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A Leopard at The Ball. Il Gattopardo by Tomasi di Lampedusa

December 15, 2011

When I finished reading The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, I went back to page one and starting reading again. The voice of the author, the tone of the narrative and the atmosphere of its world had so captivated me I could not give them up.

In addition to prolonging the experience, I also wanted the discover the source of the ironic undertone that is always there, like a sound you just can’t find the origin of.

The Leopard is about the end of the aristocracy, its way of life and world view. These are embodied by Fabrizio Prince of Salina who is the ideal aristocrat— benevolent, educated, pious, active, not decadent or tyrannical. You read about this man who is the definition of noble knowing full well that he is the last of his kind, and everything he stands for will die with him.

Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, 1896-1957

The character is based on the author’s grandfather, Fabrizio di Tomasi, Prince of Lamepdusa (Lampedusa and Salina are both islands) which accounts for the slightly reverential tone of the prose. Tomasi’s voice is sincere. There is no smirk or dialectic. The all-pervading irony is not in the text, it is in the reader because the author plants it there.

Irony is the difference between what you expect and you get. Someone with an ironical turn of mind is always looking under the surface and past the given facts to see what might really be going on. Tomasi trains his reader to do this from the opening pages of the book: He begins with the Prince and his family finishing their daily recitation of the Rosary. “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.” “Now and in the time of our death…” An odd beginning indeed. The room in which the Catholic prayers have been said is frescoed with Olympian gods and upholstered with chattering parrots and monkeys. The contrasts continue for several pages.

First published in Italian as Il Gattopardo. I read the English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, © 1960.

“Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father…”

“It was a garden for the blind: a constant offense to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose.”

“innumerable rooms for superb architecture and revolting décor…”

and my favorite: “…above the mantelpiece was a Madonna by Andrea del Sarto looking astounded at finding herself in the company of colored lithographs representing obscure Neapolitan saints and sanctuaries.” You can see The Leopard is written with a light, good humored touch.

Before the end of the first section the reader is programmed to see everything with its opposite; honor cloaking dishonesty, ignorance behind teaching, squalor hidden by opulence and the end of every beginning.

In addition to the ironic subtext and engaging style, the third intoxicant of Il Gattopardo is its immersion into eternal Sicily. We feel the stagnant heat, walk the brittle landscape, blink in the over bright light, and hear the pessimistic and secretive denizens. In a land of such immutables as sun, rocks, sea, death and Church, any attempt at change is futile. Sicily is a place where history happens. It is not made. Perhaps that is why the Prince watches “the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”

Burt Lancaster as the embodiment of the aristocracy in the film version.

Tomasi is saying that the real revolution of 1860 was not the change of politics (from Kingdom Naples to United Italy) but the emergence of men willing to take advantage of opportunity. The Prince’s beloved nephew Tancredi joins the Risorgimento forces and wins a military commission and then—with the assistance of his wife’s wealth— a top rung in the new power structure. Don Calogero, a small town land speculator becomes the real power in the Salinas’ hereditary lands and marries his fairytale-beautiful daughter, Angelica, to Tancredi.   The passing of the baton from one elite to the next takes place at a ball in Palermo where Prince Fabrizio waltzes with Angelica, and everyone is entranced.

At every twirl a year fell away from his shoulders; soon he felt back at the age of twenty when in that very same ballroom he had danced with [his betrothed] before he knew disappointment, boredom, and the rest. For a second, that night, death seemed to him once more “something that happens to others.”

The Prince waltzes with Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) in Luchino Visconti’s opulent film of Il Gattopardo.

The Prince’s own death in the next chapter is very beautiful and moving without being at all maudlin. It is followed in an epilogue by a kind of spiritual death that comes to Salina’s daughters, so that, at the end, nothing they knew is left.

If you’re like me you’ll return immediately to the beginning to recapture that lost time and enjoy The Leopard again.

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