James McGrath Morris is the author of “The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War.”
He may be one of the most important figures in the history of 20th- century literature, yet he never published a word. Instead it was in dying that this man made his mark. He was an Italian soldier stationed in a trench along the Piave River in northern Italy during World War I. On a summer’s night in the final year of the war, he stood directly in front of 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway, who was distributing candy and cigarettes as a Red Cross volunteer. When an Austrian mortar landed near the soldier, he was killed instantly. Hemingway sustained extensive wounds but survived because the soldier’s body took the brunt of the explosion. Had it not been for the soldier there would be no “The Sun Also Rises,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Hemingway’s wounds brought him a medal and introduced him to nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while recuperating, and his legendary love affair with her provided the material for one of his best novels, “A Farewell to Arms.” Along the Piave River stands a memorial near the spot of the explosion. “On this levee,” the inscription reads in Italian, “Ernest Hemingway, American Red Cross volunteer, was wounded the night of July 8, 1918.” The moment is so central to the author’s life that in 2014 the Ernest Hemingway Society brought a group of its members to the spot during its biennial international conference in Venice.
Yet until now the soldier whose life was lost that night has remained nameless, his identity buried in the rubble of war. Despite decades of Hemingway scholarship and countless biographies of the writer, the man has always been referred to only as an Italian soldier. Hemingway himself made no known attempt to learn anything of his accidental savior and even left him out of his highly autobiographical but fictional account of his wounding, “A Farewell to Arms.”
To be nameless is to be forgotten. Failing to name the combat dead or chisel their names into stone is like leaving a soldier behind. The quest to correctly name dead soldiers was so strong after World War I that distress over unidentified corpses prompted Congress to create a tomb for the unknown soldier. Honoring these unknowns with a special tomb persisted through the Vietnam War. But DNA testing identified the representative unknown soldier from that era, and the Vietnam crypt now sits empty.
Known contemporaneous sources, such as the citation of the Italian Military Valor award given to Hemingway for courage and self-sacrifice, offer no hint of the dead soldier’s name. Sometimes the sources don’t even mention his death.
As a result, this young man joined many anonymous historical figures variously labeled through the years as an “Irish maid,” a “French soldier,” a “steelworker” or in this case an “Italian soldier.” No one seems to have been interested in teasing out his identity. None of Hemingway’s biographers lament the absence of a name.
But now, at last, we can identify this man. After a cross-Atlantic joining of research efforts, Italian historian Marino Perissinotto and I have been able to put a name to the soldier who saved Hemingway’s life.
The search for the soldier’s identity began in earnest after I published my 2017 book, “The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War,” which detailed Hemingway’s World War I experience. At the end of the book, a postscript lists the names of 18 Italian soldiers, culled from Italian military records, who died in battle the night of the mortar attack. In the postscript, as well as a subsequent online article, I issued a challenge to Italian scholars to complete the research and pinpoint which of the 18 men saved Hemingway’s life.
Perissinotto, who lives along the Piave, came across my article and developed a strategy to shrink the number of candidates. First, he identified the locations of the army units of each soldier who died that night, narrowing the list to three men who were in the immediate area of the mortar attack. Two of the dead were serving with the 152 Reggimento Fanteria, Brigata Sassari, which was stationed some distance away from the Piave. The third man was in the 69 Reggimento Fanteria, Brigata Ancona, in front-line service along the Piave at Fossalta on the Venetian plain where the worst of the fighting occurred. That left only one soldier in the vicinity of where Hemingway was wounded. And that man who unknowingly gave his life for literature was Fedele Temperini of Montalcino, a medieval city in Tuscany. He was 26 years old when he died. Strict Italian privacy laws prevent us from learning more about him. But at last we have a name.
Temperini was one of many young Italian men conscripted and crammed into trenches along the banks of the Piave in July 1918. Holding back Austrian forces over the course of the war came at great price. The Italians suffered more than 600,000 casualties.
That Temperini’s name was for more than a century left off the monument and out of the accounts of Hemingway’s life is a cold reminder of history’s cruelty. The recording of deaths is hardly a democratic matter. The lives of the less accomplished are often forgotten, even when they change history.
“Every man’s life ends the same way,” Hemingway once told his friend Aaron Hotchner, “and it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.”
When Temperini’s name is added to the biographies of Hemingway and to the memorial along the Piave River, he too will have the distinction he deserves.