Home life of a predator – scenes from the Leopard’s lair

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




The Last Leopard – change and permanence in a haunted landscape

The Last Leopard – change and permanence in a haunted landscape

The Last Leopard– A Life of Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa

David Gilmour, Eland, London, 2007, pb, 27pps, £12.99

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was the last hereditary Prince of Lampedusa, a barren, seven-mile long island situated between Malta and the African coast but belonging to Italy – the last in a line of nobility extending back into Roman and Byzantine myth, surfacing clearly in Tuscany in the 12th century and one branch gradually migrating southwards, until it became established in Sicily in the late 16th century as barons of Montechiaro, dukes of Palma and princes of Lampedusa.

Over the sun-heavy centuries, the Sicilian Tomasis were noted consistently for their gloomy religious devotion, unworldliness and distaste for ostentation, except a certain pride in the family name and its crest of a rampant leopard. So strong was their religious devotion that the family almost became extinct many times, with many of its younger members opting to become priests or nuns (although Lampedusa’s great-grandfather was sufficiently irreligious to change the date of Easter one year when it was inconvenient for his household, and Giuseppe was an agnostic). So impractical were they that after the abolition of feudalism in 1812, successive Tomasi generations lived in increasingly straitened circumstances, without even its most intelligent representatives drawing the obvious conclusions and trying to earn some money.

But it is probably just as well that the last Lampedusa was as impractical as his forebears, because otherwise we might never have had The Leopard, his magnificent fictional evocation of the last days of the 630 year old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, rapidly being absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy, as nationalism, egalitarianism and industrialism swept down from northern Europe, heralded by Garibaldi’s red-shirted democrats, the unsettling ideas accompanied by shabby compromises and shabbier functionaries. “We were the leopards, the lions”, says the novel’s chief protagonist, Don Fabrizio Salina.

Those who’ll take our places will be little jackals, hyenas.

The book was made into a deservedly famous 1963 film by Luchino Visconti, whose professed Marxism did not preclude strong sympathy for history’s Salinas, those who are left behind while great tides swirl around them. This film is now probably more often viewed than the book is read – yet it is a worthy introduction to Lampedusa’s evergreen book.

This biography, which is as deftly written, in its way, as The Leopard itself, and covers all the hoped-for ground thoroughly, will also help us to remember the perennial question of how sensitive and cultured men and women can cope (or fail to cope) with coarser times. In David Gilmour, Lampedusa has the elegant and cultivated biographer he deserves. Gilmour has teased out a rich and compelling life from the sparse details of the largely uneventful existence of a very private man, unearthing forgotten facts as he once literally unearthed family belongings and correspondence from the never-cleared ruins of the Palazzo Lampedusa as late as 1985.

After army service and some travel, for most of the rest of his life Lampedusa was of retiring disposition, spending his days reading in a Palermo café, and his evenings reading to or being read to by his Latvian princess wife, the distantly fond couple from opposite ends of Europe communicating morsels of their common civilization in a variety of languages. In conversation with other intellectuals, the short man with protuberant eyes tended to be quiet and self-effacing. During his life, he published merely a few articles in an obscure literary journal, and the MS of The Leopard was refused publication just a few days before he died, to his obvious chagrin.

Lampedusa was a devotee of Keats, and disliked the old Quarterly Review for what he called its “angelcide” of the poet. Yet he was also a strong admirer of Stendhal and Jane Austen, because of their lack of demonstrativeness and magra (lean) language, and sought to model his writing on their examples. Thankfully, he found his own style instead, and gave us a richly satisfying and inexpressibly Sicilian book that manages to be both classical and elegiac, that evokes a whole continent of satyrs cavorting with saints, manicured landscapes of urns and ha-has, coats-of- arms carved centuries ago into classical cornices, the smell of leather-bound books, men in tweeds and women in dresses, and panting spaniels lying under dolphin-ended marble benches in lost, sunlit gardens. He succeeded in his aim of being “more implicit than explicit”, as Gilmour puts it – and pulling aside a dust-heavy curtain to reveal a freeze-framed universe and a cynical conservative sensibility through scintillating dialogue and tightly-controlled descriptive details.

Upon publication in 1958, The Leopard was greeted with hostility by two usually differing camps – the Catholic church, which disliked its religious scepticism, and those newly rampant beasts in the Italian bestiary, the Marxist left, who disliked the author’s family background, real or imagined political views and The Leopard’s lack of “commitment”. Lampedusa, opines Gilmour, was always

…too sceptical and too disillusioned to be a genuine democrat or a liberal

– at least in the Italian context (he admired the British political system, but thought such a system could never work in a country which so loved the grandiloquence of opera).

But Lampedusa had many influential defenders, including big Italian guns like Luigi Barzini and Giorgio Bassani (whose 1962 Garden of the Finzi-Continis is also about mortality and the mercilessness of modernity). In any case, Lampedusa was probably destined to be, as Pietro Cetati put it in Le Monde earlier this year,

…le prince du crépuscule né dans un monde a l’agonie.

Quite apart from the family tendency towards melancholia, Lampedusa had a pervasive cynicism which made him suspect hidden motives in human actions, an abiding sense of personal failure and a deep well of loneliness. Much of his childhood was spent playing alone in the vast Palazzo Lampedusa in Palermo,

…a real kingdom for a boy alone, a kingdom either empty or sparsely populated by figures uniformly well-disposed

as he would recall. He lived in the house – in the same bedroom – until it was finally destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 (he refused to speak for three days after it was destroyed).

Beyond the gates of the atmospheric Palazzo, where every room told a family story, was an area “crawling with hovels and wretchedness”, and the whole seething expanse of Palermo, with its potholed streets lined with scabrous townhouses, and blackened churches with Norman mosaics and baroque cartouches supported by leaping skeletons, its puppet theatres where Rolando still fought every night at Roncesvalles, and below street level, its Capuchin catacombs, where slack- jawed, rotting little girls in rotting communion dresses holding rotting posies line the walls beside their mummified mothers, and military uniforms and civic sashes fade into sere and colourless obscurity below eye-sockets that once flashed with intelligence (as Lampedusa’s eyes look warily out at us from the photographs in Gilmour’s book). As Lampedusa’s cousin Fulco di Verdura once wrote,

Death is at home in Sicily…[Sicilians are familiar] with the idea of death from early childhood.

And beyond Palermo, there was the whole time- and weather-blasted expanse of Sicily, where there were other dwindling Tomasi possessions (such as the beloved country estate of Santa Margherita, sold by his socialist uncle to pay off debts) – the whole island a crossroads and quicksand of cultures – the Sicanians, Siceli, Cretans, Myceneans, Athenians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Hohenstaufens, French, Aragonese, Spanish Bourbons all adding something, but all failing really to change anything, all being ultimately defeated by the climate, by local lassitude, obstinacy, sensuality and clannishness. More recently, Italy had gained nothing from her sacrifices of the world wars, Mussolini had been unable to effect lasting change (he had temporarily suppressed the Mafia, but they had returned after 1943) and the promises made by the Marxists were proving to be just as illusory as those made by all those others who had come ashore filled with grand plans. And Sicily was only one small part of a continent shattered by war (Lampedusa’s wife lost everything she possessed after 1945).

In such circumstances, the themes of loss and the impossibility of reform were almost inescapable. But paradoxically enough, Lampedusa’s understated genius has ensured that his family and his Sicily will ‘live’ on for generations to come. This would have pleased him. For Lampedusa, said his adopted son, writing was a means of avoiding extinction, and his book “a reconciliation between life and death”. Today, it is not just Sicilian aristocrats who need such a reconciliation, but all of history- haunted and increasingly history-hating Europe.

This review first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2007. First photo by Derek Turner


The Leopard at large – Lampedusa’s Letters from London and Europe

The Leopard at Large

Letters From London and Europe

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Richmond (Surrey): Alma Books 203 pp., £14.99

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was the last prince of his long and languid line, but soon after his death he became one of the first names in 20th-century Italian letters. The Leopard, his 1958 novel about the last days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the first days of a (theoretically) united Kingdom of Italy, is a postwar classic, justly admired for its ironic, melancholic spirit, its mélange of sumptuousness and sadness, its evocation of an old, tired island at the outset of a (supposedly) dynamic, democratic age. As the hapless Bourbons quit the Sicilian stage forever, the novel’s aristocratic protagonist Don Fabrizio raises a quizzical eyebrow at the redshirted reformers whose motivations he distrusts and whose aspirations he holds in contempt. He admires men of action in the abstract, but has a cynical superstition that the very atmosphere of the island is freighted with dust and debilitation—and that this will soon abrade the strident Garibaldians, as everyone else before. He has long sight and admires timeless immensity, symbolized by his hobby of astronomy, and he believes firmly that the Sicily that has “always” been will always be—weighted down by parched soil, Palladian porticoes, rococo gilt, marble-paved churches, ancient accommodations, and ennui. All initiatives are doomed to failure, and only death is in the end victorious. (One thinks of the 15th-century fresco Trionfo della Morte, which engrosses a wall of Palermo’s Palazzo Abattelis, portraying a mounted skeleton on an écorché steed irrupting into a richly rendered garden to decimate its denizens.)

Don Fabrizio’s cultivation, epicureanism, shrewdness, scepticism, and acceptance of his own superannuation are partly prefigured in his creator, and recur throughout this almost overcivilized correspondence.

The collection was first published in Italy in 2006 as Viaggio in Europa; this is the first English translation. Twenty-eight of these letters were sent by Lampedusa to his cousins the Piccolos between 1925 and 1930, while the novelist was travelling in England, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. To these have been added letters to two aunts, four sent to Massimo Erede (who had been in a Austro-Hungarian prison camp with him, and later assisted Lampedusa to get some of his essays into print), one sent to Lampedusa by his mother, and one sent to him by his future wife, Alessandra (“Licy”). A larger collection of letters between Lampedusa and Licy is being prepared for publication. There are also some photographs taken by the author in London, which to be frank have more curiosity than artistic value.

The letters to the three Piccolo siblings (brothers Casimiro and Lucio, and their sister, Giovanna) are densely layered, as befits ingenious and accomplished addressees who, according to Lampedusa’s adopted heir, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (who edited this volume and wrote its Introduction),

…seemed to live in a magical world made up of cultural and personal allusions, a continual game of nods and winks.

This Tyrrhenian Sea of clique in-jokes, Palermo gossip, nicknames, and third-person writing is at first slightly confusing, but each letter is comprehensively (and usually faultlessly) footnoted.

Perhaps less expectedly, there are also puerile sexual jokes, with the Grand Old Duke of It. Lit. devoting an entire letter to the conceit that he is a vendor of testicles. Gioacchino comments,

The sexual chitchat reflected in fact the habits of a certain social class absorbed in otia, not very sensitive, unmindful of what was happening in the wide world.

It seems harsh to dismiss the Lampedusa of the 20s (he was 29 when these letters commence) as “unmindful” of the world. On the contrary, the letters contain not a few reflections on current events—although these now seem unfortunate, consisting as they do largely of concerned queries about the wellbeing of “Il Duce” (like Garibaldi, a slightly ludicrous man of action), pleased references to fatal assaults on anti-Fascists, and almost Der Stürmer-like ruminations on blameless Jews. Gioacchino himself cites a sentence which shows that the allegedly heedless peregrinator possessed a degree of prescience shared by very few others. Visiting Germany in 1930, Lampedusa is fascinated by her surging vitality, the nationalist resentments, and their obverse—the binge drinking, drug taking, frenetic music and dancing, and the public priapism. After watching with disgust predatory homosexuals picking up “overly elegant and overly shaven lads” in respectable restaurants by sending them notes written on the back of bills, he predicts that

…within ten years they will, I think, send every nation a note, by means of the waiter.

But distasteful politics usually takes a back seat to sensate evocation and observation, imaginative and insightful even if almost completely confined to his social stratum. In 1927, a year of hardship for many Britons, the duke was writing about London’s clubland—the “massive, indestructible, secret,” and selective establishments dotted around Pall Mall and St. James’s, almost literal powerhouses where even still society’s shakers do discreet business over excellent lunches or doze in comfortable chairs—“the same armchair for century after century,” as Lampedusa reported with satisfaction. He notices and admires every detail of these understated places, from architecture—“Portland stone which absorbs smuts and transforms them into amber”— to ambience (“the smell of petrol, of tar, of Havanas—the silence of a sacred wood”), comparing them sardonically with Palermo’s nearest, but not very near, equivalent, the Bellini Club. The London clubs, he says, are like lions or panthers to the Bellini’s “common felix catus,” and the transplanted leopard purrs with contentment as he settles back onto his deep-buttoned leather banquette after demolishing a vast lunch. Lampedusa was always an agglomeration of appetites, physical as much as psychical, leading to his nickname of “The Monster” with which he self-mockingly signs off dispatches—capable of gorging simultaneously on Stendhal and Stilton, Baudelaire and beefsteak. In another letter, he admits with a sort of shrug,

The Monster . . . contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig—of which he is proud.

Beyond London, Lampedusa enjoys an edited England:

An itinerary devised by himself, with his usual acumen, takes him through the most ancient cities of this glorious island. He has carefully avoided the big cities, the industrial infernos . . . and kept above all to the venerable cathedral cities, to the peaceful seats of learning.

That itinerary—Cambridge, Oxford, Ely, Lincoln, York, Chester, Stratford, and Edinburgh via “the amazing serenity of the English countryside . . . a real pastoral scene from Sir Philip Sidney”—calls constantly to the Monstrous mind admired people and assimilated books.

The confusing corridors of the old Red Lion at Cambridge remind Lampedusa of The Pickwick Papers. (Here, a rare mistake creeps into Gioacchino’s footnotes, when he says the reference is to Mr. Pickwick’s time in prison—in reality, it is to the inn at Ipswich where Pickwick blunders embarrassingly into Miss Witherfield’s bedroom.)

Ely is brooding Cromwell country,

…tragic, impoverished, the birthplace of the proud mother of the great Oliver, with its boundless landscape of wretched marshes beneath a leaden sky, where the divine cathedral stands on its rock, austere and yet maternal offspring of the faith of the Middle Ages, raising a prayer which could not but be well received.

York is the city of “the pale and angry rose” (from Henry VI, Part I), whose famed medieval windows

…continue to make the air enchanted, and every other light that has not passed through their otherworldly colours looks like darkness.

Lampedusa was clearly fixated by Gothic fanes, so unlike the Romanesque basilicas of his South, even dismissing Wren’s St. Paul’s as “papier-mâché.” But swinish urges temper angelic architectural appreciation, as he recounts escorting typists down the hill from the ethereal Lincoln Cathedral to the cinema.

Back in London, he has a perfectly Lampedusan errand to undergo, one which combines aestheticism with strict practicality. He is armed with photographs of a Sèvres tea service belonging to the Piccolos, which they have asked him to have valued. Being a prince, instead of going to an auction house he wanders casually into the world-renowned Wallace Collection to consult its famous director, Sir Frederick Kenyon. Kenyon, unluckily, is away, but his never-named deputy (“the most adorable of all old English gentlemen”) ushers him in at once, asks him to sit on the “faded Savonnerie of an armchair of obvious authenticity,” plies him with cigarettes, and proceeds to deliver a deeply learned disquisition on Sèvres—its origins, composition, manufacture, patterning, patination, authentication, and market trends—and the rapt distinguished visitor is in his element, happily at home among lovely things and antiquarians who are not quite his social equals, in “the honey-sweet hive of his mother London.”

Attending a ball at the French embassy, the lounge leopard lifts mildly malicious eyes from “the contrasting delights of the cardinal-red lobsters and the sky-blue eyes of Belinda” to make catty observations:

Tens of centuries have passed over her body, enveloped in a slim tunic the colour of risotto alla Milanese, and every one has left its mark there: the eighteenth century its powder, the nineteenth its anaemia, the twentieth the deformities brought about by ill-judged sports practiced too late in life.

There is a redolent, ridiculous moment when the current holders of the titles of Bismarck, von Blücher, and Wellington come together by chance —

Diminished and subdued, the national disasters of France kiss bony pomp.

Then it is back to ogling the “silver arms” of Belinda, and an English array of silk-rustling lovelies —

…the Corinnes, the Silvias, the Celias, the Rosalinds materialize, the beautiful women of Yeats, the evanescent apparitions of Adonais, the pallor of Rosetti’s ladies, the fresh grace of Meredith’s heroines.

Then the evening is over, he is out in Mayfair’s night—“For some instants golden hair glimmers through the motor car’s window”—and the Monster pads back solitarily to his hotel.

Loneliness is between the lines in all these letters—evidenced by such clear, dear vignettes, and his scolding when his cousins have been lackadaisical in their letter writing. There is at times almost a kind of desperation for news from home, and we suddenly remember that Lampedusa had suffered what Gioacchino calls “a severe nervous breakdown” in the early 20s. He looks down from a raised train onto nighttime Berlin, and is pierced by painterly “Groβstadt Pathos”—

. . .kilometres of empty streets, flooded with rain, with an endless line of lamps and every now and then a shunting station with a tangle of rails and green, red and white lights . . . the workmen in their leather jackets shining with the rain, and the continual rumble of the trains, and the sublime metropolitan crowd in which every face, for those who take the trouble to look, is a poem of suffering and unease . . . nothing is harder than this city.

But as befits such a sensate sybarite, pathos is also for Lampedusa a “delightful emotion,”which lends point and meaning to the passing mood, moment, era, civilization. In this philosophic wise, he traverses that interdiluvian continent, from Sicily to Scotland and Le Havre to Lithuania, sampling and smiling, observing and aspersing—at once deeply Sicilian and broadly European. His antennae twitch at the ripples of past traumas, the tumult of the present and the powerlessness of politicians, like the halt and hairless senators he watches in Rome—“a veritable forest of crutches and a mountain of surgical trusses”—as they listen obsequiously to man-of-the-moment Mussolini.

Lampedusa’s observations may not be accurate in every detail (Gioacchino: “in [his] correspondence . . . truth is never the highest priority”), but they are always truthful to the character of their author. They also convey perfectly his sense of a congenial continent bootlessly, yet often beautifully, in churn:

I have seen the swans which cleave the velvety waters of the Lake of Love in Bruges; I have seen Piccadilly at midday and Montmartre at midnight; I have seen Michelangelo’s Moses . . . I have walked beneath the centuries-old limes in Windsor and beneath the famous cypresses in Fiesole; I have seen war and the crueller aftermath of war; I have seen Mussolini in his black shirt and young Alice in her court dress; I have eaten cailles truffées au champagne with Lady Vanderbilt and I have starved on the millet of Kriegsgefangen; I have seen the Turners in the Tate Gallery, the Memlings in Bruges and the Raphaels in the Louvre; I know Dante, I love Shakespeare. . . I have been in all sorts of situations and been equal to them all.

Mock heroics—but deeply tinged with melancholy and a zest for love and life imperfectly concealed behind cynical lassitude. Lampedusa may have had faults as a man, but as an epistolist he is more than equal to the task of recalling a closed, charmed Europe that once really existed.

This review appeared in Chronicles in August 2012, and is reproduced with permission. Photo by Derek Turner