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Studio Matto e Disperatissimo: The Life and Writings of Giacomo Leopardi

By (December 1, 2013) One Comment

GiacomoLeopardiHard to imagine a bleaker prospect for the future: you are a writer of genius, but you are trapped in a small village in the retrograde 19th century Papal States. You are unable to leave the household that is run by a cold, fanatically religious mother and a father who, having been through the turbulence of the Napoleonic period, is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. As the son of a nobleman, it was not proper for you to attend public schools, so priests privately tutored you until you knew more than they did. You then read systematically through your father’s library, learning several classical and modern languages, and ruining both your eyesight and your already fragile health in the process. You are a hunchback, suffered from many real and imaginary maladies, were derided for your scholarly pretensions, and your hope of finding a soul of the opposite sex who would reciprocate your love was virtually nonexistent.

You were cut off by distance from the centers of European intellectual life, such as Paris and Weimar, your only means of communications was letters, and yet and yet…despite all odds, you became one of greatest Italian poets and philosophers, a living link between Rousseau and Nietzsche.

Mastery of both inspired poetical expression and philosophy is an unlikely and rare combination in anyone, but not in our unlikely genius. Our subject was aware of this:

Truly remarkable and lofty minds that scoff at precepts and warnings and scarcely care about the impossible can overcome any obstacle and be supreme modern philosophers able to write perfect poetry. But because this phenomenon borders on the impossible, it cannot help but be very rare and singular.

As matter of fact, he also came to believe that the qualities required to be a philosopher are not dissimilar from those of a poet:

In different circumstances the great poet could have been a great philosopher…. All faculties of a great poet [are] contained in and deriving from the ability to discover relations between things, even the most minimal, and distant, even between things that appear the least analogous, etc. Now this is the philosopher through and through: the faculty of discovering and recognizing relations, of binding particulars together, and of generalizing.

Such was the life of one of the two greatest Italian literary figures of the 19th century, and certainly the greatest Italian poet after Dante: the lyric poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi.

In his short life Leopardi attempted to find reasons for happiness and yearned for meaningful human contact, love, and beauty. In the end, however, he concluded that while nature and creation may have their own inscrutable purposes, the individual’s life is purposeless and conducive only to pain, heartaches, and finally death. Only within his own consciousness can man find some temporary, transitory solace. Both in the Zibaldone, a personal notebook containing his thoughts and essays on many subjects, in his fascinating poems, and in many of his other works, Leopardi espoused a bleakly agnostic and nihilistic philosophy on nature and humanity’s role in it.

He was the first, but certainly not the last, Italian writer to give the lie to the outsider’s folkloristic view that Italians have a warm, friendly character and a happy go lucky attitude, enjoying life as they can. Modern Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, who wrote also in a dark, melancholy manner, in despair for political disillusion and a failed love affair, committed suicide; Nobel laureate poet Eugenio Montale, who broodingly delved into the inner sanctum of life in his work, during a 1960 interview, opined that “after Leopardi it was practically impossible to write verse for the whole rest of the century.”

Someone like Leopardi, putting forward such bleak views nowadays, would be diagnosed as mentally unbalanced and prescribed psychiatric drugs. With beliefs unfashionable even in his time, Leopardi made very few friends, scorned many, repelled others, and was regarded as a quirky mad genius. In Florence, hearing from acquaintances that the norm-setting Italian novel of Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi, wasn’t any good, he started parroting this opinion though he hadn’t read the book. A little later, when the two writers met, they were very cordial to each other, but Leopardi, after reading the novel, wrote in a letter that while the work was very beautiful, it had some defects… what defects he did not say. Diffidence between the two writers became mutual, and Manzoni (or philologist and essayist Niccolo` Tommaseo, who was Leopardi’s literary enemy) is said to have derided what they considered Leopardi’s weird views by saying that his beliefs did not make sense and Leopardi could have summed them up by saying: “There is no God because I am a hunchback, I am hunchback because there is no God.”

How much his physical condition affected Leopardi’s psyche and predisposition to pessimism is, however, an open question. English writer Cyril Connolly addressed this question when he said: “Pascal and Leopardi ‘are the Grand Inquisitors who break down our alibis of health and happiness. Are they pessimistic because they are ill? Or does their illness act as a shortcut to reality — which is intrinsically tragic?”

Unquestionably Leopardi is an intellectual giant deserving to be better known worldwide. Literary critic and author Harold Bloom has written: “Leopardi remains the greatest of Italian poets since Dante and Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto… Leopardi’s speculations and ruminations seem to me to go beyond those of every other European man of letters, from Goethe to Paul Valéry,” and philosopher George Santayana believed of Leopardi’s verses that “Long passages are fit to repeat in lieu of prayers through all the watches of the night.”

Francesco De Sanctis, the author of the most influential history of Italian literature of the 19th century and a critical study on Leopardi, believed that the writer appeared on the scene about the time when the fragile doctrinal equilibrium between

mysticism impregnated of metaphysics, that metaphysics of the divine and the absolute declining in theology, that Voltaireianism varnished with holy water, all was dissolving…A new skepticism was rising, intent on striking not only religion or the supernatural, but striking reason itself…Faith in revelation disappeared, and with it faith in the very essence of philosophy. Mystery reappeared. The philosopher knew as much as the shepherd… Giacomo Leopardi was the echo of this mystery in the solitude of his thought and in his sorrow. His skepticism proclaims the dissolution of this theological-metaphysical world, and begins the reign of the stark truth, the real.

De Sanctis concludes that Leopardi placed a new emphasis on interior life, the exploration of one’s own heart, and while he no longer had any control over the destruction of the old verities, his own moral world remains inviolate: “He is a skeptic and he makes you believe. … He has so low an opinion of humanity and his lofty, pure and gentle spirit honors and ennobles it.”

Leopardi’s poetry, which relies on classicism and philosophical abstractions tinged with moody romanticism, is very difficult to translate, and Italian novelist Italo Calvino once lamented that because of this, “beyond the borders of Italy, Leopardi simply doesn’t exist. There is no way of conveying who he is, no way of defining him in relation to others, or of conveying why he is so important for us.” Eamon Grennan in his introduction to his Leopardi: Selected Poems, wrote: “Mention the name Leopardi to ten educated people (poets included) in Ireland, England, America or elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and it is likely that nine of them will shrug, knowing little or nothing about him or his poetry.” This culturally sad situation is, however, slowly changing, particularly with the translations of Leopardi’s poems made by poets John Heath-Stubbs, Eamon Grennan and by Jonathan Galassi.

G.-LEOPARDI-002Giacomo Leopardi was born in 1798 in Recanati (Marche), a village near the central Adriatic Coast south of Ancona, then part of the Papal States. Leopardi’s father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, was an intellectual with a large library, apparently the second largest private library in Europe at the time, and a prolific, if unheralded, writer. Because of unwise investments and profligacy, Monaldo had, by age 20, fallen on financial hard times and found himself, as he wrote, “full to the brim with debt and going toward total ruin.” After he married in 1797 he allowed his wife to file suit to allow her to run the household finances, and the authorities approved. She then managed the family’s affairs with an iron hand and during the next thirty years was able to pay the debts and restore the family to comparative financial prosperity.

Both parents were conservative, and the wife, Adelaide Antici Leopardi, even reactionary, both in her politics and her strong religious views; she ruled the household, and never went out except to go to church, which was located about 50 yards from the family’s palace.

Giacomo Leopardi gives an uncharitable view of his mother in two entries in the Zibaldone. In one, he writes that she did not mourn the death of her children because they were reunited with God and that she could not understand why her husband became desperate and mourned on those sad occasions; in the other entry, he claims that she decried beauty and success in her children and always tried to downplay their virtues and accomplishments, since these were likely to lead them to the sin of pride and thus endanger their souls. According to one writer, Leopardi’s mother viewed “happiness as the sublimation of pain.”

In an age when child mortality was very high, the family had more than their share of deaths: at least one child was born dead, one lived only a day, another a few days, one died at age two, two others never reached adulthood, one died at 24, and another at 38. Giacomo died just short of his 39th birthday. Only two of the siblings reached a comparatively mature age.

Such was young Leopardi’s life, constricted by the closed, cold familial atmosphere, without warm and affectionate parental contact and hemmed in with senseless rules that lacked caring and love. His only escape, after formal at-home tutoring by churchmen stopped by age 12, was for young Giacomo to find solace in his father’s library, reading incessantly and writing.

The great library of Monaldo Leopardi, which contained more than 15,000 books, had been put together between 1808 and 1810. Although private, it was open to scholars and local intellectuals and contained many books considered revolutionary or subversive by the Church. It was among these books that Leopardi lost himself. By his mid-teens, he had learned Hebrew, Latin, ancient Greek, French, Sanskrit, some Spanish, and had started to learn English and German. He had also begun to write plays, translate classical works from Latin (Horace) and Greek (Homer), produced a number of scholarly works on literary and other intellectual subjects, including a history of astronomy, and become one of the foremost philologists in Europe. Some of his writings, published in the Milanese intellectual journal, The Spectator, had earned a considerable reputation for the young writer and the friendship, by correspondence, of Pietro Giordani, considered then the best prose writer in Italy.

As a young man, Leopardi had also entered literary debate in a clamorous controversy. In 1816, Madame Germaine De Stael, a French intellectual, writer, and literary critic who was not afraid to match wits with Napoleon, published a letter in the Milan journal Biblioteca Italiana, urging Italian writers to join the modern world by becoming better acquainted with foreign literature and new literary trends. Leopardi replied to this criticism saying that “a great poet is made by ‘a celestial spark and a superhuman impulse’ rather than a familiarity with other authors and foreign trends.” The course of action suggested by De Stael, aping foreign writers, he feared, would lead to a lack of experimentation and originality, and would result only in imitative art. This learned argument concerning the course of intellectual trends in Italy continued in 1818 when Leopardi engaged in a literary duel with Lodovico Di Breme, a prominent leader of the nascent Italian Romantic Movement. Giacomo’s argued that poetic insights should be sought only in nature, imagination, and one’s inner voices.

GiacomoLeopardiNature had not been kind to Leopardi. A sickly teenager, whose stature reached only 4’ 7” inches, he apparently suffered from insidious spinal tuberculosis (Pott’s Disease), asthma, ophthalmia, constipation, dropsy, spleen, and insomnia. Leopardi did not help his fragile health by the solitary, backbreaking studies in which he had engaged, what he called “studio matto e disperatissimo” (crazy and most desperate studying). The serious maladies he suffered, some genetically inherited since many of his ancestors had suffered from serious illnesses and physical abnormalities, had made him a hunchback; psychosomatically, he also became prone to all sorts of imaginary ailments and was frequently morose or depressed, toying at one time with the idea of suicide. His eyesight had started to fail and by age 19 he had to give up most of his philological studies and restrict the time he spent reading. As he wrote to a friend, Leopardi believed that by his excessive study habits, he had become “a walking sepulcher…I have woefully and incurably ruined myself for the rest of my life, rendering my appearance terrible and despicable to most people.”

Living at home with his parents had also become a serious issue, and as soon as he was of age, he tried to leave, but was dissuaded from doing so by his father. Iris Origo, who wrote one of Leopardi’s most perceptive biographies, believed that Leopardi thought that getting away from his father and the small clannish town of Recanati, which he hated, would ameliorate his physical and psychological problems. He was finally allowed to leave in November 1822, when he went to Rome to stay with his mother’s brother. He did not find Rome to be what he had read and imagined from the classics. He deemed it squalid, decadent, corrupt, and judged the behavior of Church officials hypocritical. He found the city too big and its inhabitants too small in intellect and interests, and its literary figures more like archeologists, fossilized in their views and extremely dull.

This first disappointing encounter with life outside of the small town of Recanati deepened his maturing philosophical outlook: pursuing happiness, he came to think, is a vain dream, illusions provide the sole pleasure, and virtues and sensibilities, positive character gifts present in childhood, in their fragility, are attenuated and often broken when they encounter the harsh reality of the wider world.

His only inspiring moments during his four-month stay in Rome came when he visited the tomb of Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, whom he highly admired, in the Church of Sant’Onofrio. Unable to find any native intellectuals worthy of his friendship, he frequented German philologists, historians, and diplomats Karl Christian von Bunsen and Barthold George Niebuhr. The two Germans admired Leopardi’s literary achievements (he was only 24!) and attempted to find for him employment in Rome as a professor at La Sapienza University, at the University of Bologna, and at Berlin or Bonn universities, potential avenues that Leopardi for various reasons, including a miserly salary and in the case of the post in Rome Giacomo’s anti-clericalism, declined to pursue. In April 1823, he then returned to Recanati and his familiar prison, leaving again in July 1825 for Milan. It was not a long stay in Milan, and he moved on to Bologna, Pisa, and Florence, and in November 1828, unable to provide for himself, he returned home to Recanati.

His time in Recanati was darker than ever. He was virtually a recluse in his parents’ home and wrote that he was “suffocated by a melancholy, which was now little less than madness.” Offered a post in teaching natural history at the University of Parma, he declined because he did not feel competent in the subject.

Nevertheless, he was desperate to get away from Recanati, return to Florence or go anywhere, and submitted a new work, Operette Morali, to the Florentine Academia della Crusca, the foremost Italian association for literary scholars, hoping to win its sizable literary prize. He did not, but luckily his desire to leave Recanati came to the attention of general and historian Pietro Colletta, then in exile in Florence. Colletta rallied a group of Florentine intellectuals who contributed money to a fund to provide the means for Leopardi return to Florence and meet his living expenses. At first Leopardi refused the help, writing to Colletta, “ I cannot resolve to make known in this manner my absolute poverty.” Colletta, however, insisted, saying that the money

will be a loan, any time you like to repay the amount you received; and it will be less than a loan if the occasion to pay it back does not materialize; nobody will know whom to ask for reimbursement; you will not know whom to pay back. No rules are imposed on you. I wish for Italy’s good fortune that you, becoming healthy, will be able to write works worthy of your genius; but this is my hope and not your obligation.

PenguinZibaldoneIn fact, Colletta was also negotiating with a publisher to print Leopardi’s poetry, and the fee he negotiated was more than generous. Thus, in April 1830 Leopardi accepted the subsidy and moved again to Florence, never to return to his family in Recanati.

In Florence, Leopardi met another Neapolitan political exile, Antonio Ranieri, and the two became best friends. His precarious health, however, continued to be a serious problem and his unhappiness was compounded by several unsuccessful relationships with women, all of which were likely not to have gone further than a platonic flirting stage. One of these women, Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, who was married to a Florentine botanist, kept a literary salon, and had a reputation for ensnaring men with her beauty and wiles. An 1830 letter of poet Alessandro Poerio to Antonio Ranieri recounts details of Fanny’s amorous conquests: “Word on the street is that Carlo Torrigiani is currently her favorite. Others have named Luigi Mannelli. Still others advance the idea that Gherardo Lenzoni and Marquis Lucchesini from time to time make incursions on their ancient domain. I cannot believe that such licentious gossip about such prudent woman and I believe that of the four lovers at least two are fictitious.”

Leopardi had met Fanny, then 25 years old, in Florence in July 1830 and fell in love with her. She, however, apparently did not pay heed to the poet’s veiled overtures and, in fact, may have had an affair with Giacomo’s best friend, Ranieri, who strung along more than one woman at a time.

On October 1, 1831, Leopardi accompanied Ranieri to Rome, where Antonio was following his current lover, the married actress Maria Maddalena Signorini Pelzet, whose theater company was performing there. From Rome, Leopardi wrote vague love letters to Fanny, and after his return in Florence on March 22,1832, he resumed frequenting the Targioni-Tozzetti home; it remains unclear if she tolerated Leopardi’s attentions as a cover for her other affairs, especially the presumed one with Ranieri. In fact, she wrote Ranieri that when Leopardi started to allude to love, she “became agitated, and did not want, nor could believe the truth of certain things, as I still do not believe them…” A few months after Leopardi’s death in June 1837, in another letter to Ranieri, Fanny swore that she had never given even “the minimal hope to the poor man,” and that she would have felt guilty to make fun “of a sad and good man like him.”

But yet Giacomo could not get Fanny out of his mind and dedicated poems to her. In one, The Dominating Thought, he wrote:

…Angelic loveliness!
Wherever I may turn, each charming face
Seems but an image painted
To copy you, who are the only source
Of every grace,
Of all true beauty, as it seems to me.
From when I saw you first
What feeling did I have where you were not
Its object? An what minute ever passed
Without a thought of you? How often did
Your ever-ruling image
Stay absent from my dreams? Fresh as a dream
Angelic apparition,
In earthly habitation,
Or on the pathways of the universe!
What do I ask, what do
I hope to see more lovely than your eyes,
Or hope to have more sweet than thought of you?
(Translation by J. G. Nichols)

Later in her life, Fanny, during a conversation with author Matilde Serao, when she was asked why she had not taken the now dead but famous Leopardi as a lover, answered; “My dear, he stunk!”

The poet’s disillusion and heartache at Fanny’s rejection of his overtures is evident in the famous poem To Himself, which begins:

Now you’ll rest forever,
worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion
that I thought was eternal died. It died.
I know not just the hope but the desire
for loved illusions is done for us…
(Translation by Jonathan Galassi)

In October 1833, hoping that the milder weather in southern Italy would help improve his declining health, Leopardi, accompanied by Ranieri, whom the authorities were allowing to return home, moved to Naples. By then, the Leopardi family finances back in Recanati were doing better, and his mother allowed a small allowance to be sent to Giacomo.

There, Leopardi’s health improved only marginally, despite the care and apparent solicitude for him shown by Ranieri and Ranieri’s sister Paolina. Apparently Leopardi was very disordered, careless in his dress, slovenly in his personal hygiene – and he tended to exaggerate in following any advice received from his doctor. He often preferred to go out and sit alone in a corner table in the Caffe Due Sicilie in Via Toledo, drinking coffee and savoring fresh pastries and ice cream, delicacies he cherished.

Ranieri later described some of Leopardi’s solitary walks among the noisy Neapolitan crowds. He wore old clothes, just like the poorest man, allowed strangers to touch his hump (believed to bring good luck in the folklore of Naples) and even gave strangers, if asked, lucky numbers to play in the national bingo lottery.

Normally, on meeting him for the first time, people were turned off. German poet and dramatist August von Platen, who met Leopardi in Naples in September, 1834 wrote in his diary:

The first impression of Leopardi, to whom Ranieri brought me the same day I met him, has something of the absolute horrible for someone who has formed a mental picture of him by reading his poems. Leopardi is small and a hunchback, his face is pallid and suffering, and he makes his condition worse with his way of life, since he makes night of the day and vise versa. Unable to move and to apply himself normally, because of his psychological conditions, he lives one of the most miserable lives it is possible to imagine. Nevertheless, after getting to know him close-by, everything disagreeable in his exterior disappears, and the elegance of his classic education and the cordiality of his behavior, changes your heart in his favor. I visited him often.

Neapolitan intellectuals had an ambivalent and tortured relationship with Leopardi: pity for his physical condition mixed with disdain for his misanthropy and his superior airs, and intellectual disagreement with his anti-clerical and liberal bent. His physical aspect earned him the name of “o’ ranavuottolo” (little frog).

The feeling of disdain was mutual, and Leopardi in the letter to his father in 1835 wrote:

My principal thought is to arrange my affairs so that I may pull up my roots from here as soon as possible; and you can be sure that as soon as it is humanly possible I will leave for Recanati, since in the depth of my soul I am anxious of seeing it, in addition to the need to escape from these scoundrels and Pulcinellas, both nobles and plebeians, all thieves and rustics worthy of the Spaniards and of the gallows.

Historian Indro Montanelli, commenting on Leopardi’s ambivalence toward his friend Ranieri and his condescending feeling toward Neapolitans, wrote:

The letters from his last few years from Naples are full of cutting criticism toward Neapolitans and even Ranieri who appeared in a different light: fatuous, vain, unable to feel deep affection. Ranieri, when he was close to eighty years old, replied with fury with a book of memories on their friendly relationship, from which comes out a hated Leopardi: querulous, demanding, hypocrite, ingrate and malicious.

In 1835-36, Leopardi penned a satire in terza rima, the rhyming style of Dante’s Divine Comedy, showing plainly his disdain for those he considered feckless Neapolitan intellectuals, I Nuovi Credenti (The New Believers; the poem, however, was not published until 1906). He castigated them with bitter sarcasm for being overly optimistic about the possibility of progress in the Bourbon monarchy, of being Catholics of convenience, and showing more concern for their macaroni and fresh seafood than for serious social and intellectual issues.

Leopardi spent his last few years in Naples and on its outskirts of the town of Torre del Greco, where Antonio Rainieri’s sister and brother in law owned Villa Ferrigni. At Villa Ferrigni he wrote one of his last poems, La Ginestra (The Flower of the Desert):

…A man generous and noble of soul,
Of meagre powers and weak limbs,
Doesn’t boast and call himself
Strong and rich in possessions,
Doesn’t make a foolish pretense
Of splendid living or cutting a fine
Figure among the crowd:
But allows himself to appear
As lacking wealth and power,
And says so, openly, and gives
A true value to his worth…
(Translation by A. S. Kline)

leopardideathbed1837Leopardi died in Naples on June 14, 1837, two weeks short of his 39th birthday in the home in which he lived with Ranieri and Paolina. A cholera outbreak, which killed twenty thousand in the city, had spread through the area, and it is likely that the sickly poet died of it. By law, strictly enforced to prevent the further spread of the outbreak, all dead, by cholera or otherwise, were buried in common graves either in the cemetery of Poggioreale or in the Fontanelle tuff caves under one of Naples’ hills. It is very likely that Leopardi’s remains ended up, like those of many other notables who succumbed, including ministers of the government, in a common grave, nude and covered with quick lime.

Ranieri, however, starting in 1845, related a different story, which he repeated in some details in the 1880 book Sette Anni di Sodalizio con Giacomo Leopardi (Seven Years of Association with Giacomo Leopardi). By 1880, Ranieri no longer had all his faculties and appears to have at least exaggerated, if not outright lied, about his and his sister’s role in caring for Leopardi – who had been paying his share of the household expenses with a subsidy from his family – and about the manner in which the poet’s burial was handled.

Ranieri claimed that he obtained permission from the Minister of the Police, Francesco Saverio del Caretto, to bury Leopardi in a church, and had a friendly doctor, Stefano Mollica (who had never taken care of Leopardi) certify that the poet had suddenly died of dropsy from eating more than two pounds of sweets – not of cholera – after Leopardi’s regular attending physician, Dottor Niccolo`Mannella, who was present when Leopardi died, had declined to certify the cause of death. Ranieri also claimed to have bribed with money and some fresh fish the pastor of the Church of San Vitale in Fuorigrotta to allow the June 15 burial of Leopardi in the church’s atrium. Ranieri, who milked his connection with Leopardi for decades, becoming later a senator and university professor, was not known for factual reliability, and it is very likely that his version of this story is not true, particularly as Minister Del Carretto was not likely to do a favor for an unreliable anti-monarchist recently returned from exile, granting to an author whose books had been banned from bookstores a privilege he had denied to ministers and other high state officials.

In 1898, the centenary of Leopardi’s birth, the church’s alleged burial spot was declared a national monument, but in 1900, when the tomb was opened and the remains examined it was found that the very small casket contained only a few bones and did not include the thoracic cage bones nor the skull, which would have allowed forensic pathologists to identify Leopardi, since his death mask had been taken and as a hunchback, his back bones were deformed. Rather than investigating the matter, however, the discovery was hushed up, the story was put out that the missing bones may have disintegrated because of humidity, and the remains, to whomever they belonged, were reburied as Leopardi’s.

In 1939, the church was demolished in one of Mussolini’s grandiose redevelopment schemes and Leopardi’s alleged remains were reburied at the foot of the hill of Posillipo next to the reputed tomb of Roman poet Virgil.

Despite his short, tormented life, Leopardi’s literary production was enormous, ranging from the youthful translations from Greek and Latin and original dramas, to his poetry (I Canti– “Songs”), Small Moral Works, Thoughts, Dialogues, and Lo Zibaldone di Pensieri.

The Zibaldone is a notebook of random thoughts and short essays on an enormous variety of subjects, 4526 manuscript pages, which he wrote between July-August 1817 and December 4,1832. Although he started the notebook when he was 19 and stopped the entries at 34, most of it was written between 1820 and 1823. In fact, Leopardi wrote only 93 pages to the end of 1819, 363 in 1920, 1850 in 1921, 346 in 1822 1343 in 1823, and added only three pages between 1830 and 1832. The original manuscript, never intended by its author for publication, is now in the National Library in Naples, Italy. Leopardi was attached to his notebook, which he called scartafaccio (waste-paper, scratchpad), and the manuscript is replete with erasures, corrections, and additions both in the text and in the margins.

After Leopardi died in Naples in June 1837, his friend Ranieri informed Giacomo’s father that he did not have any of his son’s papers, since Giacomo in October 1830 had given all of them to Swiss philologist Luigi de Sinner, who had taken the papers to Paris. We know that Ranieri was lying about this, since in a letter to de Sinner on September 2, 1837, he informed him that he had the 4525 (sic) autograph pages of the Zibaldone and inquired whether they could cooperate in editing both his Leopardi’s papers and those de Sinner had to publish a Leopardi book of aphorisms.

When Ranieri died on January 4, 1888, he left the trunk with the papers to his two illiterate maids, with instructions that his manuscript papers “and others” should eventually go to the Naples National Library, together with Leopardi’s death mask. However, during a notarial inventory of Ranieri’s estate, the knowledge that the papers existed came to the fore and the Director of the Naples Branch of the National Library, Vito Fornari, attempted to obtain the papers for the library. A lawsuit involving the library, the two heiresses, Ranieri’s nephews, and Leopardi’s descendants ensued. The legal battle ended nine years later, after the issue had reached the Italian parliament, with the expropriation of the papers by the state on the basis that they constituted a national cultural treasure. The notebook entries were then ordered, partially edited, and published in 1898 under the supervision of Giosue`Carducci, the Italian poet who was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906.

1900ZThe Zibaldone is, however, a lot more than a sincere, introspective, and intellectually challenging notebook. It is a collection of personal thought and feelings, aphorisms, philosophical observations and theories, philological articles, literary criticism, anthropological and natural sciences observations, religious arguments, and historical and social notes (a complete text of the Zibaldone has recently been published in English by a team of scholars and translators who worked at the task for seven years).

In the Zibaldone, the subversive, prescient character of Leopardi’s philosophical genius is only now starting to be recognized by a wider audience. He saw that the coming psychological conflict of the future would be our over-reliance on reason, knowledge, and the scientific method in a process that would erase from our consciousness the very beliefs that made life tolerable and provided a modicum of hope in future relief and happiness. Instead, by using scientific power and rationality, modern man would make the human experience meaningless and replace previously held beliefs with a variety of intellectually-constructed schemes to improve the world. The instances of irrationality of previous historical periods would be taken up by science and technology supported, and thus more deadly effective, irrationalities, what Leopardi dubbed “the barbarism of reason.”

While at the beginning Leopardi had entertained a modicum of qualified optimism, opining, “From Homer onward everything got better, except poetry,” as he became older his pessimism deepened. He wrote:

The fact is that, without even thinking about it, the world recognizes and admits every day that things are getting worse … Yet it has no desire to turn back, and regards always moving forward as the only honorable option, and, in the usual contradictory fashion, is convinced that by going forward it will improve, and that it can improve only by going forward, and would think it was lost if it went backward.

Leopardi discounted the theory of progress and the belief that individuals and societies can improve and build on the achievements of the past and achieve some happiness:

Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds.

In some of the Zibaldone’s philosophical entries, Leopardi theorizes that it is a foolhardy task for modern man to seek to attain pleasure, since this quest has been corrupted by the complexities of accumulated knowledge and an excessive use of reason, things that have led him to reject the comfort and illusions provided by myth and by religion. Man, he contends, must get used to the idea that life equates pain and constant discontent:

The noble nature is the one
who dares to lift his mortal eyes
to confront our common destiny
and, with honest words
that subtract nothing from the truth,
admits the pain that is our destiny,
and our poor and feeble state …
(La Ginestra; translated by Jonathan Galassi)

Reason, he argues, is the major root cause of our unhappiness:

Reason is the enemy of all greatness: reason is the enemy of nature: nature is great, reason is small. I mean that it will be more or less difficult for a man to be great the more he is governed by reason, that few can be great (and in art and poetry perhaps no one) unless they are governed by illusions.

GalassiCantiLeopardiIn this, Leopardi was partially a follower of Miguel de Montaigne, who in his essay Of Cannibals points out that war is a disease and that so-called civilized, reasoning people often act with more savagery than so-called barbarians, and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view that alienation from nature had led human beings to all sorts of ills. Like Goethe, who completed the second part of Faust in the same year the Zibaldone was abandoned, Leopardi believed that human beings had bargained their soul to mammon in exchange for progress, believing that it would enhance their happiness; in the bargain they had lost the important instinctual traits that made them humans to start. As Leopardi writes:

As man moves away from nature and toward society, the methods that nature has provided for attaining those ends are changed or replaced by other methods… as man loses his natural happiness… so, too, he loses his actual power of instinct, and those inborn methods for achieving this happiness.

Leopardi believed that this alienation had been accelerated by the unachievable quest to acquire knowledge and mastery over the physical world:

I believe that within the natural order, the human being can be happy also in this world, provided that he lives according to nature and like animals, that is, without grand or unique or vivid pleasures, but in a more or less constantly equal and temperate state of happiness… But I do not believe that we are any longer capable of this sort of happiness after having acquired knowledge of the vanity of all things and of the illusions as well as of the nothingness of the natural pleasures themselves, which is something that we were not even supposed to suspect.

In Leopardi’s view, there were three different ways to see and evaluate events and things: that of children and primitive man, based on fantasies, myth, and illusion, happy but ephemeral; that of civilized adults accepting the daily humdrum of life, mediocrity, and intellectual poverty, a state which most men accept unthinkingly; and lastly, that of men who are able to perceive that life is meaningless and empty, and thus live it in a constant state of sadness and infelicity. “Children find everything in nothing,” and thus are happy most of the time; most adults cope with life by unthinkingly practicing the verity that “There is no other remedy for the ills of modern philosophy than forgetting;” and the third group, in which he counted himself, is condemned to life-long sadness since, “men find nothing in everything.” Leopardi in one stroke wipes clean the slate of Platonic and Christian philosophy:

The truth about good and evil, that one thing is good and the other is bad, is believed to be naturally absolute, when in fact it is only relative…. There is almost no other absolute truth, except that All is relative. This must be the basis for all metaphysics.

Having gone thus far, Leopardi continues: “Each man is like a soft dough, susceptible to every possible shape, impression, etc. It hardens over time, and at first it is difficult, and finally it is impossible to give it a new shape.” Intellectual skills can also be thought and differences in intelligence between different groups are not innate, but are either the result of particular circumstances or wholly accidental. He writes that, “…with stubborn application the dullest intelligence can become one of the foremost mathematicians in the world.”

Later, he changed again his views about benignity of Nature and concluded that it is not benign but at best indifferent to man’s fate, a thesis Leopardi made plain in a few verses in one of his last poems, La Ginestra:

Nature has no more love or care
For the seed of man
Than for the ants: and if the destruction
Of one is rarer than that of the other,
It’s for no other reason
Than that mankind is less rich in offspring.
(Translated by A. S. Kline)

Even worse, he then decided that evil is the essence of life and the universe:

Everything is evil. I mean, everything that is, is wicked; every existing thing is evil; everything exists for a wicked end. Existence is wickedness and is ordained for wickedness. Evil is the end, the final purpose, of the universe. Order, the state, laws, the natural processes of the universe are all quite simply evil and are directed exclusively toward evil. The only good is nonbeing; the only really good thing is the thing that is not, things that are not things; all things are bad. All that exists, the totality of the many worlds that exist, the universe, are nothing but a minor blemish, a mote in metaphysics. Existence, in its general nature and essence, is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity. But this imperfection is a very small thing, truly just a blemish, because all existing worlds, however numerous or grand they may be, though not for certain infinite in number or size, are consequently infinitely small compared to what the universe could be, if it were infinite. And all that exists is infinitely small compared as it were to the true infinity of nonexistence, of nothingness.

In another entry, he wrote: “Two truths that men will generally never believe: one, that we know nothing, the other, that we are nothing. Add the third, which depends a lot on the second: that there is nothing to hope for after death.”

However, at another point he somewhat moderated these extremely bleak views and posited in one of his book of social criticism, Pensieri:

This system, though it offends our ideas, which hold that the end of all things can only be goodness, may perhaps be more tenable than Leibnitz’s [sic] formulation, or Pope’s, that “everything is good.” I’m not anxious, however, to extend my system so far as to say that the existing universe is the worst of all possible universes, thus replacing optimism with pessimism. Who can ever know the limits of possibility?

Becoming conscious that nature can never satisfy human desires to the full, the intelligent man becomes very unhappy and develops boredom, what Leopardi terms noia, the best one-word translation of which may be Baudelaire’s ennui. The poet W. S. DiPiero has pointed out that in Italian, depending on the context, the word may have a number of meanings: torpor, indifference, boredom, nuisance, moral lassitude, and lack or loss of aspirations.

Leopardi writes:

Uniformity guarantees ‘noia’. Uniformity is boredom, boredom uniformity. Uniformity comes in many forms. Endless variety produces uniformity, thus more noia…Constant pleasure, too, is uniformity, therefore boring, though its medium is pleasure. Certain foolish poets, realizing description gives pleasure, reduce poetry to nonstop description: they drain all pleasure from poetry and replace it with boredom…I know non-literary people who avidly read the Aeneid, which you would think could be enjoyed only by the happy few, but who toss aside the Metamorphoses after reading the first book or two even though it offers immediate pleasures. Remember what Homer has Menelaus say: “There is satiety in everything—in sleep, in sweet song,” etc. The constancy of pleasure, even of different sorts of pleasure, or of near- or pseudo-pleasure, this too is uniformity, and therefore noia, and therefore pleasure’s enemy.

Reason, Leopardi argued, by itself, is not evil but it becomes counterproductive when it is applied contrary to nature. So long as it is limited and balanced with natural instincts it advances life and leads to a contented life.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer admired Leopardi and called him his “soul brother.” He thought that the Italian had gotten to the primal cause of the world’s unhappiness and wrote in The World as Will and Representation:

…But no one has treated this subject so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi in our own day. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect.

Yet, although Schopenhauer descried the fact that the world’s three supreme pessimists, “Byron, Leopardi, and myself,” were in Italy at the same time but did not meet, Leopardi differed from him, since he seldom took life as seriously as CantiLeopardithe dour German philosopher and believed that the best answer to the follies and unrealizable hopes of human folks was laughter.

Leopardi’s contention that illusion is the best ingredient in aiding prospective happiness influenced and fascinated many other intellectuals, including Nietzsche, Matthew Arnold, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Fernando Pessoa, Wallace Stevens, and Andre` Malraux, who wrote that love of art is man’s illusional attempt “to negate our nothingness.” Novelist Italo Calvino also had a special affinity and understanding for Leopardi’s philosophy and summarized it this way:

For Leopardi, unhappy hedonist that he was, what is unknown is always more attractive than what is known; hope and imagination are the only consolations for the disappointments and sorrows of experience. Man therefore projects his desire into infinity and feels pleasure only when he is able to imagine that this pleasure has no end.

Franco D’Intino, a professor of modern Italian literature at La Sapienza University in Rome, and the co-editor of the recent English edition of the Zibaldone, has stated with reference both to the translation and editing of the Zibaldone:

It has been very, very challenging because it’s a very long text – huge, full of quotations in Greek Latin, French, Spanish, English… One cannot master all that Leopardi mastered – that’s the point. There is so much that he could understand that you cannot because you are not an encyclopedic man of the 18th or 19th century. He was a genius, and I am not!

Michael Caesar, emeritus professor of Italian Studies at Birmingham University and the other co-editor of the translation, adds:

Leopardi is surprisingly modern, in the way in which he reasons, in his alertness to what is going on in the world around him, but also in the way in which he’s in many ways implicitly or explicitly predicting how things will go in the future…He has an idea of a human society that is almost entirely divorced from its origins or indeed from its environment…So he is definitely one of the moderns, even if he is a modern who is absolutely steeped in classical and early scientific thinking.

Leopardi’s fame rests, however, rightly or wrongly, on his poetry. His message in it is again that all in life is illusory, and yearning for happiness invariably leads to pain and disillusion, but, with his imagination, man is eternally dreaming that the future will be better. This hope, in itself, provides more solace that the real prospect of happiness, which seldom materializes.

The depth of feelings, a faint ray of hope tinged with realistic pessimism, and plain unabated introspective unhappiness can only be imperfectly and approximately savored in English translations. Among the myriad of great poems he wrote, a few quotes serve to provide a taste of Leopardi’s lyricism and poetic power. One of these is Ode to Italy, in which the poet laments the depths of servile toadying to foreigners and tyrants ruling the country:

My native land, I see the walls and arches
The columns and the statues, and the lonely
Towers of our ancestors,
But not their glory, not
The laurel and the steel of old time
Our great forefathers bore. Disarmed now,
Naked thou showest thy forehead and thy breast! …
(Translation by William Dean Howells)

On a more earthly subject, in Il Sabato del Villagio (“The Village’s Saturday”), Leopardi quickly and beautifully describes the anticipatory mood of the upcoming Sunday holiday in the small town: a girl coming from the country with a bunch of flowers, boys playing in the square, a carpenter finishing his work before closing shop, the moon rising, and the vesper church bells form an idyllic picture, suddenly marred by reality:

This of seven is the most waited day,
Full of hope and of happiness
Tomorrow sadness and boredom
The hours will bring. And to his customary toil
Each one in his thoughts will return…
(Translation by the author)

Leopardi’s delicate sense of the smallness of man in relation to the universe, both in space and in time, and the sense of solitary wonder, is perfectly expressed in most famous poem, written in the spring of 1819, at the age of 21, when he was still living at his parents’ house in Recanati:

L’Infinito (“Infinity”)
I always loved this solitary hill,
This edge as well, which takes so large a share
Of the far-flung horizon from my view;
But seated here, in contemplation lost,
My thought discover vaster spaces beyond
Supernatural silence and unfathomed peace;
Almost I am afraid; then, since I hear
The murmur of the wind among the leaves,
I match that infinite calm unto this sound
And with my mind embrace eternity,
The vivid, speaking present and dead past;
In such immensity my spirit drowns,
And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea.
(Translation by Lorna De’ Lucchi)

Alternatively, here is a more recent translation:

L’Infinito
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
But sitting here and gazing, I can see
beyond, in my mind’s eye, unending spaces,
and superhuman silences, and depthless calm,
till what I feel
is almost fear. And when I hear
the wind stir in these branches, I begin
comparing that endless stillness with this noise:
and the eternal comes to mind,
and the dead seasons, and the present
living one, and how it sounds.
So my mind sinks in this immensity:
and foundering is sweet in such a sea.
(Translation by Jonathan Galassi)

Leopardi’s last poem, written in the summer of 1836, continued to advance his bleak view of life as a sojourn of inescapable pain that finds relief only in death:

Il Tramonto della Luna
…Ma la vita mortal, poi che la bella
Giovinezza sparì, non si colora
D’altra luce giammai, né d’altra aurora.
Vedova è insino al fine; ed alla notte
Che l’altre etadi oscura,
Segno poser gli Dei la sepoltura.
The Waning of the Moon

…But mortal life, since beautiful
Youth disappeared, not to see the radiance
Of other light ever again, or by another dawn.
Widow ‘til the end; and during the night
That the other ages shadows
The gods have decreed the tomb.
(Translation by the author)

But although Leopardi right to the end believed that the human condition is bleak and unsparing of pain and heartaches, he also believed that works of the intellect can and do provide temporary relief and bring a modicum of solace to human beings.

He wrote of the role of great writers in one of his essays in Operette Morali:

Great writers, incapable, by nature or by habit, of many human pleasures; bereft of many others by choice; not seldom neglected in human society, except perhaps by those few who pursue the same studies; are fated to lead a life similar to death, and to live, even supposing they attain to this, when dead and buried. But our destiny, wheresoever it may lead, is to be followed with a spirit strong and great; a thing above all demanded of your talents, and of those who resemble you.

And in the Zibaldone he concluded:

It is a property of works of genius that, even when they represent vividly the nothingness of things, even when they clearly show and make you feel the inevitable unhappiness of life, even when they express the most terrible despair, nevertheless to a great soul that finds itself in a state of extreme dejection, disenchantment, nothingness, boredom and discouragement about life, or in the most bitter and deathly misfortune, such works always bring consolation, and rekindle enthusiasm, and, though they treat and represent nothing but death, they restore, albeit momentarily, the life that it had lost.

____
Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.

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