The Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa, wrote only one novel, The Leopard, which he began two years before his death in Rome at the age of sixty. The Leopard, a meditation on the passing of time and the changing of eras, was rejected as unpublishable during di Lampedusa’s lifetime. Eventually published in 1958, the year after its author’s death, The Leopard went on to win the Primo Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary award. Hailed as a masterpiece, the novel became an international bestseller. E.M. Forster captured its essence when he called it ‘one of the great lonely books’.
The Leopard opens in May 1860 in Sicily, at the daily recitation of the rosary in the villa of the Prince of Salina. The Prince, his wife, son, daughters and the family priest, Father Pirrone, gather in the drawing room beneath its ceiling painted with the family’s blue shield of the Leopard supported by the deposed gods and goddesses of ancient Rome. Like these ancient deities, the rule of the Prince and his world are doomed. The revolutionary hero Garibaldi is due within days to land in Sicily with his ‘Thousand’ volunteer troops and within weeks will take the island. Within months, the entire Kingdom of Two Sicilies (the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples jointly ruled by the last Bourbon monarch, Francis II) will be absorbed at the hand of Garibaldi into a unified Italy under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel, crowned king of Italy in 1861.
At the centre of di Lampedusa’s novel is the massive, mighty Leopard himself, the Prince of Salina:
there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith’s for the straightening of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at the table, he had coiled into a hoop. But those fingers could also stroke and knead with the most exquisite delicacy, as his wife Maria Stella knew to her cost; while up in his private observatory at the top of the house the gleaming screws, caps and studs of telescopes, lenses and ‘comet-finders’ seemed inviolate beneath his gentle manipulations.
The Prince is politically astute yet above politics, he is mathematical, and his sensual appetites are still rampant as he approaches fifty. Like an Olympian god, he watches with a lofty dispassion tinged with regret as the world around him changes forever, as the aristocracy succumbs to the energy of the new liberal bourgeoisie. And yet the Prince’s secret knowledge, the irony at the heart of the novel summarised in his nephew Tancredi’s pithy observation—’If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’—is that at root nothing really changes, while everything falls apart and life moves inexorably towards death.
The novel, written while di Lampedusa was dying of lung cancer, reeks of death and decay. In his most outspoken speech, the Prince argues that ancient Sicily is too old to understand the new modern world of factories and progress. In the context of the industrial world, Sicily is like ‘a centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair around the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing’. Instead, Sicily is interested only in death:
our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death, our languor, our exotic ices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again … novelties attract us only when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents …
On every page the novel radiates an almost painful awareness of this passing of time towards oblivion. Even in a magnificent ballroom, pulsing with the bodies of young people dancing, destruction lurks: ‘from the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.’
And yet life goes on, through the political ferment, through change and revolution. The novel is told in eight chapters across fifty years, from May 1860 to May 1910, driven by the energy of the Prince’s dashing nephew Tancredi, who can read the signs of the times and positions himself accordingly—first as one of Garibaldi’s Redcoats, then as a member of the regular army of Victor Emmanuel, His Majesty, King of Sardinia. In his efforts, Tancredi is assisted by the careful manoeuvring of his indulgent uncle, his guardian, who facilitates his ambition and watches over the young man with affection, admiration and some jealousy. When Tancredi falls madly in love with the beautiful daughter of the vulgar, nouveau riche Don Calogero, the Prince gives way to their inevitable union. And yet he sees all: ‘The bourgeois revolution climbing his stairs in Don Calogero’s tail-coat, Angelica’s beauty putting the shy grace of his Concetta in the shade, Tancredi rushing at the inevitable changes.’
Like the Prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born in Palermo, Sicily, into Sicilian aristocracy. Despite his family’s disapproval of his literary obsession, di Lampedusa was a passionate reader in Italian, Latin, Greek, German, French and English. He had a particular admiration for another chronicler of the rise of the bourgeoisie, Stendhal, and wrote Lessons on Stendhal which was published as a book in 1977. During the First World War, di Lampedusa served in the Italian artillery in Hungary, where he was captured and imprisoned. He later escaped and walked back to Italy. After a nervous breakdown prevented the diplomatic career he desired, di Lampedusa spent his life reading, writing and travelling, and in 1932 he married the Latvian exile Baroness Alessandra Wolff-Stomersee, whom he had met in London. It is said that his cousin, the award-winning poet Lucio Piccolo, inspired him at the age of 58 to write the novel about which he’d been dreaming for half his life, The Leopard.
The Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous, acclaimed cinema adaptation of The Leopard was released in 1963. Perfectly cast, the film starred Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina, Alain Delon as Tancredi and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The Leopard was rereleased in 2004 in a restored, recut version, and its continuing popularity reflects the novel’s enduring power as a lush evocation of change and decay.