Hemingway, Browning, and Stark in Italy

“One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what everyplace brings. . . . I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.”
–Freya Stark
About a 90 minute drive north of Venice lies a plain that fronts the pre-Alps, highlighted by Monte Grappa and the towns beneath it, particularly the enchanting Bassano del Grappa, known for its walled city and medieval wooden bridge.

The TV1 Trail offers a panoramic route from the Grappa. Early on the path, the massive Cima Grappa Ossuary or mausoleum stands out. At the conclusion of the war, the various temporary graves on Mount Grappa were emptied, and the remains interred in this single monumental shrine that contains the remains of almost 23,000 soldiers—20,000 of them unknown. When we hiked the Valle San Liberale, we saw remnants of the war: caves that provided refuge from gas attacks, aqueducts that held water that had to be carted up the steep mountainside by donkey to the soldiers, who held back the Austro-Hungarian soldiers—somewhat.


Bassano is home, unlikely as it may seem, to the Hemingway Museum, and the timing of this visit at the centenary of the Great War seems a good opportunity to revisit his classic A Farewell to Arms, which was reissued recently in a beautiful edition that includes the dozens of draft endings. Most folks know the story of how Hemingway at 18 volunteered as an ambulance driver and served in Italy. He saw the disastrous defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto, in which 40,000 soldiers perished and over 250,000 were taken prisoner by the German army. He was also wounded and fell in love with his nurse, which formed the basis for the narrative in his novel.
Today, the hilltop towns seem calm and serene. Asolo is capped by Rocca, a 13th century stronghold accessed by a steep climb past charming flower-bedecked stone buildings. img_5790Off the main square, the homes of actress Eleanor Duse, poet Robert Browning, and travel writer Freya Stark can be found.

Duse was a contemporary of the fabulous Sarah Bernhardt and her rival; the play Ladies of the Camellias, which I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival some years ago, speculates that the two leading ladies were playing the role of Camille in competing, adjacent theatres. Robert Browning was so taken with Asolo that he titled one of his poems, Asolando. The amazing travel writer, legendary for outings in the Arabian desert, Freya Stark, died in Asolo at the age of 100 (1893-1993); both she and Duse are buried in the St. Anna cemetery.
We had seen a part of Asolo while on a trip to Florida a few years prior; the historic 18th century theatre of the town had been disassembled and reinstalled in Sarasota in the 1950s in the Ringling Brothers museum complex and today hosts a vibrant repertory schedule.
Books that might provide good reading for this part of Italy include Hemingway, of course, plus Virginia Woolf’s portrait of the Brownings through the eyes of Elizabeth’s dog, Flush. A biography of Stark, Passionate Nomad or Stark’s own volumes of travel, Alexander’s Path or the intriguing Valley of the Assassins, reveals an astounding personality who found a home in Italy thanks to the generosity of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s son, Pen, who owned three houses in the rewarding village of Asolo.