Analysis of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

A historical novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896–1957), The Leopard was one of the most successful literary works of 20th-century European literature. The plot is straightforward: In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi and his forces have landed in Marsala (Sicily) to free the island. For centuries Sicily and southern Italy had been under the rule of the Spanish line of the Borboni (Bourbons), supported by the local aristocracy of landowners. With Garibaldi’s landing, the Sicilian aristocrats fear this moment, which will mark the end of their class privileges and replacement by the increasingly powerful mezzadri—sharecroppers, renters, and administrators who took advantage of the aristocracy for personal gain and now constitute the new middle class of professionals. At the same time, the aristocrats are mired in their mores and inability to take action.

The aristocrat protagonist of the novel is Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina, whose family herald is the leopard. Although he is not different from the others, he is a sharp observer of the events that are precipitating his own demise as well as dramatically changing the destiny of southern Italy. He can see clearly that the “liberation” of the island by the king of Savoy’s forces led by Garibaldi is, in fact, an “occupation” of the south on the part of a northern princestate. Unable to counteract the course of history yet understanding his nephew Tancredi’s words “to keep everything unchanged, we need to change everything,” Don Fabrizio realizes that to hold any power, the family and aristocrats must side with Garibaldi’s forces but make sure that a new kingdom is established under the rule of the king of Savoy and not, as Garibaldi hoped, be made a republic. Don Fabrizio lets Tancredi join Garibaldi and also marry the beautiful but unrefined Angelica, the daughter of a rich peasant, dashing the hopes of one of his daughters, Concetta, who is in love with Tancredi. The prince observes the course of the events in a detached way: New masters will replace the old ones, but the world will always be divided between masters and servants, exploiters and exploited.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Don Fabrizio’s disillusionment with the political state of the Italian peninsula is complete. A representative of Savoy’s government, Chevalley, arrives to offer him, as a prominent figure on the island and an aristocrat, a seat in the new senate in Rome. Don Fabrizio refuses since he is too tied to the old order to belong, and contribute effectively, to the new. Instead, Angelica’s father, Don Calogero Sedara, will become senator, Tancredi will become ambassador, and the new powers are reconstituted. Don Fabrizio keeps his role of meditative and detached observer until his death in a small hotel in Palermo while he was traveling, marking the end of the family line.

The strength of the novel is in the minute descriptions of the landscape of Sicily, the palace and estate of the prince, the everyday habits of the family, and the social and cultural changes in the turmoil of an era that is central to the definition of the new course of Italy. Some central scenes are particularly successful, such as the ball given in honor of Tancredi’s engagement to Angelica (with the depiction of sumptuous rococo furniture, lavish but already decadent clothing, and the social interaction of the guests) and the encounter between Chevalley and Don Fabrizio (with Chevalley’s humorous slip of the tongue referring to the “conquest” of Sicily).

But the success of the novel lies especially in the abundance of detailed moments and actions perfectly and intricately bound together in a social tapestry of costumes, types, and manners: Don Fabrizio’s secret encounters with a woman from the lower class; the piety and bigotry of his wife; his insipid daughters, with their rosaries and relics; Tancredi’s brashness; Angelica’s provocative beauty; Don Calogero’s unlimited ambitions; and the tensions (carefully controlled and manipulated) between aristocrat landowners and the ascendant bourgeoisie, as well as between the pragmatic and industrial northerners and the somnolent and traditional southerners. In many ways the novel lends itself to a great social portrait of an era, and its atmosphere was perfectly captured by Luchino Visconti’s film. But above all, the novel remains an endeavoring homage, as well as critique, to the advantages and ills of Sicily, in which the author had deep roots; its hostile but fascinating landscape, light, and perfumes conveyed through a sensual prose; and the splendor of a past forever gone.

The posthumous publication of The Leopard resulted in immediate success despite the author’s many difficulties in finding a publisher while he was alive. Lampedusa was not a professional writer nor was he associated with any literary group, and he was therefore unfamiliar with the details of publishing. Furthermore, the historical genre of the novel, at a time when new trends were slowly emerging, did not attract the interest of any publishers. The last refusal came from Elio Vittorini, who, although a respected writer and literary critic, openly favored works with strong and positive messages in his publications and failed to recognize the work’s value. Nevertheless, The Leopard was immediately appreciated by the writer Giorgio Bassani, who facilitated its publication by Feltrinelli after Lampedusa’s death. The novel’s poignant prose and intriguing characterization have ensured the lasting interest of readers and made possible not only its entry into the world literary canon but also its continuing critical attention.

Cupolo, Marco. “Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo and Postwar Italian Political Culture.” Translated by Norma Bouchard. In Risorgimento in Modern Italian Culture: Revisiting the Nineteenth-Century Past in History, Narrative, and Cinema, edited by Norma Bouchard, 57–72.
Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. Hampson, Ernest. “Visconti’s Il Gattopardo: Aspects of a Literary Adaptation.” Spunti e Ricerche: Rivista d’Italianistica 15 (2000): 69–78.
Lucente, Gregory L. “Lampedusa’s Il gattopardo: Figure and Temporality in an Historical Novel.” MLN 93, no. 1 (January 1978): 82–108.
Sartarelli, Stephen. “The Classic on the Margin.” Anello Che Non Tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature 13–14, nos. 1–2 (Spring 2001–Fall 2002): 63–70.
Tosi, Giuseppe. “Le Cosmogonie aristocratiche: Il Gattopardo di Tomasi di Lampedusa.” Italica 74, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 67–80.
———. “Letteratura e solitudine: Gli anni ‘50 e il ‘caso Lampedusa’.” Forum Italicum 30, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 65–79.

Categories: European Literature, Italian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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