An aristocrat in Sicily

The Leopard a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and a film by Luchino Visconti

A village in Sicily settles over a mountain ridge, and overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea. Here, a nobleman reflects on being an aristocrat. His cousin, Lucio Piccolo, who lives on the coast in a town called Capo D’Orlando, is a poet. The nobleman is the descendant of the Tomasi dynasty who settled in Sicily in the 1500s, one of whom gained the title Principe di Lampedusa. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, was compelled to talk about this dynasty, and especially to tell the story of his great-grandfather who had witnessed the unification of Italy from Palermo, the capital city of Sicily. In 1860, Garibaldi and his men had arrived in Sicily to settle the matter of Italy as an inclusive land of peoples from North to South, and there defeated the Bourbons. With unification, the age-old hold the aristocracy had over land in Sicily, and its subsequent influence over the population, had come undone. Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather noted this, just as he noted the rise of the borghese class; through commerce they were the new bearer’s of wealth.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa would start writing Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) in the 1950s. Despite the political vein that runs throughout the novel, especially in the musings of the character fashioned after his great-grandfather Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of the House of Salina, Tomasi di Lampedusa was less concerned about politics than he was about the demise of a dynasty. He was aware that his standing as an aristocrat was far from that of his ancestors. However, most poignantly, he desired to be a writer, to emulate his literary cousin, and gain the kind of recognition that would amount to renewed social standing. By writing, he would not only reestablish his voice in society, but he would circumvent the legacy of disinheritance; the glamourous downfall of his kind, and the loss dynastic power.

In the book Tomasi di Lampedusa e i luoghi del Gattopardo, author Maria Antonietta Ferraloro recounts that with the Second World War in course Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa fled fighting in Palermo to seek refuge in his cousin’s villa in Capo D’Orlando. Once there, he sought to distance himself further, and left the coast with his entourage to travel inland on mule back, crossing the deep valley that separated Capo D’Orlando from the village overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. In the village of Ficarra he would mingle with people in the piazza, and view gardens and ravines. He sojourned there with his wife, and as Ferraloro painstakingly reconstructs, he was witness to events that later appeared in the novel.

Despite the nobleman’s attempt to flee from fighting, the day he arrived in Ficarra, a US army battalion had landed on the beach eight kilometres away in the seaside town of Brolo. On a hot August day in 1943, with Palermo bombed, Operation Brolo was taking place. American soldiers disembarked on Brolo beach and left the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea to head inland. As an ally of the Italian Partisans, who fought to liberate Italy from the Fascist and Nazi regimes, the American soldiers were seeking to conquer Nazi units. On the day the American soldiers walked into Ficarra, not only was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in hiding, but my grandmother was fleeing her country home overlooking the village of Ficarra, for refuge further up the mountain. My aunt was a child, and recounts how her sister, my mother, was inconsolable. She was two years old and crying for food. My grandmother had to rush back to the house to get cooked rice, hoping not to cross a soldier’s path. My grandfather was fighting in the north-west of Italy, at the Italian front.* A whole nation was waiting for the war to abate, to restore livelihood.

While Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa found good company in the village of Ficarra, the novel would not be completed until the late 1950s. It would not be published in his lifetime, and considering the initial rejection by publishers, Tomasi di Lampedusa could not have imagined its success. He mused over it for many years, and wrote it in a relatively short time. Nor could he have imagined the screen version, which brought to life the characters, the setting and the sentiments of the novel. The rights were purchased by Goffredo Lombardo, owner of Titanus Productions, and the director of the film would be none other than Luchino Visconti, who had made the 1948 neorealist feature film La Terra Trema, about the plight of fishermen in the seaside village of Aci Trezza, on Sicily’s eastern coast. Luchino Visconti would return to Sicily to shoot The Leopard (1963). While in La Terra Trema, he gained inspiration from the people and the seaside landscape of Aci Trezza, in The Leopard, he gained inspiration from the novel’s depiction of an aristocratic dynasty on the brink of collapse. He wanted to capture that world, just as Tomasi di Lampedusa had, and reflect its grandeur. The Leopard provided Visconti with the chance to give free reign to his aesthetic flair in recreating scenes that showed the aristocratic class at the height of their influence in politics, religion and society.

Both Visconti and Tomasi di Lampedusa were aware that the ruling of the ruling class was not commensurate with modernity, but they used creative capacity to tell the story. However, they were unaware that the dreams of a people for whom the land was a source of sustenance would also have crumbled. The unawakened beauty of a village atop a mountain ridge conserves such memory.

© Silvana Tuccio, July 2017

*My grandfather’s greatest battle was to retain sovereignty over the land that nourished his soul and his family, and protect it from the sways of economic forces that threatened its intrinsic value.