Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) suffered from many ailments during his unhappy life—asthma, scoliosis, ophthalmia, constipation, dropsy, and spleen, to mention a few—yet insomnia is the one most closely associated with his genius. While everyone else in his provincial hometown of Recanati slept, Leopardi stayed awake reading, writing, translating, or moon-dreaming. As the firstborn son of a count, he could expect the household servants, despite their rage, to serve him breakfast in the afternoon and lunch at midnight. Always out of sync with the diurnal rhythms of the rest of the world, he was, in the best Nietzschean sense of the word, “untimely.”
He spent his youth among the ancients in one the largest private libraries in Europe—his father’s. When children his age were still reciting verb tenses, he had already mastered Latin and taught himself Greek, reading in chronological order all the Greek works on his father’s shelves. At sixteen he presented his father with a corrected text of the life of Plotinus, with Latin translation and commentary. In the same year he wrote a commentary on rhetoricians of the second century AD. He would soon learn Hebrew to read the Bible. The list of his juvenile translations and commentaries boggles the mind. Had he not compromised his eyesight and developed a curvature in his spine early on, as a result of spending too much time hunched over texts, philology would have gained a great genius, while literary history most likely would have lost a major poet.
In addition to his philological studies Leopardi pored over the poetry and prose of the Italian masters. He also studied modern science and Enlightenment thought, delving deeply into post-Copernican astronomy, British empiricism, and mechanistic theories of nature. By his mid-twenties he grasped the thought of Galileo, Pascal, and various Enlightenment thinkers as well as the metrics of Virgil. He read Voltaire, Locke, and scores of other moderns in their own tongues. Thus his erudition ranged widely across the ages, across disciplines, across languages ancient and modern, and across Europe, despite the fact that he did not venture beyond the confines of his native province until he was twenty-four.
Leopardi began writing the poems that would make up his Canti at around age nineteen, when he could no longer afford to overtax his health and eyesight by excessive reading. He experienced the onset of his aggravated health problems as an expulsion from the garden of youth and a fall into premature old age. In his earlier poems—“To Italy,” “On the Monument to Dante,” and “To Angelo Mai” (a noted philologist)—he projects onto a historical stage the pathos of lost youth, lamenting Italy’s severance from its illustrious past. In a fervent, beautifully stylized rhetoric, these patriotic odes attribute Italy’s present-day stagnation to its failure to reproject its heritage into the future. We encounter here a motif that recurs in many guises in his later writings, namely Leopardi’s profound aversion …