Giacomo Leopardi forms with Ugo Foscolo and Alessandro Manzoni the great triumvirate of Italian Romanticism. His poetry, as well as his prose, shares with them a concern for Italian nationalism, the formative role of history, the problem of belief, and the tensions between past and present, humankind and nature. But where Foscolo and Manzoni played an active public role, Leopardi lived an interior life, recording and creating himself in the act of writing. This is most evident in his contributions to the essay. Aside from some early journeyman pieces, including a learned compendium on astronomy, a huge body of letters, and the essays Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi (wr. 1815, pub. 1846; Essay on the popular mistakes of the Ancients) and Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica (wr. 1818, pub. 1906; Address by an Italian on Romantic poetry), Leopardi’s most important prose writing falls into three groups: the Zibaldone, the Pensieri, and Operette morali.
The Zibaldone, literally “hodge-podge” or “commonplace book,” was a sort of running diary in which Leopardi made notes and recorded his thoughts on philosophy, language, religion, science, art, politics, and history while he read and thought in his father’s library. The idea came from a mentor who suggested that everyone with literary pretensions should keep a “written chaos” out of which orderly work might emerge. In a deeper sense, it became for Leopardi a dialogue with himself, what his biographer Iris Origo terms “a record of human solitude.” Kept between July 1817 and December 1832, the manuscript of the Zibaldone fills 4526 pages with entries ranging from brief fragments and notes to fully developed essays. In these he brings together a vast learning with profound meditation to develop theories of art and poetry that are comparable to and even superior to those of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge in their appreciation of literature. The Zibaldone was not published until 1898–1900, and so exercised no direct influence on Leopardi’s contemporaries. In retrospect, however, it offers a rich intellectual gloss on his poems and the Operette morali, as well as an important body of thought in and of itself.
During the last years of his life in Naples, Leopardi began to work on his Pensieri (Thoughts), preparing III entries. About two-thirds of these were derived from the Zibaldone. While the latter ranges over a wide variety of topics, the Pensieri, patterned after the Maximes (1665–78) of the French moralist La Rochefoucauld, is a melancholy examination of human character and behavior. But like Pascal’s Pensées (1670), also a prototype in theme and form, the Pensieri remained the fragments of a book that he could never finally bring together. They appeared only posthumously, in the 1845 edition of his collected works.
The Operette morali (Moral Tales) was the only major work of prose that Leopardi published in his lifetime. The 20 essays and dialogues that comprise the first edition (1827) were composed in a period of intense creativity from January to December 1824, running from “Storia del genere umano” (“The History of the Human Race”) to “Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro” (“Dialogue Between Timander and Eleander”). The second edition (1834) included two more; the final, complete edition, with 24 essays, did not appear until 1845, eight years after Leopardi’s death.
While ostensibly an imitation of the dialogues of the Greek satirist Lucian, Moral Tales represents a deeply personal exploration of human destiny and disillusion. The underlying spirit is that of Ecclesiastes as the dialogues weigh the various sides of human aspiration, only to find illusion and vanity. Aside from a favorable notice by Alessandro Manzoni, whose I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) was published in the same year, Moral Tales was largely ignored by a reading public uncomfortable with Leopardi’s materialism, pessimism, and skepticism. Nominated for the prestigious prize of the Accademia della Crusca, it was rejected in favor of a mediocre history of Italy. Only later would it receive admirers as varied as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno.
Leopardi conceived Moral Tales as a single unified work, rejecting offers to have individual essays published separately in periodicals. Despite that, it brings together a diverse range of styles, subject matter, and forms, playing with various combinations of narrative and dialogue. “Dialogo della Terra e della Luna” (“Dialogue Between the Earth and the Moon”), for instance, a comic dialogue looking at the indifference of nature, follows the conventions of a literary dialogue akin to those of Lucian. “Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese” (“Dialogue Between Nature and an Icelander”) treats the same theme, but with greater pathos and irony. “The History of the Human Race” and “Proposta di premi fatta dall’Accademia dei Sillografi” (“Announcement of Prizes by the Academy of Syllographs”) take the form of conventional essays, even if their subject matter is not conventional. On the other hand, “Il Parini, ovvero della gloria” (“Parini’s Discourse on Glory”) and “Detti memorabili di Filippo Ottonieri” (“Memorable Sayings of Filippo Ottonieri”) develop the frame of an essay in which lengthy passages are quoted. In fact, all of the voices appearing in Moral Tales are deeply personal and often autobiographical. In this, Leopardi anticipates the pseudonymous technique used by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The use of the dialogue, as well as the pseudonyms and multiple perspectives, allowed Leopardi to explore his own complex and conflicted views on the tension between aesthetic enthusiasm and philosophical pessimism, and between a desire to believe and an inability to do so. Moral Tales, like all of Leopardi’s prose, is marked by a blend of Romantic passion and classical clarity that makes him one of the masters of the 19th-century essay.
Born 29 June 1798 in Recanati. Suffered scoliosis as a child, and ophthalmia as an adult.
Studied privately with tutors. Lived in Rome, 1822–23, Milan, 1825, Bologna, 1825–26, Florence, 1826, 1830–33, and Naples, 1833–36. Wrote for Fortunato Stella publishers, Milan, 1825–28. Became a count on the death of his father. Died in Naples, 14 June 1837.
Essays and Related Prose
Operette morali, 1827; revised editions, 1834, 1845; edited by Saverio Orlando, 1976, Cesare Galimberti, 1978, Ottavio Besomi, 1979, Paolo Ruffilli, 1982, Edoardo Sanguineti, 1982, Giorgio Ficara, 1988, and Pietro Pelosi, 1990; as Essays and Dialogues, translated by Charles Edwards, 1882; as Essays, Dialogues and Thoughts, translated by Patrick Maxwell, 1893, and James Thomson, 1905; as Operette Morali, Essays and Dialogues, edited and translated by Giovanni Cecchetti, 1982; as Moral Tales, translated by Patrick Creagh, 1983
Pensieri, in Opere, vol. 1, edited by Antonio Ranieri, 1845, Cesare Galimberti, 1982, and Mario Fubini, 1988; edited and translated by W.S.Di Piero (bilingual edition), 1981
Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi, in Opere, vol. 4, edited by Prospero Viani, 1846
Zibaldone, 7 vols., 1898–1900; edited by Anna Maria Moroni, 2 vols., 1972, Emilio Peruzzi (facsimile edition), 10 vols., 1989–94, and Giuseppe Pacella, 3 vols., 1991;
selection as Zibaldone, translated by Martha King and Daniela Bini, 1992
Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica, 1906; edited by Ettore Mazzali, 1957, and Ottavio Besomi, 1988
Selected Prose and Poetry, edited and translated by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs, 1966
Poems and Prose, edited by Angel Flores (bilingual edition), 1966
Other writings: poetry (collected and published in the Canti, 1831), a history of astronomy (wr. 1813, pub. 1878–80), and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Opere, general editor Antonio Ranieri, 6 vols., 1845–49;
Tutte le opere (Mondadori Edition), edited by Francesco Flora, 5 vols., 1968–73; Poesie e prose (Mondadori Edition), edited by Rolando Damiani and Mario Andrea Rigoni, 2 vols., 1987–88.
Bibliografia analitica leopardiana, Florence: Olschki, 2 vols., 1963–73
Carini, Ermanno, Bibliografia analitica leopardiana (1971–1980), Florence: Olschki, 1986
Giordano, Emilio, Il labirinto leopardiano: Bibliografia, 1976–1983, con una breve appendice, 1984–1985, Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1986
Mazzatinti, G., and M.Menghini, Bibliografia leopardiana, Florence: Olschki, 3 vols., 1931–53
Barricelli, Gian Piero, Giacomo Leopardi, Boston: Twayne, 1986
Bini, Daniela, A Fragrance from the Desert: Poetry and Philosophy in Giacomo Leopardi, Saratoga, California: Anma Libri, 1983
Caesar, Michael, “Leopardi’s Operette morali and the Resources of Dialogue,” Italian Studies 43 (1988):21–40
Dotti, Ugo, “La missione dell’ironia in Giacomo Leopardi,” Belfagor 39 (July 1984):377–96
Getto, Giovanni, Saggi leopardiani, Florence: Vallecchi, 1966
Koffler, Richard, “Kant, Leopardi, and Gorgon Truth,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 30 (Fall 1971):27–33
Negri, Antonio, “Between Infinity and Community: Notes on Materialism in Spinoza and Leopardi,” Studia Spinozana 5 (1989):151–76
Origo, Iris, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, London: Hamilton, 1953
Perella, Nicholas James, Night and the Sublime in Giacomo Leopardi, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970
Ragione, Regini, “Ragione architettonica delle Operette morali,” Rassegna della Literatura Italiana 85 (September-December 1981):501–10
Singh, G., Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964
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