Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is one of the milestones of Italian literature. By Tomasi di Lampedusa, the book takes you to a Sicily that is both beautiful and problematic…
Why should you read it:
Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957) only wrote one novel, but it was a perfect one. Solitary and meditative, he used to say “I was a boy who liked solitude, who preferred the company of things to that of people.”
Published posthumously a year after his death, Il Gattopardo is set in Sicily during the Risorgimento (Italian unification). It tells the story of a Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio Corbera (who represents the Gattopardo or Leopard), Prince of Salina, going through all the events of Risorgimento.
Prince of Salina in “Il Gattopardo” movie by Luchino Visconti , 1963
It also follows the story of his family and his relatives, with his nephew, handsome Tancredi, giving voice to the most clever and famous line in the book. After urging Don Fabrizio to abandon his political companions that support the (then disintegrating) Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and to ally with Giuseppe Garibaldi (the leader of Italy’s unification) and the House of Savoy, Tancredi says:: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
The English translation of the book says “The Leopard” but gattopardo is probably a reference to a wildcat that was hunted to extinction in the Italian territory around 1850. It could then refer to the fact that Don Fabrizio too was indulging in the aristocratic universe that would be soon brought to decline.
The book is not only a vivid description of those times – whose vestiges remain in Sicilian Villas nowadays, with smoky mirrors and dusty cupboards on the sunset’s light – but also of a big family with all its problems: love, despair, marriage, friendships, worries. If the politics are central to the narrative, the decadence of the political universe is transposed into the decadency of Don Fabrizio’s huge house, used as the background for the love of a young couple, Tancredi and Angelica, who meander the unused room in search of privacy while the light of the day keeps changing until night comes and relatives go looking for them. You should read il Gattopardo because it is a nostalgic snapshot of how Sicily traversed those times, but also because it is an introspective book about life and fear of change, about questioning yourself, during moments of difficulty, as Don Fabrizio does throughout the whole book, and at the same time forcing yourself to believe there will be better times ahead (in the novel this is represented by the love blooming between Tancredi and Angelica). Life is a constant change, it seems to say to us, Tomasi di Lampedusa, it’s a rise and fall and we need to accept it and embrace it, because nothing stays the same forever.
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