Giacomo Leopardi

Re-Size Text: A A A A Comment

RSS blog print

Giacomo Leopardi (1798 – 1837), poet, translator, essayist, and philosopher, is considered one of the greatest Italian poets, together with Dante and Petrarch. He grew up in the small town of Recanati, a conservative backwater in Italy’s Marche region. His parents were reactionary nobility. His mother was cold, stingy, and committed to not giving Leopardi any money. Besides having squandered much of the family fortune on gambling, his father had spent considerable sums amassing an enormous library of some 20,000 volumes. Tutored at home by priests, the precociously brilliant Leopardi soon exhausted all that these castle pedagogues had to teach, and educated himself in classical and Italian literature and modern languages through his father’s library. He wrote extensively and translated Horace and Homer while still in his teens. His classical training permeates his poetry. Through his reading, Leopardi developed a sophisticated philosophy of pessimistic secular realism tinged with a dark romanticism. His advanced ideas soon put him in conflict with his parents, and in 1824 an offer of literary work in Milan allowed him to escape Recanati. So began a series of sojourns in major Italian cities—Bologna, Florence, Pisa—where Leopardi joined intellectual circles, edited, wrote, and expanded his literary reputation, only to be forced, by illness and poverty, to return to Recanati for extended periods. His lyric poems are highly philosophical yet musical meditations on the futility of life, the force of memory, and the hostility of nature. In Leopardi’s view, life is essentially tragic and nature is a destructive force. In this, no doubt, he was influenced by his physical infirmities, recurrent bouts of illness, unprepossessing appearance, and utter failure at love. Technically revolutionary, his poetry has been said to include some of the first articulations of modernism, in its sparse use of rhyme, for example, and stark expression of alienation. “To Sylvia” (1828), a mature work, is considered one of his masterpieces. Leopardi finally established himself at Naples, where he died during the cholera epidemic of 1837 at the age of thirty-nine.