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
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
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.
Leopardi became increasingly convinced that anyone who proved distasteful to his age was bound to be forgotten by subsequent generations; he ceased even to hope for posthumous glory, for the judgement of ‘posterity’. The only hope he retained was that the 20th century would return to the bold truths of the 18th century, and maybe even enlarge upon them; his idea at one point was to address a Letter to a Youth of the Twentieth Century, but this was never written, and he died convinced that the new century, even if it were to resort to some of his conceptions, would not acknowledge a ‘precursor’ in him.
To judge from the huge number of studies on Leopardi that have been written since his death, and from the posthumous admiration of his writings, one might say (and surely to some extent correctly) that in this prediction he erred. In Italy it was glory that awaited him, not the oblivion he had anticipated. And even outside Italy, where Nineteenth century Italian literature and philosophy are generally (and, with rare exception, deservedly) scarcely known, there are those who have recognised Leopardi’s stature: in Russia, for example, there has been Herzen, in France, Sainte-Beuve and, more contemporaneously, Gide, to mention but the names that first spring to mind. But it is above all in English that Leopardi has been appreciated and studied: ample testimony to this can be found in the work of the Belfast scholar, G. Singh, Leopardi e l’Inghilterra,footnote2 where reference is given to several translations of the Canti and, in lesser number, of the Operette morali; it is only the Zibaldone, it would seem, that remains untranslated in English, save for isolated passages.