In 1954, decades after he first travelled to Italy as a Red Cross volunteer during the First World War - a trip that earned him a mortar fire wound, a Silver Medal of Valour, and plenty of material for future novels - Ernest Hemingway reached Lignano, a beach town of uncontaminated beauty in Italy’s North East. The American iconoclast’s fascination for the country will no doubt ring familiar to his many acolytes. By the mid 1950s, Hemingway was already a Venice regular - the city he’d crystallised in his 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees - and Lignano offered the future Nobel Prize laureate a quiet retreat by the lagoon’s outer banks.
“The Florida of Italy,” as the man came to call Lignano’s quaint peninsula - a tongue-shaped stretch of beaches, shrubs, marshlands and sea pine forests jutting out of the banks of the Tagliamento river - hosted the writer as he hobnobbed and hunted with the Italian aristocracy.
Decades later, the city has now turned into the most popular sea resort in Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region. The wild, rugged wilderness that welcomed Hemingway in the 1950s has been replaced by a labyrinth of villas, bungalows, hotels, and apartments scattered in the spiral-shaped town designed by the maverick architect Marcello d’Olivo. The few photos documenting Hemingway’s first escapades in town look like relic from an altogether different universe - watching the man dressed in a three-piece suit as he removes sand from his shoes, body lying against a car, sand dunes sprawling in the background, the mind harkens back to an irretrievable, bucolic past.
But Lignano hasn’t forgotten about Hemingway, and as much as its landscape may have changed since then, the mutual love between writer and town has endured - epitomised in a public park named after the man, and in an annual literary prize, the Premio Hemingway, which celebrated its 35th edition on June 19-34 this year.
Comprised of four sections (literature, journalism, photography, and a category homing in on cultural studies, “Reflections on Thought”), each year the Premio Hemingway celebrates the work of a handful of notable intellectuals around the world, with a pantheon of past winners including the likes of Zadie Smith, Slavoj Žižek, Zygmunt Bauman, and Abraham Yehoshua. This year’s jury - helmed by writer Alberto Garlini and writer-cum-poet Gian Mario Villalta (two-thirds of Pordenonelegge’s artistic directors’ triumvirate) as well as photography historian Italo Zannier - sat with the winners of the Premio’s 35th edition on June 22 to celebrate the awardees’ craft and Hemingway’s legacy.
French writer Emmanuel Carrère nabbed the award in the literature section for his unmatched ability to merge fiction and reality and conjure up a hybrid auto-biographical genre (as crystallised perhaps most famously in his 2011 Limonov). Italian classicist Eva Cantarella received the Premio’s “Reflections on Thought” award, for her ability to dissect and divulge Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece’s social mores and laws, with a special emphasis on their legacy and relevance in today’s judicial debates. Photographer Riccardo Zipoli was crowned for his outstanding work carried out in a life of perpetual globetrotting – a selection of which was made available to the public through an exhibition held in Lignano (Borders of Passage: Thirty Photographs 1972-2017) that grouped together shots taken by Zipoli across thirty countries. Journalist and La Repubblica’s New York correspondent Federico Rampini was crowned for his work documenting present-day US and China, while a colleague of his, journalist and TV presenter Franca Leosini, received the Premio Hemingway’s Special Award for her reports and investigations into infamous crimes in recent Italian history - her Raitre TV program “Storie Maledette” (which she both helms and pens) a testament of her outstanding skills as writer, and reporter.
Five awards to five intellectuals, all of whom share – through different media and in different contexts – Hemingway’s own indomitable thirst for documenting humanity in all its quirks, flaws, idiosyncrasies and beauty. It was only fitting that a beach town as gorgeous and intellectually fertile as Lignano would choose to celebrate its most famous adoptive son long after he graced the shores. Hemingway aficionados around the world: keep the Premio Hemingway in your radar, and see you all in Lignano next year.