Imagine a childhood of fading privilege, an adulthood of shattered glory, and final years of almost-realized fame; this, in essence, was the tragedy of Sicily’s most brilliant author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Prince of Lampedusa, Duke of Palma. He died in 1957, impoverished and almost unknown, immediately before publication of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1957), which made him, posthumously, Sicily’s most famous twentieth century author. David Gilmour’s study The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa is a rich evocation of this brilliant man against the backdrop of Don Fabrizio, the fictive protagonist of The Leopard, who combines the glory, brilliance, and ultimate tragedy of the whole Lampedusa line.
Giuseppe was born amid the palaces that provide the scenes of his novel. As a nobleman he was trained to do nothing, and like Don Fabrizio he watched as history, war, and probate eroded and ultimately took his family’s wealth, lands, and titles. Like Don Fabrizio, Giuseppe watched with detached interest, realizing like the hero of his novel that he was caught between the demise of feudal aristocracy and the emergence of popular politics. Appropriately, his wife, Alessandra (“Licy”) Wolff Tomasi di Lampedusa, was herself of Latvian nobility. She, too, felt historically displaced when her country was absorbed by the Soviet Union and Stormsee, the Latvian estate in which she literally reigned, became a Russian agricultural school. What their marriage lacked in passion it more than supplied in mutual sympathy.
Licy found some consolation in her work; she was a Freudian psychologist who was able to practice her profession more easily after World War II, when she moved permanently to Palermo and lived with Giuseppe on the Via Buttera. Giuseppe, on the other hand, was a brilliant but uncredentialed student of literature and history. He knew more about British, French, Italian, and Russian literature than many professors; he spoke these languages fluently, and added Spanish a decade before his death. He knew European history intimately and knew the history of Sicily as one might know childhood nursery rhymes. Even so, an uncredentialed expert is no expert in the modern world, and so Giuseppe’s brilliance served his family and close friends alone. Had Giuseppe finished one of the abortive attempts he made at acquiring a university degree, it probably would have made little difference in his life. Though he would give private lessons in the years after the war, it would never have suited his station to have taught under the aegis of an institution—or for pay.
Gilmour’s subject is thus a difficult one; unlike most lives, that of Lampedusa contracts rather than expands as it proceeds. Just as Lampedusa is about to achieve the recognition he should have had much earlier in life, he dies. The reader is left with a life of diminishing returns and no triumphs. Lampedusa was an undistinguished soldier in World War I, was discharged after a few months of service in World War II, and seldom traveled farther than the outskirts of Palermo after 1946. A reader of Gilmour’s study might thus ask how one can make a life, in which essentially nothing has happened, interesting. Even so, Gilmour does this, for Lampedusa’s life was wedded to Sicily as firmly as that of Don Fabrizio was, and the actual as well as the fictive life contain the greatness of tragedy.
Extinction of the Lampedusas proceeded irreversibly from the abolition of feudalism in 1812. Changes in the system of primogeniture resulted in subdivision of their estates, and the Lampedusa family’s penchant for indifference to the rapidly changing social atmosphere hastened its fall. When Giuseppe’s great-grandfather died intestate in 1885, a lengthy court battle ensued for the Lampedusa properties. These houses and lands, which dotted Sicily and Tuscany and included an island off the Sicilian coast, were the prizes in a struggle that would not end until after World War II. By that time, the war had accomplished what even the enormous legal costs of nearly seventy-five years had not managed: Bombed-out shells of once-grand houses complemented the long-unworked fields amid which they stood.
Having salvaged some furniture and the majority of his library, Lampedusa retired to an unfashionable section of Palermo and began to contemplate his youth and its unfulfilled promise. He read Marcel Proust and...
(The entire section is 1811 words.)