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…

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