Leopardi - The Divine Poet

The Italian Film Festival in Inverness is a low-key event, mainly because the majority of the one hundred thousand Italians living in Scotland are concentrated in the bigger cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. However, it was a sweet moment last year to discover that: ‘il giovane favoloso’, a film about the life of Italy’s poet, Giacomo Leopardi, would be screened as part of the festival. I would guess for any Director tasked with recreating the life of such an extraordinary individual, the duty of responsibility must have been challenging, but it was a commission Mario Martone effected with integrity.
Leopardi is ranked as one of four of Italy’s most famous poets alongside Dante, Petrarca and Ariosto, and if you enjoy Italian culture, you’ll already know why. He was born into a provincial aristocratic family, in Recanati, close to the north coast of Italy. His isolated existence: ‘a life looked at through the bars of his prison within a romantic tower, a dismal, desolate ruin’, as Origo* states in her book; inspired words of poetry confirming his status as visionary and prophet.

Of character, he was naturally shy, suffered constant ill health and lived a penniless existence. His break with Catholicism and his family; meant for a life of uncertainty, poverty and anguish. His loyal friend, Ranieri, proved to be a faithful companion during his adult years and caretaker to many of his papers until long after his death.

Adelaide, Leopardi’s mother, was a pitiless woman; fanatical in her religiosity and monstrous in her exercise of power. The family lived as paupers, fearful of her tyranny, unloved and un-caressed. When one of her children died, she didn’t mourn, but rejoiced. She gave thanks to God seeing her children ugly or deformed and went out of her way to remind them of their deficiencies, did her utmost to diminish their success, never neglecting to criticise them for their faults. Leopardi had the wisdom to see it and wrote: ‘This woman had been allotted a most sensitive nature and had been brought to this state by religion alone.’

Of all the crimes against the individual, for a mother to withhold love and affection from her children, you could argue for this being one of the cruellest. It’s a view corroborated by anyone persecuted within a similar environment; independent testimony to the justification of heartless behaviour, instigated by religious piety gone awry. The reason why many children develop the habit of silence and secretiveness, a habit Leopardi adopted from an early age.

Monaldo, Leopardi’s father, defied his wife in one matter only: the acquisition of books! Leopardi dedicated himself to his studies, over 25,000 books at his disposal within their library fuelling his imagination, which proved to be his only contact with reality. He likened his discoveries to the state of falling in love, and as life never granted him a requited or consummated love; it’s sad to think on. There was a price to be paid for Leopardi’s dedication to his studies; a curvature of the spine which rendered him a hunchback and for which he was miserably sensitive, being mocked by others.

It would seem that nature had marked Leopardi out for sorrow and he declared that: ‘it was from the lowest depths of despair that a new human solidarity and kindliness might arise, a justice and a piety such as could never grow in the thin soil of illusion. Two realities alone can rise above the cruelty of fate: a brotherly love based upon the acceptance of pain and sorrow, and an uncompromising courage that dares to face the truth.’

From my experience, in spite of the unambiguous definition at its core, Truth is recognised selectively based on whether it serves an agenda; a blind eye turned when it doesn’t. Leopardi singled out the hypocrisy at the heart of Rome and I’m sure witnessed elsewhere, in his personal diaries; perhaps this was at the root of his loss of religious faith? The same double-standards evident in our times as history repeats itself and lessons go unheeded, contributing to the need for some to escape to the bottom of a bottle, or through the insertion of a needle; where further disillusion can be found in equal measure.

During Leopardi’s final years spent living close to Naples people viewed him in a different light and would touch him for luck, believing he had been blessed by the gods, and let’s thank God for the kindness shown to him by the Neapolitans. To quote from his poem: ‘The Setting of the Moon’, ‘… Desolate, full of darkness our life remains. And gazing round on it, bewildered, vainly would the traveller trace on the long road which lies before him… he finds that he has now become a stranger here where dwells the human race…’. Leopardi’s heart-breaking words written towards the end of his life. He died in 1837 at the age of thirty-eight and his tomb is located in the cliffs above Mergellina, near Naples, where Virgil is buried.

His loss of Religious faith didn’t extend to ruling out the Divine, insight apparent to distinguish between Religion and Spirituality and I was captivated by his view in the ‘Zibaldone’, ‘I think of God… as containing all possibilities and existing in all possible ways… And so this leaves in doubt all Religion and the infinite perfection of God.’ It’s a view I would concur with in the mortal search for enlightenment and that elusive of qualities: Perfection. If there’s to be a day of Reckoning my dream would be that justice be granted to the victims of spent Religious systems. Leopardi may have never known love during his mortal life; I hope he found God’s, in the hereafter.

Source material and for more information:
*Leopardi: A Study in Solitude by Iris Origo
Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi
The Setting of the Moon, Poems from Leopardi: John Heath Stubbs
Il giovane favoloso - Mario Martone, Director (DVD)