by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Sicily between 1860 and 1910; published in Italian (as II Gattopardo) in 1958, in English in 1960.
A Sicilian nobleman witnesses the emergence of modern Italty as his own way of life slowly declines.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place
Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written
Born in 1896 in Palermo, Sicily, in Italy, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa descended from a wealthy family’s whose ancestors gained distinction in the seventeenth century when they were named princes of Lampedusa—a small island south of Sicily. Although the family’s’s fortune declined during the 1800s, the title remained, with Giuseppe himself gaining distinction as the last Prince of Lampedusa. Young Giuseppe was educated at home by a private tutor; from 1912 to 1914, he attended the Liceo-Ginnasio Garibaldi in Palermo, where he studied philosophy, history, and Italian. Between 1914 and 1916 Giuseppe Lampedusa studied law, first at the University of Genoa, then at the University of Rome. He served in the First World War as an officer in the Italian artillery. Captured by the Austrians, Lampedusa managed to escape from a prison camp in Hungary and to make his way back to Italy. He remained in the national army until 1921, then spent the rest of his life traveling through Europe, reading and studying world literature, and trying to recoup the family fortune.
In 1932 Lampedusa married Alessandra Wolff, a Freudian psychiatrist and the daughter of a Latvian aristocrat; the couple were frequently separated because of his familial responsibilities and her career. Alessandra nonetheless had a marked effect on her husband’s future. After his family’s palace was bombed and looted by Allied troops during World War II, Lampedusa sunk into a deep depression for several years. His wife suggested he begin writing as a form of therapy, touching off an impressive outpouring. From 1955 until his death in 1957, Lampedusa wrote copiously, producing a historical novel, The Leopard, some short stories, and a collection of memoirs.
Rejected for publication during Lampedusa’s lifetime, The Leopard was finally published posthumously in 1958. It became an immediate popular success, as well as the object of heated critical debate. Conservatives attacked it for its decadence, while leftists dismissed it as the nostalgic ramblings of a dispossessed aristocrat. Yet The Leopard often impressed readers because of its elaborate style and its meticulous depiction of two worlds, one in decline, the other struggling to be born.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place
Sicily during the nineteenth century—an overview
For much of its existence, the island of Sicily, at the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula, has been dominated by one foreign power or another. A branch of the Spanish Bourbons ruled Naples and Sicily as a single entity from the mid-eighteenth century, but the family’s was deposed during the Italian campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte (1796-1814). By 1814 Napoleon had extended his dominion over most of the Italian peninsula, ruling it as a single kingdom. He was emperor of a France that had grown considerably because of his conquests, but Sardinia and Sicily escaped his grasp. In 1806 Ferdinand III, the Bourbon king at the time, fled to Sicily; that same year, the British established a garrison there, ostensibly to protect the king but also to prevent the island’s valuable sulfur deposits from seizure by the French.
During the Napoleonic period (1793-1815) secret societies flourished in Italy, especially in the South. Driven underground by She police, these groups met clandestinely to spread nationalist sympathy and express solidarity against the foreign invaders. The most famous of these societies was the carbonari (charcoal burners), so called because they would meet in caves around charcoal fires. The carbonari, who belonged mostly to the lower and middle classes, continued to meet during the 1820s and 1830s, after the restoration of Austrian and Spanish rule. As a movement they had no political agenda beyond their vague desire for political reforms and their dislike of foreign tyranny; consequently, their resistance efforts remained generalized and ineffective. However, other, more ambitious groups adopted their ideals. Giuseppe Mazzini, who had joined the carbonari in 1827, left them to found a new society. Young Italy, in 1831 at Marseilles, France. Mazzini’s movement advocated mass revolt and the use of guerrilla war tactics against foreign oppressors; the ultimate goal was to force the Austrians, the Spanish, and even the papacy out of power and to found a democratic republic. Many young Italians flocked to the cause, including Giuseppe Garibaldi and Francesco Crispi, who were to play pivotal roles in Italy’s final struggle for unification.
While under British administration, Sicilians became accustomed to a greater degree of independence. William Bentinck, a British general acting as virtual governor of Sicily, convened a parliament in June 1812. The parliament’s first actions were to abolish feudalism (many Sicilian nobles agreed to this in hopes of personal economic gain) and to draw up a liberal constitution. The constitution called for some innovative measures: the formation of a two-chamber parliament similar to that of the British, with a House of Peers and a House of Commons; a jury system; and the abolition of torture. While not all of the policies were adopted and some proved difficult to implement, the idea of liberal reform had at least been introduced to Sicily. This helps explain its reaction when Napoleon fell in 1814 and the Bourbons were restored to power after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). Sicily became one of the earliest and most active centers for the recruitment of liberal patriots to the cause—first of territorial independence from foreign powers and, ultimately, of unification of the peninsula.
The new Bourbon state, again consisting of Naples and Sicily, was known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Ruling from Naples as Ferdinand I, the restored king quickly established a more centralized, autocratic regime, abolishing the Sicilian flag and freedom of the press. It soon became clear that he would never call another parliament. While some Sicilians adapted to the new order, others resented it and hostility towards the Neapolitan government mounted, especially when the European economy underwent a general slump for the next 30 years. In southern Italy peasant farmers and large landowners alike suffered from this depression, which was compounded by government policies (price controls, export licenses, restrictive corn laws) to the point where both the upper and lower classes began to contemplate armed resistance to Bourbon rule. Many began to join secret societies of liberal patriots such as the Carboneria and Giuseppe Mazzini’s Giovine Italia (Young Italy).
The 1820s and 1830s witnessed several failed rebellions in the South but also the transformation of the secret societies into properly “national” forces, whose goals included the elimination of foreign rule as well as the unification of Italy. The latter phenomenon became associated with the nationalist movement for unification known as the Risorgimento (resurgence). The brewing conflict first came to a head in 1848 with a series of up-risings that started in Palermo (February) and swept through all of Italy. Although each rebellion ultimately ended in failure and the restoration of the status quo, the nationalists were not permanently crushed; some leading rebels, including Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, fled into exile, hoping to fight another day.
During the 1850s many Italians began to look to the Piedmont region—the northern Kingdom of Sardinia—for guidance. Governed by Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy and his formidable premier, Count Camillo di Cavour, Piedmont increasingly took the lead in the drive towards national unification. Despite the longstanding differences between the rural South and the industrialized North, Sicilians numbered among those who looked to the North. They began to feel that allying themselves with the Piedmontese would be more advantageous than continuing to chafe under Bourbon rule. The death of the ineffectual Ferdinand II in 1859 and the subsequent accession of his equally inadequate son, Francis II, further weakened the Bourbons’ hold over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Within a year, taking advantage of a Franco-Austrian conflict, Piedmont moved against Austria, raising the hopes of all patriots throughout the peninsula. But the main agent in this second war of independence in the South would not be the Royal Piedmontese army but volunteers led by the national hero par excellence, Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Garibaldi’s Sicilian campaign
The most pivotal historical event described in The Leopard is Giuseppe Garibaldi’s successful invasion of Sicily in 1860. Garibaldi, born in Nice in 1807, was a sailor who became a key figure of the Risorgimento. Flamboyant and charismatic, Garibaldi joined the Mazzinian secret society, Young Italy. After a series of failed nationalist insurrections, however, Garibaldi and other disciples of Mazzini were forced to flee abroad. For 12 years Garibaldi devoted himself to the cause of freedom in South America, leading patriotic revolts in Brazil and Uruguay.
In 1848 Garibaldi returned to his homeland to join the various uprisings sweeping through Italy. Sardinian and Milanese forces were attempting to overthrow Austrian rule, while Mazzini, also returned from exile, had led a successful revolt against the papacy and established a Roman Republic. Garibaldi lent both his skills as a guerrilla war leader and his volunteer army to the cause, but the two campaigns—against the Austrians and the pope—ended in failure, with the Austrians still in power and the pope restored to his position. Garibaldi, who was again forced to flee into exile, took refuge in the United States for a time and then moved on to Peru before returning to Italy.
At the end of the 1850s Garibaldi was again called into service for Italy. This time rebellion erupted in the South; in October 1859, Francesco Crispi, another Mazzini disciple, led a band of Sicilian insurgents against the Spanish Bourbons, who were weakened by the death of King Ferdinand II. Although that attempt failed, the rebels did not disband, mounting another insurrection in Palermo in April 1860 in conjunction with the Piedmontese move against Austria. When that revolt was also quelled, Crispi wrote to Garibaldi, now living quietly on the island of Caprera, north of Sardinia, and asked for his assistance. Garibaldi responded with alacrity; recruiting over a thousand volunteers (known as “Red Shirts” from the uniform they wore and that Garibaldi had adopted in his Latin American campaigns) for a daring expedition that would have brought them by boat from Genoa to Sicily to liberate the whole South from Bourbon rule. Though concerned about the liberal-republican credo of the Garibaldini, Cavour and Victor Emmanuel decided to allow the expedition to take place and got the British fleet in the Mediterranean to agree to let Garibaldi’s boats pass undisturbed. Thus backed, Garibaldi set sail with his “thousand” for Sicily in May 1860.
Garibaldi’s forces landed at Marsala in western Sicily. They advanced without opposition until they encountered and defeated a larger Bourbon army at Calatafimi on May 15, 1860. Proclaiming himself “dictator of Sicily,” Garibaldi attracted more followers to his cause by promising land grants to all who fought for him. The Red Shirts went on to take Palermo (the Bourbon capital of Sicily) and Messina (the last Bourbon stronghold) and then crossed the Straits of Messina to the Italian mainland. From there, Garibaldi’s army proceeded to Naples, defeating Bourbon troops at the River Volturno. Francis II, the new, young Bourbon king, fled to Gaeta, and the rebel forces occupied Naples. Matching the military success of the Piedmontese against Austrian forces in the North, Garibaldi had thus “liberated” the South. He now threatened to march north to free Central Italy from papal authority. At this point, however, politics took precedence over military matters.
Apprehensive over Garibaldi’s astounding success, Cavour had already ordered Piedmontese troops south. He also had engineered the holding of plebiscites, in which Central Italians voted to annex their separate territories to Piedmont. The newly enlarged Piedmontese state would become the Kingdom of Italy under the Savoy monarchy. Meanwhile, in the South, Garibaldi’s forces attacked a much larger Bourbon army, emerging victorious but with heavy losses. Lacking the strength to hold Naples on their own or to advance on Rome, the Garibaldi forces offered no resistance when they met the Piedmontese army just south of Rome. Instead, Garibaldi acknowledged the authority of Victor Emmanuel, acquiesced to the royal demand that his forces fight under the Piedmontese, and turned over Naples and Sicily to the king in a characteristically dramatic gesture.
In The Leopard, Don Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi, initially throws in his lot with Garibaldi. However, the ambitious, opportunistic young man is quick to abandon his rebel affiliations once Victor Emmanuel has taken command of the South. Tancredi explains to his uncle: “We were [Garibaldini] once and now that’s over! Cavriaghi and I, thanks be to God, are officers in the regular army of His Majesty, King of Sardinia for another few months, and shortly to be of Italy. When Garibaldi’s army broke up we had the choice: to go home or stay in the King’s army. He and I and a lot of others went into the real army. We couldn’t stand that rabble long, could we, Cavriaghi?” (Lampedusa, The Leopard, p. 123).
The Sicilian aristocracy
One idiosyncratic feature of Sicilian society is its high incidence of aristocratic titles. Landowners frequently sought and received elevation to the nobility, even purchasing their way up the ladder of noble ranking. The trend towards ennoblement seems to have begun in the fifteenth century when the Aragonese King Alfonso (nicknamed “The Magnanimous”) created the first marquis not of royal blood. By 1621 the number of titled landowners in Sicily had more than doubled that of 60 years before; the process accelerated, resulting in the creation of 102 princedoms in Sicily by century’s end, when the total population of the island was just one million (Finley, Smith, and Duggan, p. 87).
The ranks of the aristocracy continued to swell; by the end of the eighteenth century, there were 142 princes, 788 marquises, and 1,500 dukes and barons in Sicily. Ironically, despite their exalted rank, most of these nobles were quite poor, some only slightly better off than the peasants who worked their land. Within the aristocracy itself, there was considerable diversity; their members included those whose titles dated from centuries back, newcomers who had just achieved their rank, some who were cultured and cosmopolitan, and others who were illiterate, provincial, and unable to afford a grand lifestyle in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. Aristocratic temperaments and achievements were likewise varied: there were nobles who took their responsibilities as landowners seriously, treated their subjects with benevolence, and patronized the arts, and others who neglected their lands and carelessly spent huge sums of money to maintain their lavish way of life.
People elsewhere generally held the Sicilian aristocracy in low regard. During the Risorgimento—which is when The Leopard takes place—the British consul in Palermo described the Sicilian aristocrats as leading “idle, objectless lives” and complained that only two “of the nobles are men of fortune, none of them are men of energy, and none enjoy the public confidence” (Gilmour, p. 12). This scathing indictment is reflected to some degree in The Leopard: Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, heads an ancient family’s that has squandered its wealth over several generations. Don Fabrizio, himself of indolent disposition, watches “the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it” (The Leopard, p. 27). However, the Prince does attempt to look after his people, advising them to comply, at least ostensibly, with the changes wrought by unification.
The Novel in Focus
The Leopard, a reference to the Salinas’s ancestral coat-of-arms, consists of eight episodic chapters, most of them set in the early 1860s. The chapters detail the life and death of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina. Physically powerful but emotionally passive, Don Fabrizio engages in aristocratic pastimes like hunting and astronomy, presides with benign indifference over his large family’s, visits his mistress, and observes the changes sweeping through Italy in the wake of national unification, remaining fundamentally untouched himself.
Introduction to the Prince. The story begins in May 1860, on a typical day in Don Fabrizio’s household. After the daily recital of the rosary, the Prince wanders through his Palermo palace—handsomely decorated with expensive artworks—walks in the garden with his favorite dog, Bendico, and reflects upon the current state of the country. Although he has mostly refrained from political involvement, preferring to lead an untroubled existence in the country, Don Fabrizio senses the winds of change. Military forces have been preparing to repel invaders, and recently, a government soldier was found dead in the Prince’s garden.
Despite his allegiance to the Bourbons who rule the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Don Fabrizio senses that their regime is crumbling, especially now that the rebel Giuseppe Garibaldi is attracting followers. The Prince’s penniless but beloved nephew, Tancredi Falconeri, decides to join Garibaldi, and in a moment of indulgence, Don Fabrizio gives the young man a roll of gold pieces before the latter’s departure for the hills. Although the Prince realizes that he is expected to choose a side in the brewing conflict, he questions whether revolution will truly change an ingrained way of life and ultimately opts to do nothing. As the events of the Risorgimento gain momentum, the Prince carries on as before.
Donnafugata. The second chapter takes its name from the estate and town in the Sicilian hinterlands where Don Fabrizio and his family’s go in August 1860. By this time, Garibaldi and his followers have triumphed over the Bourbon forces and a new king, Victor Emmanuel II, has assumed power over most of Italy. Don Fabrizio’s gift to Tancredi, now a captain under Garibaldi’s command, has had the unexpected benefit of making the Prince appear to be a supporter of unification. Consequently, he and his family’s are treated leniently by the new regime. Comfortably settled at Donnafugata, Don Fabrizio meets the nouveau-riche mayor, Don Calogero Sedara, who has recently managed to amass a fortune, purchase a property of his own, and gain considerable local influence. Despite being slightly repelled by the mayor’s origins, the Prince invites Don Calogero and his beautiful daughter, Angelica, to dine with the family’s.
Don Calogero arrives for dinner in ill-fitting evening clothes, but Angelica’s beauty compensates for her father’s gaucherie. A visiting Tancredi flirts with her, to the dismay of the Prince’s own daughter, Concetta, who is in love with her dashing cousin. After Tancredi tells a naughty anecdote from his store of military adventures, Concetta snubs him at dinner and during a family’s visit to the Convent of the Holy Ghost the following day. Undeterred, Tancredi steals some peaches from his uncle’s orchard and gains admittance to the convent under the guise of bringing a gift.
THE VOICE OF THE SOUTHERNERS?
During the earliest stages of unification, to gauge the popular opinion of annexation of a region by the Piedmont, Cavour relied upon plebiscites, which polled the individual residents of the given region, In October 1860 plebiscites were held in Naples, Sicily, Umbria, and the Marches; voters were asked to respond with “yes” or “no” to the proposal of becoming part of a new and indivisible nation, with Victor Emmanuel as their constitutional king. The final results—all of which favored unification—were recorded as follows; Sicily, 432,053 to 667; Naples, 1,302,064 to 10,312; the Marches, 133,072 to 1,212; Umbria, 99,628 to 380 (Holt, p, 255). But while Cavour, safely distant from the South, might have rejoiced at the outcome, southerners viewed it with some skepticism. Many voted for unification simply because nothing better was being offered. Also some of the elections were probably rigged, the boxes stuffed with “yes” votes by ambitious regional politicians hoping to curry favor with the new regime. In The leopard, Lampedusa describes just such an occurrence. Knowing that several of his subjects voted against unification, he listens with cynicism to the recorded tally: “Voters, 515: Voting, 512; Yes, 512; No, zero” (The Leopard, p. 96).
The Troubles of Don Fabrizio. The action of the next chapter unfolds in October 1860, not long after the popular vote for unification. Aware of the political climate, the Prince advised his subjects to vote “yes,” knowing that several would vote “no.” In any case it made no difference since the mayor stuffed the ballot box with votes for unification. Meanwhile, the opportunistic Tancredi, now in King Victor Emmanuel’s Piedmontese army, seeks to recoup his family’s fortunes by proposing marriage to Angelica. He asks Don Fabrizio to approach Don Calogero on his behalf. Reluctantly, despite family’s opposition and the realization that his own daughter loves Tancredi, the Prince obliges. Throughout his interview with Don Calogero, Don Fabrizio is painfully conscious of the difference in their stations and of the knowledge that, once, the men of his proud family’s would have simply bedded rather than wedded girls in Angelica’s position. Nonetheless, the Prince and Don Calogero come to terms, and a handsome settlement of money and property is bestowed upon the young couple.
Love at Donnafugata. The fourth chapter unfolds a month later and depicts the budding romance between Tancredi and Angelica when she visits the Salina family’s. Both lovers are calculating people and aware of the advantages each can gain from their future marriage; nonetheless, they enjoy some lighthearted, romantic moments together as they explore the various deserted rooms and forgotten chambers of the palace. Ironically, they are never to be as happy again once they are married. Meanwhile, Count Carlo Cavriaghi, Tancredi’s friend and fellow officer, tries in vain to woo Concetta, who is still in love with Tancredi. And the Prince receives a visit from Cavaliere Aimone Chevalley di Monterzuolo, who asks him to accept a post as senator in the new Kingdom of Italy. Don Fabrizio declines on the grounds that being a relic of the old order, he would feel uncomfortable in the new. He recommends Don Calogero for the position instead, then subjects the confused Chevalley to a lengthy explanation of the nature of Sicilians, who are resistant to change, even for the better, and who would rather endure misery and squalor than acknowledge their imperfections: “In Sicily it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all. We are old, Chevalley, very old … for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony. I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault. But even so we’re worn out and exhausted” (The Leopard, p. 142). Chevalley and the Prince take their leave of each other, the former disturbed, the latter depressed by the encounter.
Father Pirrone Pays a Visit Set in February 1861, the fifth chapter deals with the Prince’s chaplain, Father Pirrone, who has returned to his birthplace—the hamlet of San Cono—on the fifteenth anniversary of his father’s death. While visiting his relatives, he learns that one of his nieces has become pregnant out of wedlock by the son of an estranged cousin. Thanks to some shrewd haggling on Father Pirrone’s part, suitable financial terms are set up and the young couple becomes engaged. The chaplain cannot help being reminded of the arrangement between Tancredi and Angelica, which is just as calculated despite the higher status of the “lovers.”
A Ball. Chapter 6 jumps ahead to November 1862 as the Salina family’s attends a grand party at the Palazzo Ponteleone in Palermo. Tancredi and Angelica also attend, as does Don Calogero. Despite her humble origins, Angelica is soon recognized as the most beautiful woman there. All is not well, however. Throughout the ball, Don Fabrizio feels restless and melancholy, aware that the world he knows is fading away and that he himself has grown weary of life. Having sent the rest of the family’s back in the carriage, he walks home alone, drawing comfort from the immutable stars in the heavens.
Death of a Prince. The seventh chapter leaps to July 1883 and Don Fabrizio’s final days. Having suffered a near-fatal stroke at the end of a long journey to Palermo, the bedridden Prince reflects upon those who have predeceased him, including his pious wife, Stella, and eldest son, Paolo. His surviving kin, including Tancredi and Angelica, keep vigil at his bedside; death finally arrives in the form of a beautiful woman dressed for a railway journey.
Relics. The last chapter takes place in May 1910. By this time, Tancredi too has died, though the widowed Angelica keeps in close contact with his family’s. Don Fabrizio’s daughters Carolina, Concetta, and Caterina, remain unmarried in the family’s villa, surrounded by various mementos and supposed holy relics. One day a representative of the Church visits the villa and announces that all but five of the relics in the chapel are worthless as objects of devotion, leaving the sisters disillusioned and disappointed. Concetta suffers an added blow when she learns from an old acquaintance that Tancredi may have returned her affections, but her offended pride drove him into Angelica’s arms instead. Wishing to sever ties with the past, Concetta orders that the stuffed carcass of Bendico, her father’s dog be thrown upon the rubbish heap: “A few minutes later what remained of Bendico was flung into a corner of the yard visited every day by the dustman. During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust” (The Leopard, p. 210).
A family’s decline
Many critics have commented that death and dying are evoked from the very first line of The Leopard, which is taken from the daily reading of the rosary: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae,” meaning “Now and in the hour of our death” (The Leopard, p. 25). Images of death and decay permeate the novel: the mortally wounded government soldier who dies in the Prince’s garden, the rabbit killed during the Prince’s hunt, the Prince’s own lingering demise in a hotel room, and even the stuffed corpse of the Prince’s favorite dog, thrown on the rubbish heap at the end of the novel. These images underscore its major paradox: the birth of a new world necessitates the death of the old.
Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, represents the old, dying world, and to his credit recognizes that change is inevitable, inescapable, and, in some instances, even desirable. His family best hope for survival hinges upon its ability to cooperate with whatever regime emerges victorious. Consequently, he offers no opposition to Garibaldi’s rebel forces, persuades his subjects to vote for national unification in the plebiscite, and supports a marriage between his favorite nephew and the daughter of a ruthless, self-made man, even at his own daughter’s expense.
However, the Prince does not rejoice at these changes; rather, he accepts them as a necessary evil. Contemplating the future, he reflects, “We [the aristocrats] were The Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our places will be little jackals, hyenas” (The Leopard, p. 148). Likewise, he is ambivalent about the new order taking shape, an order in which he senses he and his kind will play no part: “Italy was born on that sullen night at Donnafugata, born right there in that forgotten little town, just as in the sloth of Palermo or the clamor of Naples…. And yet this persistent disquiet of his must mean something … he had a feeling that something, someone, had died” (The Leopard, p. 97). Years later, on his deathbed, the Prince acknowledges the end of his world: “He had said that the Salina would always remain the Salina. He had been wrong. The last Salina was himself. That fellow Garibaldi, that bearded Vulcan, had won after all” (The Leopard, p. 190).
The semi-autobiographical element of The Leopard enhances the pathos of an already poignant story. Lampedusa drew not only upon his family present but also upon its past. Although the Tomasi had been named princes of Lampedusa in 1667, their dynasty continually suffered from the threat of extinction. For several generations posterity depended upon the survival of a single child, mainly because most Tomasi opted for the religious life. Then, in 1812, the abolition of feudalism in Sicily dealt a severe financial blow to the family’s, which adapted to the new economic situation with only limited success. Eventually, the Tomasi had to sell off much of their land, including the island of Lampedusa itself (one of the Pelagian Islands south of Sicily purchased by the Neapolitan king Ferdinand II for 12,000 ducats in 1840), to pay their mounting debts. Continued extravagance, financial mismanagement, and inheritance squabbles further drained the coffers, and by the time the last prince was born, little remained of the Lampedusa fortune except the family’s estates, the most important of which—the palace at Palermo—was destroyed during World War II. Even more than his fictional hero, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was the last of his line; his own sense of loss and displacement are reflected in the Prince, a figure who thus elicits sympathy from modern readers.
Sources and literary context
Although most of the action in The Leopard takes place long before his birth, Lampedusa drew largely upon his experiences as the scion of an aristocratic Sicilian family’s whose fortunes were in decline. Don Fabrizio Corbera, the novel’s protagonist, was based mainly upon Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, Don Giulio Maria Fabrizio, a distinguished amateur astronomer who discovered two asteroids (named “Palma” and “Lampedusa”) and sat in the Sicilian Chamber of Peers in 1848. Other characters, such as Don Fabrizio’s opportunistic nephew Tancredi, were composites of historical personages whom Lampedusa had come across in studying world literature and history. Lampedusa’s memories of Sicily and his family stately residences provide much of the atmosphere in The Leopard.
While Lampedusa’s family’s history supplied the novel’s subject matter, various European writers influenced its style. A voracious reader, Lampedusa admired the works of William Shakespeare, Lawrence Sterne, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, and Stendhal (HenriMarie Beyle). Stendhal was a particular favorite and probably the foremost literary model for The Leopard. As Stendhal had done in such works as The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black, Lampedusa fused historical drama with his own personal philosophy in relation to that drama.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written
Italy after World War II
Dramatic changes took place in Italy after World War II. On April 25, 1945, a joint effort, an Allied military offensive along with a popular insurrection led by the anti-Fascist Resistance, put an end to 23 years of Fascist regime and two years of Nazi-Fascist occupation of the Italian North. Italy now faced not only the difficult task of reconstruction but also that of national reconciliation after the two years of civil war between anti-Fascist partisans and Nazi-Fascists. The division was made plain by the referendum held in 1946, in which Italian voters split down the middle, choosing by a very narrow margin to abandon the monarchy in favor of a republic.
Political parties, forbidden to exist under Fascist rule, were reestablished in Italy in the postwar period. These parties shared a new anti-Fascist militancy, but beneath the surface, there simmered divisiveness, a unique political culture tied to the Cold War competition between democracy and communism that had started to engulf Europe. Gathering strength from its wartime leadership in the Resistance movement, Italy’s Communist Party emerged as one of the strongest Communist parties in the West; in Italy it rivaled the most powerful Catholic party, the Christian Democrats. For the next 40 years the Christian Democratic Party would rule alone or in coalition with other parties, never allowing the Communists a chance to dominate. Yet, it would also adopt the most advanced program of industrial nationalization and social welfare in southern Europe.
During the first postwar decade, Italy strove to rebuild its economy and take its place in modern Europe, joining the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (1948), the European Coal and Steel Community (1951), and the European Economic Community (1957). Longstanding domestic problems were tackled as well, such as land reform in the impoverished agricultural South. After 1948 state institutions were set up to oversee land redistribution. Also the government planned to provide vital services such as roads and irrigation at public expense. Two years later, it launched the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Fund for the South) in 1950, investing large sums of money in the region to stimulate its economy and finance public works projects. These reforms were not an unqualified success, however; some wily landowners found ways around the new distribution laws and some of the new smallholdings granted to peasant farmers suffered from poor soil. Worst of all, the Cassa’s resources often fell into the hands of such criminal organizations as the Mafia, whose leaders appropriated the funds to strengthen their ties with major political parties.
Ultimately, many frustrated southerners resolved their situations by migrating to the northern cities in search of work. During the 1950s and 1960s more than 9 million Italians migrated to another part of the country. Although social and economic problems would erupt again in the late 1960s, the influx of cheap labor contributed to an economic boom in the 1950s. The decade saw Italy nearly double its industrial output, producing massive quantities of automobiles, airplanes, ships, office machines, electricity, and so forth. Between 1950 and 1958 Italy’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 5.3 per cent, more than that of Great Britain, France, and the United States, and then expanded further to 6.6 per cent over the next five years (Killinger, p. 163). Although Lampedusa makes no reference to contemporary events in The Leopard, his writing of the novel coincided with Italy’s “economic miracle.” Indeed, witnessing the dramatic transformation of much of Italy while the South remained virtually unaltered may have influenced his depiction of how Don Fabrizio’s fiefdom remained more or less untouched in the midst of world-changing events.
Published a year after Lampedusa’s death, The Leopard became an enormous popular success, first in Italy, then in Europe. Critics, however, were sharply divided on the novel’s merit. Carlo Bo, who wrote the novel’s first review for La Stampa, was favorably impressed; a few years later, he recalled, “I opened [The Leopard] with the certainty that by the fiftieth page I would have nothing more to do with it, but it was not like that. I needed only a few pages … to understand that this Sicilian gentleman was a real writer” (Bo in Gilmour, p. 185). Other well-regarded literary figures in Italy were similarly enthusiastic, including Eugenio Montale, Geno Pampaloni, and Luigi Barzini.
But The Leopard had its detractors as well: Roman Catholics complained about the novel’s pessimism; the literary left disdained the story as traditional rather than avant-garde; Marxists attacked Lampedusa’s view of history; and Sicilian apologists objected to Lampedusa’s portrayal of the Sicilian character as violent and irrational.
Despite its mixed critical response in Italy, The Leopard met with an enthusiastic reception abroad, most notably in France and England. Many critics have praised the novel for its vivid depiction of a dying social order as revealed by an insider. In the journal Les Lettres française, the French Marxist writer Louis Aragon called The Leopard “one of the great novels of this century, one of the great novels of all time” (Aragon in Pallotta, p. 370). Aragon also rejected the charge that The Leopard was right-wing and reactionary, contending that Lampedusa was really offering an incisive critique of the ruling class to which he had belonged. British critics were similarly enthusiastic. Roy Perrott of The Guardian praised the novel’s “brilliant ironic sparkle” and the vividness of the characters, especially “the Prince [who] emerges as a classic picture of the man who draws his vitality from profound disillusion” (Perrott in Davison, p. 778). Finally, the reviewer from the Times Literary Supplement expressed astonishment that The Leopard was a first novel, admired Lampedusa’s depiction of character and setting, and concluded, “This is a book which should be read by everyone who is interested in Italy, or in the nineteenth century, or indeed in the conduct of the human race” (Times Literary Supplement in Davison, p. 779).
—Pamela S. Loy
For More Information
Davison, Dorothy P., ed. Book Review Digest. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1961.
Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Finley, M. I., Denis Mack Smith, and Christopher Duggan. A History of Sicily. New York: Viking, 1987.
Gatt-Rutter, John. Writers and Politics in Modern Italy. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978.
Gilmour, David. The Last Leopard. New York: Pantheon, 1988.
Holt, Edgar. The Making of Italy 1815-1870. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Killinger, Charles L. The History of Italy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2002.
Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.
Pallotta, Augustus, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 177. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
Poupard, Dennis, and James E. Person, Jr., eds. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984.
Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe. The Leopard. Trans. Archibald Colquhon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.