In existence: 1919–20
Population: 60,000
Languages: Italian, Hungarian, German, Venetian
Cause of death: tails
Today: part of Croatia

In the aftermath of World War I, the Big Four powers redrew the map of Europe with the (100 per cent successful) aim of preventing any more trouble in the Balkans. The largely Italian-speaking Fiume ended up in newly formed Yugoslavia. US president Woodrow Wilson earmarked it as a potential HQ for the League of Nations, but the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio – flagrant self-publicist, would-be necromancer, womaniser, terrible teeth – had other ideas…

‘The eyebrows drawn in such a pure line as to give something indefinably virginal to the melancholy of the big eyes. The beautiful half-open mouth.’ This is Gabriele D’Annunzio’s description of his own face. Ernest Hemingway also described him, but typically he was pithier: he thought D’Annunzio was ‘a jerk’. Evidence to back up Hemingway’s opinion:

D’Annunzio’s kids weren’t allowed to call him ‘papa’, they had to call him ‘maestro’.

He got out of a lunch date by sending his chauffeur to explain that ‘he’s gone up in a balloon and might not be back for ages’.

He basically invented all the trappings of fascism that still hang about today.

In September 1919, D’Annunzio drove into the city of Fiume at the head of his ‘legionnaires’, an ultra-violent piratical fan rabble. The Italian army – expressly ordered to stop him – gave a collective ‘more than my pay grade’ shrug and let him continue on his way. As an ardent nationalist, D’Annunzio’s intention was to claim Fiume on behalf of Italy, but Italy – or at least the government of Prime Minister Francesco Nitti – didn’t want anything to do with this circus. So, having taken the place over, he found himself in charge of his own tiny fiefdom, and set about making it a ‘beacon for the world’. This translated as ‘a lot of ice cream and borderline anarchy’.

The flag of the Impresa di Fiume[1]

Beyond really liking torpedoes and thinking that death was sexy, D’Annunzio couldn’t be said to have a coherent political philosophy, but he very much enjoyed styling it out. He issued decrees and proclamations and nailed them up around town, only to change his mind and issue a contradictory set later the same day. He decked everywhere out with flowers, because he was a big fan of flowers. If you could ignore the occasional lynching and didn’t mind the endless speeches crammed with those rhetorical flourishes that dictators everywhere would soon adopt as their own, life in Fiume was a party. D’Annunzio even appointed World War I flying ace Guido Keller as his ‘Action Secretary’. Keller, a keen naturist, spent as much time as possible naked, and slept in the same bed as his pet eagle. It is also said that he once crashed his plane in a field next to a donkey, took a shine to the donkey while doing repairs, strapped the donkey to his plane’s fuselage and flew it back to Fiume as a gift for his boss.

Things got serious when, after putting up with more than a year of this kind of roguery, an Italian warship parked in the bay shelled D’Annunzio’s palace. He had a decision to make. Showing all the profound, grown-up sense of responsibility he was famous for, he flipped a coin: it came up tails, and so he called it a day. His Fiume Endeavour (‘Impresa di Fiume’) died on a coin toss.

While the newly rechristened Free State of Fiume carried on for another three years without him,[2] D’Annunzio retired to his spectacularly creepy house overlooking Lake Garda, where he was showered with gifts by Mussolini in order to keep him out of trouble (Mussolini was operating on the principle that ‘either you pull the tooth, or you fill it with gold’). In 1938 he died of a brain haemorrhage at his desk. Or possibly he was poisoned by his girlfriend, a Nazi spy planted to keep tabs on him – as with most of D’Annunzio’s life, the truth is murky.[3]

from The Atlas of Extinct Countries (Fourth Estate, £12.99)


Gideon Defoe is the author of The Pirates! book series, and wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated Aardman film The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! He has written about how animals have sex and penned a computer game tie-in novel for Gollancz because he is bad at staying on brand. He does film development work with Locksmith Animation, Studio Canal and is developing a sitcom with BBC studios. The Atlas of Extinct Countries is published in hardback and eBook by Fourth Estate.
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[1] Like his hero Napoleon, D’Annunzio took a hands-on approach and designed his own flag. A snake eating its own tail! The constellation of Orion (possibly a homage to his friends in the IRA)! An unusual vertical design to make it extra-fascist! The up-in-your-face ‘Who is against us?’ motto! D’Annunzio can’t be accused of holding back, at any rate.

[2] After D’Annunzio, Fiume didn’t get a lot of rest: first carved up by Italy and Yugoslavia, then occupied by the Germans, then finding itself back in Yugoslavia, and currently part of Croatia (in Croatian it is called Rijeka).

[3] Probably lies: D’Annunzio enjoyed spreading a lot of myths about himself. He’d have dinner parties and comment that children tasted like lamb, but he almost certainly didn’t eat children.