The Literary Italian Lakes

Henry James’s heart lifted as he left Switzerland for the Italian Lakes: “On into Italy we went – a rapturous progress through a wild luxuriance of corn and olives and figs and mulberries and chestnuts and frescoed villages and clamorous beggars and all the good old Italianisms of tradition.”
Aerial view of Lake Maggiore
Lake Maggiore


Speak to a local expert about arranging the trip of a lifetime to the Italian Lakes here, or browse our fully customisable Enchanting Italian Lakes itinerary here. If you'd like to read more, visit our online guide or check out our top attractions. We also have a guide to exploring Lake Garda by ferry, boat or dinghy, the Italian Lakes for kids, the most romantic locations, and a guide to the region's finest wines, and the Lakes on a budget...


The sight of sluggish steamers and snow-clad peaks stirs something deep in most visitors, but especially in the souls of poets. 

It is little coincidence that two of the most romantic Roman poets, Virgil and Catullus, came from the lakes, and were inspired by the seductive setting. Virgil lavished praise on the lakes, while Catullus chose Sirmione as the place from which to write lovesick verse to Lesbia, his fickle lover. Explore the ruins at Sirmione and Desenzano with Insight Guides' Enchanting Italian Lakes trip

“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty,” declared Shelley of Lake Como. Shelley, exploring the lake in 1818, was stirred by Villa Pliniana, a Renaissance palace linked to a site beloved by Pliny. Like the Roman poet, Shelley waxed lyrical over the vast waterfall, “broken by the woody rocks into a thousand channels to the lake”, but, with typical British acquisitiveness, wanted to rent the crumbling pile. Novelist Edith Wharton, visiting in 1903, was intoxicated by the Romantic poets’ visions of brooding lakes, especially Shelley’s “glens filled with the flashing light of the waterfalls”.


The fabulous Lake Como during summer. Photo: Shutterstock

 

Romantic inspiration

The German poet Goethe was drawn to Lake Garda by its classical resonance, even if it was the lemons rather than the literature which won his heart: “What I enjoy most of all is the fruit,” he wrote in his journal in 1786. Goethe had less fondness for Malcesine, where the Austrian police, spotting the poet sketching the castle, arrested him on suspicion of being a spy. 

Since the 18th century, Lake Garda’s summer villas have lured such luminaries as Byron and D.H. Lawrence, who lamented a way of life that was passing, with the shift from plucking lemons to plucking tourists. Lawrence adored Limone, overlooking “a lake as beautiful as the beginning of creation”. Ibsen and Vladimir Nabokov concurred, even if their preference was for grander Gardone Riviera, which was also Winston Churchill’s favoured resort, where he combined painting watercolours with journal-writing. 

“One can’t describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could,” wrote Henry James, on catching sight of Lake Maggiore. Such outpourings of purple prose, particularly from writers fleeing northern climes, are part of the lakes’ legacy. Retrace Henry James' steps, with Insight Guides' Enchanting Italian Lakes trip


This blog was originally published on May 13, 2013

 

Planing your trip to the Italian Lakes

Speak to a local expert about arranging the trip of a lifetime to the Italian Lakes here, or browse our fully customisable Enchanting Italian Lakes itinerary here. If you'd like to read more, visit our online guide or check out our top attractions. We also have a guide to exploring Lake Garda by ferry, boat or dinghy, the Italian Lakes for kids, the most romantic locations, and a guide to the region's finest wines, and the Lakes on a budget...


Read more:

Best places to go in June, July, August

Best places to go in September, October, November

Things to do in the Italian Lakes this summer

How to do the Italian Lakes on a budget

The Italian Lakes for kids