Giacomo Leopardi 1798-1837
(Full name Giacomo Talegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi, Conte) Italian poet, philosopher, and scholar.
Leopardi is generally considered the greatest Italian lyric poet of the nineteenth century and one of the finest writers of the period. An accomplished classical scholar who mastered Greek and Latin at a very young age, Leopardi occupies a unique place between Classicism and Romanticism in Italian literature. His poetry combines established lyric forms, such as the Petrarchan canzone, with notable developments in metrical flexibility and blank-verse composition, and is pervaded with his profoundly pessimistic vision. Coupled to this, Leopardi's verse expresses a characteristically Romantic longing for the infinite and concern with the lost human affinity to nature. Leopardi's principal poetic mood is melancholic, and themes of solitude, suffering, despair, and disappointed love predominate, as in his lyric masterpiece “A Sylvia” and the late, philosophical poem “La ginestra.” While typically studied as a poet rather than as a systematic thinker, Leopardi's prose writings—collected in his wide-ranging Zibaldone, (“notebook” or “miscellany”)—as well as in his letters, essays, and dialogues, are also viewed as significant both as explanatory adjuncts to his poetry and as eloquent articulations of his materialist, atheistic, skeptical, and decidedly modern thought.
Leopardi was born in Recanati, Italy, the eldest son of Count Monaldo Leopardi. Guided by his father's desire that he become a classical scholar, the young Leopardi lived a sheltered life and was refused to make even modest excursions away from Recanati, though he later observed in his Zibaldone that his childhood was a joyous one. Leopardi's father provided him with the finest education he could make available; a battery of private tutors coupled with the boy's prodigious talents and disciplined self-study in his father's sizable library led to his mastery of classic Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and a number of modern European languages by the age of sixteen. He wrote commentaries on classical and early Christian texts, made skillful poetic translations, and produced numerous erudite essays while still in his teens and before reaching his twenties had become one of the outstanding European philologists of the day. The years of indefatigable learning exacted an irreversible toll on Leopardi's body, however, contributing to a pronounced curvature of his spine as well as a weakened heart and lungs that continued to deteriorate with age. His pivotal first experience of love occurred in late 1817 with the appearance of his cousin, Countess Gertrude Cassi, at Recanati. The married Cassi could not have returned the feelings of the shy, hunchbacked Leopardi, and the unrequited emotion became an important motif in his subsequent poetry as well as being duly noted in his Diario d'amore (“Diary of Love”). First in 1819 and thenceforth, Leopardi was subject to bouts of temporary blindness in one eye. This problem, together with his other maladies, contributed to the omnipresent sense of pessimism in Leopardi's mature works, although the poet generally offered other rationalizations for his outlook. Meanwhile, Leopardi's increasingly philosophical musings of the period began a process of transformation in the writer, bringing him closer to an interest in modern literature while leaving his appreciation for classical poetry and the Italian verse of Petrarch and Tasso intact. He left Recanati for the first time in November of 1822, accompanied by his uncle on a tour of Rome. Disillusioned by the shallowness of urban intellectual life he encountered there, Leopardi began to write his cynical Operette morali del conte Giacomo Leopardi (1827; Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi) on his return to Recanati in the spring of 1823. Between the period of 1823 to 1825, Leopardi largely abandoned poetry in favor of prose as a vehicle for philosophical reflection. He undertook a translation of Cicero's writings in 1825 for a publisher in Milan, and later visited Bologna, where he made the acquaintance of Countess Teresa Carniana Malvezzi. The married Malvezzi became the object of Leopardi's passions, though she remained solely interested in cultivating him as a poet. From 1826 to late 1828, Leopardi lived in Florence and later Pisa, mingling with intellectuals, clergyman, and nationalists. In Pisa, he began to write verse with renewed vigor, continuing his creative burst in Recanati until the end of the decade. Leopardi then spent the early 1830s once again in Florence, and published the first edition of his poetry under the title of Canti there in 1831. The inspiration for his subsequent series of “Aspasia” poems appears to have been his affection for the wife of his Florentine doctor, Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, the last of his attractions to lovely, unobtainable women. In September of 1833, Leopardi, his health failing, departed for the warmer climate of Naples. During this time he wrote and published his Pensieri (1834-37) as well as several of his finest poems, including “Il tramonto della luna” (“The Setting of the Moon”) and “La ginestra” (“The Broom Flower”). Leopardi died in June of 1837.
In 1817, Leopardi began accumulating pieces for his encyclopedic Zibaldone and continued making additions to the voluminous work until the 1830s. Its vast scope reveals the depth of his erudition, with apparent influences ranging from the classical poetry of Homer, Virgil, and Lucretius to the Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire, and Madame de Staël. Around the same time as he initiated construction of his notebook, Leopardi began to produce his first notable works of verse. His “Appressamento della morte” (“The Approach of Death”), written in 1817, and “Il primo amore” (1818; “First Love”) illustrate both his strong visionary impulse and the early influence of Petrarchan poetic forms. Many of his initial canzoni, composed in the period of 1818 to 1822, are also public or occasional poems, such as “All'Italia” (“To Italy”) and “Sopra il monumento di Dante” (“On the Monument of Dante”), both paeans to nationalistic grandeur. An overlapping poetic phase also marks the appearance of Leopardi's piccoli idilli (“minor idylls”), including the frequently anthologized “L'infinito” (“The Infinite”). Among them, “Alla luna” (“To the Moon”) features Leopardi's oft-revisited poetic motif of the moon as a catalyst for recollections of loneliness and sorrow. The pursuit of virtue is the subject of “Bruto minore” (“Brutus the Younger”), which treats the idealistic Roman's suicide as a turning point from ancient to cynically modern sensibilities. Suicide is also the topic of “Ultimo canto di Saffo” (“The Last Song of Sappho”), evoking the ancient poet's self-destruction for unrequited love. Ostensibly a celebration of Platonic beauty, “Alla sua donna” (“To His Lady”) is suffused with Leopardi's fundamental pessimism and anti-idealism. It was one of the only poems he wrote in the middle of the 1820s as his literary efforts were dominated by his composition of the prose dialogues and essays of Operette morali. 1828 saw a resurgence of Leopardi's poetry in the so-called grandi idilli (“major idylls”), among them “Il risorgimento” (“The Reawakening”), which comments on the rebirth of poetic inspiration while alluding to the growing Italian independence movement. “A Sylvia” (“To Sylvia”) focuses the poet's attentions on youthful longings and disappointed love. Earthly transience and melancholy reflection inform the lyric “Le ricordanze” (“Memories”), while “Il sabato del vilaggio” (“The Village Saturday”) demonstrates Leopardi's autobiographical impulse, drawing imagery from his childhood recollections. Another of the grandi idilli, “Canto notturno di un pastore errant dell'Asia” (“Nocturne of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia”) resonates with a more tragic and universal pitch, following its subject on a solitary trek beneath an unfeeling desert moon. Inspired by his real-life infatuation with Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, the poems of Leopardi's ciclo di Aspasia (“Aspasia cycle”) were written between 1831 and 1834. “A se stesso” offers a bleak vision as the poet reaches the nadir of despair, while in the final verse of the sequence, “Aspasia,” Leopardi reflects on his bittersweet suffering and philosophical liberation from unrequited love. Written in 1834, but published six years later, Leopardi's Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia (translated as The War of the Mice and the Crabs, although the title literally means “Additions to the Batracomiomachia,” a pseudo-Homeric poem) is a verse satire aimed at contemporary Italian politics. Many of Leopardi's philosophical thoughts in prose, often culled from his Zibaldone, are available in the Pensieri (1834-37). Musing on subjects such as self-knowledge, disillusionment, and the animating power of imagination, the Pensieri, with their accompanying satirical jabs at human pretension and weakness, also bear thematic resemblance to the Paralipomeni. Leopardi's final, Neapolitan phase of poetic output extends from 1834 to his death in 1837. The culminating work of this period, “La ginestra,” makes symbolic reference to blooming desert plants on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano responsible for the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A. D. Thematically, “La ginestra” touches upon the problem of human solidarity and the fragile coexistence of mankind and nature.
During his lifetime, Leopardi was considered an outstanding lyric poet, although his literary notoriety was largely confined to Italy. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, interest in his writings had spread northward to Germany, with critics observing that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found Leopardi's historical insights congenial to his own, and noting affinities between Leopardi's pessimistic worldview and those of the Germanic thinkers Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann. Leopardi's reputation as a poet in the English-speaking world was established in 1850, when William Gladstone commented on the reflective quality of his verse, and extended by Matthew Arnold's 1882 comparison of Leopardi with the English Romantic poets Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. Still, Arnold expressed reservations about the limited scope of Leopardi's poetry, which numbers only about forty pieces of verse. Nevertheless, scholars continue to view such enduring and sublime lyrics as Leopardi's “A Sylvia,” “L'infinito,” and “La ginestra” as among the finest poetic expressions in Italian. In addition to producing explications of Leopardi's poetry, a number of modern critics have also focused on Leopardi's theory of inspiration, and on the development of his philosophical outlook, guided by his extensive commentary in the Zibaldone and other prose works.