Count Giacomo Talegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi was born in Recanati, in the province of the Marches, of a wealthy and noble family with a long tradition of service to the Church. His father, Count Monaldo, prided himself on his intellectual accomplishments, among which he included reactionary and scholarly writings and the building of an extensive and erudite family library in which the young Leopardi spent most of his formative years. Monaldo’s sense of infallibility did not help him manage his inherited fortune, a responsibility undertaken by his wife, Marquise Adelaide Antici, an austere, bigoted, and despotic woman, whose harshness toward the sensitive Giacomo contrasted with her husband’s affectionate paternal disposition. The priest who tutored Giacomo until he was thirteen declared at that time that there was nothing more he could teach the boy, who read and studied daily until very late. Theology, mathematics, history, rhetoric, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Hebrew, English, German, the philosophers, the Enlightenment, the Italian classics, the commentators, astronomy: Leopardi’s interests encompassed an encyclopedic range of intellectual activities, as described in Zibaldone, a “mad and most desperate [regime of] study,” which inevitably and irreparably damaged his naturally frail constitution. His eyesight, his bones (rachitis), his back (he became a humpback), and other ailments (such as a cerebrospinal disease) were to plague him painfully for more than half of his brief life.
At first, Leopardi’s consuming ambition was the acquisition of fame, “a very great and perhaps immoderate desire,” but as the years passed, he realized that he had sacrificed his youth in pursuit of his ambition. Youth, “dearer than fame and laurels, than the pure light of day,” lost “without a pleasure, uselessly,” became a recurrent theme in his poetry. Frequently, he sat depressed in the library, or, during an afternoon stroll around the countryside, waves of melancholy overcame him, “an obstinate, black, horrible, barbarous melancholy,” which convinced him that life could produce only misery.
Pietro Giordani, an Italian writer and patriot, befriended Leopardi, and for a while his spirits lifted. The subdued tones of earlier poems such as “Le rimembranze,” “Appressamento della morte,” “Primo amore” (“First Love”), and “Memorie del primo amore” were replaced by the more energetic tones of patriotic songs such as “All’Italia” (“To Italy”) and “Sopra il monumento di Dante che si preparava a Firenze” (“On the Monument to Dante”). He tried to leave his “native savage town” of Recanati, but his parents discovered and frustrated the attempt, in the wake of which they imposed a close surveillance of his actions, complete with censorship of his correspondence. This situation produced meditations of deep melancholia, out of which grew a philosophy of sorrow, which for him constituted the necessary condition of the universe, in which beauty, love, glory, and virtue emerge as illusions that deceive wickedly and promote universal unhappiness. Yet illusion provided the only refuge from devastation occasioned by reason and reality, and the need for it made repeated claims on his soul and his worldview. During this period, from around 1819 to around 1822, many fine idylls came to light, such as “Il sogno,” “L’infinito” (“The...
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