Ruins and Memory

Still from Visconti's The Leopard

Still from Visconti’s The Leopard

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 di Lampedusa (Wikipedia; public domain)

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Wikipedia; public domain)

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.

O stella, fedela stella (from the film)

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.

Listening List

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 Spotify: Flute Sonata (James Galway on flute, Martha Argerich on piano): Flute Sonata transcribed for violin (Anne Sophie Mutter on violin)

On Youtube: Flute Sonata (1st mvmt)

Links for the remaining movements are here, here, and here.


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.

23 thoughts on “Ruins and Memory

    1. angela

      Returned…read…and find myself wishing to be in Italy (also visited link to David’s blog and read for a bit while enjoying the flute (thank you). I’ve heard of The Leopard, but knew no more. After reading your book quote and Wanderers, must say, I shall keep an eye out when in the used bookshop.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        angela: May the book come your way soon, perhaps via the library, if not in the used bookshop. And yes, next stop Italy! (Glad you enjoyed the flute sonata, too . . .)

  1. wanderer

    It’s no coincidence we are in this together – the same source dontchaknow. It’s been weeks, I know, and I am still reading the Leopard! By the strangest of coincidences, the in-flight entertainment coming home (a mere 19 hours) was simply vast, and I didn’t even manage to explore the whole content, but there in ‘classics’ was, yes, The Leopard, and for the first time I saw a film of a book which I was in the middle of reading. The film, for all its visual treats, is not a patch on the book, no surprise there, for how can you ever convey (and please forgive me, not wanting to steal your post, but only to emphasise the depths no film can explore) passages like this:

    ” …he found himself comparing this ghastly journey with his own life, [ ]. These early morning fantasies were the very worst that could happen to a man of middle age; and although the Prince knew they would vanish with the day’s activities he suffered acutely all the same, as he was used enough to them by now to realise that deep inside him they left a sediment of sorrow which, accumulating day by day, would in the end be the real cause of his death“.

    A sediment of sorrow! Oh my. Read the book folks.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: Remarkable that your flight should have included the film! Hardly do you steal the post, rather, you only add to it! I’ve not yet mastered the art of marginalia, but my page flags in the book are numerous (perhaps ludicrous, as to review them would likely entail a third reading of the book). But here is one that I have come upon today as I reread: “Those days were preparation for a marriage which, even erotically, was no success; a preparation which, however, was in a way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief, like those melodies which outlive the forgotten works they belong to and hint in their delicate and veiled gaiety at themes which later in the finished work were to be developed without skill, and fail.”

      1. David N

        That one stood out for me, too – oh, where to stop? I’d quote (and practically did, over there) the whole of the Prince’s central analysis to the northern politician Chevalley of Sicilian temperament. But that you, wanderer – with whom I can only agree about the film, much as it fascinates me – and I can find so many different things to write shows what a masterpiece this is with such a life beyond the printed page. Read it, all- it’s up there with War and Peace (and would it were longer).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David, wanderer: yes, where to stop–well, there is nowhere, is there? To all: The quotation David includes in his blog post is magnificent. Another passage I particularly love, on the theme of Tomasi’s animation of the inanimate, appears at pp. 30-31. In this passage, elegant description of paintings of the estates becomes a rumination on the history of loss, replete with telling phrases like this: “The wealth of many centuries had been transmitted into ornament, luxury, pleasure . . .”

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    I’ve not heard of this book (or movie) but these snippets from it are all very beautiful. Oh if only my reading list was not so long! What the hell, it can’t hurt to add one more….

    (I find Burt Lancaster to be sometimes artificial and off-putting, and other times very compelling, and still other times both, alternately, in the same role.)

    1. David N

      Burt is astoundingly good as the Prince, the performance he always valued the most. Such a shame he’s dubbed with an inappropriate Italian voice. I’ve yet to see the American version, in which the voice is his own.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Mark, David: I have the same reaction as Mark to Burt Lancaster generally, but on reading these comments, I realized I needed to amend my text, so that it now reads “(inscrutably, though in the end magnificently).” I thought it odd casting, but quickly saw how thoroughly he inhabits this role. No wonder it’s the performance he valued the most. I’ve just gone back, too, to read again David’s comments on the film, which I think do it full justice, both the good and the not so good (Cardinale is definitely a false note). It’s nonetheless a beautiful film and worth a watch, but the book, ah, the book, that’s the thing!

  3. friko

    It’s many years ago that I read ‘The Leopard’ and saw the film. How you have taken me back to my youth when books by European writers (not from the English-speaking world) were what attracted me. I sometimes feel that those years were of a different calibre, not the quick read or short attention span movie of today, but an era when I took time over books and movies and had friends willing to discuss culture in deliciously leisured evenings.

    It’s time I went back, don’t you think?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: well, Friko, I think you keep your end up very well on the culture end, though you’re right, those long engrossing reads are more the exception than the rule these days, for me as well. As I read and re-read The Leopard, I thought I must do this more often. Swann’s Way is next–after all, it’s the Lydia Davis translation. So pleased you tipped us off elsewhere on her short story collection–while that, of course, is short form reading, she does seem to be another master of the art.

  4. newleafsite

    Susan, I have read this piece a few times over, while listening to your musical selections (which is how I believe it should be read, for complete effect). It is beautifully written. Your own opening paragraph drew me in so unexpectedly, and it is the reason I titled my “share” on Newleafsite at Facebook as your “Mood Piece.”

    This is the second recent post where you indicate that your musical choices were almost by happenstance. But it seems that there might be more to the reason for paying concurrent attention to various forms of art. As I read (and reread) your words, and your chosen quotations from the book, I felt that words and music came from the same impulse, that they were different forms of creativity inspired by – or resulting in – the same state of mind or emotion. No doubt it was easy enough for you, when you wrote about Prokofiev, to choose some of your favorites of his pieces. But there’s more insight and subtlety involved in finding the common ground between different forms of artistic expression. As a writer, you just keep getting better at finding the connections. — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Such kind words, and thank you so much. It is a real pleasure to find such synergies, whether by happenstance, design, or something between the two. There is certainly no question but that, in this case, the Flute Sonata and The Leopard made fine artistic partners for me, and I’m so glad you found it so, too. That’s the real joy of this, to share such experiences, isn’t it?

      1. David N

        Is it perhaps the bittersweet, nostalgic quality of the Flute Sonata? I’m so glad you found the Mutter performance on Recital 2000 – it’s so alive.

        For dust and ashes, in other words the Prince in his darkest moments, turn to the Violin Sonata No. 1, unquestionably one of the half-dozen deepest Prokofiev masterpieces, like the ‘War’ Sonatas (which we can happily include as one, squeezing in the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies – chalk and cheese, but so profoundly felt – War and Peace and The Fiery Angel) . Amazing how contemporary it still sounds.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Yes, that exactly, and thank you for finding the words. And thank you, too, for the Violin Sonata and all else. I’ve made a listening list for myself of the lot, and I’ve posted the first movement of the violin sonata, with Oistrakh (who premiered the work, am I correct?). Magnificent, and tragic. Lost worlds, given expression of such beauty. That is genius.

  5. Lowell Murphree

    Susan it is the Prokofiev Flute Sonata that I took away from your wonderful piece. Thank you for this. I had a recording of this that was the soundtrack for a formative melancholy year (1970). Each movement was a memory. Thanks. Lowell

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Lowell: how nice to “see” you here. The Flute Sonata is a lovely piece, isn’t it? I wonder what you would think of The Leopard (or perhaps you’ve read it and just didn’t say). The language of it is so beautifully poetic.

  6. shoreacres

    The thought of the ruins, the scraps of Dickens and Diderot languishing there, called to mind a more contemporary event, one that occurred in Timbuktu when the jihadis came to visit the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. Though the researchers fled, many of the ancient manuscripts had been hidden away by librarians.

    But, as reported in a July 1 New Yorker article about the events, “The jihadis destroyed a few hundred documents that they found in the preservation room, where fragile pages were microfiled and then preserved in specially made folders or boxes. The custodian led us out to a garden patio, where the charred remains of the documents lay. I was surprised to see that they had not been cleaned up. In the ash piles, there were scraps of ancient paper with identifiable calligraphy. The custodian said that no one from the center had returned, and so he was leaving everything as it was.”

    As a side note, in 1510 the Moroccan scholar Leo Africanus noted, after a visit to Timbuktu, that “[the people] have a custom of almost continuously walking about the city in the evening…playing musical instruments and dancing.” Perhaps they, too, were listening to the flute.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: As always, you bring yet another dimension to bear on the post, and these are particularly rich. Your comment on Timbuktu reminded me of one of Sophie’s posts at djenne djenno: (she explains what the instrument is in the comments). I’m curious to know what you might think of The Leopard (the book). While of course I read it in translation, the language of it is so beautiful, page after page. I think you would appreciate it.

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