My index reference subtitle in the excerpts table, below, is "Leopardi."
Leopardi and his friend Antonio Ranieri arrived in Naples on October 2nd 1833. Three days later, he wrote to his father,
One year later, he was in full revolt, speaking of the need to get away
from these scoundrels and buffoons, high class and low, all thieves and rogues, b.f. [baroni fottuti, which is highly impolite]* who fully deserve the Spaniards and the gallows.
Strangely, though, as the city becomes imperilled with cholera he seems to become more reconciled to the place. I suspect it was because he knew he had produced his best work there. If he was bound to be miserable then it hardly matters where, but he may have been marginally less so in Naples, which, in the Leopardian universe is a mighty bundle. A jovial Leopardi is almost too horrible to contemplate.
The poet died, aged 38, on June 14th, 1837, the Feast of Saint Antonio. That morning he consumed close to three pounds of the confetti cannellini di Sulmona, the sugared almonds with a sliver of cinnamon on the inside, for which the town of Sulmona remains famous, its other claim to fame being that Ovid was born there. At five in the afternoon, he had a hot broth followed by sorbet, the combination of hot and cold being one stated cause for his death from pulmonary oedema or dropsy as it was then called. At least that was what was written on the death certificate by Doctor Stefano Mollica who never actually attended to him.
Here we enter a shadowy world of half-truths and morbidities. Antonio Ranieri’s account of his seven-year friendship with the poet, Sette anni di sodalizio con Giacomo Leopardi (1880), is famously unreliable. When looking at Ranieri’s photograph I can’t tell whether I am looking into the face of a buffoon or a sage. Maybe, though, it’s a bit of both. It has been suggested that when he wrote his memoir he was going a bit senile, but I should think there was rather more than poor memory at stake and that it is the sadly familiar story of the lesser man proclaiming himself the hero in the life of the greater man, which ought to sweeten our view of him a little, were it not that over a century later all we feel is annoyance. All things considered, he did take care of Leopardi and, a common enough scenario, probably did so to the point of being both jealous and possessive of him. Were it not that Ranieri arranged for his invalid friend to go and breathe the fresh air between Torre del Greco and Vesuvius we would have been deprived of his greatest poem “La Ginestra”. The old codger was merely seeking his dues.
Still there’s no getting away from the fact that Ranieri’s account is full of holes. Why did the kindly Dr Niccolò Mannella who did attend to the poet in his final hours decline to write the cause of death on the death certificate? Was it dropsy or cholera that took the poet’s life? The bit of Ranieri’s story that presents the most difficulties is where he claims to have
There is written evidence that the poet was indeed taken to Fontanelle, a document from the Ufficio di Stato Civile (document n. 568) which states:
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Giacomo Leopardi in Naples
Do you know that something very strange is happening to me?...
When I think of my impending destruction, I seem to see myself in a ditch,
with a crowd of ribald fools dancing on my belly.
— Leopardi to Paolina Ranieri, 1837
Shall we, my sweet tooth, consume another ice?
Il signor Vito il padrone whose grave nod bespeaks the substance
Of any man who knows what his art is,
And the making of ices is surely one.
I must beware my friend Ranieri who would deny me this sad pleasure
Although my clock almost strikes twelve.
Antonio Ranieri, who, if I could believe in God would drive Him from my table
And then sermonize on the evils of chocolate ─
This man whom I love plugs my brain with his cackle:
'The mood on the Largo della Carità spells plague,
And still, my Giacomo, you cannot bear to leave Naples.
What will you not gamble for Vito's matchless ices?'
All Naples is one huge, sleepless pantomime
As was that other place the gods covered with ashes.
The mountain broods beneath its canopy of smoke
While these revellers with their booming voices and pointed shoes,
These plumed creatures whom progress loves,
Make corridors in air.
The pursuit of happiness brings them none.
They drape the skeleton of all things with their festering pride,
And fearing the tumble through endless space wage war upon silence.
Should they win, where then my verses?
The ancients scorned the man who sups alone,
And yet what deeper shame than to be seen from above slobbering over an ice?
Or to be judged by the stains on one's clothes?
I should banish all pleasure to the cubicle.
Who, if suddenly the world broke, would probe the rubble,
And finding here my skull with a spoon stuck inside,
Summon up the pale flesh which covered the bone?
Would they conclude this man of words loved so much the life he could not have
That he loved death even more?
They shall review my bones from all sides,
Saying the darkness which goes so deep can only be pure sunlight in reverse,
Or, as that bastard Florentine said of me,
'There is no God because I am a hunchback;
I am a hunchback because there is no God.'
Bah, I'd rather that Vito bury me.
The place is suddenly hopping alive,
As if from nowhere all these people pressing close, their breath stale
And their talk even worse.
I shall command my own table.
I was born in a sepulchre.
When I consider the years swaddled in that dark place,
A cold, high room where the aching for knowledge doubled me,
Small wonder the world's light blinded me.
And now I shall perish where the mountain hugging the shore makes a cradle.
I must praise the bread a certain woman bakes.
You will not find such bread anywhere outside Naples although Genoa comes close,
And this madonna of the loaves is Genovese.
The world becomes for me a narrow place,
A simple truth Ranieri might consider when he comes to write my notice,
Although I fear the enthusiasm which in him outweighs intelligence
One day might become menace.
Already I gauge my own death in his voice,
And when he asks what my needs are, I say only those which he would deny me.
A doctor stands always by his side.
'You must quit Naples,' they tell me, 'Go, before the cholera comes.'
I shall not forsake the bread this woman bakes.
The fewer my needs, the more precise they must be
Should they make the narrow world bearable.
Perhaps I should love Paolina more.
The sister of Antonio Ranieri reads me verses,
And although Ariosto, Tasso, Dante sound strange on a southern tongue
I would swap heaven for the bright lamp in her voice.
She is so completely without malice.
The other night she stumbled over some passage;
A deep blush spread through the awkward silence,
And it was as though she wished she could hide behind the language,
Thus spare me the illusion of love.
La donna che non si trova.
The women on the Largo della Carità glide,
And if they seem to me of a world other than the one which spurned me
The plain girl who reads me verses
Shall be my earthly guide.
I will write in my book of consolations the names
Of those whom destiny might otherwise blur on stone.
The critics and poetasters must fend for themselves.
They would burn up the whole language for a single shred of praise,
Yet I alone give them credence.
When finally the swine dance attendance on me
(And yes, that one in particular who mocked my shape)
Will they say this man of words sugared his lemonade so it became a thick syrup galvanizing the flies?
An age whose minds are clogged with obscenities will note
What Vito, a man of honour, commits to silence.
A peasant from the Abruzzi plays on his bagpipe.
Ah, that I should have wasted breath bullying language
When this man with his solemn music pulls darkness over the bay of Naples.
Although God hides and Signor Leopardi must die
A sudden gladness swamps me.
Scende la luna; e si scolora il mondo.
Almighty blindness conquers me,
Yet still I see my silver spoon rise
And then dip towards the round horizon of my table where God is a flickering candle.
Perhaps Vito, the purveyor of ices, can say more of what pleasure is
And what place it has on the curve of the infinite than any struggler with rhymes.
On this night, however, let it be said some deep chord ancient and spare,
As pure in sound as anything Pindar wrote,
Cut a swathe through the cluttering age.
A painted wagon thunders over the cobblestones.
Already I can hear from another, darker vehicle the hooded voice
Crying 'Chi ha morti, li cavi!'
But what is death when Madama Girolama bakes
The bread that shall always carry the sound of her name?
Vito places the chairs on the tables;
Moonlight sweeps the floor bare.
This is a strange forest which I must now leave.
Say Giacomo Leopardi found peace at Naples.
from Collected Poems by Marius Kociejowski
first published in England in 2019 by Carcanet Press Limited
Alliance House, 30 Cross Street, Manchester, M2 7AQ
(text © Marius Kociejowski 2019)
Presented here by kind concession of the author.
A Meeting of the Minds - All Three of Him
Selene Salvi reminds me that there are reminders of Torquato Tasso scattered around Naples. There are some unexpected connections, such as the one between Tasso and Giacomo Leopardi, the 19th-century poet. Tasso (1544-1595) was a contemporary of Shakespeare; Leopardi lived in the early 1800s. What could these two have in common? One, they were both great poets; two, they both led very unhappy lives. Selene also reminds me that Tasso was Leopardi's favorite poet.
There is an inscription on the Palazzo Balsorano on via Crispi, a plaque that reads:
"Torquato Tasso/ guest of a friend/ in 1592 looked from this place/ upon the fields,
heavens and harbor/ sketched the created world/ rewove Jerusalem/ thought about friendship/
forgot adversity/ happy with life. 25 April 1895.
Here Tasso was the guest of Giambattista Manso (1567–1645) who wrote the first biography of Tasso, "Life of Torqauto Tasso" (1621).
I imagine Tasso pleased to know that his life would not go unremembered. I think he might have felt close to other poets, not yet born, like Leopardi, who in 1824 wrote an amazing, often overlooked collection called Operette morali [Small Moral Tales], one of which is of his favorite poet, Torquato Tasso, talking with his spirit-companion, his Genio, who has just dropped by for a visit!
Genio: Torquato, how're you doing?
Tasso: Well, you know how it is — in prison and up to my neck in troubles.
Genio: Come on, you just had a good meal. Don't think about all that. Relax. We can tell a few stories, laugh a little.
Tasso: Not much of that left in me, but it's better with you here. Have a seat.
Genio: Me? Sit down? That's not easy for a spirit. Fine. Pretend I'm sitting down.
Tasso: If only I could see Leonora again! Just thinking about her fills me with joy. It makes me feel like the Torquato I used to be before I got tangled up with society and mankind. Now I just weep and feel dead. I think we have to use the world we live in and suffer in to look inside ourselves and find out who we used to be, who we were at the beginning, before we started to spread out into the world around us. We keep withdrawing into ourselves and get more and more sluggish. It saps us, takes our life. I'm amazed that thinking of a woman has the power to bring me back to life, restore my soul, and make me forget my troubles. If I thought I'd never see her again, I'd never ever again be happy.
Genio: What do you think is better, to see the woman you love or to think about her?
Tasso: I don't know. When she was with me, she was a woman. Now that she's not here, she seems more like a goddess.
Genio: Those goddesses are so sweet and kind, but get close and they can dazzle you.
Tasso: That's for sure. But don't you think it's a woman's doing when she's something other than what you imagined?
Genio: What's wrong with that? They're flesh and blood, too, you know - not ambrosia and nectar. What even comes close to a woman? And what about men? They're not exactly trustworthy and lovable creatures. Why do women have to be angels?
Tasso: With all that, I'm dying to see her again and talk with her.
Genio: Fine. I'll bring her to you in your dreams tonight. Lovely and young. A real lady. Much better than what you remember. And at the end she'll take your hand and look into your eyes intently and fill you heart with such overwhelming sweetness, that all day tomorrow or whenever you remember this dream, your heart will be filled with tenderness.
Tasso: Big deal. A dream instead of the truth.
Genio: What is truth?
Tasso: Pontius Pilate didn't know that any more than I do.
Genio: Look, there is no difference between a dream and the real thing except that sometimes a dream can be much better and sweeter than real life.
Tasso: So a delightful dream and a real-life delight are the same?
Genio: Yes. I knew of a woman who followed the man who loved her around in his dreams. All the time. Good dreams, too. But whenever he saw her for real, she wasn't nearly as good as his dreams. He had lost the beauty of his dreams because he was searching for the real thing. Look at the ancients. Not so dumb. They sought beauty wherever - in dreams and in real life. Pythagoras. He didn't eat certain foods because it kept him from sleeping and having nice dreams. Sure, they're superstitions, but they let you take a drink before you go to sleep, and pray to Mercury, the guardian of dreams. So even if they're not happy in real life, they can be happy when they're asleep. I think a lot of them found it. They praised Mercury more than the other gods.
Tasso: Then why were we born? Why do we live for pleasure? Must we choose between body and spirit? If we think pleasure can only be found in dreams, then we should do nothing but dream. I can't sink to that.
Genio: You already have. You're alive and you want to go on living. What is pleasure?
Tasso: I haven't really had that much experience with it to be able to say.
Genio: No one has. It's not automatic. It's trial and error. Pleasure comes from speculation. It's not a real thing. It's desire, not a fact. You come up with it in your thoughts without even trying it first. A concept. Not a feeling. You don't notice it even if you get one of the delights that you really wanted.
This particular "Little Moral Tale" is much longer, but it is clear that Leopardi is using his "partner in poetry", his spiritual brother across centuries, as a spring-board to talk about himself. Everything is sheer Leopardi talking to himself. The story continues in the same vein. They talk of pleasure, pain, and boredom. At the very end, the exchange is this:
Genio: How long have you felt like this?
Tasso: A number of weeks, as you know.
Genio: Haven't you known from the start what this is doing to you?
Tasso: I was more aware of it early on, but little by little my mind just started to drift and I got used to it. Maybe I was amused by talking to myself about serious things and not chattering away idly. I felt I was with serious persons asking me serious questions. They ask, I answer. A grand conversation with myself.
Genio: You'd rather be in their company than in your own, by yourself. And that has become your life. That happens. Separating yourself from others gives you the chance to use your imagination, to invent and reinvent. Look, I'm going to leave you now. You're tired and I want to set up the dream I promised you for tonight. Maybe you can spend the rest of your life like that. That's all the world has any right to expect from you. It's good to be a little ragged around the edges, too.When you get down to it, though, time moves very slowly in this prison cell. It'd be nice to be outside in the gardens with those who are putting you through this. Good-bye.
Tasso: Good-bye. Listen. This conversation has comforted me. Not that it has broken my sadness. For the most part, that's still like a very dark night. No moon or stars. But with you here, it's like the darkness of twilight. It doesn't bother me. I'm grateful. I'd like to call you when I need you. How do I find you?
Genio: You haven't figured that out yet? In any bottle of good wine.
The emphasis on dreams reminds me of a verse by another great poet:
All would be well
Could we but give us wholly to the dreams,
And get into their world that to the sense
Is shadow, and not linger wretchedly
Among substantial things; for it is dreams
That lift us to the flowing, changing world
That the heart longs for. What is love itself,
But dreams that hurry from beyond the world
To make low laughter more than meat and drink,
Though it but set us sighing? Fellow-wanderer,
Could we but mix ourselves into a dream,
Not in its image on the mirror!
except from The Shadowy Waters (1906)
This exact page is also linked at Torquato Tasso.