the vampiric Mona Lisa of Pater’s famous ekphrasis in Studies in the History of the Renaissance into atavistically Greek, sculptural femmes fatales who queer historical chronology and reinforce the centrality of carnal knowledge. Chapter Three considers D’Annunzio’s novel Le vergini delle rocce and Lee’s short story “Amour Dure: Passages from the Diary of Spiridion Trepka” through the lens of necrophilic desire. It proposes that necrophilia operates as an aesthetic principle in these texts and makes possible their examination of the permeable boundaries between self and other, reality and fantasy, and past and present.