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, while Giuseppe himself 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 starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Deloin, and directed 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. The Leopard can help us to remember the perennial question of how sensitive and cultured men and women can cope (or fail to cope) with coarser times.
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 cafe, 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 manuscript of The Leopard was refused publication just a few days before he died, to his obvious chagrin.
Lampedusa was a devotee of Keats, 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. But 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 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 opposed camps --the Catholic church, which disliked its religious scepticism, and the newly rampant beast in the Italian bestiary, the Marxist left, which disliked the author’s family background, real or imagined political views and the book’s lack of “commitment.”
Lampedusa, opined his biographer David 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 that so loved the grandiloquence of opera.
But Lampedusa had many defenders, including Giorgio Bassani, whose lacerating 1962 Garden of the Finzi-Continis is likewise about the mercilessness of modernity, and Luigi Barzini, belletrist and author of The Italians. In any case, Lampedusa was probably destined to be, as Pietro Cetati put it in Le Monde in 2007, “le prince du crepuscule ne dans un monde a l’agonie.” Quite apart from the family tendency towards melancholia, Lampedusa had a pervasive cynicism that 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 colorless obscurity below eye-sockets that once flashed with intelligence (as Lampedusa’s eyes look warily out at us from photographs). As the author’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 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 briefly 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.