Giacomo Leopardi was born at Ricanati (a town of the Marches) in 1798, the off-spring of a reactionary and clerical family of the minor nobility (the Marches belonged to the Papal States, even though at the time of Leopardi’s birth its lands were occupied by the French). He was possessed of an exceptionally acute intelligence and sensibility, and though educated by his father and by an ecclesiastic tutor in the Jesuit tradition, he very quickly began to study on his own account, teaching himself Greek and Hebrew. His father would have liked him to pursue a career in the church. His first scholarly works on Greek and Latin texts, notably those by Christian authors, which he completed when still adolescent, seemed to pave the way for such a career. But even in these early studies he displayed an exceptional gift for philology, the fruits of whose subsequent development were to elicit the admiration of foreign scholars of such eminent distinction as B. G. Niebuhr, J.-F. Boissonade and (after Leopardi’s death) U. von Wilamowitz. Nonetheless, it is only in comparatively recent times that the value of Leopardi’s writings to Greek and Latin philology has been fully appreciated. Initially, as might be expected, he shared the reactionary and Catholic ideas of his family; but during the period 1817–1819 he began to dissociate himself from these views, sympathising instead with patriotic and liberal ideas: his first Canzoni already show signs of this change of heart. This new outlook was further encouraged by his friendship with Pietro Giordani (1774–1848), a highly talented if somewhat inconsistent writer, who, though a defender of the ‘purity’ of the Italian language against French adulterations, was nonetheless full of Enlightenment ideas imported from France, an anti-clericalist and a materialist by inclination. Around the year 1819, Leopardi was drawn towards a pessimistic conception of reality. His pessimism passed through two stages, which have come to be labelled (though the terms are neither used by Leopardi himself nor entirely apt, but have now become established usage) ‘historical pessimism’ and ‘cosmic pessimism’. During the first phase, Leopardi was under the indirect influence of Rousseau, believing that human unhappiness was attributable to man’s having withdrawn from Nature, the beneficient Mother and bestower of brave-hearted illusions, in order to follow ‘reason’, the source of spiritual dessication and of a false and corrupt civilisation. It is this conception which inspires the Canzoni, the Idilli (Short poems) and the first of the Operette morali, a series of prose sketches that were ‘philosophical’ after the manner of Voltaire and the French philosophes of the 18th century.

At Ricanati Leopardi felt imprisoned within a reactionary and provincial milieu. In 1822–1823, overcoming his father’s resistance, he finally managed to settle in Rome for a period. But Rome seemed to him no less provincial and culturally backward than Ricanati. Nevertheless the desire to escape from the environment of his family remained strong in him throughout his brief life: it would be fair to say that from the time of his departure to Rome the pattern assumed by his external life was that of a series of sojourns in one or another city (always in quest of a job that would render him financially independent of his family, but which he never succeeded in finding, his political and religious views being known by then to the Papal government, to the other governments of the little states that divided Italy, and to the Austrian government which held sway in Lombardy and the Veneto) alternated by periods of enforced retreat to Ricanati. He lived in Milan (in 1825 for a brief period), in Bologna (1825–1826—this was the least unhappy phase of his life), at Florence and at Pisa (1827–1828), again at Florence (1830–1833), and finally with his friend Antonio Ranieri at Naples (from 1833 to his death in 1837, after a life increasingly plagued by illness of every description).

From around 1825 onwards Leopardi’s thought, as we have mentioned, underwent a transformation: Nature was no longer regarded as the beneficient Mother but as the wicked Stepmother, (a conception we will explore further below). Leopardi’s pessimism does not have romantic-existentialist origins, and therefore differs profoundly from that of Schopenhauer, or that of more recent writers. It is often said that Leopardi was a great ‘romantic’ poet, and this is an acceptable description if by romanticism one understands a ‘state of mind’ deeply dissatisfied with reality, a nostalgia for a happier past epoch, and a yearning for a world other than that found actually existing. But with romanticism defined as that historically specific cultural–political and literary movement that arose in reaction to the Enlightenment and to the French revolution, Leopardi was at odds in every way, both during the Rousseauist phase of his thinking, and more decidedly than ever in the succeeding phase with which we are here concerned. Leopardi always remained convinced that the 19th century represented a regression relative to the 18th. His pessimism had a materialistic and hedonistic motivation, and its sources (in its second stage) must be sought in the anti-providentialism of Voltaire’s poem on the Lisbon Disaster, in Maupertius’ reflections on pleasure and pain and in the work of Pietro Verri. But while these authors continued to maintain various bridges to deism (and here one thinks of Voltaire in particular), Leopardi consistently pursued his chosen course to its ultimate conclusion, displaying an intellectual courage that is unique in the European culture of this period. His radical materialism also had 18th century origins in the thought of La Mettrie, Diderot, Helvétius and D’Holbach. But the 18th century materialists, in the fervour of their struggle against obscurantist and religious prejudice, were persuaded not only of the truth of their doctrine but also of its power to promote happiness. Leopardi, though he, too, felt that ‘proud contentment’ (to use his own words) in the destruction of the myths and dogmas of spiritualism, considered materialism to be a true but doleful philosophy. These ideas find their rational and artistic expression in Leopardi’s Canti, in the Operetti morali and in the vast collection of writings that he addressed to himself over a number of years in a series of notebooks which he entitled Zibaldone and which were not published until long after his death.

Poetry and philosophy are, according to Leopardi, two strictly conjoined activities: even in the Canti, the poetic fantasy, the extraordinary musicality of language, the expressions of affection and regret, and the evocation of scenes from nature, are not in contrast to his awareness of the bitter truth, but rather serve to heighten it. This is not the appropriate place to speak of Leopardi the poet. Suffice it to say that even as poet the epithet ‘romantic’ applies to him only in that generic and non-specific sense of which I have already spoken. In language, in style, in metre, Leopardi belongs to the classical, not the romantic tradition; and this is true also of his prose style and language. His contemporaries (and even a great critic of the latter half of the 19th century such as Francesco De Sanctis) were well aware of this dislocation between Leopardi’s thought and the culture of his century. Some of them, such as the Catholic bigot, Niccolò Tommaseo, and Gino Capponi, a more moderate religious idealist (though also influenced by Tommaseo), reacted with the most ferocious hostility. Others, such as Giuseppe Montani and, in England, Christian Carl Josias Bunsen and the Liberal statesmen and writer Gladstone,footnote1 sensed Leopardi’s greatness, but remained sceptical, or, more frequently, hostile towards his materialism and his pessimism.

Leopardi was extremely sensitive, especially during the last years of his life, to this dissension between himself and ‘his age’, a dissension which extended to his politics also, because despite his extreme democratic views, his commitment to egalitarianism, and his hostility not only to absolutism but also to constitutional monarchy (positions adhered to especially during the years 1818–1823, and again in his last years), he did not maintain, as did the Tuscan and Neapolitan liberals, that socio-political regeneration could be accomplished on the basis of a religious ideology. (In this respect, even the thought of Giuseppe Mazzini, with which he was unacquainted, would certainly have been rejected by him on account of its religious orientation). This is an issue to which we return below.