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Hemingway’s Milan

December 20, 2010
By

Il Duomo di Milano. David Frey photo.

Capitalism has certainly won in Milan, and fashionably so. As we strolled through the Galleria, we found ourselves surrounded by Prada, Gucci, Massimo Dutti, and others labels my tragically fashion-unconscious self had never heard of, but names that had put Milan at the center of the couture map. There was McDonald’s. It would have fit in well in a shopping mall back home, but here, in a luxurious esplanade with mosaics underfoot, a domed ceiling overhead and Corinthian columns along the walls, it seemed a little out of place, but almost the only place I felt welcome. We passed on the couture, and the McCafé, and settled for gelato down the passageway.

The Galleria spat us out the Duomo, still the greatest example of Milan’s over-the-top sense of style. The Duomo di Milano sits at the center of the circle that was ancient Milan. Built over centuries, it is a glittering white wedding cake of a cathedral, with Gothic spires towering over other Gothic spires that tower over other Gothic spires, and rose windows perched over stained glass windows over massive wooden portals.

The Galleria, Milan. David Frey photo.

We stepped through the crowd that filled the piazza and into the dark interior, where red, blues and yellows spilled down from the stained glass Bible scenes onto the inlaid marble floors. Sculptures of saints and angels dwarfed us, as their sculptors meant them to. It left me cold, as cathedrals often do, but impressed. The devout lit candles, which filled the corner with their amber glow. We circled the nave studying the sculptures.

“Look at this guy,” Cristina said. Along the wall, a marble statue showed a man holding his skin in his hands, his body nothing but muscle and bones, veins and tendons. It was St. Bartholomew, the apostle said to have been flayed alive, then crucified, upside down, a martyr three times over.

“No matter how bad Hemingway was feeling,” I said, “this guy should have made him feel better about things.”

We paid the fee and climbed up the stairs to watch the sun set from the roof of the Duomo. Cristina was so transfixed by every angle, and every angel, I was practically pushing her upward to see more.

Spires of the Duomo over Milan. David Frey photo.

“Wherever you go there is something magnificent,” she said. Every view underscored that. Angels took flight. Gargoyles snarled down on the city below. Atop each spire a saint stood in solemn blessing as the lights of the city flickered on.

Down in the piazza below, Hemingway had hailed a carriage and rode back to the hospital with Agnes.

“We looked at the people, and the great galleria in the dusk, and each other,” Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms. The fictional love affair between the injured Frederic and his beautiful nurse Catherine was based on his own with Agnes, but only loosely. Agnes was American, with shoulder-length brown hair. Catherine was British, with long blonde hair. Frederic got Catherine pregnant. Hemingway and Agnes may never have done anything that could lead to pregnancy. Most importantly, Catherine loved Frederic beyond words. Agnes’s feelings for Hemingway were, well, less certain.

“I’m not made romantically,” she confessed to Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds decades later. “Men were – I don’t know – not interesting,” she said.

Like Frederic and Catherine, they role-played as husband and wife. Mr. and Mrs. Kid, they called each other. In letters, they would confess their love to one another. But theirs was an on-again, off-again love affair. First Hemingway went back to Stresa for some recuperation time. Then Agnes was transferred temporarily to an American hospital in Florence. Eleven days after she returned, she volunteered for duty again at a hospital north of Treviso. Hemingway won a three-day leave to visit her there, and that was the last time they would see each other.

The war ended. Hemingway was discharged from the Red Cross. Agnes never made it back to Milan for the holidays or before Hemingway shipped out. Still, he considered them engaged. He his plan was to go back to America, make some money and send for her.

Agnes von Kurowsky. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

That never happened. Not long after Hemingway left, Agnes began a relationship with an Italian duke. On March 13, 1919, Hemingway got the letter from Agnes with the news. He ran to the bathroom and vomited.

“She doesn’t love me, Bill,” he wrote to a war buddy. “She takes it all back. A ‘mistake.’ One of those little mistakes, you know. … All I wanted was Ag. And happiness and now the bottom has dropped out of the whole world.”

Hemingway would fall in love again, of course. And again. And again. Several times over. I’m not sure, though, that he ever fell in love like he did that first time. He was a young man abroad, in times of war, with a woman who was tough and strong and shared his sense of adventure. It seems every marriage and every affair that followed was trying to create that first love, and it never did.

“Every one he had slept with had only made him miss her more,” Hemingway wrote in “A Very Short Story,” a fictional account of their love affair he penned 14 years later. It wasn’t exactly a memoir, but he did name the woman in the story Ag before he changed it for libel reasons.

“He knew he could not cure himself of loving her,” he wrote.