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Ernest Hemingway’s Hedonistic Lifestyle in Italy

“Sometimes I think we only half live over here. The Italians live all the way” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a letter to his sister in 1919 upon his return from the war in Italy to the U.S.

Known as the macho icon of 20th-century literature and for his larger than life personality, the Illinois-born author embraced the hedonistic lifestyle he so admired of Italy and captured it on the keys of a typewriter in a remarkably unadorned writing style. Hemingway’s hero, mirroring his creator, is conventionally male for his time – he enjoys hunting, bullfights, and indulges in passionate love affairs and unrestricted eating and drinking.

Traveling would inform several of Hemingway’s often semi-autobiographical works – his experiences in France, Spain, and Kenya to name a few permeated his most applauded publications including A Moveable Feast, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Yet his relationship with Italy was a special one. Drawn to its people, places, and appreciation for la dolce vita, it is not a surprise that the self-proclaimed “old fan of Veneto” set two of his novels in this region.

The author’s first experience in Italy is immortalized in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. At the age of 18, in 1918, he left a reporting job in Kansas to volunteer as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I. He reached the Italian Front at Fossalta di Piave via Milan, Schio, and Bassano del Grappa. Hemingway’s daily routine on the Front involved handing out coffee, chocolate, cigarettes and postcards to Italian soldiers in the trench. It was only one month into his service, that he became severely wounded by a mortar shell explosion which led him to a lengthy recovery in the American Red Cross hospital in Milan.

Ernest Hemingwa in a venice canal in a gondola under a bridge

If you find yourself in the region, Villa Ca’Erizzo Luca is the fifteenth-century building where he, along with other WWI volunteers, was stationed. This is now home to the Hemingway and Great War Museum, which captures the tragic war through personal accounts of soldiers, archival documents and photos. A short drive away from the museum is the author’s wounding site by the Piave River, marked with a silver metal memorial.

Hemingway’s experience in the hospital was far from average – there was a lot of drinking, as well as a momentous love affair with an American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. This ended in heartbreak and would become the inspiration for the romance between Lieutenant Frederic Henry and his nurse, Catherine Barkley, in A Farewell to Arms. Before returning to the U.S., he also spent time in Stresa on Lake Maggiore which he would visit frequently throughout his life. Here he would stay at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in room 106 (now named the Hemingway Suite) drinking dry martinis and overlooking what he called one of the most beautiful Italian lakes. This place too would be fictionalized in his first Veneto-based novel.

It was only after World War II that the writer would discover the beauty of Venice, capturing it in Across the River and Into the Trees (1950). This novel too is based on one of Hemingway’s love affairs – this time with Adriana Ivancich, a 19 year old Italian countess thirty years his junior whom he met while visiting the region with his third wife, Mary. In Venice, Hemingway would stay at the luxurious Gritti Palace Hotel where you will find another Presidential Suite named after him. He also loved spending time on the then nearly deserted island of Torcello, at the more minimalist Locanda Cipriani, writing and duck hunting in the lagoons – hunting was another one of his passions, especially along the banks of the Tagliamento river.

He became close friends with Giuseppe Cipriani, who founded the mythical Harry’s Bar (just a short walk away from the Gritti Hotel) – Hemingway would refer to this as “home” and spend days and nights there drinking. Harry’s would be a common meeting point between the two lovers, Colonel Richard Cantwell and Renata, in Across the River and Into the Trees. The Montgomery Martini was a favorite, with 15 parts gin to 1 of vermouth it is said to be named after British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery who would fight the enemy only if he had fifteen soldiers to their one. A strong, must-try cocktail when visiting Venice.

Hemingway’s first encounters with love and loss in Italy would be indelible. The country, with its undeniable zest even in times of war, proved to be the perfect backdrop for his heroes to confront those very themes. The writer would forever be drawn to Italy, returning to it any time he could and sharing it with the women he loved along with bottles of Valpolicella.

“Hemingway’s experience in the hospital was far from average – there was a lot of drinking, as well as a momentous love affair with an American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky.”