Here, especially in the group called Canti barocchi, which I care most about, it was my intention to evoke and fix a particular Sicilian world—that of Palermo more precisely—which is now about to disappear without the good fortune of having been caught and preserved in any medium of art.
—from a letter of Lucio Piccolo (written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) to Eugenio Montale
Humid heat hangs in the air, as it has for days. As soon as the sun lands on the front porch, we retreat to indoor space. I pick up a library book, The Last Leopard, that must be returned this week. The book is a biography of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a Sicilian prince and author of a single novel, The Leopard, that I’m in the midst of rereading. I’m finding it difficult, despite stacks of unread books that beckon, to set down the novel and move on.
My introduction to The Leopard wasn’t the novel, but Luchino Visconti’s movie, with Burt Lancaster cast (inscrutably, though in the end magnificently) in the lead role. A friend extolled the newly re-mastered version and leapt at the chance to see it, so off we went. The film is visually sumptuous and evocative—yet the novel’s words, not the film’s images, are the vital means by which Sicily’s lost world is summoned to life again.
The novel opens as the daily recital of the rosary is ending. The author’s genius is to animate not only the human participants, but also the “rococo drawing room” in which the recital takes place:
For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word: love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was.
Giuseppe Tomasi, born in 1896, was the last Prince of Lampedusa, “the ultimate descendant of an ancient noble line . . .”. Tomasi didn’t set out to be a writer—he wrote The Leopard, his only novel, late in life. Early on, he abandoned the study of law he’d been pressed to pursue and made no other effort to earn a living. What he liked best, it seemed, was to read.
He had a novel in mind for many years, but it went no further until his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, invited him to a literary conference at which Piccolo’s poems, including the Canti barocchi, were awarded a literary prize. The following year Tomasi wrote to a friend, “Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish [than Lucio], I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.” Tomasi died in 1957, his novel still unpublished, though that was soon to change.
By the time Tomasi’s biographer, David Gilmour, visited Sicily in 1985,
The old Palazzo Lampedusa in Palermo, birthplace and home of the prince, [had been] destroyed in the American bombing of 1943: more than forty years later it was still there, in the heart of the old city, gutted and plundered; the ‘repugnant ruins’, which had so distressed its last owner, remained untouched.
In the novel, Tomasi alludes to the bombing, though its target is not Palazzo Lampedusa, but a fictional one. Tomasi, once again, animates not only the dancers, but the painted gods that look down on them:
The notes of the waltz in the warm air seemed to him but a stylization of the incessant winds harping their own sorrows on the parched surfaces, today, yesterday, tomorrow, forever and forever. The crowd of dancers, among whom he could count so many near to him in blood if not in heart, began to seem unreal, made up of that material from which are woven lapsed memories, more elusive even than the stuff of disturbing dreams. From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.
Though Lampedusa was able to salvage most of his books after the bombing, forty years later, “torn pages of Dickens and Diderot could still be found in the ruins . . .”. So too, out of ruins revived by memory of an era that has long since disappeared, the work of art that is The Leopard endures.
From the novel:
. . . Don Fabrizio said that he would walk home; a little fresh air would do him good, he had a slight headache. The truth is that he wanted to draw a little comfort from gazing at the stars. As always, seeing them revived him; they were distant, they were omnipotent, and at the same time they were docile to his calculations; just the contrary to human beings, always too near, so weak and yet so quarrelsome.
While Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata has nothing whatever to do with The Leopard, it’s what I’ve been listening to, and it seems to fit.
On Youtube: Flute Sonata (1st mvmt)
Credits: The quotation at the head of the post is from an article entitled Lucio Piccolo’s “Canti Barocchi,” by Eugenio Montale, Sonia Raiziss and Alfredo de Palchi, published in Poetry, Vol. 98, No. 6 (Sep., 1961), pp. 392-396, which may be found here. The quotations from the novel may be found here. The quotations from The Last Leopard may be found here. I am once again indebted to David Nice for making me aware of the novel, through the post that may be found here. He also has several wonderful posts about Palermo and environs, which may be found here.