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The Apostle of the Infinite

Giacomo Leopardi

Conte Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)



At the age of twenty-eight, Leopardi wrote a letter to Count Carlo Pepoli in which he described "unremarkable facts of my life" as follows:

Born to Count Monaldo Leopardi of Recanati, city of the March of Ancona, and to the Marchesa Adelaide Antici of the same city, 29 June 1798, in Recanati.

Continued to live in his birthplace until the age of 24.

He did not have tutors, except for the mere rudiments which he learned from pedagogues kept by his father in the household for that purpose. He had instead the use of a copious library collected by his father, a man with a great love of letters.

In this library he passed the greater part of his life, as much of it and for as long as his health allowed; this was destroyed by his studies, which started independently of his tutors at the age of ten, and then went on without rest, his sole occupation.

Learned, without a teacher, the Greek language, devoted himself to philological studies, and persevered with them for seven years; until, his sight being ruined, and he obliged to spend an entire year (1819) without reading, he took up thinking, and naturally grew fond of philosophy; to this, and to the related study of literature, he has since attended almost exclusively up to the present.(1)

Despite its seventeen churches, Recanati was little more than an Italian backwater town(2) not far from the Adriatic coast. His mother was a cold hearted spendthrift who truly delighted to lose her children, and envied parents who had lost children in infancy, for the parents had been freed "from the bother of supporting them."(3) This may have been in response to her husband, who squandered his fortune but maintained a huge library of some 20,000 volumes. It was Leopardi's father who insisted he have a strict religious upbringing. But the tutors who were to prepare Leopardi for the priesthood quickly acknowledged that they were no match for his learning. During a period of what he termed "mad and desperate studies," Leopardi taught himself in theology, archeology, and rhetoric; mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and obtained a working knowledge of Spanish and German; translated and annotated Horace's Ars Poetica, Moshus' Idylls and War of Frogs and Mice, and parts of both the Aeneid and the Odyssey(4); wrote a history of astronomy with a bibliography of over 300 titles; and composed a hymn to Neptune in Greek which he pretended to have discovered in an ancient manuscript and which scholars accepted as genuine.(5) He paid for this learning with his health, developing a slight curvature of the spine, moving the thorax out of place and affecting the function of his lungs and heart for the rest of his life. He also suffered swelling of the legs, insomnia, colitis, asthma, rachitis, kidney attacks, coughing of blood, dropsy, and constant problems with his sight. Depression, too, was never far off.

In Pensieri, a collection of thoughts patterned after the Maximes of the French writer La Rochefoucauld, Leopardi writes, "Just as humans usually curse the present and praise the past, so most travelers while traveling are lovers of their native land, and prefer it with a kind of fierceness over those places where they find themselves. Back home, they just as fiercely rank it inferior to all other lands they have known."(6)

Leopardi described Recanati as "the deadest and most ignorant city of the Marches."(7) He also referred to it variously as a prison, a den, a cave, and an inferno. But when living in Bologna, he claimed to walk upon the hills seeking memories of Recanati. Pisa appeared to him almost enchanted and reminded him of his birthplace. When he published his Canti in Florence, he put his native town on the title page, and he wrote of his wish eventually to die at home in Recanati. He took no great pleasure from Rome, Florence, or Naples, and Ottavio Casale notes, "Leopardi eventually became bored or negative about any place where he lived for long."(8) Though there were aspects of Recanati he did not enjoy, it was there Leopardi produced much of his best work and found inspiration for his most tender lyrics.(9)

Plagued by every form of frustration, Leopardi became one of the most formidable scholars, philosophers, and writers of his time, and is considered to be Italy's third greatest poet after Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarca. Among his admirers were Sainte-Beuve, Nietzsche, George Santayana, Matthew Arnold, and Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a contemporary and with whom he shared a similar pessimistic view of life. His influences included Homer, Longinus, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Tasso, Petrarch, Burke, Alfieri, Foscolo, Lucretius, Epictetus, Hobbes, Montaigne, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Condillac, Chateaubriand, Helvetius, d'Holbach, Sophocles, Euripides, Pascal, Vico, and de Stael.(10)

In 1825 Leopardi accepted an offer from publisher Antonio Stella to edit and translate Cicero's works,(11) and moved to Florence. He also earned extra income as a tutor. He continued to work for the publisher for three years until his health deteriorated to the point he felt he must discontinue his advance because the work was no longer progressing. He spent much of the next two years in poverty. Then, on 23 March 1830, he received a letter from General Colletta, the Neapolitan historian, proposing to give him a monthly subsidy of eighteen francesconi for the poet to live in Florence, with no obligations imposed other than the hope that it would allow him to write works worthy of his genius.(12)

Giacomo Leopardi

Leopardi had erratic eating habits, a penchant for ice cream, rarely washed or changed clothes, ridiculed those he disliked however much they may have admired him, and spoke against both the liberal secular vision of the world and the consolations of religion.(13) A guest who met Leopardi at a literary party shortly after his arrival in Florence described the poet thus: "His expression is mild, his manners gentle and courteous, but his body has a defect, the height of his shoulders. He speaks very little, is pale and seems to be melancholy."(14) Antonio Ranieri, Leopardi's greatest friend, wrote this description: "His stature was mediocre, slight, and bent, his complexion pale; his head was large, with a broad, square forehead, languid blue eyes, a sharp nose, and fine-drawn features. His voice was low and very faint, and he had an indescribable, heavenly smile."(15)

Because of his physical deformities, Leopardi had little luck with women. Ranieri said that Leopardi "...took the flower of his virginity untouched to the grave," and that all Leopardi's love affairs were one-sided and unnoticed by the person he loved.(16) Despite, or perhaps because of, this, Leopardi believed "...love could truly make a hero of me and render me capable of great things, even of killing myself."(17)

His heart first stirred for a woman at the age of nineteen upon meeting his cousin Gertrude Cassi. She was married, twenty-seven years old, and came to Recanati with her husband to deliver their child to a local convent school. She was a voluptuous beauty with dark flashing eyes and a warm effusive manner. She stayed only three days, following which Leopardi wrote with a Proustian minuteness and detachment(18) his every moment spent with her:

...and here I am, at nineteen and a half, in love. And I plainly see that love must be a very bitter thing, and that unfortunately (I speak of tender and sentimental love) I shall always be its slave.[14 Dec 1817]

...the sight or thought of any other figure... seem to me to trouble and soil the beauty of the image in my mind, so that I avoid them with all my might.[16 Dec 1817]

...I do not see how I shall ever be able to acquire again my old love of study, for it seems to me that even when this infirmity of mind has passed, the knowledge will always remain with me that there is one thing more delightful than study, and that once I experienced it.[19 Dec 1817]

...I am trying to conciliate my love of study with my passion, since I vaguely plan to write something in which I could converse with that Lady or induce her to talk to me, and I imagine myself some day achieving something great in literature, and appearing before her in such a way that she would receive me with pleasure and esteem. And these same thoughts have nourished me now and again even during these past days. So I am taking up the usual tenor of my life again, for my fading passion can no longer fill my days, and it is declining from lack of food, having been strangled at the very moment of its birth by the departure of its object.[22 Dec 1817](19)

At age twenty-eight he become attracted to Teresa Carniani Malvezzi of Bologna. She also was married, and eleven years older than Leopardi. His claimed his relationship with her, which he described as a "tender, sensitive friendship, with a mutual interest and an abandon that is like a love without disquietude," had revived his heart "after so many years of sleep, indeed complete death."(20)

At age thirty he encountered Teresa Lucignani, the sixteen year old sister-in-law of his landlord in Pisa, who Leopardi described as having "in her face, her movements, her voice, something-I know not what-almost divine that nothing can equal."(21)

At age thirty-two he began a three-year attraction to Fanny Targioni Tozzetti of Florence. She also was married, a lively, amorous, and pretentious woman who had the reputation for being nothing more than a commonplace coquette. Though she enjoyed Leopardi's poetry, her desire for his more handsome friend Ranieri was stronger.

Leopardi's frustrations in love were never wasted, though: he wrote 'To Silvia' in honor of Teresa Fattorini, a young girl he would watch from his library in Recanati; Gertrude Cassi inspired 'First Love'; Teresa Lucignani inspired 'Rememberances'; and his break with Fanny Tozzetti led to the brutal ode 'On the Likeness of a Beautiful Woman Carved on her Sepulchral Monument':

That breast which made men visibly turn pale--
These things existed once. And now you are
But dirt and bones, a sad,
Outrageous sight a heavy stone must hide.(22)

Ultimately, the woman Leopardi loved best was la donna che non si trova--the woman who cannot be found. "She is one of those images, those phantoms of celestial and indescribable beauty, which we summon up between sleeping and waking, when we are little more than children.... The author does not know whether this lady of his-and in calling her so, he shows that he loves no one but her-was ever born, or ever will be; he only knows that she does not live on this earth, and we are not her contemporaries. He searches for her in the ideas of Plato, in the moon, the planets of the solar system, the constellations of the stars."(23) Below is part of 'To his Lady,' his hymn to this perfect woman:

In this, my day on earth,
I cannot hope to see your living face
Until, until my lone, stripped essence come
By unfamiliar paths
To the unknowable and final land.
When I had just begun
My dark, uncertain sojourn here, I thought
You too might be a traveler in this waste;
But nothing we can know
Truly resembles you, and if we find
A one whose glowing movements, face, and words
Echo your loveliness,
They but recall to us your greater grace.

If you, my love, are one
Of those undying forms the eternal mind
Will not transform to mortal flesh, to try
Funereal sorrows of ephemeral beings;
Or if you dwell in one
Of those innumerable worlds far off
In the celestial swirl,
Lit by a sun more stunning than our own,
And if you breathe a kinder air than ours--
Then from this meagre earth,
Where years are brief and dark,
This hymn your unknown lover sings, accept.(24)
In much of his poetry, Leopardi almost cruelly stresses his belief that joy is nothing but the momentary subsidence of pain and that only in death can man find lasting happiness. With his poetry he consecrated his pain. But ultimately Leopardi was a firm believer in the power of imagination and the preeminence in our lives of illusions. With 'The Infinite' Leopardi achieves what Nicholas James Perella calls a "triumph of the poetic imagination over a limited reality." Renato Poggioli says the idyll "makes familiar and almost dear to the heart of man the alien metaphysical vision of a universe ruled by laws other than those of life and death." Leopardi's basic premise was plainly stated in 'Dialogue of an Almanac-Vendor and a Wayfarer,' one of the dialogues in the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian collected in his Operette morali: "The beautiful life is not the one we know but the one we do not know."(25)

Leopardi also formulated a concept of noia. This word is untranslatable, similar to boredom, spleen, or ennui in sensation, but much deeper in experience. Ottavio Casale defines it as "the psycho-spiritual paralysis which makes all physical, moral and intellectual activity or affirmation impossible and undesired.... the state in which life-energy or desire pulsates for engagement but there is no goal or journey to occupy it... a desire, having no object, eating away at its own psychic container--a kind of mental or spiritual ulceration." In a letter to his brother, Leopardi likened it to "indifference, that horrible human passion, or lack of it."(26) He expanded the concept later in his Zibaldone, a part notebook, part diary of some 4500 pages covering more than fifteen years of his life, from 1817 to 1832--what Iris Origo calls "a tragic record of human solitude":

...In referring to the absence of pleasure and displeasure, one is referring to noia.... Noia always and immediately runs to fill up all the empty spaces left behind in living souls by pleasure and displeasure. The void--that is the passionless state of indifference--cannot exist in such a soul, just as it could not exist in physical nature according to the ancients. Noia is like the air on earth, which fills all the spaces among other objects, and races to be where they are not, unless other objects take their place. Or shall we say that the void itself in the human mind, and the indifference, and the absence of every other passion is noia, which is itself a passion. Now what do we mean by saying that a living being who is neither enjoying nor suffering is necessarily experiencing noia? We mean that he can never stop desiring happiness, that is pleasure or enjoyment. This desire--when it is neither satisfied nor directly thwarted by the opposite of enjoyment, is noia.(27)

Again, in the Operette morali, from 'Dialogue between Torquato Tasso and his familiar spirit':

It seems to me that la noia is of the nature of air, which fills up all the spaces between material things and all the voids in each one of them; and whenever a body changes its place and is not at once replaced by another, la noia at once comes in. So all the intervals in human life between pleasure and pain, are occupied by noia. ...Truly I believe that la noia means nothing more than a craving for pure happiness, unsatisfied by pleasure and not perceptibly wounded by wretchedness. And this craving, as we said before, can never be gratified; so that true pleasure can never be found.(28)

Leopardi's system of philosophy began with man's alienation from nature. By 1824 he had shifted to believe man's suffering was inevitable. Life had taught him that "...man's undeserved pain, unfulfillable longing, and monumental insignificance are not anomalies caused by alienation from nature but features built into his existence by nature herself."(29) In his Pensieri he exposed a universal illusion:

In every land, the universal vices and ills of mankind and human society are attributed to the particular locale. I have never been in a place where I have not heard say: "Here women are vain and fickle and they are poorly read and taught; here people are nosy about others' business, chatterboxes, and rumor-mongers; here money, favoritism, and vileness can accomplish anything; here envy rules supreme and friendships are shallow"--and so it goes, as if elsewhere things were different. Men are unhappy by necessity, but they resolutely think themselves so by accident.(30)

Leopardi developed, in his own words, a philosophy of despair. In the Zibaldone he wrote,

The whole change in me, and the passage from the ancient state to the modern, happened one might say within a year, that is 1819, when, deprived of the use of my eyes, and of the continual distraction of reading, I began to feel my unhappiness in a much more gloomy way, I began to abandon hope, to reflect deeply on things (under the influence of these thoughts I wrote in one year almost double what I had written in a year and a half, and in subjects which concern above all our nature, unlike my past thoughts, almost all of literature), to become a professed philosopher (from being a poet), to feel the assured unhappiness of the world, instead of just being acquainted with it, and this also through a state of physical weakness, which made me less like the ancients and more like the moderns.(31)

Giacomo Leopardi

In a letter to Fanny Tozzetti, Leopardi claimed that "...certainly love and death are the most beautiful things in the world, and the only ones worthy of our desire."(32) In his Pensieri he noted, "Death is no evil, for it frees man from all evils and takes away desire as well as the good things in life. Old age is the greatest evil, for it strips man of all pleasures, leaves him his appetites, and brings with it all pains. Nonetheless, men fear death and desire old age."(33) He did not fear death but welcomed it, believing nothing completed a life better. Ranieri said of his friend, "His whole life was not a career like that of most men; it was truly a precipitate course towards death."

Giacomo Leopardi died of edema on 14 June 1837 at the age of thirty-eight in the villa Ferrigni on the slopes of Vesuvius.


Leopardi wrote poetry mostly in two forms: endecasillabi sciolti, which is the Italian equivalent of English blank verse; and canzone libera, which consists of irregular alternation of eleven-syllable and seven-syllable lines. Most translators avoid the rhyme scheme he used, which is much easier achieved in Italian than English. On the problems of translations, Leopardi wrote: "The perfection of a translation consists in this, that the author translated should not seem something Greek rendered into Italian, or something French into German, but should become, in Italian or German, precisely as the writer was, in Greek or French. That is what is difficult and not possible in every language."(34)

My interest in Giacomo Leopardi led to the discovery of a paucity of information about him and his work available in English. All of the translators included here have tried to honor Leopardi's idea of perfection. In reading them side by side with the Italian originals, however, most have left me dissatisfied. Each individual translation takes its own liberties with the original, and one is encouraged to seek out the Italian to get a fuller feeling for what Leopardi intended. Below I offer a sample of the variety to be found, including my own literal translation.

A se stesso
Or poserai per sempre,
Stanco mio cor. Perý l'inganno estremo
Ch'eterno io mi credi. Perý. Ben sento,
In noi di cari inganni,
Non che la speme, il desiderio Ŕ spento.
Posa per sempre. Assai
Palpitasti. Non val cosa nessuna
I moti tuoi, nÚ di sospiri Ŕ degna
La terra. Amaro e noia
La vita, altro mai nulla; e fango Ŕ il mondo.
T'acqueta omai. Dispera
L'ultima volta. Al genera nostro il fato
Non don˛ che il morire. Omai disprezza
Te, la natura, il brutto
Poter che, ascoso, a comun danno impera,
E l'infinita vanitÓ del tutto.

To Himself
Now you will rest for ever,
My tired heart. The extreme deceit perished,
That I believed eternal. It perished. I feel,
In we of beloved deceits,
Not that hope, desire is extinguished.
Rest for ever. Much
You have beaten. No value to anybody
The motions yours, neither of sighs is worthy
The earth. Bitter and trouble
The life, nothing other; mud is the world.
You lie quiet now. Despair
The last time. To our kind fate
Nothing donated but dying. Now despise
Yourself, nature, the ugly one
Able to, concealed, ordain common doom,
And the infinite vanity of all.(35)

Now rest, tired heart,
Forever rest. The last deceit is dead
I thought would always last.
Gone even are the hope and the desire
For darling cheats. Forever rest.
For far too long you beat,
Your labor valueless. The world's
Not worth a sigh,
And life is tedium and grief and bitterness.
The Earth is mire.
Rest quiet now, despair just this last time.
Fate grants to those like us one thing:
To die. And now you may despise
Yourself, Nature--that brutish, hidden power
That ordains a common doom--
and the infinite futility of all.(36)

Now, and for ever, you may rest,
My haggard heart. Dead is that last deception.
I had thought love would be enduring. It is dead.
I know that my hoping, and even
My wishing to be so dearly deceived, have fled.
Rest, and for ever. The strife
Has throbbed through you, has throbbed. Nothing is worth
One tremor or one beat; the very earth
Deserves no sign. Life
Has shrunk to dregs and rancor; the world is unclean.
Calm, calm. For this
Is the last despair. What gifts has fate brought man
But dying? Now, vanquish in your disdain
Nature and the ugly force
That furtively shapes human ill, and the whole
Infinite futility of the universe.(37)

Now be forever still,
Weary my heart. For the last cheat is dead,
I thought eternal. Dead. For us, I know
Not only the dear hope
Of being deluded gone, but the desire.
Rest still forever. You
Have beaten long enough. And to no purpose
Were all your stirrings; earth not worth your sighs.
Boredom and bitterness
Is life; and the rest, nothing; the world is dirt.
Lie quiet now. Despair
For the last time. Fate granted to our kind
Only to die. And now you may despise
Yourself, nature, the brute
Power which, hidden, ordains the common doom,
And all the immeasurable emptiness of things.(38)

Now you may rest forever,
My tired heart. The last illusion is dead
That I believed eternal. Dead. I can
So clearly see-not only hope is gone
But the desire to be deceived as well.
Rest, rest forever.
You have beaten long enough. Nothing is worth
Your smallest motion, nor the earth your sighs.
This life is bitterness
And vacuum, nothing else. The world is mud.
From now on calm yourself.
Despair for the last time. The only gift
Fate gave our kind was death. Henceforth, heap scorn
Upon yourself, Nature, the ugly force
That, hidden, orders universal ruin,
And the boundless emptiness of everything.(39)

Now you must rest for ever,
My weary heart. The last deceit has died,
I had thought everlasting. Died. I feel
Not hope alone, desire
For dear deceits in us has come to fail.
Now rest for ever. You
Have throbbed sufficiently. Nothing is worth
One beat of yours; nor is it worthy sighs,
This earth. Bitterness, boredom
Are all life is; and all the world is mud.
Lie quietly. Despair
This final time. Fate granted to our kind
Nothing but dying. Now despise yourself,
Nature (the brute force
That furtively ordains the general harm),
And this infinity of nothingness.(40)

29 June 1798
1813
1815
1816
July 1817
11 September 1817
December 1817
1818
September 1818
October 1818
1819


October 1820
December 1821
1821

January 1822
May 1822
17 November 1822
May 1823
September 1823
1824

March 1824
May 1824
June 1824

August 1824
October 1824
November 1824
July 1825
September 1825
March 1826
1826



June 1827
26 June 1827
9 November 1827
1827

February 1828
April 1828
9 June 1828
June 1828
November 1828
September 1829
1829


April 1830
29 April 1830
1830

1831

1832

4 December 1832
1833

2 September 1833
1834


1835

April 1836
May 1836
June 1836
14 June 1837

Giacomo Leopardi born in Recanati
Storia dell'astronomia
Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi
Appressamento della morte
first entry in Zibaldone
meet Gertrude Cassi-Lazzari
Il primo amore
Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica
All'Italia
Sopra il monumento di Dante
L'infinito
Alla Luna
Lo spavento notturno
La sera del dÝ di festa
Bruto minore
Il sogno
La vita solitaria
Alla primavera
Ultimo canto di Saffo
move to Rome
return to Recanati
Alla sua donna
begin Operette morali
Storia del genere umano
Dialogo di un Folletto e di uno Gnomo
La scommessa di Prometeo
Dialogo di Torquato Tasso e del suo Genio Familiare
Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese
Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e delle sue mummie
Dialogo di Cristoforo Colombo e di Pietro Gutierrez
Elogio degli Uccelli
move to Milan
move to Bologna
Al conte Carlo Pepoli
Idilly
meet Contessa Teresa Carniani Malvezzi
Versi
Crestomazia italiana
move to Florence
meet Antonio Ranieri
move to Pisa
Il Copernico: dialogo
Dialogo di Plotino e di Porfirio
Jeu d'Esprit
Il Risorgimento
return to Florence
A Silvia
return to Recanati
Le ricordanze
Il passero solitario
La quiete dopo la tempesta
Il sabato del villaggio
Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia
return to Florence
meet Fanny Targioni Tozzetti
Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia
Canti
Il pensiero dominante
Dialogo di un venditore d'almanacchi e di un passeggere
Dialogo di Tristano e di un amico
last entry in Zibaldone
A se stesso
Pensieri
move to Naples
Aspasia
Sopra un bassorilievo antico sepolcrale
Sopra il ritratto di una bella donna scolpito nel monumento sepolcrale
Palinodia al marchese Gino Capponi
Opere
move to Torre del Greco
La ginestra o il fiore del deserto
Il tramonto della luna
death in Ranieri house


Links for Further Study

An Italian/English side by side comparison of 'A se stesso'

The National Center for Leopardiani Studies

The complete Operette morali

Four stamps dedicated to the Canti, illustrating, in the style of a 19th-centuary watercolorist, some of the most celebrated of Leopard's verses

Poesies et ouevres morales de Leopardi
Premiere traduction complete precedee d'un essai sur Leopardi per F.A.Aulard
Paris, Librairie Alphonse Lemerre, 1880
9.5*16.3cm. in 3 VOLL.: Vol.I 284pp., VOL.II 287(1)pp., VOL.III 268pp.

Endnotes: 1. Giacomo Leopardi: The Canti, With a selection of his prose; translated by J. G. Nichols; Caracanet Press Limited, 1994 2. Little Blue Light 3. Nichols 4. Leopardi Poems and Prose; introduction by Sergio Pacifici 5. A Leopardi Reader; by Ottavio M. Casale; University of Illinois Press, 1981 6. Casale 7. Giacomo Leopardi: Selected Prose and Poetry; translated by Iris Origo; Oxford University Press, 1966 8. Casale 9. Pacifici 10. Casale 11. WebItaly 12. Giacomo Leopardi: Selected Prose and Poetry; translated by John Heath-Stubbs; Oxford University Press, 1966 13. Little Blue Light 14. Origo 15. Origo 16. Origo 17. Origo 18. Origo 19. Origo 20. Casale 21. Origo 22. Casale 23. Origo 24. Casale 25. Casale 26. Casale 27. Casale 28. Origo 29. Casale 30. Casale 31. Nichols 32. Origo 33. Casale 34. Iris Origo 35. Jeffrey K. Hill, 2002 36. Carl Selph, 1999 37. Edwin Morgan 38. John Heath-Stubbs 39. Ottavio Casale 40. J.G. Nichols

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