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Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957)


Italian author, Duke of Palma, and Prince of Lampedusa, best remembered for the novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1958, filmed in 1963), sometimes compared to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind or to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. It drew on his family's history and described the reactions of a noble family to the social and political landscape following Sicily's appropriation by Garibaldi in 1860. Lampedusa published nothing during his lifetime except for three articles that appeared in an obscure Genoese periodical in the 1920s.

The Prince was depressed: "All this shouldn't last; but it will, always; the human 'always,' of course, a century, two centuries... and after that it will be different but worse. We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who'll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we'll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth." (from The Leopard)

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born in Palermo into one of the oldest families of Sicilian aristocracy. His father was the duke of Palma, and his grandfather was the prince of Lampedusa. Once very wealthy and influential, the Lampedusas had lost most of their property by that time. Little is known about Lampedusa's private life. He lived a wild youth and only his mother could keep him under control. Likewise the family did not approve of his enthusiasm for literature - in the family library he read books of all kinds in several languages.

During World War I Lampedusa served in the Italian army as an artillery officer, but was captured and imprisoned in Hungary. After escaping he returned to Italy on foot. His plans for a diplomatic career were ended by a nervous breakdown. The influence of his mother, with whom he spent much time abroad, hindered his literary aspirations. After she died, Lampedusa was free to devote himself to culture and write for his own pleasure.

In 1926-27 Lampedusa published in a Genoese periodical three articles; his series of brief introductions to French writers of the 16th century, Invito alle Lettere francesi del Cinquecento, came out in 1970, and Lezioni su Stendhal (Lessons on Stendhal) was appeared in book form in 1977. Lampedusa especially admired Stendhal's The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. Originally he gave 'Lezioni su Stendhal' to a group of young friends. It was first published in Paragone in April 1959.

Lampedusa married in 1932 (or 1934, according to some sources) the Baroness Alessandra Wolff-Stomersee, a Latvian exile and Freudian analyst he met in London, where his uncle was Italian ambassador. During the reign of the Fascists Lampedusa did not support the government of Mussolini and he lived for long periods abroad. His Palermo house was detroyed by American bombings in 1943. Lampedusa managed to save the family Bellini. After the war he returned to Palermo, where he lived in a house on the Via Butera. For a period he served as president of the Red Cross in Sicily.

Lampedusa was somewhat consistent in his daily routines. He spend much of the day reading, sat with his friends in the Café Mazzara or at his club, and late in the afternoon he met young writers and students at home. In 1954 he attended a literary meeting in northern Italy, at which his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, was awarded a prize for his poetry. Next year he started to write his masterwork, Il gattopardo, which he had had in mind for many years.

The novel is a chronicle of the Unification's effect on Sicily, dating from Garibaldi's landing on the island in 1860 to the final decline of a once-opulent Sicilian family. "I am sorry; but I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would only get bitten. These are things one can't say to a Sicilian; and if you'd said them yourself, I too would have objected." (Don Fabrizion in The Leopard) Episodic in form, the book consists of eight chapters, and each of the chapters is marked by a date, the first and last being May 1860 and May 1910, thus covering fifty years of history. Lampedusa's spokesman and the protagonist is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina - the leopard in the title; it is also the emblem of the family coat of arms. The character was based on Lampedusa's great-grandfather Giulio Fabrizio. Il gattopardo represents a variation on the classical form of the historical novel in that it permits the present to intrude into the past. The omniscient narrator hints at what will happen after the story is finished. Don Fabrizio accepts that his nephew, Tancredi, joins the rebels, but sees the aristocracy displaced by the middle class. After chapter 7, the prince's deathbed scene, in which he sums up the small number of joyful hours as against his seventy years of boredom, the view deepens into psychological narrative. However, the story does not end in his death, but the final chapter, set in 1910, shows the decline of Don Fabrizio's family. There is also a dog named Bendicò in the story, "practically the key to the novel," as Lampedusa wrote in a letter.

Lampedusa submitted the manuscript anonymously. He died in Rome on July 23, 1957, before the book was printed. His firm wish was that his death should go unannounced either in the press or by any other means. Four chapters of his novel had been rejected by Mondadori in 1956, and then it was rejected by the novelist and critic Elio Vittoriani, who worked for the Einaudi publishing firm. Lampedusa's widow sent the manuscript to Elena Craveri, Benedetto Croce's daughter, who showed it to Giorgio Bassani, the chief editor of Feltrinelli - Bassani's perhaps most famous book was Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962). Lampedusa's melodramatic historical novel caused a sensation and it received the most prestigious Italian literary award, the Strega Prize. Carlo Muscetta, who taught Italian literature at the University of Catania, claimed in 1968 that the published text had in certain sense been rewritten by Bassani. A fresh edition, based on Lampedusa's 1957 manuscript, was appeared in 1969. Lampedusa's only other book, Racconti, appeared also posthumously (1961). His essays have been published in two volumes (1959, 1971). At the time of his death, Lampedusa was preparing a second novel, I Gattini ciechi.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). Film 1963, directed by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster (Don Fabrizio), Alain Delon (Tancredi), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara), Paolo Stoppa, Rina Morelli, Romolo Valli. - The story is set in Sicily in the 1860s, in the times when Garibaldi campaigned to unite the disparate provinces into an Italian state. Prince Don Fabrizio of Salina represents the old order of nobility but acknowledges the changing world. He is called the Leopard after his family crest. His nephew Tancredi falls in love with Angelica, the daughter of the mayor Don Calogero, a member of the rising middle-class. Their union will cross class barriers. At a ball to herald Angelica's arrival in society, the Prince is overcome with bitter nostalgia for the past. His position as one among the last of a dying breed is further enforced by the execution of four traitors. The spectacular ball sequence took 36 to shoot and takes up the last third of the film. Visconti himself was a Milan-born aristocrat and communist. He had earlier depicted times of Risorgimento in Senso (1954).

The firm of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli had earlier discovered and published Boris Pasternak's Doktor Zhivago. Although The Leopard elicited contrasting and polemical responses - Carlo Levi called it "another sign of decadence" - it became an instant bestseller and was praised for its poetic treatment of the human condition. Italian Marxist critics saw its historical vision as narrow and Catholic intellectuals rejected its pessimistic outlook and anticlerical views. Historically the book appeared just at the right moment, on the eve of the celebration of the anniversary of Italian unity. Contrary to the classical form of the historical novel, Don Fabrizio's subjective voice does not aim at objectivity - he is the narrator who has grown disillusioned with the Unification's effects. His scepticism about new ideas and reforms struck a chord with many intellectuals, and signalled the end of neo-realistic fiction.

For further reading: I Gattopardi di Donnafugata by A. Vitello (1963); Invito alla letture di Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa by Giancarlo Buzzi (1972); Tomasi di Lampedusa by S. Salvestroni (1973); Aspects of the Novel, and Related Writings by E.M. Forster (1974); Il Gattopardo, i racconti, Lampedusa by Giuseppe Paolo Samona (1974); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Writers and Politics in Modern Italy by John Gatt-Rutter (1978); The Modern Italian Novel from Pea to Moravia by Sergio Pacifici (1979); I Gattopardi e le iene by N. Zago (1983); The Last Leopard by David Gilmour (1988); Plotting the Past by Cristina Della Colletta (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999) - Other modern Sicilian writers: Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89)

Selected works:

  • Il Gattopardo, 1958 (standard edition, 1969)
    - The Leopard (translated by Archibald Colquhoun; preface by E.M. Forster, 1962)
    - Tiikerikissa (suom. Tyyni Tuulio, 1959)
    - Film adaptation in 1963, prod. Titanus, Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma, Société Générale de Cinématographie (S.G.C.), screenplay and adaptation by Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchono Visconti, directed by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster (as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina), Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Paolo Stoppa, Rina Morelli, Romolo Valli, Terence Hill
  • Lezioni su Stendhal, 1959 (introduction by Philippe Renard, 1977)
  • Racconti, 1961
    - Two Stories and a Memory (translated by Archibald Colquhoun, 1966)
    - Seireeni ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Tyyni Tuulio, 1962)
  • Invito alle Lettere francesi del Cinquecento, 1971
  • I racconti ... Il mattino di un mezzadro, La gioia e la legge, Lighea, I luoghi della mia prima infanzia, 1972
  • Lettere a Licy: un matrimonio epistolare, 1984
  • Letteratura inglese, 1990-91 (2 vols., edited by Nicoletta Polo)  
  • Scritti ritrovati, 1993 (edited by  Andrea Vitello, preface by D'Orsi Meli, introduction by Andrea Vitello) 
  • Opere, 1995 (introduction by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, edited by Nicoletta Polo)
  • The Siren and Selected writings, 1995 (translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun, David Gilmour and Guido Waldman; with introductions by David Gilmour)
  • Licy e il gattopardo: lettere damore di Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, 1995 (edited by Sabino Caronia)
  • Viaggio in Europa: Epistolario 1925-1930, 2006 (edited by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi and Salvatore Silvano Nigro)
    - Letters from London and Europe, 1925-30 (translated by J.G. Nichols, 2010)

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