Home life of a predator – scenes from the Leopard’s lair
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – A Biography Through Images
Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Alma Books, Richmond (Surrey), 2013, 125 pp, £25
It must be at times frustrating to be a considerable academic and author in one’s own right, yet to be known chiefly because of your connection to someone even more eminent. Palermo University musicologist Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi has written several well-regarded books on musical subjects – but beyond the world of musicology he is rather better known as the adopted son of the author of The Leopard, and the executor of his estate. But if Prof. Tomasi is frustrated at thus playing second fiddle, he certainly does not let it show in his latest erudite and affectionate contribution to Leopardiana. (1)
The literary big cat who was his father was a modest and introverted man, for much of his later life padding unobtrusively between book-lined rooms and street-corner café and back again, and one experiences his complex personality mostly by proxy, as he projects himself through the novel’s protagonist Don Fabrizio. It is therefore extremely satisfying to have this rich pictorial archive showing the author at all stages of his life, family members long past and contemporaneous, friends, 19th century documents about forebears, his correspondence, cover art from early editions of the novel, and the places that meant so much to him, whose fates at the ungentle hands of the 20th century so tinged his outlook. The pictures are not of a high technical or artistic standard, but they are exceedingly piquant; it is a visual vade-mecum, allowing those who love the book but don’t know the author (or Sicily) as well as they would like to connect more conveniently with the shy and sardonic stylist.
There is a touching fragility to many of the images, whether naive 17th century oils, stiff daguerrotypes, or scratched 1920s photos, all of them freezing a deeply self-conscious person in their place and patrimony – a sense that this curling collection has been kept together against heavy odds, and cherished by the last in the line the more loyally as his own light flickered. Indeed, two of the photos used in the book were rescued in the 1980s from the bombed ruins of the Palazzo Lampedusa by Lampedusa’s biographer David Gilmour (who has contributed a Foreword to the present volume). The images encapsulate the downwards trajectory of the leap, from medieval eminence via Counter-Reformation reverence to slightly shabby gentility as the estates ebbed away, leaving little but oddments of furniture and the right to use resonant if Ruritanian titles on one’s letterhead. (At least the Prince was spared the melancholy knowledge that his ancestral island is now best known to the non-reading world as a jumping-off point for Africans seeking illegal ingress into Europe, sometimes drowning in the attempt.)
Tomasi guides the reader ably through the tangled skeins of the family’s history, and that of the island, and offers interesting insights into how the book was regarded by post-war opinion-formers. There are invaluable lists of Leopard editions, relevant biographies and essays that can elucidate many aspects of the book, the author, and their context. Some of the segments end abruptly, but then this is an essentially informal work, almost like a family scrapbook, or screen of decoupage.
Into this must-own item of Leopard incunabula, the author has inserted an understated sort of agenda – he does not want us to see his adoptive father as merely conservative -defeatist. Tomasi’s own views are of the Left, and so it must pain him that the kindly and cultivated man he knew could never join in his own progressivism. He claims unspecified “politicians” co-opted the book in order to pull its claws – its implied criticism of the entire Italian settlement, now as well as then – and this is entirely believable, given Italy’s existential insecurity. He also asserts that most commentators have ignored or downplayed Lampedusa’s humour, and his
…heartfelt urging of the new generation to throw off provinciality and insularity, his approval of great purges – such as had led him to assert that Louis XVI’s head was the best-cut-off head in Europe
Lampedusa was, he adds,
…a most fortunate artist and an unfortunate teacher
This seems a little like wishful thinking. Lampedusa was undoubtedly open to all of European culture, as evidenced by his greedy reading, travels in interwar Europe and marriage to a Latvian – his Anglophilia was especially pronounced – but this did not prevent him from having greater affinity with his own upper-class, Sicilian, Italic, Catholic and Mediterranean sub-set of that civilization. As for his novel being used by nameless politicians to undermine the idea of Italy and justify stagnation, if true it is the fault of those politicians rather than the artist – who was only adding a soupçon of scepticism to cool a highly-seasoned historical dish. Besides, perhaps the Italian state really is unworthy of preservation, and perhaps ‘progress’ really is rather meaningless. While Lampedusa may well have applauded the decapitation of the unlucky king (2), there is a great difference between admiring something in the abstract, and trying to apply such admiration to real life.
One suspects that the Prince would have smiled indulgently at his adopted son’s well-meant attempts to rescue him from the despised ‘wrong side of history’. He cannot now pronounce on these matters in person, but it is testament to his novel’s greatness and greenness that almost fifty years after publication it is still a fought-over frontline between cultural condottiere, the last of the Leopards still a lurking presence on the island that made him, and which he made so much his own.
1. I reviewed Prof. Tomasi’s edited Letters from London and Europe for the American journal Chronicles in 2010, and reproduce that review here. For those who may be unfamiliar with the novel, I wrote a summation in an earlier Quarterly Review, and reproduce that article here
2. I cannot locate this reference, but it is probably contained in his so far largely untranslated Lectures on Literature