A couple of months ago my uncle Luciano gave me a CD on which the great late actor Vittorio Gassman reads some poems from the most important Italian poets of the Romantic era: Ugo Foscolo, Alessandro Manzoni, and Giacomo Leopardi. Listening to them brought to mind the time when, aged eighteen, I had to study these same masterpieces for my esame di maturità. How many tears I shed over Leopardi’s poems whilst reading them in bed at night!
Giacomo Leopardi was born in 1798 in Recanati, nowadays in the Marche region, but at that time part of the backward Papal state. From a very early age Leopardi showed such a great thirst for the Classics, History and Philosophy, that when he was twelve his personal tutor declared that he didn’t have anything more to teach him. For the following seven years Leopardi studied feverishly on his own, day and night, drawing from his parents’ immense library, and by the age of sixteen he could read and write fluently in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. However, his enormous academic knowledge was also quite obsolete as he didn’t have any contact with contemporary Culture.
Those years of ‘mad study’ (as he himself called them) took a big toll on Giacomo’s already fragile physical constitution: his eyesight became weak, and he developed a hunched back. Aware of his poor physical appearance, Leopardi soon came to the realization that Nature wouldn’t let him enjoy life, and in particular love, like a normal person, and he developed a very negative view of life. This pessimism can be found in many of his poems, such as La sera del dì di festa (The evening of the festive day), from which I’ve taken the following lines:
…. e l’antica natura onnipossente,
che mi fece all’affanno. A te la speme
nego, mi disse, anche la speme; e d’altro
non brillin gli occhi tuoi se non di pianto…
and ancient all-powerful Nature,
who created me for pain.
‘I refuse you hope, she said, even hope, and may
your eyes not shine, except with tears.’
In 1818 Leopardi tried to run away from his oppressive life in Recanati, but he was stopped by his possessive family before he could get away, and for the next few years his only escape was in his dreams. This need to explore life through his imagination is beautifully expressed in the short idyll L’Infinito (1819), in which Giacomo describes how, sitting down on the top of a solitary hill with the hedge limiting his view of the horizon, he is able to recreate in his mind a sense of infinity and eternity, feeling as if his thoughts are sweetly drowning in that immense sea:
Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quïete
io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.
This is one of the most widely translated Italian poems. Here is my favourite version:
I always loved this solitary hill,
This hedge as well, which takes so large a share
Of the far-flung horizon from my view;
But seated here, in contemplation lost,
My thought discovers vaster space beyond,
Supernal silence and unfathomed peace;
I am almost afraid; then, since I hear
The murmur of the wind among the leaves,
I match that infinite calm unto this sound
And with my mind embrace eternity,
The vivid, speaking present and dead past;
In such immensity my spirit drowns,
And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea.
(Lorna de’ Lucchi’s translation from www.poetrymagic.co.uk)
Giacomo Leopardi died in 1837 in Napoli where he had moved in the hope that its climate would be beneficial to his weak health. I was lucky enough to be able to visit his final resting place which is near the great Latin poet Virgil in the Parco Virgiliano, Napoli.