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Conte Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)


Italian scholar, poet, and philosopher, one of the great writers of the 19th century. Leopardi was a contemporary of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, with whom he shared a similar pessimistic view of life and human nature. "I have read him repeatedly with great pleasure; but I like his prose much better than his verse," Schopenhauer said. In his late years, when he lived on the slopes of Vesuvius, Leopardi meditated upon the possibility of the total destruction of humankind. Leopardi's love problems inspired some of his saddest lyrics.

Nature has no more care
Or praise for human souls
Than for the ants: and as she slaughters men
Less terribly than them,
This is no great wonder,
For man's fecundity and ants' are worlds asunder.

(in 'The Broom')

Giacomo Leopardi was born in the small town of Recanati, belonging to the Papal States. The palazzo of the family was the most important building of the city. Giacomo's father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, was a man of high virtue, and the last aristocrat in Italy to wear a sword. A local patriot, he once said: "I would always choose a hut, a book, and an onion at the top of a mountain, rather than hold a subordinate position in Rome." When Conte Monaldo's generosity and extravagance threatened to ruin the whole family, he was forced to turn the management of his affairs over to an agent of his wife, the marquise Adelaide Antici Mattei.

From the age of six, Leopardi dressed in black like his father. He studied privately with tutors. From an early age, he showed remarkable talents. By the age of 16 he had mastered Greek, Latin, and several modern languages. He had also translated many classical works, composed two tragedies and many poems. In his writings, such as 'All'Italia' and 'Sopra il monumento di Dante' Leopardi expressed his love for Italy, and bewailed her abasement among ruins telling of her past greatness. "What bruises and what blood! How do I see thee, / Thou loveliest Lady! Unto Heaven I cry, / And to the world: "Say, say, / What brought her unto this?" To this and worse / ..." (To Italy). Saggio sugli errori popolari degli antichi, written in 1815, but not published until 1846, dealt with popular mistakes of the Ancients. During this early creative period Leopardi's health broke down. He developed a cerebrospinal condition that afflicted him all his life. Leopardi also had problems with his sight and he eventually became blind in one eye. Its has been claimed that seeing his son's deformity Leopoldi's mother gave thanks to God – suffering is one road to salvation.

Though Leopardi's parents were proud of his achievements, they were worried about his liberal views. Count Leopardi wrote religious pamphlets and was a reactionary – his son loved liberty. From an early age, Leopardi was encouraged to use his father's large library with its 20 000 volumes, which Conte Monaldo also had placed at the disposal of all Recanatese. 

Because of his physical deformities, Leopardi found it difficult to associate with women. His frustrated love for his cousin Gertrude Cassi produced the elegy 'Il primo amore'. She was married, 27-years old, and she stayed in Recanati for only a few days. Terese Fattorini's death from consumption was behind the sad mood of 'A Silvia', written in Pisa in 1828. The poem begins with nostalgic images of youth, happiness, and singing. "I, leaving my fair studies, / Leaving my manuscripts and toil-stained volumes (...) / Leaned sometimes idly from my father's windows / And listened to the music of thy singing (...)" Silvia's death in the Autumn coincides with the disillusionment of the poet. In Zibaldone ("hodge-podge"), containing 4500 pages, Leopardi recorded his thoughts on philosophy, language, art and politics. He kept the diary from July 1817 to December 1832.

Recanti, with its 17 churches, became eventually a prison for Leopardi. His correspondence with professor Giordani, a famous scholar, offered some comfort. After reading Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) Leopardi captured the "Werther-Fieber", too – he began to contemplate suicide. Goethe depicted a young man who loves his friend's betrothed, and kills himself.

In 1822-23 Leopardi lived in Rome. He hated the town, despised the Roman women, and spent his time mostly among Germans. His verse collection Cazoni came out in 1824. In 1825-26 he lived in Bologna and Florence, disliked both of them, and accepted an offer to edit Cicero's works. To earn extra income Leopardi worked as a tutor for a short period. Between the years 1825 and 1828 he wrote for Fortunato Stella publishers

Leopardi's writings from the 1820s include Versi (1826) and Operette morali (1827), a disillusioned collection of dialogues after the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian. It was the only major work of prose that Leopardi published in his lifetime. Although Alessandro Manzioni, another great poet of the time, gave it a favorable notice, it was largely ignored by readers. .

In 1830 Leopardi left his home in Recanti. He took up residence in Florence and settled then in 1833 in Naples, where he wrote Ginestra (1836). Again he fell hopelessly in love – this time with Fanny, the wife of professor Targioni-Tozzeti. He also began to work on his Pensieri (Thoughts), patterned after the Maximes of the French writer La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).  His sarcasm on the fashionable progressive ideas of his fellow writers Leopardi poured into Palinodia.

During the last years of his life, Leopardi's close friends included Antonio Ranieri and his sister Paolona Ranieri. In 1836 they moved into the villa Ferrigni on the slopes of Vesuvius, about fifteen miles from Naples. Leopardi died of edema on June 14, 1837, in Naples, at the age of thirty-nine. Ranieri said of his friend: "His whole life was not a career like that of most men; it was truly a precipitate course towards death." According to Ranieri, Leopardi never had physical sexual experiences with women.

Many of the representatives of romanticism – Leopardi, Byron, Shelley, Lermontov and so forth – were members of aristocratic families and manifested aristocratic views to some extent, and also were inspired by ideas of freedom. But while Byron had an active public role, Leopardi lived an interior life, and though he expressed feelings of loss and nostalgia for the past, he took in his essay 'Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica' (1818) a critical stand to Romanticism. Moreover, Byron was adored by women but Leopardi's romantic dreams never had fulfillment. He was convinced that ladies laughed at him. Byron created from his feelings of homelessness and loneliness a romantic hero, a mysterious man with a secret in his past. Leopardi could never escape the curse of his own ill health, and later the growing blindness.

A poet of despair, suffering became for Leopardi the essence and natural order of nature. Finally it led to the misogyny of the 'Ode on the Likeness of a Beautiful Woman Carven on Her Tomb', written in the winter of 1834-35: "That breast, which visibly / Blanched with beauty him who looked on it – / All these things were, and now / Dust art thou, filth, a fell / And hideous sight hidden beneath a stone." In his "theory of pleasure" Leopoldi argued that "pleasure in its fulfillment does not exist" because it is always in the future. Nietzsche, who was well aware of the poet's thought, said that Leopardi and Schopenhauer were both representatives of a "weak," "decadent," "Romantic" pessimism. In Melville's poem Clarel (1876) Leopardi appeared briefly as a sceptic "stoned by Grief".

During the reign of Mussolini, a new interest arose in Leopardi's work. Figures like Leopardi and Petrarch were presented as prophets of  Italian national greatness and would-be supporters of the regime. In 1937, a Roman-style triumphal arch, adorned with eagles, lions, fasci, and imperial Roman standards, was erected in Racanti in the main square in Leopardi's honor. It was built in preparation for a visit from Mussolini, who ultimately did not attend the commemoration, but instead decided to name a battleship after Leopardi. His relative Count Ettore Leopardi argued that if he was "the Poet of great human suffering, he was also, powerfully, the Singer of the Fatherland." Leopardi's remains were removed from the church of San Vitale in the Neapolitan neighborhood of Fuorigrotto next to the tomb of Virgil, on the hill between Mergellina and Fuorigotto.

For further reading: Leopardi: A Biography by Iris Origo (1935); Poesia e filosofia di Giacomo Leopardi by G. Gentile (1940); L'elaborazione della lirica leopardiana by P. Bigongiari (1948): La filologia di Giacomo Leopardi by S. Timpanaro (1955), Titanismo e pietà in Giacomo Leopardi by U. Bosco (1957); Linguaggio del vero in Leopardi by C. Galimberti (1959); La nuova poetica leopardiana by W. Binni (1962); Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry by G. Singh (1964); Storia del riso leopardiano by G. Marzot (1966); Saggi leopardiani by G. Getto (1966); Frammenti critici leopardiani by A. Monteverdi (1967); Night and the Sublime in Giacomo Leopardi by Nicholas James Perella (1970); A Fragrance from the Desert by Daniela Bibi (1983); Giacomo Leopardi by Gian Piero Barricelli (1986) - For further information: Little Blue Light

Selected works:

  • Zibaldone di pensieri, 1817-1832 (written)
  • Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica, 1818 (written)
  • Canzoni, 1819
  • 'All'Italia', 1819
    - 'To Italy' (tr. Francis Wrangham, 1832; Frederick Townsend, 1887; etc., J.G. Nichols, 1994)
  • 'Sopra il monumento di Dante che si preparava in Firenze', 1819
    - 'On Dante's Monument' (tr. Frederick Townsend, 1887) / 'On the Proposed Monument to Dante in Florence' (tr. J.G. Nichols, in The Canti, With a Selection of His Prose, 1994)
  • Canzone ad Angelo Mai, 1820
  • Canzoni i versi, 1824
  • Versi, 1826 (ed. Pietro Brigherti)
  • editor: Rime, by Petrarch, 1826
  • Operette morali, 1826, 1827, 1834
    - Essays and Dialogues (tr. Charles Edwards, 1882) / Essays, Dialogues and Thoughts (tr. Patrick Maxwell, 1893; James Thomson, 1905) / Operette Morali: Essays and Dialogues (tr. Giovanni Cecchetti, 1982) / Moral Tales (tr. Patrick Creagh, 1983)
  • editor: Crestomazia italiana: prosa, poesia, 1827-28 (2 vols.)
  • Canti, 1831 (rev. ed. 1835, complete in 1845)
    - The Poems of Leopardi (ed. Geoffrey L. Bickersteth, 1923) / Canti (tr. J.H. Whitfield) / The Canti, With a Selection of His Prose (tr. J.G. Nichols, 1994)
  • Palinodia, 1835
  • Ginestra, 1836
  • I Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia, 1845
    - The War of the Mice and the Crabs (ed. and tr. Ernesto G. Caserta, 1976)
  • Opere, 1845-49 (6 vols., ed. Antonio Ranieri)
  • Pensieri, 1845 (in Opere, vol. 1, ed. Antonio Ranieri; Cesare Galimberti, 1982; Mario Fubini, 1988)
    - Pensieri: A Bilingual Edition (ed. and tr. W.S. Di Piero, 1981) / Thoughts (tr. J.G. Nichols, 2002)
  • Saggio sugli errori popolari degli antichi, 1846 (in Opere, vol. 4, ed. Prospero Viani)
  • Opere inedite, 1878-80 (2 vols., ed. Giuseppe Cugnoni)
  • I canti di Giacomo Leopardi, 1882
  • The Poems of Giacomo Leopardi, 1887 (tr. Frederick Townsend)
  • The Poems, 1893 (tr. Francis H. Cliffe)
  • Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura, 1898-1900 ["Lo Zibaldone"] (7 vols.; ed. Anna Maria Moroni, 2 vols., 1972)
  • The Poems ("Canti"), 1900 (tr. J.M. Morrison)
  • Poems (Canti), 1904 (tr. Theodore Martin)
  • Discorso di un italiano alla poesia romantica, 1906 (ed. Ettore Mazzali)
  • The Poems, 1923 (bilingual edition, ed. Geoffrey L. Bickersteth)
  • Puerilia e abozzi vari, 1924 (ed. Alessandro Donati)
  • Puerilia e abbozzi, 1925
  • Opere minori approvate di Giacomo Leopardi, 1931 (2 vols., ed.  Francesco Moroncini)
  • Epistolario, 1934-41 (7 vols., ed. F.Moroncini and others)
  • Tuttle le opere, 1937-49 (5 vols., ed. Francesco Flora)
  • Translations from Leopardi, 1941 (tr. R.C. Trevelyan)
  • Tutte le opere di Giacomo Leopardi, 1945 (5 vols., ed. Francesco Flora)
  • Poems from Giacomo Leopardi, 1946 (tr. John Heath-Stubbs)
  • Opere scelte, 1950
  • Poems and Prose, 1966 (ed. Angel Flores)
  • Selected Prose and Poetry, 1966 (ed. and tr. Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs)
  • Canti, paralipomeni, poesie varie, traduzioni, poetiche, e versi puerili, 1968 (ed. C. Muscetta and G. Savoca)
  • Tutti gli scritti inediti, rari e editi 1809-1810 di Giacomo Leopardi, 1972 (ed. Maria Corti)
  • Lettere, 1977 (ed. Sergio and Raffaella Solmi)
  • Pensieri, 1981 (ed. W.S. Di Piero)
  • A Leopaldi Reader, 1981 (ed. Ottavio M. Casale)
  • The Works of Giacomo Leopardi, 1983
  • The Moral Essays = Operette Morali, 1983 (tr. Patrick Creagh)
  • Poesie e prose, 1987-88 (2 vols., ed. Rolando Damiani and Mario Andrea Rigoni)
  • Giacomo Leopardi: Poems Translated With an Introduction, 1988 (tr. Arturo Vivante)
  • Canti, 2010 (translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi)

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