The one thing that the reader of these letters will have to take on trust is that the man who wrote them, Giacomo Leopardi, is a great poet – the great poet of the Romantic age in Italy, a figure comparable in stature to Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth or Coleridge in England. Sadly, none of the many attempts to translate his poetry into English has established his name as one recognized even by enthusiasts for early nineteenth-century literature. (Readers who take Pushkin, Hölderlin, Lamartine in their stride are liable to look baffled at the mention of Leopardi, or volunteer hopefully that they loved the book but were not so keen on the film – Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il gattopardo is The Leopard in English). So ‘absent’ is Leopardi from Anglo-Saxon literary consciousness that, before attempting to explain why his letters seemed worth translating to mark this bicentenary of his birth, a few words to place him chronologically and geographically will be in order. And as is so often the case, his own words, taken from one of his letters 1, do the deed more economically and resonantly than any commentator could hope to. Here, almost in note form, is his own account of the essential biographical facts, sent when he was twenty-eight years old to a friend in Bologna who was evidently planning to publish some of his works. (We do not know the details of the project, which like so many others in his life came to nothing.)
Born of Count Monaldo Leopardi of Recanati, a city in the March of Ancona, and Marchioness Adelaide Antici of the same city, on the 29th of June 1798, in Recanati.
Lived always in his birthplace until 24 years of age.
He had no teachers except for the first rudiments, which he learned from tutors retained for the purpose by his father in the house. But he did have the use of a rich library collected by his father, a man with a great love of literature.
In this library he passed the greater part of his life, for as long as and to the extent that his health, destroyed by his studies, allowed; these studies he began independently of his teachers at 10 years of age, and continued subsequently without any respite, making them his sole occupation.
Having learnt Greek, without a teacher, he gave himself in earnest to philological studies, and persevered with them for seven years; until, his eyesight ruined, obliged to spend a whole year (1819) without reading, he turned to thinking, and formed a natural affection for philosophy; to it, and the fine literature associated with it, he has devoted himself almost exclusively until the present time.
At 24 years of age he went to Rome, where he refused holy orders and the hopes of rapid advancement offered him by Cardinal Consalvi as a result of pressing solicitations made on his behalf by Counsellor Niebuhr, at that time Envoy extraordinary from the Prussian court in Rome.
Having returned to his birthplace, from there he went to Bologna, etc.
In the course of 1816 and 1817 he published various translations and original articles in the Spettatore, a Milanese journal, and some philological articles in the Roman Effemeridi in 1822 [...]
The list of publications continues for half a page; it includes the literary as well as the erudite, poetry as well as prose, independent works as well as contributions to periodicals.
Here then are all the important points: noble birth; extraordinary intellectual precocity and a fierce determination to make something of it; frail health, the damaged eyesight especially troublesome; dedication to the classical languages and literatures; the scope and range of the early publications – scholarly, creative, or a combination of the two (translations from Greek and Latin, annotations on classical texts, original poems and essays, supposed translations of newly discovered ancient works – a Mediterranean equivalent in minor key of MacPherson’s Ossian). One theme is missing, or implicit only: the geographical isolation of Recanati, a small provincial city set high along the top of a ridge of hills close to the Adriatic coast in the papal state (by universal acknowledgement the most backward part of central and northern Italy in the early nineteenth century); the intellectual and cultural isolation consequent on its marginal location; and Leopardi’s desire to leave his birthplace in order to live in an environment more suited to his temperament and talents.
Noble birth is a crucial factor in the equation. The Leopardis were one of several dozen aristocratic families in Recanati, whose population numbered 15,000 people. The family palazzo, situated on the main street where it opens out and becomes a small square at one end of the town, is an impressive edifice; and there were land holdings in the surrounding countryside. But aristocratic rank was no guarantee of wealth, or even of a comfortable sufficiency. The many letters which touch on his financial predicament range from anger at his father’s perceived unwillingness to help, to weary acceptance that perhaps it was not possible for him to do so:
If I want to live away from home, I must provide for myself; I mean, not live off my father; because my father does not want to support me away from home, and perhaps he cannot, given the great shortage of ready cash we suffer from in this province, where owning property produces no income, and gentlemen live on what their land produces, not being able to convert it into money; and bearing in mind as well that my family’s estate, though one of the largest in these parts, is sunk in debts. 
The general situation – that being a landowner does not generate an income – is exacerbated in the case of the Leopardis by the family’s particular circumstances and by the household arrangements put in place to deal with them, which date from Giacomo’s early childhood. His father had been financially feckless (indeed reckless) as a young man; as a consequence the family holdings were heavily mortgaged, and the whole estate and its management had been put into the hands of his wife, a ferociously able administrator. She kept up appearances to the outside world (the coachman, horses and servants were retained), but instituted a regime of iron frugality within the domestic walls; in the space of forty years, corresponding almost exactly to the life-span of her oldest son, she paid off the debts and restored the family’s fortunes. The tension between a sense of aristocratic distinction and the impotence resulting from impecuniousness was to be the hallmark of Giacomo’s existence.
But in reality the psychological constraints were more compelling than the financial ones: his father’s unwillingness to support him away from home was, as they both well knew, more significant than his inability to do so. Both parents were very religious, in a rigid and controlling way which owed much to the Jesuits, with whom the family had long-standing ties. They were politically extremely conservative, at a moment in Italian history when the possibility of radical change seemed real and exhilarating to those of a more open and independent cast of mind. A single incident illustrates both aspects of their beliefs: when Napoleon’s troops had first invaded the papal state in 1796, Count Monaldo had led a procession through the town, headed by an effigy of the Madonna which belonged to the family, praying for deliverance. His religious and political principles, stubbornly held and actively championed, were even reflected in the way he chose to dress: always in black, and wearing a sword –a living icon of reactionary attitudes.2 If we add to this that Count Monaldo had literary ambitions, then the potential arena for conflict and competitiveness between father and son covers everything they cared about.
Giacomo was the firstborn, and therefore a particular focus for his father’s ambitions, but soon had a brother (Carlo) and a sister (Paolina), very close to him in age and temperament, his fellow victims and natural allies in dealing with the inflexible and stifling domestic regime; later there were other children, of whom the two brothers who survived were much younger. The three oldest, all highly intelligent, were educated and brought up together at home, with private tutors and by their father. One room in the family library, which occupies a series of interconnecting rooms on the first floor of the palazzo overlooking the square, still has the table at which the three children sat in the centre of the room, and the raised desk to one side from which their father supervised their studies. Their cleverness was a source of great pride to him; both his pride and their cleverness were openly displayed in the exams he had them sit in public every year in the presence of an invited audience, during which they were interrogated (and replied) in Latin on an extensive syllabus, covering grammar, syntax, rhetoric, history, science, arithmetic, geometry and religion.3 For all his many faults – the least appealing of which must be his readiness to justify whatever he decided to do as being what ‘reason’ required– it is difficult not to feel some sympathy with his genuine pleasure in his children’s ability, however misguided his handling of it may seem.
Their mother was a much more difficult case. Her narrow-minded and perhaps even obsessional piety made her devote herself to her children’s practical needs (that was her duty), but, as her oldest son unforgettably described in a prose passage in his common-place book, the Zibaldone, she was secretly pleased if they died in infancy or as a result of childhood illness because then their future as saved souls in heaven was guaranteed.4 (Of her twelve pregnancies, only five children survived to adulthood, and only two –Carlo and Paolina – outlived her.) The domestic regime was one of extreme watchfulness and control, endorsed by their mother in the interests of their spiritual well-being, and by their father in the interests of their rank, their education, and their future. Every moment of their time, every aspect of their existence, was programmed as part of his ‘piano di famiglia’ or family plan , the project which envisaged restoration of the family’s fortunes and the continued residence in Recanati, as one of its leading families, of his heirs, and especially of his firstborn. The oppressiveness of this regime, brilliantly and chillingly evoked in a recent full-length study of the poet5, marked the gifted and sensitive child for life, determining both his temperament and his distinctive voice as a writer. It was a regime of unremitting surveillance and no warmth – ‘our mother’s gaze followed us everywhere: it was her only caress’, Carlo is on record as saying in a memoir written many years later.6 The oppressiveness, in conjunction with the reiterated claims that everything was done out of loving concern for the children’s welfare, exactly embodies the situation Bowlby identified as being one of the most disturbing a child can experience, where constant verbal reassurance that everything is done in the child’s own best interests is belied by its direct experience of its own sense of self and its inner world, and the impact on that world of its parents’ behaviour. Father could sometimes be the children’s ally against their mother (he was after all subject to the same stringent economies as they were), and so he became a figure of extreme ambivalence to them; but in reality his apparently greater emotional availability and affection was itself a mechanism of control and manipulation, as became all too clear when crisis point was reached and his oldest son attempted to leave home.7 The extended household included elderly relatives of Monaldo’s, and various tutors and prelates.8 The children were never unobserved; and in a small provincial town where there were no obvious dangers, Giacomo had never left the house unaccompanied by an adult until Pietro Giordani came to visit him in 1818, when he was already twenty years old, and when for the first time he went out alone to welcome his guest who was to stay at the inn down the road. This first act of rebelliousness – leaving the house unaccompanied, without asking permission, to welcome someone from outside the town and the state – can be invested with powerful symbolic force; Count Monaldo’s misgivings about it were (in his own eyes at any rate) to prove only too well-founded.9
It would be difficult to overstate Leopardi’s intellectual precocity. Already in his mid and late teens he had written, and was trying to publish, ambitious works on a wide range of subjects: to mention only some of the weightiest, two lengthy learned treatises;10 a strikingly original and thoughtful contribution to the Romantic debate in Italy, first in the form of a letter sent to a Milanese literary journal (but not published) in 1816, the year the debate exploded in response to Madame de Staël’s open invitation to Italian intellectuals to renew their stagnant literature by reading and translating the best works from abroad, and then in a long essay written in 1818 elaborating on these same ideas;11 and a translation of book II of the Aeneid, which was published in a modest edition in February 1817. It is his attempt to arouse interest in this last work which serves as a starting-point for the letters in this volume.
Leopardi wrote to the poet Vincenzo Monti, the scholar Angelo Mai, and the intellectual and writer Pietro Giordani, telling each of them that the publisher would be sending a copy of the Aeneid translation, and asking for their comments and advice. The first two wrote conventionally polite, rather dull answers; Giordani’s much more personal and engaged response aroused his young correspondent’s passionate gratitude, and initiated an extraordinary epistolary exchange, in which it would be hard to say if human interest or literary interest is greater – if indeed in the case of Leopardi it is ever possible to separate the two. Giordani’s sympathetic ear enabled Leopardi to express difficult feelings in the certainty of being given a hearing. In these early letters we witness, first, the sense of isolation and frustration of the gifted young man living in an alienating provincial environment where he feels patronized and belittled by those around him; then his painful coming to terms with the permanent physical damage (a curved spine, debilitating digestive disorders, failing eyesight) caused by the ‘seven years of mad and most desperate study’  during his adolescence; and then, a year or two later, following the doomed attempt to escape from home and Recanati, the depression and despair to which it led, and out of which it can plausibly be argued his creative life as a poet was born. (L’Infinito, his first undisputed masterpiece, dates from these months.)
These moving letters show both a remarkable insight into and a capacity for analysis of his own inner world. We are immediately faced with one of the central paradoxes of reading Leopardi: the content of his letters may be depressing (indeed, is at times the experience of depression itself), but the reading of them is not. The act of possessing and articulating his despair seems dauntingly intelligent and courageous; it is curiously energising for the reader. (A similar though more complex kind of thing happens with his greatest poems, which are about loss, desire, memory and disillusionment.) Giordani – himself a figure of considerable stature in Italian letters 12 and at 43 just two years older than Count Monaldo (so an ideal father figure to replace the flawed and problematical real one) – offered his young correspondent space, responsiveness, empathy: in a word, validation of his sense of self and his self esteem. From the outset he treated him as an intellectual and emotional equal. There is a tricky moment when Giacomo reproaches him for not being a careful enough reader, and Giordani disarmingly acknowledges: ‘It’s quite true that I foolishly misunderstood your ‘when’; and I replied very foolishly’.13 The incident gives the exact measure of the distance between real and ideal father: such self-deprecation on the part of Count Monaldo is inconceivable. Less than six months after the first letter and in spite of the difference in age and status, the two are addressing each other as ‘Voi’, having already abandoned the deferential third-person ‘Ella’; not much later they will switch to ‘tu’. (By contrast, Giacomo addressed his father as ‘Ella’ throughout his life.) These grammatical markers, impossible to reproduce in English, exactly reflect the growing intimacy (in his father’s case, the barrier to intimacy) between them. Giordani wrote to a friend in 1819: ‘If you saw, if you only saw, the letters I’m getting. Only Dante could write them...’14 The comment seems perfectly appropriate, not just because of the passionate engagement with life and literature and the relationship between the two, but because of the expressive energy and elegance with which these themes are elaborated.
The early letters to Giordani give an extraordinarily vivid sense of a process of self-discovery, of a young writer finding himself and speaking for the first time in his own voice. The contact with Giordani quickly becomes a lifeline, an indispensable condition for being able to face the world: ‘in this cursed city I must get all my strength from my spirit and your letters’ , ‘as long as you write to me, I shall be happy’ , ‘you, the only person who can understand me’ , ‘as I cannot talk to anyone else, I talk to you about these feelings of mine’ . They form a first major block in the correspondence as it is here presented; they might be read as the opening section of an epistolary novel.
The task of choosing the 220 letters translated here from among the more than 900 extant letters could be viewed as the constructing of such a novel – the creating of a version, however tentative and imperfect, of that spiritual and psychological autobiography that Leopardi himself long intended to write but never did. A letter of 1829 lists among his as yet unrealized literary projects: ‘The story of a soul, a Novel which would have little external action, and that very commonplace: but it would relate the inner experiences of a mind born noble and sensitive, from the time of its earliest memories until death’ . His own attempts to realize this project – repeated, fragmentary, never completed – have recently been edited in exemplary fashion by Franco D’Intino.15 This selection of his letters could be regarded as a companion volume to that book: it offers a different take on the same material – his own story, told in his own words, in a discontinuous series of attempts to explain himself to the world.
Henry James remarked that there are two kinds of lives worth telling, lives of those who have done a lot, and lives of those who have thought a lot. Leopardi’s is of the second kind: our epistolary novel has almost no plot. Almost nothing of note happened to him: unlike other poets who are his contemporaries, he did not die fighting for Greek independence, or defending his honour in a duel, or sailing a small boat in stormy weather. He did not even go walking in the Lake district; or travel to another country for reasons of health, as he would have liked to do. The plot, such as it is, is a psychological one: the desire to leave Recanati, and the thwarting of that desire; the need to escape from father and from home, and the inevitability of his returning each time he does get away, until finally he would rather die than go back; the emergence against all the odds of a uniquely compelling and individual poetic voice.
Such incidents as there are tend to be connected with the mechanics of the correspondence: the unreliability of the post in the first instance and the frustrations it caused (inducing on occasion near despair); the inexplicable failure to receive acknowledgement of certain letters; then, sinisterly, the realization that a ‘domestic censorship’ was being exercised by his father, who had become worried by his son’s liberal political sympathies, and, after Giordani’s visit in 1818, laid the blame squarely at the feet of his new literary friends. Thus the marvellous letter to Giordani’s friend Giuseppe Montani  analysing the relationship between literature and nationhood was never received by its intended recipient, for it never left casa Leopardi. The watchfulness and control which governed the children’s lives – and the need to elude it – has become a defining condition of the correspondence.
The first real event, inevitably it seems, is a non-event, or a failed event: Leopardi’s attempt to leave home on attaining his majority in 1819. He had no clear plan in mind other than an absolute imperative to escape from an oppressively restrictive environment. The passport he obtained was for Milan, the home of Giordani, Monti, Mai, the Biblioteca Italiana, and the romantics – a passport for literature and the life of the mind. His bid for freedom generated an extraordinary group of four letters: the disingenuous letter  to a family friend, Saverio Broglio D’Ajano, whose help he requested in obtaining the passport, which he needed to travel outside the papal state; the letter to his brother Carlo , whom he had not taken into his confidence about his plan (it was to be opened after his departure, so that Carlo would not be implicated in the guilt); the letter to his father , enclosed in the one to Carlo, and to be passed on by him after the escape (another letter never seen by its intended recipient, but – significantly –never destroyed); and finally, when the attempt failed because his father came by chance to learn of the request for a passport, a second letter  to Broglio D’Ajano explaining why he had been less than candid. The letter to his father, with its dignity, pain, bitterness, regret, rage and immense sadness, is the first uncompromising text in a series – the letters to his father written over the next eighteen years – which taken together provide us with text-book material for a case study of ambivalence.
The official who had issued the passport mentioned it to an uncle who in turn mentioned it to Count Monaldo, who asked that it be sent to him. The passport was then left in a drawer, where in theory Giacomo was free to take it and use it when he pleased. But he no longer felt able to do so: ‘I was found out and prevented not by force, which could not do it, but by prayers’ , he later explained, ‘they used prayers and grief’ . The analysis in the letter to Broglio D’Ajano of his father’s behaviour, the deviousness and manipulativeness of his modus operandi, is acute and merciless. His mother was never told about the escape attempt, which became another secret shared by some members of the family and not others; to those friends who knew of it his father dismissed it as mere youthful waywardness.
The letters to Giordani enable us to chart the slide into despair which followed. The continuing inability to read and hence to work was accompanied by a listlessness and lack of energy so profound as to suggest a nervous breakdown. There is an extraordinary letter which describes a state close to catatonia: ‘If at this moment I were to go mad, I think my madness would be to sit forever with my eyes staring, my mouth open, my hands between my knees, without laughing or crying or moving except when forced to from the place where I happened to be. I no longer have the energy to conceive any desire, not even for death’ . Noia (tedium or ennui or life-weariness) is experienced as physical suffering: ‘tedium not only weighs on me and wearies me, but it torments me and tears me like a terrible pain’ . Contact with Giordani is now more than ever a lifeline: ‘I beg you to go on being fond of me, and to remember me, and to believe that I love you as best I can, and I’ll always love you, and I want you to write to me’ . Paradoxically, it is when he begins to feel a little better that he finds he can weep, and his despair broadens into a generalized sense of the wretchedness of the human condition: ‘if sometimes I find myself a little less disconsolate, then I have the strength to weep, and I weep because I am happier, and I weep for the wretchedness of men and the nothingness of things. There was a time when the wickedness of men and virtue’s misfortunes moved me to contempt, and my grief sprang from contemplating iniquity. But now I weep for the unhappiness of slaves and tyrants, oppressed and oppressors, good and bad, and in my sadness there is no longer any spark of anger, and this life no longer seems to me worth the fighting’ . Coupled with this comes an acute sense of loss, an awareness that something is irretrievably gone. Mourning for the pastness of the past, and a longing for what cannot be recovered – childhood, now explicitly identified with the possibility of happiness, though it is a happiness by default – is at the heart of the experience: ‘because the tenor and the habits and the events and the places of this life of mine are still those of my childhood, I cling with both hands to these last remnants and these shadows of that blessed and blissful time, when I hoped for and dreamed of happiness, and as I hoped and dreamed enjoyed it, and it has gone and will never come back, surely never again’ . For Leopardi, not allowed to be a child when he was a child, and yet, as we shall see, not allowed to be a fully autonomous adult either when he had grown up, childhood becomes a time, a place, a theme of extraordinary imaginative force.
Leopardi did not leave Recanati until late 1822, when he went to stay with relatives in Rome for six months. His uncle, Marquess Carlo Antici, had ecclesiastical ambitions for this gifted nephew (he managed to ensure that his own unremarkable son later became a cardinal). There was a family tradition of making a career in the church: an uncle of Giacomo’s mother had been a cardinal; Giacomo himself had worn clerical dress and tonsure throughout adolescence, as though high church office were his natural destiny. (His parents seem to have encouraged this when it became clear that his frail health and deformity made it unlikely that he would marry and produce an heir. The rights of primogeniture were transferred to Carlo.) This visit to Rome, too little and too late, is documented in the wonderfully vivid and irreverent letters he sent home describing both the Antici household and the broader social scene. There are letters to his father – circumspect, reassuring, and critical of just those things his father would disapprove of, including the lack of order in the Antici household (the regimentation of home had been intolerable to Giacomo, and experienced by him as a prison, but with typical ambivalence he finds its opposite equally disturbing ); letters to his sister Paolina –gossipy, affectionate, and very concerned at her desolation when her projected marriage came to nothing; but above all letters to his brother Carlo, to whom alone he was able to confide his hopes and disappointments not just in the literary but in the erotic domain as well.
His need to speak openly to his brother, and his sure knowledge of the horror his parents would feel if these letters fell into their hands, led to subterfuges and intrigue. There was a conspiratorial arrangement to send letters under a false name (originally set up by Carlo, who was hoping to receive billets doux from his cousin Marietta in Rome, but used by the brothers for their own purposes when she declined to oblige);16 there were repeated injunctions that under no circumstances are certain things to be mentioned at home (especially the attempts to secure some kind of employment that might enable him to be self-supporting and thus not return to Recanati); and panic when he thinks that a letter to Carlo may have been seen by his parents (‘almost all I talked about was women and silly stories’).17 Carlo had already confided that he missed not just Giacomo’s physical presence in the house, but the linguistic licence they allowed one another in the rare moments when they were alone together.18 It would be easy to dismiss this as just two boys in a straight-laced household defiantly using scurrilous language behind their parents’ backs; but it is surely also a telling indicator of the need to break free from the constraints under which they were obliged to function, if they were to achieve autonomy and a sense of self. The words they use in the letters are the usual anatomical ones (coglione, cazzo): they correlate with the denial of the bodily, the physical, the vital, the instinctual, the passionate (‘nature’, in Leopardian terminology, as distinct from Monaldo’s ‘reason’) which was both the essence and the raison d’être of the domestic regime. (The habit continued: years later, when Giacomo is in Bologna, it is startling and touching to find Carlo writing to him in response to the news that he is once again suffering from acute constipation: ‘se mi ami, caca!’19) The Roman letters have been described as a kind of Leopardian Le rouge et le noir;20 the disenchanted picture they paint is counterbalanced by the single moving letter  which describes a visit to Tasso’s tomb, whose simplicity, smallness and bareness become a touchstone for true values against the grandiosity, frivolity, licentiousness and idleness of the capital.21
At the end of April 1823 Leopardi returned to Recanati. The pattern of the correspondence now becomes an alternation of home and away-from-home: the letters fall into groups depending on where he is writing from, the sequence going roughly Recanati, Rome, Recanati, Bologna-Milan-Bologna, Recanati, Florence-Pisa-Florence, Recanati, Florence-Rome-Florence, and finally Naples. Rather than giving an account of this as a sequence approximating to a plot, it seems more useful to pick out threads in the narrative, themes which develop over the length of the correspondence. The background of the tapestry, the constants which never change, are the unreliability of the post, the state of his health, and his worries about money. We may consider each of these briefly before moving on to the incidental and local pleasures of the letters – his impressions of the different cities he stayed in, his broader intellectual concerns at any given point, his capacity for lasting friendships, especially with foreigners; and finally to the themes of major interest which unfold over the whole length of his life – family relationships and destinies, his own emergence as a writer and a poet.
The unreliability of the post never ceased to be a cause of concern. Just 19 months before Giacomo’s first letter to Giordani, the Congress of Vienna, in June 1815, had decided on Europe’s destiny in the aftermath of Napoleon’s campaigns and his defeat. Italy was restored to something close to her pre-Napoleonic, pre-revolutionary state: a collection of politically independent units, with Austria in control of the Lombardo-Veneto, the papal State restored to the Pope, Tuscany a grand Duchy, Piedmont with Genoa annexed to it under the house of Savoy, Parma and Modena small independent Duchies, Lucca an independent republic, and Naples a part of the kingdom which included the Southern mainland and Sicily. This political fragmentation is reflected in the complexities of the practical arrangements for postal services,22 the different systems of coinage in use, and in political censorship for letters between different parts of the country. It is difficult to know whether letters which fail to arrive have got lost in the post or been confiscated by the censors; getting letters to and from Giordani, known for his liberal and anti-clerical sympathies, is often a problem; a false name has to be used when writing about Ranieri, a friend in later years, to avoid his identification by the authorities .
Many of the letters give a brief report on their writer’s health – always a matter of concern to his friends and family – and on the whole these are stoical and uncomplaining. Occasionally there is a sense of elation when he feels really well, but much more commonly the frustration at achieving less than what he knows he is capable of. The only note of real bitterness occurs when he writes to his mother wearily countering what seem to have been explicit accusations of hypochondria.23 There are very few letters to her – just four, compared to the scores he wrote to his father – but one cannot attach too much significance to this, as she is very insistent in her letters that he not write to her separately, since she knows what it costs him in terms of eye-strain. (His letters to other members of the family are in any case normally shared, hence the need for vigilance in writing confidentially to Carlo.) Three of the letters to his mother are included here: the innocuous one from Rome, which assures her of his safe arrival there ; the one just mentioned where he denies that his health problems are all in his imagination ; and the even more chilling one in which, living in Naples in a state of near destitution, he repeats to her the request that he had already made to his father for a small allowance like the one paid to Carlo .
Money worries are never far from his mind. Attempts to find gainful employment –which must be kept hidden from his father, for whom the need or desire to earn a living was regarded with aristocratic disdain – are a recurring theme. Early on, he hoped to find a position in the Vatican library. Mai (‘the most disobliging librarian in Europe’, according to Stendhal 24) was not much help here . Later there were various possibilities for academic appointments, abroad as well as in Italy [98, 102], including improbably at one point a university chair in Natural History, a subject about which he candidly admitted he knew nothing . But these possibilities were for the most part not pursued enthusiastically, not just because of problems connected with his health, with travelling, with the weather – travelling in summer or winter was impossible because of the effect of extremes of heat and cold on his delicate constitution – but on account of the difficulty he would have in making his voice carry to a large audience, and the disrespectful attitude of students.25 There was an extended period in the mid-1820’s of doing editorial work for the Milanese publisher Antonio Fortunato Stella – first a commentary on Petrarch, then the preparation of a prose anthology, and finally a poetry one – which was in the long term debilitating and demoralising, because it felt like hack work. Stella drove a hard bargain financially,26 and was not solicitous even in making the payments he had promised: Leopardi had on occasion to spell out the embarrassment he would be caused if the money owing did not arrive . The final desperate determination, when he was already a writer and scholar of international repute, to do anything to get away from home produced a letter which makes almost unbearable reading:
I am resolved, with the little money that remains from when I was able to work, to set out on a journey to seek health or to die, and never to return to Recanati again. I will not be particular about what I do; any situation compatible with my health will suit: I shall not mind humiliations; because there does not exist a humiliation or abasement greater than what I suffer living in this centre of European boorishness and ignorance. I no longer have anything to lose, and even putting my life at risk, all I risk is gaining something. Tell me in all sincerity if you think that in Florence I could manage to survive by giving lessons or talks on literature at home; and if I would find something quickly; because the money I have to live on won’t last long. I mean literary lessons of any kind at all, even the most elementary: of language, grammar, and suchlike. 
He explains in a post-script: ‘I’m asking you this question about giving lessons, because I cannot compose, write, read. I could give lessons, that is teach, having someone else do the reading.’
Leopardi’s evident desperation inspired his Tuscan friends to organise an income to support him for a year in Florence: it is to them – ‘Agli amici suoi di Toscana’ – that he would dedicate the Canti. His capacity for friendship, for inspiring affection and loyalty in those who knew him well, seems to have been great. It was not much in evidence in Recanati – there are eye-witness accounts of active hostility and taunting by local youths when he was an adolescent.27 But elsewhere the story was different. The foreign contacts he made in Rome remained in some cases friends for life. Carlo Bunsen emerges with great credit as someone to whom he felt he could always turn in extremis [91, 92, 209, 210]. Some of his most thoughtful and revealing letters are to foreigners, for example to the Belgian Jacopssen ; and later to the Swiss De Sinner [176, 185, 187, 211, 218]. He made many friends in Bologna, where Antonietta Tommasini and Adelaide Maestri, and their respective husbands, came to seem like a second family to him , and where he took the trouble to track down a former family servant, Angelina, who was delighted to see him; he subsequently became godfather to her child [93, 95, 102]. In Florence he had a large circle of friends: in one letter he names eleven of them to whom he particularly asks to be remembered. His antipathy to Niccolò Tommaseo (‘that crazy fool Tommaseo, who is despised in Italy and makes people think he’s a great man in Paris’ ) is quite exceptional, and is a response to Tommaseo’s hostility towards him for his less-than-enthusiastic judgment on a piece of his work . (Stella had asked for Leopardi’s opinion without revealing its authorship.) Tommaseo was not above making a cheap crack about Leopardi’s hunched back.28
Finally there is the friendship in his last years with Antonio Ranieri, the dashing young Neapolitan exile he met in Florence, whose success with the ladies he vicariously enjoyed. Ranieri was infatuated with and pursuing an actress, Maria Maddalena Pelzet, and was being pursued by Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, who ingratiated herself with Leopardi as a way of getting access to his friend, as Leopardi himself wryly notes . Leopardi intervened on Ranieri’s behalf to effect a reconciliation with Ranieri’s estranged father [177, 179, 181], leading eventually to their moving together to Naples and setting up house, where Ranieri’s sister Paolina was their housekeeper. The record is muddied by Ranieri’s account of the friendship in his Sette anni di sodalizio, a distasteful book written decades after the events it describes by a rancorous old man trying to defend his reputation against charges of parasitism.29 There are no love letters (in their stead we have Alla sua donna, a poem whose title its author glossed as ‘la donna che non si trova’, the woman who cannot be found); the few letters to women friends for whom he felt more than friendship, especially the flighty Fanny [175, 189], are touchingly dignified.30 But he was obviously much loved by some people. Through all the many letters to friends we build up a sense of his social persona: the exquisite courtesy and unfailing signorilità is corroborated by the comments of outsiders on him, which always emphasise his dignity, his modesty, his gentleness of manner, and his apartness.
Leopardi’s impressions of the different cities he stayed in constitute an incidental pleasure of the correspondence. He was pleased with Bologna (‘a very quiet, very cheerful, very hospitable city’ ; ‘I am missing Bologna, though, where I was almost feted, where I made many more friends in nine days than I did in Rome in five months, where people think only of living cheerfully without calculation, where outsiders have no rest on account of the attentions lavished on them, where clever men are invited to lunch nine times a week’ ); disappointed in Milan (‘Milan materially and morally is all a garden of the Tuilleries’ ); not impressed with Florence, in spite of his many friends there (‘These alleyways they call streets suffocate me; this universal filth sickens me’ ); and delighted with Pisa, whose appeal he describes in detail in a letter to Paolina:
I like the look of Pisa much better than that of Florence. This Lungarno is a spectacle so fine, so spacious, so grand, so lively, so cheerful, that it’s captivating: I’ve not seen anything like it in Florence, or Milan, or Rome; and truly I don’t know if in the whole of Europe many views of this sort are to be found. Then in winter people walk about there with great pleasure, because there’s almost always an air of spring: so that at certain times of day the street is full of people, full of carriages and pedestrians: you hear ten or twenty languages spoken, a splendid sun shines on the gildings of the cafés, the shops full of pretty wares, and onto the windows of the buildings and the houses, all of fine architecture. Apart from that, Pisa is a mixture of big city and small city, of urban and rustic, a mixture so romantic that I’ve never seen its like. 31
He is resigned to the chaos of Naples, where the arrival of cholera causes him to move to the countryside; but by this stage the letters are fewer and shorter, and only to his father and De Sinner does he write at any length.
The broader intellectual concerns which occupy him at certain points make fascinating reading. We have his thoughts on the value of translating [2, 3, 12], on the role of the ugly in art , on the relation between spoken and written language , on literature and nationhood [24, 56], on what needs to be done in Italian literature , on the cult of antiquarianism in Rome , on the function of periodicals in the cultural life of the nation , on the editing of classical texts and Italy’s poor performance in this area compared with English and German scholarship [78, 80], on his lack of enthusiasm for Petrarch , on the need for Italians to have contact with foreign cultures , on the desolate prospects for literature in Europe in the early 1830s , and on many other topics.
On the domestic front, we follow Paolina’s and Carlo’s attempts to escape from home. In her case, self-evidently, such an escape was only realistically possible through marriage, but in reality, as it turned out, this was true for him as well. We can track the repeated failure of plans to arrange a marriage for Paolina, leading to her real desperation at the prospect of ending her life in a convent or at home (‘the place where I live is casa Leopardi; and you know better than me what life there is like..’).32 No fewer than three prospective husbands fail to measure up financially or to be sufficiently motivated by her modest dowry and plain looks [57, 66, 69, 72]; and in fact she never married, making Nelle nozze della sorella Paolina (On his Sister Paolina’s Wedding) – written when her hopes seemed destined to be fulfilled – a poem of great poignancy. She remained a prisoner at home, with her mother as goaler (‘she wanders all over the house, she’s everywhere, at all hours..’);33 she devoured books, especially English and French novels, and said she had read more than 2000 volumes;34 she was allowed no friends, and still had to resort to deviousness to receive letters from outsiders (correspondents were told to address their letters to Don Sanchini, who would signal their arrival by placing a flower-pot on his window-sill). She described her existence after her brothers had left home as a kind of death. (She was, as it happens, no mean letter writer herself.) In later life she became distinctly eccentric, spending extravagantly on clothes (by now the family fortune had been restored, after forty years of sacrifices), and – a thing Leopardi scholars find hard to forgive – acting the grande dame and giving away her brother’s letters to all and sundry.
Carlo’s escape took the form of marrying an unsuitable cousin against his parents’ wishes (itself an uncanny echo of Count Monaldo’s marriage against the wishes of his mother). He did this when his father was temporarily away from home – perhaps the only way he could do it. To his brother, who had unwisely given their father guarantees about his steadiness [144, 146, 152], it was a shocking move, and it caused a cooling in their relationship. As a result of the marriage, which removed him from the house but not the town, Carlo forfeited the primogeniture rights which had passed to him because of Giacomo’s ill-health, and which now passed to Pierfrancesco; he failed to regain them in spite of a court case he mounted contesting his father’s will. He too in middle age became eccentric and difficult, as parsimonious as his mother, much loathed by the local townspeople, whose needs he exploited as a money-lender, and who, it is reported, desecrated his corpse in its coffin at his funeral. All three children were marked and damaged for life by their upbringing. In the light of Carlo’s failure to carve out his own destiny, Giacomo’s doing so seems all the more remarkable.
What the letters reveal about Leopardi’s development as a writer and poet can be considered under two heads: the writing itself, and the practicalities of publication. Some of the major themes of his poetry and thinking are touched on or explored in the letters: the role of illusions in human life; the relationship between nature, reason, and truth; the predicament of the gifted and sensitive spirit trapped in an ugly body (the ‘velo indegno’ of Ultimo canto di Saffo); the problem of virtue. There are occasional parallels between the content of individual letters and poems, but (disappointingly) nothing at all about the writing of those poems. There is a letter, responding to a request from his cousin for a poem to commemorate a friend’s brother who had died, on his inability to write poems to order. In it he describes the process by which his poems come into being, insisting on the necessary lapse of time between first inspiration and final execution:35
In my life I’ve written only a very small number of short poems. In writing them I’ve never followed anything but an inspiration (or frenzy); when it came on me, in two minutes I formed the outline and plan of the whole composition. When that’s done, it is always my habit to wait for another moment to come, and when it does come (which normally happens only a few months later), then I set about composing, but so slowly, that it isn’t possible for me to finish a poem, even a very short one, in less than two or three weeks. This is my method, and if inspiration does not come of its own accord, it would be easier for water to come from a tree trunk than a single line from my brain. 
This is comparable to the canonical Romantic texts on the role of inspiration in poetic composition – on its not being subject to an act of willing: Keats’s ‘if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all’, and Shelley’s ‘Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it.’36 The same point is made, a little more tartly, when he concludes: ‘it is certain that asking a difficult and unproductive nature like mine for a poem is the same as asking me for a bishopric: the latter I cannot give, and the former I cannot write to order.’
The invisible thread – the story one could hardly guess from reading the letters –is Leopardi’s emergence as a lyric poet, as distinct from a poet of commitment to public issues (to the state of the nation, and the need to do something about it). The two strands develop in parallel, and in intricate inter-relationship, but whereas he is able to talk about the patriotic poems, and actively promote their publication, there is nothing in the letters about the piccoli idilli. (Idillio or ‘idyll’ is the term he used for those poems which spoke most directly from and about his inner world, his subjectivity.) There is, for example, no mention of L’Infinito or of La sera del dì di festa. The silence is surely significant: whereas he can explain the poems which conform to a poetic of patriotic concern, the private poems are less easy to account for, and, as we know, were not published until years after they were written.37 There is a gap of several years in the mid-1820s in which he hardly writes poetry at all. When he casually mentions at the end of a short letter to Paolina from Pisa that he has written ‘poems just like the ones I used to write, and with the heart I once had’ , it is a magical moment – one of the poems is A Silvia, which itself initiates the great flowering of his lyrical gift in the grandi idilli.
What can be tracked through the letters are the attempts to get his work published: the story makes fascinating, if dispiriting, reading. The carelessness of the printers is a persistent theme, his own fanatical attention to detail unrelenting. Lack of money was always a problem. Early on his father approved the scholarly publications, which might lead to an ecclesiastical position (there were, as we have seen, various attempts to get a job in the Vatican, or use Vatican influence to get a job elsewhere in the state). But the creative works were another story, and were often published in spite of his father’s active obstructiveness. The two early patriotic canzoni 38 were finally published in Rome– the manuscript originally sent to Giordani in Piacenza either got lost in the post or was confiscated by the authorities – but Leopardi was desperately disappointed with the shoddy look of the finished product, the many misprints and the cost . He next tried to have three new poems 39 printed in Bologna, asking Giordani’s friend Pietro Brighenti to supervise their publication; Brighenti suggested he reprint the patriotic poems as well. His father got wind of this, and contacted Brighenti behind his back, urging him not to reprint the patriotic canzoni, and demanding to know what the new ones were about.40 His son’s sense of outrage at this typical deviousness and high-handedness is reflected in the letter he wrote to Brighenti when he found out – another extreme expression of filial hostility and anger:
I thank my father [...] for the permission he grants me to print my canzoni. But he does not want the two Roman ones to be reprinted. He is quite right. He wanted you to tell him the titles of the unpublished ones. He did the right thing. He does not want the first one printed. Again, quite right: not to my mind, to be sure, but it is quite right that in my writings his opinion should prevail, because I am and always will be a child, and not capable of making decisions for myself. That leaves two canzoni. For these two (about which at last and by chance it is my turn to have a say) I say there is no need to put the printers to the trouble, and so let’s put an end to the matter, and the bother I must have caused you. 
His father objected to the first two poems on the grounds of their supposed political subversiveness. The title alone of the third one, inspired by a recent local scandal (the death of a young woman following an abortion), was enough to arouse his apprehension: ‘he immediately imagined a thousand filthy things in the execution of it, and a thousand improprieties in the subject, which can come into the mind of a person who, although very intelligent and quite well read, yet has no idea of the literary world.’ Only Ad Angelo Mai met with his approval: ‘The title of the second unpublished one was luckily found to be quite innocent. It’s about a Monsignor’, as Giacomo noted sarcastically. Then he rashly added: ‘But my father cannot conceive of someone for whom all subjects provide an opportunity to speak of what matters most to him, and he has no inkling that under that title is hidden an Ode full of horrible fanaticism.’ This outburst, even if intended ironically, was ill-advised: Brighenti, as we now know but Leopardi never did, was an undercover informer for the Austrian authorities, and in fact Ad Angelo Mai (the only one of the five poems actually printed on this occasion) was subsequently banned in the Lombardo-Veneto, a fact he tried to keep from his parents.41 When he finally managed to publish the volume of ten Canzoni in Bologna in 1824, there were again problems with the censor, permission to print being twice refused . At a certain point he simply started taking steps to ensure that his parents did not see what he published. He arranged for the proofs of the Canzoni to be sent to him in Recanati care of a fictitious name, Alberto Popoli. 42 Later, to let Carlo know that he was sending him a book, again care of a fictitious name, he inserted a sentence in English in one letter, setting it out on three short lines as though it were a quotation from a poem, in order to allay his parents’suspicions should the letter fall into their hands.43 When the Canti at last appeared in 1831, he sent a copy to Carlo, but urged him to show it only to Paolina and Pierfrancesco, and then to keep it hidden and safe from their parents .
The publication history of the Operette morali – a collection of philosophical prose meditations, many of them in dialogue form – was no less troubled. Calling into question received ideas and comfortable assumptions as they do, and all the more effectively for their ironical lightness of touch, they are radically incompatible with Monaldo’s principles. But first there were practical difficulties. Three of the dialogues were published separately in the Antologia without Leopardi’s approval and to his great displeasure: the book had been planned as a unity, he had to explain to the editor, and lost its point if broken up into fragments .44 He sent this number of the Antologia to Carlo and Paolina under a false name and urged them to hide it .45 There were, as always, problems with the censor .46 Then he was horrified to find that Stella was proposing to publish the book in an unsuitable series (The Ladies’ Library for light reading) . He refused to allow the book to be sold in Recanati, in order to avoid having it come into his father’s hands.47 When finally his father did read it, he wanted changes made and brought pressure to bear to that end. Leopardi dealt as tactfully as possible with the unsolicited advice:
God knows how grateful I am to you for your advice about my book. I swear to you that my intention was to write poetry in prose, as the custom is nowadays; and so to follow this or that mythology as I chose; as one does in poetry, without in consequence being thought a pagan, Moslem, Buddhist etc. [...] As for correcting the passages you indicate, and which at the moment I cannot call to mind, I promise I will think seriously about it; but God knows now whether it would be physically possible for me, I don’t say to correct the book, but to reread it. You must trust the experience I have in these matters by now, that any declaration or protest I were to publish would only create a scandal, and whatever there might be in the book that was dangerous would only be more sought out, more remarked on, and more harmful. 
It is hardly surprising that he felt embattled.
The battle continued on another front with the publication in January 1832 of Count Monaldo’s Dialoghetti sulle materie correnti nell’anno 1831, a work which seems to have been conceived in direct competition with the Operette, using the same dialogue form, and designed to champion sound reactionary principles in politics and religion. The book was published anonymously, but at some point the publisher let slip the information that the author’s name was Leopardi. Giacomo’s initial pleasure in his father’s success [180, 182] turned to horror when he realized that the book was being attributed to him, and rumours were circulating that he was a convert to reactionary views. He felt forced to issue public denials of authorship. To Giampietro Vieusseux, the editor of the Antologia, he wrote:
I declare that I am not the author of the book entitled Dialoghetti sulle materie correnti nell’anno 1831, which some people are attributing to me. Please publish this declaration in your worthy Journal the Antologia. [...]
Please also arrange, if it is possible (as I hope it will be), for this declaration, with my name, to be included in the list of contents on the cover of the issue, and, if possible, on a separate line (a new paragraph), so that it cannot be missed. 
It is instructive to compare the letter written at the same time to his cousin Peppe, which asks him to place a similar disclaimer of authorship of ‘those filthy, fanatical, awful dialogues’  in a Roman journal, with the letter to his father explaining why he has done so: ‘I thought it unworthy to usurp in a way what is owing to someone else, and above all to you. I am not the man to tolerate taking the credit for another’s merits’ . The contrast between them, too easily dismissed as hypocrisy, is better understood in terms of ambivalence; it forces us to reflect on the central question of his relationship with his father.
The ambivalence which informs Leopardi’s attitude to so many aspects of his life – solitude, study, death, and even Recanati itself, are all at different times seen as very positive or very negative – is nowhere more apparent than in his attitude towards his father. For his father, as he says over and over again in the letters to him, he felt respect, concern, affection: genuine respect for a man of principle, though the principles are very different from his own, and not ones he can admire; genuine concern at his displeasure or distress, even when he himself is the cause of it; and even genuine affection. These feelings co-exist alongside barely concealed loathing for certain aspects of his father’s behaviour – those aspects which do not acknowledge and respect his own autonomy.48 We have the independent testimony of an acquaintance in Florence that Leopardi always spoke of his father with respect and even affection (his behaviour, that is, correlates with the expressions in his letters), but that he felt the difference in their principles was an irreconcilable barrier to co-existence in the same house or town. He can only cope with his father’s behaviour and his own ambivalence when he is away from home; whenever he comes back, he goes into crisis mode, with despairing letters and strange behaviour.49
Giacomo’s ambivalence is experienced by Monaldo as a lack of intimacy. An alert reader points out that no letter of Monaldo’s to his son (and there are 135 of them) fails to speak of his love, as though soliciting reciprocity of devotion. On one occasion he complains in so many words that his son’s letters are too dry, too lacking in any sense of closeness or confidence. Giacomo, with his usual courtesy, sensitivity and willingness to try to explain himself, attempts to account for the feeling of constraint. He describes the barrier to intimacy between them as depending on habits which date back to earliest childhood. There is no reason to suppose that what he says in this letter about his love and his gratitude is anything but true:
You reproach me for the dryness of my letters [...] You would like me to see your heart for just one moment; and on this subject allow me to make a protest and a declaration, which from now on may always serve to shed light on the way I feel towards you. I tell you, then, and protest with all possible truthfulness, before God, that I love you as tenderly as it is or ever was possible for any son to love his father; that I recognize very clearly the love you feel for me, and that I feel a gratitude as heartfelt and as deep as human gratitude can ever be for what you have done for me and for your tenderness; that I would willingly give you all my blood, not just from a sense of duty, but from love [...] If then you sometimes desire in me more closeness and more displays of intimacy towards you, the lack of these things comes simply from the habit contracted in infancy, a habit that brooks no disobedience and cannot be conquered, because it goes back too far and began too early. 
The son has insight into the difficulties of the relationship, and their origin, but there is no corresponding insight from his father. Monaldo endlessly acts out the need for control, the failure to acknowledge a boundary, the failure to respect the otherness of the other person: the publication history, with all the many attempts to interfere with, suppress, or change what his son has written, can be seen as a territorial dispute, the fight by Giacomo to establish a boundary around his own autonomy. (Monaldo’s utter incomprehension of what is at stake is reflected in a mournful letter in 1828 complaining that he never gets to see what Giacomo publishes any more.)50 The failure by a parent to acknowledge and respect a boundary can be experienced by the child as an attack on selfhood, an erosion of self-esteem: Leopardi himself repeatedly identified loss of self-esteem as the determining factor in the escape attempt and the breakdown which followed [27, 29, 40]. These family therapy notions of ambivalence and boundaries provide what is inevitably a rather simple psychological model for what in reality is an infinitely complex relationship and history, but they help explain how he can feel such extremes of emotion (tenderness and concern; contempt and anger) towards the same person and virtually at the same time.
Giacomo’s self-esteem, undermined by his mother on principle from early childhood, was under attack more insidiously by his father, who had seemed to be his ally and to share his sense of who he was and what he might achieve, and yet had proved unable to understand and endorse the reality. In retrospect his father’s co-responsibility for the ruin of his health must have been inescapably clear, even if never consciously articulated.51 The letters from Carlo Antici to Count Monaldo during the ‘seven years of mad and most desperate study' urging him to think of his son’s health and to encourage him to take exercise and fresh air – and the wilful obtuseness of Monaldo’s replies – make disturbing reading. Here Monaldo has failed to establish a boundary in a different, almost literal, sense: Giacomo’s appetite for study was limitless, and no limit was placed on it. Carlo famously described Giacomo as an adolescent reading and writing late at night bent over the last guttering flame of the candle – a haunting image, as one sees the damage to spine and eyesight in fieri, as it is happening. Count Monaldo, the champion of reason and its self-elected spokesman (when he founded a periodical he called it, inevitably, La voce della ragione),52 had been unable as a father to act even with ordinary common sense or reasonableness. Giacomo’s loss of health and of a normal physique, and the loss of happiness consequent on it, cannot be separated from the boundless sense of possibility (hopes, dreams, desires) experienced precisely as he was depriving himself, with his father’s active collusion, of the possibility of ever achieving them. Childhood for Leopardi is the place where everything is possible; adulthood is the place where almost nothing is.53
Giordani gave what Leopardi’s father would not or could not give, an unconditional endorsement of his autonomy and right to choose his own destiny, and express his genius in his own terms. Giordani immediately and intuitively had the measure of his young correspondent. With prescience and real generosity of spirit, and speaking (as it turns out) for posterity, he wrote in 1819 to a friend: ‘he is boundlessly, frighteningly great. You cannot imagine how great he is’.54 Many years after Leopardi’s death, when his stature was no longer in doubt, a visitor called on his mother and, as a way of paying her a compliment for being by implication the mother of a genius, quoted Virgil’s words to Dante in the Divine Comedy: ‘Benedetta colei che di te s’incinse’ (Blessed is she who bore you). All she was able to say in reply was: ‘Che Dio gli perdoni’ (May God forgive him).
All scholars who work on Leopardi try to identify the moment at which nasce Leopardi, the moment when the Leopardi who will become a great poet is born. For Rolando Damiani it is 1815, the year of his ‘conversion to literature’, when he is 16 or 17 years old, and discovers himself and an identity separate from his father’s in the solitude of the family library. For Elio Gioanola it is the breakdown and depressive crisis in 1819, the year of his ‘conversion to philosophy’, when his inability to read and study drives him deep into his own inner world. My own choice would be a simpler one, midway between these two. It is the moment when he picks up his pen to answer Giordani, when he starts to express – and to communicate to a wider world beyond the confines of the family and of Recanati – the sense of self, of who he is and what he is about, which his parents were unable to come to terms with for as long as he lived.
1 Numbers in square brackets refer to letters in this volume.
2 Count Monaldo famously defined himself as probably l’ultimo spadifero d’Italia (‘the last person in Italy to carry a sword’); his always wearing black was equally eccentric, and may have signified a voluntary identification with the Jesuits. The oddity of both parents’ way of dressing was remarked on by their fellow townsmen.
3 The exams took place for five consecutive years (1808-1812); the programmes for them, drawn up by their father, are still kept in the library in the family palazzo. Members of the audience were allowed to ask their questions in Italian, but the children had to reply in Latin.
4 Zibaldone 25 November 1820. The passage does not explicitly identify the woman as their mother, but is generally acknowledged as being a description of her. It speaks of her ‘marble coldness’ (and secret joy) in the face of even the most harrowing death of an infant or young person; it also describes her methodical undermining of her children’s self-esteem for their own supposed spiritual benefit.
5 E. Gioanola, Leopardi, la malinconia (Milan, Jaca Book, 1995). Gioanola uses psychoanalytic concepts as a key to understanding the poet’s psychology and history; my own view of the family dynamics owes more to John Bowlby’s classic study of child-parent relationships Attachment and Loss (second edition, London, Penguin Books, 1991), as will become apparent.
6 T. Teja-Leopardi, Note biografiche sopra Leopardi e la sua famiglia (Milan, Fratelli Dumolard, 1882), p. 29.
7 In Bowlbian terms father is the children’s primary attachment figure, a role their mother, whose coldness and detachment seem pathological, was psychologically unable to fulfil. The damaging effects of extreme maternal detachment are a commonplace of therapeutic thinking. Count Monaldo’s collusiveness with his children against his wife continued even when they were adults; see  n. 1 and  n. 1.
8 Among the resident tutors at different times were Don Giuseppe Torres (an ex-Jesuit – the Jesuits had been suppressed in 1773 by Clement XIV, and ex-Jesuits were therefore a ready source of supply for tutors in aristocratic households, as Count Monaldo relates in his Autobiography); Don Sebastiano Sanchini; and Don Vincenzo Diotallevi.
9 In a letter written 18 months later to Pietro Brighenti he says: ‘His [i.e. Giordani’s] coming was the time at which my sons changed their thinking and their behaviour and I perhaps lost them then forever. Until that day they had never, literally never, been out of my sight and their mother’s for an hour’ [mai letteralmente mai, erano stati un’ora fuori dell’occhio mio, e della madre...] (cited by R. Damiani, Vita di Leopardi (Milan, Mondadori, 1992), p. 138). It can be hard to get the measure of how unusual such domestic surveillance was in aristocratic households, but the letters make it clear that experience of other families of similar rank in the town confirmed the children’s sense that it was extremely abnormal.
10 On the History of Astronomy and on Popular Errors of the Ancients.
11 The journal was the Biblioteca Italiana; the essay, entitled Discourse by an Italian on Romantic Poetry, was published posthumously.
12 Byron, who had little time for literary men, and especially foreign ones, singled Giordani out as an exception: ‘Except Giordani, and – and – and – (I really can’t name any other) I do not remember a man amongst them, whom I ever wished to see twice [...]’ (in The Works of Lord Byron. Letters and Journals, edited by R. E. Prothero, 6 vols (London, John Murray, 1901), V, 435).
13 M97, i.e. letter no. 97 in the monumental edition of the letters edited by F. Moroncini, Epistolario di Giacomo Leopardi, 7 vols (Florence, Le Monnier, 1934-1941), which includes not just Leopardi’s own letters but those of his correspondents. Henceforth references in this form are to letters in the Moroncini edition. The letter is in answer to .
14 Cited in Moroncini, I, in the note on page 277.
15 G. Leopardi, Scritti e frammenti autobiografici, edited by F. D’Intino (Rome, Salerno Editrice, 1995).
16 The name they had chosen was Sofia Ortis. Foscolo’s novel Le ultime lettere di Iacopo Ortis made the name Ortis one of great literary resonance.
19 M757: ‘if you love me, shit!’ Giacomo’s earliest surviving letter, a jocular effort written at the age of 11 to a neighbour, Marchioness Roberti, in the person of the befana (the witch who brings sweets to good children at epiphany) uses the words piscia and merda. It was confiscated by his father and not given to its intended recipient: the pattern of censorship is already in operation.
20 D’Intino (see note 15), p. lxii.
21 Sadly, a much more ostentatious chapel, dating from later in the nineteenth century, now replaces the setting Leopardi described.
22 See B. Caizzi, Dalla posta dei re alla posta di tutti. Territorio e comunicazioni in Italia dal XVI secolo all’Unità (Milan, FrancoAngeli, 1993).
23 The letter from the family to which he is replying is not extant. The bibliography on Leopardi’s medical condition and history is vast; the subject has most recently been reviewed in R. di Ferdinando’s L’Amarezza del lauro. Storia clinica di Giacomo Leopardi (Bologna, Cappelli, 1987).
24 Stendhal, Rome, Naples and Florence, translated by Richard N. Coe (London, John Calder, 1959), p. 259.
25 See M730, M731. The respiratory problems caused by the curvature of his spine became worse with age. When he read his poem Al Conte Carlo Pepoli to the Accademia dei Felsinei in Bologna he was barely audible; see Moroncini, IV, 82 n. 1.
26 Initially the salary was ten scudi a month, later increased to twenty. Giordani had complained a few years earlier that he had trouble living on thirty.
27 See Damiani, p. 56.
28 See Damiani, p. 501. Tommaseo, a fervent Catholic, was dismissive
of Leopardi’s philosophical views, which he attributed to his deformity and
ill-health; Leopardi answered attacks of this kind in .
29 A. Ranieri, Sette anni di sodalizio (Naples, Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1919).
30 Fanny’s contribution to our understanding of the poet is limited to her infamous remark – surely as revealing of her limitations as of his – in conversation with Matilde Serao, decades after his death: ‘My dear, he stank’ [Mia cara, puzzava].
31 Leopardi’s sojourn in Pisa is richly documented in Leopardi a Pisa, edited by F. Ceragioli (Pisa, Electa, 1997), the catalogue of the exhibition Leopardi a Pisa which celebrates the bicentenary of the poet’s birth.
33 Cited by Damiani, p. 59.
34 Damiani, p. 62.
35 Wordsworth’s account in the Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ is not dissimilar.
36 The Letters of John Keats, edited by M. B. Forman, fourth edition (London, Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 107; P. B. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry , in Shelley’s Prose, edited by D. L. Clark (Albuquerque, The University of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 294.
37 Both L’Infinito (The Infinite), written in 1819, and La sera del dì di festa (or La sera del giorno festivo, as it was originally called: The Evening of the Holiday), written in 1820, were first published in December 1825 in Il nuovo ricoglitore.
38 All’Italia (To Italy) and Sopra il monumento di Dante (On the Monument to Dante).
39 Nella morte di una donna fatta trucidare col suo portato (On the Death of a Woman Killed with her Unborn Child); Ad Angelo Mai quand’ebbe trovato i libri di Cicerone della Repubblica (To Angelo Mai, on his Discovering the Books of Cicero’s De re publica); Per una donna inferma di malattia lunga e mortale (For a Woman Suffering from a Long and Fatal Illness).
40 The whole complicated episode is related by Damiani, pp. 176-183, with excerpts from Count Monaldo’s and Brighenti’s letters as well as Leopardi’s. It is extraordinary to witness father and son, living under the same roof, unable to communicate except obliquely through a third party in Bologna. Carlo in later life described his father’s reaction to the political canzoni as one of pure fright [Nostro padre si pelò per la paura]; cited in G. Leopardi, Epistolario, edited by P. Viani, 3 vols (sixth reprint, Florence, Successori Le Monnier, 1907), III, 431.
42 M592, M598, M599, M604, M605: the instruction is repeated to Brighenti in five separate letters, indicating a high degree of anxiety. When the book appeared it too was banned in Lombardy [M879].
43 M976. The ‘quotation’ reads:
You will find, at the same address at
Which I sent you the moral performations, [sic]
Another small book of mine.
The ‘small book’ is probably Versi, 1826.
44 The three were Dialogo di Timandro ed Eleandro, Dialogo di Cristoforo Colombo e Pietro Gutierrez, and Dialogo di Torquato Tasso e del suo Genio familiare; they appeared in the January issue in 1826.
45 And to Luca Mazzanti in Recanati, who had asked for a copy of the dialogues printed in the Antologia, he wrote: ‘I shall be pleased to send you my Dialogues as soon as I get the copies. But first I ask you to promise me faithfully and inviolably not to show them to anyone at all in Recanati.’ [M910]
46 And on a practical level a real anxiety that if the manuscript were handed to the censor it might never be recovered [M885]. The censors had even insisted on vetting the commentary on Petrarch.
47 Ferretti, p. 305.
48 Ambivalence in Bowlbian terms is exactly this: an attachment to the person, but deep uneasiness about some of the things the person does. The behaviour of the attachment figure causes distress precisely because it is the attachment figure, the person who is loved. (The extreme case is sexual abuse of a child by a parent, but as counsellors have learnt in recent years, to remove the abused child from its attachment figure is often to compound the damage; what the child wants is usually not to lose its parent, but for the distressing behaviour – the abuse –to stop.)
49 He is well aware of the strangeness of his strani modi di vita ; in modern terms we would describe his behaviour as neurotic or obsessional. There was a family history of relatives tormented by scrupoli, or obsessive-compulsive behaviour: Count Monaldo refers to two of them in his Autobiography.
51 Damiani, p. 384, cites the oral testimony (elicited in her old age) of a young girl, the sister of the landlady in the house where Leopardi lived in Pisa, to the effect that he had confided to her that his hunched back was a consequence of his father’s having made him study too much as a boy.
52 ‘The Voice of Reason’. It was published from 1832 to 1835.
53 An arresting (and even more concrete) instance of a lack of boundary is provided by family mealtimes in the Leopardi household, where Giacomo sat next to his father, who cut up the food on his son’s plate well into adulthood; later Giacomo would insist on eating alone. The family therapy notion of ‘enmeshed’ families seems strikingly applicable.
54 Cited in Moroncini, I, 275, n.1.
A Note on the Translation
Some of the problems faced by a translator of Leopardi’s letters should be mentioned briefly, not because I think I have solved them – they are insoluble – but to suggest areas in which the translation may not do justice to the original. This is apart from the generic difference between the two languages, familiar to anyone who works with them (and well illustrated by the typical ansaphone message which invites one to speak, in Italian, after the segnale acustico – seven syllables, Latinate, mellifluous, almost a line of verse, and in English after the beep – monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon, direct, earthy). To make the English version sound like English, and not like translatorese, was a constant challenge; I am far from sure that I have always risen to it.
There is for a start the inevitable loss in gradations of intimacy in English, which has no way of marking the three possible forms of address offered by nineteenth-century Italian (Ella, voi, tu). Even when the chillingly formal Mio Signor Padre of the first letter to his father  becomes the slightly less chilly but still very formal Carissimo Signor Padre, and then, after the death of his brother Luigi, Caro Papà, Leopardi always addresses his father in the third person, an ineradicable marker of the distance between them. With Giordani, as we have seen, he quickly passes from Ella to Voi and then to tu; with other friends like Vieusseux the passage to voi usually happened quickly, as it did with all the people he was close to. Male friends of his own age (Papadopoli, Pepoli, Puccinotti, Ranieri, his cousin Peppe) and of course his brother and sister are normally addressed as tu. Some indicators of intimacy should register, for example the affectionate nicknames used by and with his siblings, whereby Giacomo becomes Giacomuccio, which is then shortened to Muccio, which in its turn becomes Mucciaccio or Buccio (the equivalent series in English might be James, Jamie, Jimmy, Jimbo, Jim); for Giordani he quickly stops being signor Contino, and becomes Giacomino. Carlo is often affectionately Carluccio or Carlino, Paolina is Pilla, and Pierfrancesco is Pietruccio.
The effortlessly signorile tone of many of the letters, which ought perhaps to sit oddly with the intensity of emotion so often being expressed, but never does, is another challenge. Forms of leave-taking, or signing off, were particularly difficult. Mi comandi, se son buono, and the many elegant variations on the same idea, become in English banal or laboured. Beginnings were difficult too: often, though not always, emphatic forms in -issimo correlate with deference and formality rather than intensity of feeling. (Carissimo Signor Padre loses something however one translates it.) A more general difficulty is that the language of affection and friendship in the early nineteenth century can sound to modern ears like the language of passion. Shelley wrote to his Oxford friend Hogg quite unselfconsciously as Best-beloved, exactly equivalent to Leopardi’s Dilettissimo to Giordani. The way Leopardi writes to Ranieri is no different from the way he writes to Giordani, even before meeting him, or indeed to his brother Carlo (‘Who could tell you how much I love you, and how much I long to kiss you again!’ ). I have for the most part left such effusions as they stand, even if they occasionally sound slightly fevered or over-ripe to modern ears (‘My dear angel’, ‘My divine friend’).
The twentieth-century equivalents of certain words seemed best avoided because, while they correspond exactly in meaning to the Italian, they feel anachronistic in an early nineteenth-century context. Thus I render letterato as man of letters and not as intellectual; malinconia for the most part as dejection, desolation, despondency, or even Byron’s depression of spirits, but not simply as depression, which seems inescapably twentieth-century. Melancholy will rarely do, and is any case impossible in the plural, as Leopardi so characteristically uses it (le mie malinconie – Keats’s ‘my glooms’ seems too idiosyncratic). Where terminology is precise and complicated, as in the names of money and coins in the different parts of Italy, I have kept the original Italian terms (scudi, baiocchi, paoli, etc);1 likewise the terms canzoni, canti, and idilli (roughly, ‘odes’, ‘songs’ and ‘idylls’) have a special resonance in Leopardi which usually seemed better served by preserving them.
The combination of powerful feeling and self-conscious stylistic elaboration was another challenge. Although these are primarily acts of communication between one individual and another at a given moment in time, they are also – in some cases strikingly so – literary compositions, letters to posterity.2 They were in many cases drafted with care, and painstakingly copied out – often by Carlo or Paolina – and the draft retained by their author, who seems, for example, to slip naturally into alliteration at moments of strong feeling. Phrases like sono un figlio di famiglia, la cui figliolanza non finisce mai; or la noia, madre per me di mortifere malinconie; or procacciandomi un poco di pane colla penna are almost poetic in their intensity, and yet in context seem quite spontaneous and unstudied. Most of this is inevitably lost in the English version.
Some of Leopardi’s letters, for example all those to his Aunt Ferdinanda, the only member of the older generation he seems to have been able to talk to as a young man, were almost certainly destroyed by the family. It seems a small miracle that so many others survive. My hope is that some sense of their brilliance and their interest survives in translation.
1 Rough equivalents in value can be calculated by reference to Bolton King’s A History of Italian Unity 1814-1871, 2 vols (London, James Nisbet and Co. Ltd, 1899), II, 397.
2 As early as 1820, when he was barely 21 years old, Leopardi was asked by Brighenti whether he was thinking of publishing his letters, and his reply, though negative [M278], shows that it was a possibility he did not categorically rule out.
From the Acknowledgements
My own particular ‘take’ on the Leopardi family perhaps requires a word of elucidation. Within the brief compass of an introduction, to give some sense of the dynamics of a family situation at once very remote from us and yet powerfully present in and evoked through the many letters addressed to family members (and often alluded to directly or indirectly in the letters to other people), I have drawn on some of the concepts and vocabulary of family therapy. My reason for doing this is a simple one: my own reading of a few key texts in this discipline helped me to reach a better understanding of relationships within the family. Although in one sense the story that emerges from the letters is linear and sequential, moving through time and constituting a narrative, in another sense an apter paradigm, one that fits the material better (or at least that large part of the material that bears directly on the family), would be a circular or systemic one. One gets a powerful sense that this family is locked into patterns of interaction which will never change, a web or a network from which no single individual can fight free.
I am well aware of the dangers – both linguistic (obfuscating jargon, psychobabble) and conceptual (over-simplification, glibness) – of appropriating terminology from a discipline not my own. It might in any case be thought anachronistic to use terminology and thinking which has evolved in a therapeutic context only in the last half century, and which is often dealing with acute manifestations like schizophrenia and anorexia, in relation to a family in the past where no member presented clinical symptoms. On the other hand, a great deal of the material here bears very directly on (and much of it is an enacting of) Leopardi’s relationships with his parents and siblings – relationships which were very close, and at times painful and conflicted. Leopardi himself is an acute and subtle analyst of his own feelings and states of mind, and on occasion seems uncannily to prefigure modern perspectives. To think of his unresolved and unresolvable difficulties with his father in terms of ambivalent attachment and generational boundaries seems to me helpful, just as it is helpful to think of the family as being in certain crucial ways dysfunctional; but if it is objected that I am saying no more than that Leopardi did not get on with his father, and that conflict of this kind between the generations is not uncommon, and the family was in consequence unhappy, so be it. Tolstoy famously remarked that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Leopardi way can at least in part be characterised in terms of boundaries, attachment and ambivalence.
My own starting-point for thinking about these questions was my reading of John Bowlby’s epoch-making study Attachment and Loss, with its key notion of ambivalent attachment and the quality of child-parent relationships which exhibit it. A useful overview of the whole subject is provided in the handbook by Fritz B. Simon, Helm Stierlin and Lyman C. Wynne, The Language of Family Therapy: A Systemic Vocabulary and Sourcebook, where the sections on Autonomy, Binding, Boundaries, Closeness/Distance, Communication Theory, Double Bind, Enmeshment, Generational Boundaries, and Healthy/Functional Families cover the key issues, with suggestions for further reading. Merely to run through the check-list of communication rules cited on p. 181 which correlate with family functionality is a sobering experience: none of them operated in the Leopardi household. Indeed Giacomo’s initial quarrel with his father could be seen as a (doomed) attempt to bring some of these rules into play, and his adult life as an accommodation to his realization of the hopelessness of the case. Letters are first and foremost acts of communication between two individuals; many of those presented here are between members of a family; to try to place them in a broader conceptual framework of family communication or failure to communicate seems a legitimate undertaking.
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