The “Leopard”, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, was written by a Sicilian aristocrat who was extremely erudite, pensive, impulsive, and sensitive. One critic says that his words from his novel can be memorized as poetry.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1952), the 11th Prince of Lampedusa, was descended on his father’s side from one of the most powerfully important families of Sicily, the Dukes of Palma, and on his mother’s side from Beatrice Tasca di Cuto.
He was highly educated in literature, and he spoke and read several languages, actually giving evening seminars at his palazzo on English writers, in English. Lampedusa had an intense literary relationship with his poet cousin Lucio Piccolo with whom he often spent happy holidays discussing the arts and literature.
Lampedusa married Alexandra (Licy) Wolff von Stomersee, a Baltic-German noblewoman of Lativia. She was a dedicated exponent of Freudian psychoanalysis. In fact, Licy was one of the first woman psychoanalysts in Italy. The couple lived all their lives in Palermo with their beloved dogs. They hardly ever traveled without them. What at first appears as a sedate, retiring life of the Prince was scarcely that.
Lampedusa’s family palace was destroyed during WWII, as he said, by an Amercian bomb made in Pittsburgh! It was in response to this loss that Prince Lampedusa embarked upon writing The Leopard, Il Gattopardo, in 1954 as a way of self healing and retrieval.
No one knows for sure what “gattopardo” means; yes, leopard, but probably a native Italian, wild specie that was hunted to extinction—an ironically fitting symbol for the Prince himself and the main character of the novel.
Don Fabrizio Corbera enters his garden at the beginning of the novel, a lovely and disquieting image of his demise and that of what is now happening to Sicily during the Risorgimento, the Unification. The garden is, perhaps, obscenely rich with the scents of flowers, “The roses . . . he had himself brought from Paris had degenerated ; . . .enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burnt by apocalyptic Julys.” And, recently a dead national sharpshooter had been found under a lemon tree as a result of his “certain sweetish odours” as he lay dead and decomposing. The Leopards’s garden is the essential state of his world; opulent, aristocratic, cultured, and rapidly disintegrating.
The Sicilians do not want their world to change again. Thus Tancredi says to his uncle the Prince, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” For countless generations invasive outsiders have sought to bring Sicilians an “improved” world only to the detriment and resentment of the Sicilians themselves.
Through Don Fabrizio’s words, Lampedusa expresses the most acerbic, sarcastic words of derision that I have ever read. He says that the aristocrats were once leopards and lions; after the Risorgimento some of us might still be leopards, but most will be “sciacalle e pecore, continueremo a crede ci il sale della terra.” All will be leveled; everybody will have a little something, but no one will have anything special. This apercu is similar to a view expressed by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind.
The best biography of Lampedusa is that of David Gilmour who took the trouble to explore the ruins of the old, bombed out palazzo late at night, illegally I might add. And, do not forget Visconti’s “Il Gattopardo” starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale. Although excellent, I would like to see a new production of it.
We made our journey-pilgrimage to 28 Via Butera in Palermo, to The Prince’s present day palazzo. It is ensconced in the historically deep center of old Palermo, right next to the Tyherrenian Sea and the Cala, the ancient Phoenican seaport, Panormas. It is an imposingly magnificent residence, dignified and aging.
I hesitated for a moment as I respectfully knocked the heavy bronze ring affixed to the tall, polished wooden doors—a kindly keeper answered. He was so very well spoken and told us that if we telephoned Gioacchino, he would gladly show us the interior of the palace. Che bella cortesia! Gioacchino is the Prince’s adopted son and a talented, respected leader of the artistic and music world in Italy.
28 Via Butera and the environs of the palazzo are being restored into elegant vacation apartments and such. But the palazzo itself, Porta Felice, and the ancient Cala still resonate the power of Prince’s world. The old feelings are yet there.