Giacomo Leopardi 1798-1837
(Conte Giacomo Talegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi) Italian poet, prose writer, translator, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism on Leopardi from 1963 through 2000. For additional information on Leopardi's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 22.
An important figure of Italian Romanticism, Leopardi is best remembered for his profoundly pessimistic outlook on the human condition and his exquisite lyricism. Not widely known in his own time, Leopardi has since been acclaimed as the greatest Italian poet of the nineteenth century.
Leopardi was born June 29, 1798, in Recanati, an isolated rural village in Italy. He was the eldest of five surviving children of Count Monaldo Leopardi and the Marquess Adelaide Antici Leopardi. His father was interested in literature, philosophy, and politics, and he established an impressive personal library that covered a wide variety of subjects. Anxious for his talented son to succeed as a classical scholar, Leopardi's father provided the best possible private tutors for the boy, and by the age of sixteen, Leopardi had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as English, French, and Spanish. Leopardi's mother, who controlled the family's finances due to her husband's inability to manage money, encouraged her children to lead the same austere, religious life she led. The boy spent hours reading, writing, and translating, which contributed to his poor health and exacerbated his numerous physical ailments, including poor vision and a deformity of the spine. The atmosphere created by his domineering mother and overprotective father was stifling and constricted, and Leopardi spent an isolated and boring childhood. Although he professed great love for the rest of Italy, he grew to despise Recanati, referring to it as a “horrible, detestable, execrated sepulcher, where the dead are happier than the living.”
In 1817 Leopardi began recording his thoughts in a notebook that would become one of his most celebrated works, and also began corresponding with several important European writers. After an unsuccessful attempt to leave the family home in 1819, Leopardi continued his studies but increasingly devoted time to his own writing. In 1822 he was finally able to leave Recanati and visit Rome, which proved a bitter disappointment to him. He was unable to find suitable employment in the clerical or academic fields, in part due to his physical limitations, but also because of his agnosticism and avowed patriotism, both unpopular positions at the time. After returning for a time to his family, he began traveling throughout Italy, settling first in Florence, where an unhappy love affair inspired some of his most mournful verse, and then in Naples, where he took up residence with his friend and companion Antonio Ranieri. Supporting himself through his writing was a constant struggle and at times he was forced to depend on the generosity of friends. In his last years he became increasingly despondent over his failed romance, deteriorating health, and the Italian government's suppression of his writings. He died in 1837 of pulmonary failure.
Leopardi's early works consist of translations of the texts of Horace and Moschus, and sections of the Aeneid and the Odyssey. His first original works were Storia della astronomia (1813; History of Astronomy), which he wrote at the age of fifteen, and Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi (1815; Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients).
In 1816, according to some scholars, Leopardi experienced what he called his “literary conversion,” after which he concentrated on the production of creative pieces rather than critical writings. The poems “All'Italia” (“To Italy”) and “Sopra il monumento di Dante” (“On Dante's Monument”) were inspired by a visit from his friend and first literary mentor Pietro Giordani in 1818. Some time after 1819 he composed some of his most admired poetry, including “L'Infinito (“The Infinite”), “Alla luna” (“To the Moon”), and “Alla Primavera” (To the Spring”). His first collection of poetry, Canzoni, was published in 1824, and in 1831 a second collection, Canti, appeared.
One of Leopardi's most important works was his seven-volume notebook, Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura, better known as Zibaldone, published in 1898-1900, but written between 1817 and sometime in the 1830s. Influenced by classical poetry as well as by Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism, the work represents Leopardi's philosophical speculations and reflects his profoundly pessimistic belief in the meaninglessness of life. In his later poems and in the Operette morali (1827), a series of dialogues outlining his philosophy, Leopardi tempered some of the nihilism expressed earlier in the Zibaldone. Leopardi's final poem, “La ginestra” (“The Broom”), dealt with the hostile relationship between nature and mankind, but offered a slight glimmer of hope—unlike most of his earlier pieces.
Leopardi's oeuvre has received considerable scholarly attention in Italy while garnering steady and diverse criticism from other Western critics as well. Many scholars have commented on the despair inherent in Leopardi's work. Sergio Pacifici compares Leopardi to Alessandro Manzoni, but where the latter's work is infused with Christian optimism, the former's verse is characterized by a “bleak pessimism.” Yet due to this, Pacifici believes that Leopardi's work is more likely to appeal to modern readers because he explores the fundamental questions of life with an unblinking eye. Kenelm Foster also compares Manzoni and Leopardi, but finds that despite their differences, both poets were concerned with the essential nature of truth. Alfredo Bonadeo has examined Leopardi's treatment of death in his prose works and contends that “contrary to what one may surmise from his somber vision of life, neither the fact nor the idea of death bears negatively upon his evaluation of human existence nor do they constitute a desirable escape from life.”
Numerous critics have noted the importance of illusion in Leopardi's thought and in his writing. Erasmo G. Gerato maintains that it is a crucial concept in understanding the poet because for Leopardi illusion was the one thing that could make life bearable, not just for him but for all of humanity. But as the poet was increasingly making use of illusion, he was at the same time, according to Gerato, viewing reason more and more negatively. G. Singh believes that illusions were an important part of Leopardi's early life, as they are with most people. However, Singh reports that “the crucial difference between him and any other person … was the extraordinarily swift and unimpeded transition from illusions, however agreeable and even necessary, to truth, however bitter. His journey from the one to the other could not have been briefer or more decisive.” Alan S. Rosenthal asserts that Leopardi's concept of nature also became increasingly negative over time: “In Leopardi's poetry, Nature is at first indifferent to mankind, then cruel, increasingly hostile, and finally viciously destructive.” Bonadeo traces a similar evolution in Leopardi's concept of nature, although he finds that the poet first held a positive conception of the link between man and nature.
In recent years the Zibaldone has received increasing attention from literary critics, including Martha King and Daniela Bini. “Leopardi's meditations on the creative process and his statements on style and the psychological effect of certain words are a rare testimony of a great poet,” according to King and Bini. Despite this renewed interest, however, Leopardi's poetry remains relatively unknown outside Italy; in the English-speaking world, the study of his work is largely restricted to academic circles where he is considered by many the greatest Italian poet of the nineteenth century. In his own country, according to Nicolas J. Perella “the critical literature on Leopardi has, in the last forty years, been massive, perhaps exceeding even what has been written on Dante.” Perella believes that Leopardi has been a significant influence on Western literature since his death but the acknowledgement of that impact has not been sufficient to secure his reputation, outside scholarly circles, as one of Italy's greatest poets and thinkers.