December 23 – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Happy Birthday Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa!

December 23


Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (b. 1896) Sicilian scholar and author – The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1957)

Read about Tomasi’s life

[Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is] …one of Sicily’s most celebrated novelists, and the only one to author a novel (The Leopard) that topped the bestseller lists internationally. Published shortly after Tomasi’s death in 1957, this singular novel, considered a Sicilian Gone With the Wind, is the story of a Sicilian aristocratic family during Italy’s unification period (1860-1871). Tomasi’s own family was the model for the fictional Salina clan of the novel, and the intentional parallels drawn between the Allied invasions and the fall of the Savoys, on one hand, and the invasion by Garibaldi’s Piedmontese forces and the fall of the Bourbons, on the other, is striking. Indeed, The Leopard was part of a (then embryonic) post-war trend among Italian intellectuals to examine, if not challenge, the very premise of Italian political unification, setting the stage for Italy’s new federalism, a very concrete reality today.

The Prince of Lampedusa accurately described the decline of the “old” Sicilian aristocracy and its evolution into a vulgar, superficial parody of its former self, alongside the emergence of equally vulgar, materialistic “new classes.” Despite a seemingly conservative point of view, it would be wrong to identify Giuseppe Tomasi as a snob. More than anything else, he was a passionate observer, and The Leopard, more than any other Sicilian novel ever published, has come to define Sicily. In death Tomasi di Lampedusa, the eccentric anti-hero, has become a sage.

Read about Tomasi in this Guardian book review of The Last Leopard by David Gilmour:

Lampedusa was afflicted with several handicaps: extreme shyness; enough money never to need take a job; plus a sense that, as a Sicilian aristocrat, he came from an exhausted, irrelevant culture. There were other factors too, including a major nervous breakdown in his 20s, and a domineering mother, Beatrice Palma. When Giuseppe made a late marriage to the equally formidable Latvian psychoanalyst Alessandra “Licy” Wolff, Beatrice made her son choose between the two of them. Giuseppe weakly opted for his mother and settled into a lengthy marriage-by-correspondence (in French) with Licy.

In Gilmour’s book the subject’s extreme reticence and perfect manners make him not so much a still centre as a black hole, around which more interesting lives swirl. Even the doings of Lampedusa’s dogs seem more vivid than those of their master. Giuseppe and Licy had a large number of dogs, some as well-bred as themselves, others rescued mongrels, and spoke to each of them in a different language. The most cherished was called Crab (named after Launce’s dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), who was addressed in Italian. Giuseppe spent the second world war in Sicily with his mother (Licy was in Riga and Rome), and Crab’s diet was its master’s constant preoccupation. Crab’s birthday would be celebrated with a special dinner – for the dog, that is, not the master. One such consisted of: “Pate, peas and meat, followed by bread and honey; afterwards he would spend an hour in the garden with permission to bark at as many cats as he liked.”



As the naming of Crab suggests, Lampedusa was a deeply literary Anglophile. He thought of Britain as his “ideal country”. He told his wife that he had an English temperament. In his late 50s he gave private lessons in English literature to a small group of students: his notes were posthumously turned into a 1,000-page book, English Literature, published – perhaps with a touch of retrospective shame – by Mondadori in 1990-91.

Watch a talk by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (Giuseppe Tomasi’s adopted son / distant cousin) at New York University in 2014

Read an interview of Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, talking about his adoptive father


Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi and his wife, Nicoletta

Alain Elkann: Did he read the book [The Leopard] to you as he was writing?

Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi: Yes. He read out loud because writers at that time read out loud… Lampedusa read to me, Orlando, Agnello and to the Piccolos. There were different versions, stops and starts, and changes. The first chapter was the day Garibaldi disembarked in Marsala. Initially his novel was supposed to take place in a single day like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but then it just all came tumbling out. He stopped writing the novel to write “Childhood Memories,” which is published in his book of short stories. He wrote a letter to Enrico Merlo before leaving for Rome on what would be a journey of no return (in May of 1957) that was the key to understanding his novel. After the war, Merlo had given Lampedusa’s name to Charles Poletti’s military government as a man of anti-Fascist sentiment, so he was made president of the Red Cross and stayed there for two years.

AE: When were you adopted by Lampedusa?

GLT: His wife Alessandra had the idea, and he adopted me. It was December of 1956. He wanted his family name to be carried on. My father went to see King Umberto in exile to ask for his permission for me to be adopted, and to carry on the title of Duke of Palma. The adoption was granted after a year.

Read the opening of Giuseppe Tomasi’s short story “Torretta” here:

And then there was Torretta. As much as Santa Margherita was loved, Torretta was detested. It has always symbolized and accompanied illness and death, and for me continues to do so.

Torretta is a village around 20 kilometres outside Palermo, inland from the coast and about 500 metres above sea level. Its lofty position gave it the reputation as a cool and healthy spot; in reality the place, hemmed in by a narrow valley, overlooked by steep and barren mountains on every side, and devoid of sewers, running water, a postal service and electricity, is one of the least healthy places on earth. Whenever any members of my family fell sick and were sent to Torretta to “recover”, they wasted away, grew melancholy and within three months died. The local population were sullen, dirty, uncouth, and lived like rats among those sordid alleyways.

Our house was the “baronial residence” of the village, and as such was located on the main square – just as in Santa Margherita, but with a world of difference. There the square was spacious, tree -lined and sunny, and all the houses surrounding it were in at least decent condition; in Torretta it was narrow, dark and closed in, its cobblestones were always damp and adorned by the golden excrement deposited by the local mules. In the middle of it, there was an ugly baroque fountain with three wretchedly small spouts from which the only fresh water available in the village spewed forth; as a result it was surrounded day and night by a throng of women and boys holding their pitchers, or quartare, in their hands, who, with a typically Sicilian scorn for any kind of order or waiting in line, created all sorts of scenes by shouting, jostling, trampling and threatening each other.

Our house was not small – five balconies proudly looked on to the piazza – but it seemed tiny compared to the one in Santa Margherita. It was unfortunate that the facade had not been painted in the usual cheerful Sicilian colours of white and yellow, but was in white with the window and balcony frames done in a darkish grey, more like a faded black, which gave the whole building the look of a tomb belonging to some noble family, displeasing precisely because it awoke foreboding.

Because of the ceaseless shouting and continuous commotion round the fountain, we lived in the rooms at the back of the house, which opened on to a terrace overlooking the valley, one of those bleak Sicilian valleys, bare and discordant, which always let you glimpse in an opening right at the end of them a tiny strip of bright-blue sea. On that side of the house, the air would have been good and complete calm would have reigned had it not been for the fact that about 10 metres below the level of the terrace there was a large tank to which the women of Torretta, carrying their chamber pots, or cantari, on their shoulders, came the whole day long to empty out the excess contents of their cesspits, so that it was impossible to escape the smell of excrement in Torretta, whichever part of the house we were in.



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