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In Love with Leopardi

All’apparir del vero: Vita di Giacomo Leopardi

by Rolando Damiani
Milan: Mondadori, 529 pp., L40,000

His mother rejoiced when her children died in infancy. They would go straight to heaven and would not weigh upon the family budget. Great poet though he might become, Giacomo Leopardi would always have problems with faith and thrift. His father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, had squandered the family fortune through “generosity, pride, or folly” and was deprived by papal order of the right to handle money. Pious and penny-pinching, his wife, Marchesa Adelaide, took over the management of their estates. This was in 1803, on the dusty hills above the southern Adriatic, scorching in summer, freezing in winter. The noble couple were in their mid-twenties and their firstborn son was then just five.

To assert offended manhood, Monaldo cultivated literary ambitions—an interminable production of bigoted and reactionary tracts—which it was felt could not lead to the same economic catastrophe as his previous sallies into politics and trade. Nevertheless, he lavished considerable sums on building up what, for the very small town of Recanati, was a vast library of 25,000 volumes. Through this library he entered into a relationship with young Giacomo that was at once one of complicity, against Adelaide, and of competition, with each other. For the next thirty years, when Giacomo the poet asked Monaldo the pamphleteer for money, Monaldo could make a point of surreptitiously conceding it to a fellow sufferer behind his wife’s stiff back, or of informing his young rival that he would have to confront the formidable matriarch in person.

The story of Giacomo’s youth spent entirely in his father’s library has assumed legendary status in the history of Italian literature. Rarely emerging to play with brothers and sister, the boy had no companions at all outside the family and no interests outside books. By age ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French. Hebrew and English would soon follow. Presumably destined for the priesthood, he received the tonsure at twelve and donned a monkish habit. His tutors were outstripped and admitted as much. Left to his own diligent if random devices, he produced philological commentaries, sonnets, tragedies, epigrams, philosophical dissertations, a History of Astronomy, a Life of Plotinus, and any number of translations from the classics. Adolescent self-consciousness was developed to the point that “thinking about breathing,” as Monaldo later wrote, he would have difficulty getting his breath, and again, “reflecting on the subtleties of urination,” he would be unable to pass water. Much pacing to and fro was required before he could steal from himself “a moment’s inattention.”

All the same, when his beautiful cousin Gertrude made a three-day visit with her much older husband, the boy managed to fall in love. In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his life, the lady paid him no attention and left without saying goodbye. Giacomo reacted with A Diary of First Love and a number of Petrarchan sonnets. When the effect wore off he embarked on a translation of Hesiod’s Theogony.

The whole situation was grotesque, and in his late teens Giacomo at last awoke to find the outward sign of that grotesqueness. Under the priest’s habit he was hunchbacked, the result of a long-untreated scoliosis. How could he not have seen what was happening? The study that had seemed the passport to his father’s respect and the scholastic glory that must ensue had become his curse and set him apart forever. Beset by asthma and constipation, insulted by street urchins, already aware that no woman would ever find him attractive, Giacomo was more and more often afflicted by a death wish he had felt since earliest infancy. From age eighteen on, his overriding obsession was escape.

Concomitant with this anguished awareness of lost youth came what Giacomo would refer to as his three “conversions”: literary, political, and philosophical. From the arid erudition of his father he moved almost overnight to an appreciation of the value of beauty in poetry. Immediately he set out on translations of the first book of the Odyssey, the second of the Aeneid. This at seventeen. A year later, he jettisoned Monaldo’s blind defense of papal dictatorship and declared himself in favor of a united Italy. Immediately he wrote a number of long patriotic hymns. Finally, at twenty-one, he abandoned his parents’ and above all his mother’s Christianity. Having once walked in superstitious dread of treading on the crosses formed by paving stones, he now discovered a world, as he put it, of “solid nothingness.” In the cold light of reason, both religion and youthful illusion evaporated and happiness became “forever unavailable.” Thus in 1819, in one of the most backward towns of the most backward state in a decidedly backward and obscurantist Italy, Giacomo Leopardi stepped tentatively into the world of the absurd, a mechanistic universe going nowhere and to no end.

Despite severe ophthalmia, another lifelong plague, the young man’s busy pen was now occupied on three fronts: lyric poems, invariably as sad as they were beautiful; brief philosophical dialogues of bizarre whimsy and unparalleled pessimism; and finally the pages of his Zibaldone, or day book, a diary of his intellectual and emotional development that would ultimately run to almost 3,000 pages. Now in open conflict with his parents, he was desperate to leave. But how could Monaldo let this boy with his weak health, great talents, and dangerous views out into a world where liberalism and revolution were everywhere in the air? How could Adelaide even contemplate the unnecessary expense of lodging him anywhere but home? Giacomo attempted to acquire a passport and escape north with money stolen from the family safe but was foiled and humiliated. His dream of a “land full of marvels” away from the “living burial” of Recanati would have to wait until he was twenty-four, when Monaldo finally relented and allowed his son to visit Adelaide’s brother, Marchese Antici, in Rome.

Thus far the story of Giacomo Leopardi presents little problem for biographers. The family palazzo and above all the library where he grew up are still there to be visited. They make up a small and sharply defined world in which the poet’s youth and the dynamic of relationships that shaped it are well documented in an abundance of letters and memoirs. Most of all the economy and direction of the story are obvious and our sympathies undivided. The frail, sensitive if, alas, ugly genius will finally escape his monstrous parents to spread his wings in the wider and more generous society of those splendid Italian cities that so inspired his English, French, and German contemporaries.

It was not to be. Leopardi hated Rome, as later he would never be on anything but the most uneasy terms with Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Naples. “All the greatness of Rome,” he wrote back to his sister Paolina, “has no other purpose than to multiply the distances and numbers of steps you have to climb to see anyone at all.” The place was dirty and noisy, the people stupid. On his first day he met the elegant and erudite Abbot Cancellieri, a man not only well placed to introduce Giacomo into Roman society but kind enough to have praised the young prodigy’s philological studies in his own publications. “A prick,” Giacomo wrote back to his brother Carlo, “an endless stream of gossip, the dullest and most despair-inducing man on earth.” But surely, the envious Carlo replied, in a big city “there’s always a pretty whore to look at.” This was true, but would the whores look at a sickly hunchback? “The ugliest, crassest Recanati tart was better than all the streetwalkers of Rome,” came the poet’s improbable retort. Despite winning the unqualified admiration of a number of scholars, and in particular the Prussian ambassador Barthold Georg Niebuhr, Leopardi was soon longing to be home. Monaldo was delighted to have him back. Another week or two and the young man was desperate to leave again.

It is at this point, and as if in self-defense, that most biographers and critics will begin to speak of there being a distance—a distance that they will ultimately insist is a gulf—between Leopardi’s sublime poetry on the one hand and his profound pessimism and capricious behavior on the other. Thus in Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, the only substantial biography in English, now reprinted after many years, Iris Origo remarks:

There are two Leopardis: the poet and the man. The man, as he revealed himself in many of his letters and his diaries, was a querulous, tortured invalid, mistrustful of his fellow men, with a mind sometimes scornful and cantankerous, and a heart intolerably sad and lonely. But to this unhappy man was granted a poet’s gift: a capacity for feeling so intense and an imagination so sensitive and lively that he could perceive, in the most common sights of daily life, the “heavenly originals” of which, according to Plato, all earthly objects are but copies.

In an essay that appeared in these pages the scholar D.S. Carne-Ross wrote: “Much as one must often pity Leopardi, it is hard sometimes not to feel, with a certain exasperation, that he deliberately made bad worse, as though to prove a point about the inevitable wretchedness of existence.”1

One of the consequences of taking this view is that Leopardi’s poetry, and in particular the thirty-six lyric poems eventually collected together to form the Canti (“Songs”), is to be elevated to the highest of pedestals (“English, for all its riches, has nothing to set beside the best of these poems,” says Carne-Ross), while the reflections in the prose dialogues collected as the Operette morali or indeed in the quite extraordinary Zibaldone are to be dismissed, or damned with faint praise. Basing her remarks on an essay by Benedetto Croce, Origo writes: “On the problems of life he [Leopardi] bestowed much thought, and he clothed that thought in fine language, but the conclusions which he reached cannot be said to possess any great novelty.” She then simplifies his vision thus:

The universe, he says, is an enigma and an insoluble one; human life, when weighed in the balance, is an unhappy affair, and the more highly developed a man is in feeling and in intelligence, the less fitted he is to live happily. Such happiness as men do enjoy is founded upon “illusion.”

Albeit with some bet-hedging, Carne-Ross reaches the same conclusion. “I doubt…if too much independent value should be claimed for his ‘philosophy.’ In an entirely honorable sense, it was rigged, as a poet’s thinking often is, to serve his art.”

How vigorously Leopardi would have disagreed! Indeed he did disagree, for he frequently faced the same criticism during his lifetime. Praising the style of the Operette morali as “the finest prose in Italian this century,” his archenemy, the supremely Catholic critic Niccolò Tommaseo, nevertheless referred to Leopardi as “a frog endlessly croaking ‘There is no God because I’m a hunchback, there is no God because I’m a hunchback.”’ Dutifully Origo documents Leopardi’s standard response to such attacks: that critics should seek to confute his ideas (which actually are far from simple2 ) rather than blame his deformity. But one has to turn to a very different kind of biography, Rolando Damiani’s All’apparir del vero (sadly unavailable in translation), to find the poet’s most spirited rebuttal. On hearing, in 1834, that an article in a German review had once again ascribed his negative thinking to his desperate state of health, Leopardi wrote: “It seems people have the same attitude to life that an Italian husband has to his wife: he needs to go on believing she is faithful even when all the evidence is to the contrary.”

  1. 1

    The Strange Case of Leopardi,” The New York Review, January 29, 1987.

  2. 2

    The traditional criticism of Leopardi’s thought is that it has neither novelty nor system. Leopardi, however, did not prize novelty, which could hardly be other than presumption and self-deceit in the observation of a phenomenon, the human condition, that has remained substantially the same for many thousands of years. This stance partly explains his tendency to undermine systematic philosophies by suggesting that they are based on a psychology driven by the need to develop comfortable illusion. In both this, and his sense that his own grim vision needed to be clothed in the creative playfulness of his dialogues, he looks forward to Nietzsche. Schopenhauer said of him: “No one in our time has explored this subject [the idea that the universe is governed by blind will] so deeply and exhausted it so completely, as Leopardi.”

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