Giacomo Leopardi (lay-oh-PAHR-dee), the most distinguished Italian lyricist of the nineteenth century and Italy’s great contribution to European Romanticism, was born on June 29, 1798, to a noble but impoverished family in the provincial town of Recanati, close to the French border. Encouraged by his piously strict parents not merely to study but to drown in learning, Leopardi had an astounding but rather pathetic childhood. At the age of fifteen he could read and write Greek, and for the next two years he produced elaborate editions of classical writers, the publication of which won for him some notice from scholars.
Pursuing fame as urged by his parents, in 1816 he produced an imitative “Ode to Neptune” in classical Greek that convinced many scholars that a new work from antiquity had been discovered. However, at the age of eighteen, with almost ruined eyesight and a back permanently damaged by curvature of the spine, Leopardi suffered a breakdown; it was partly physical but largely a psychological rebellion against his unnatural regimen. Creative imagination saved him: He began to write his original poetry during his convalescence. Unable to pursue scholarly ambitions (which up to this time had been undertaken in almost utter isolation, without schools or tutors), and growing hostile to his family and his dull little town, Leopardi began to send his early verse and prose to noted men of letters of the day, hoping for help.
He found a patron in Abbate Pietro Giordani, a...
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