Conte Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), Italy's greatest romantic poet, had encyclopedic interests. His critical writings, correspondence, philological studies, and notebooks of literary and philosophical reflections supplement his poetry.
Born in stifling, provincial Recanati on June 29, 1798, Giacomo Leopardi devoted his precocious adolescence entirely to learning. His cold, stern mother, Adelaide, concerned only with restoring the family's finances and maintaining a noble facade, neglected the emotional needs of her children. Conte Monaldo, his conservative and impoverished father, for a time sheltered Giacomo from the ideas of the Enlightenment, channeling his attention toward religious and philological studies. These intense years of study produced A History of Astronomy (1814), An Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients (1815), and Julius Africanus (1815), but delicate health soon became a major source of personal suffering, limiting his capacity for sustained work.
Beginning in 1816 Leopardi's early antiquarianism and religiosity ceded to a developing interest in literature. While some erroneously attributed the change to his association with the critic Pietro Giordani, abundant evidence exists that Leopardi's philosophical skepticism was manifest before they met. The early Canti, written before his first departure (1822) from Recanati, reveals an emerging belief that the universe neither held meaning for him nor offered any remedy for the noia, a cosmic sense of alienation, which afflicted him.
A 3-month stay in Rome (1822) heightened Leopardi's disillusionment with life, for he found Roman society corrupt, ignorant, and hostile to new ideas. Although his erudition earned the esteem of several learned foreigners, he could not find work and had to return to Recanati's oppressive atmosphere. Trying to escape, in 1825 he went to Milan and Bologna, where he prepared an edition of Cicero, a commentary of Petrarch, and a collection of his own prose and poetry. Failing health and lack of funds sent him back to the family home. He journeyed (1827-1828) to Florence and Pisa but again reluctantly returned to Recanati. Tuscan friends in 1830 advanced him money, enabling him to abandon forever "that horrible nightmare of Recanati." From 1833, suffering rapidly failing eyesight and health, he lived in Naples with a friend, Antonio Ranieri, his loyal stenographer, editor, and valet, whose Seven Years of Confraternity with Giacomo Leopardi (1880) documents those difficult years. Leopardi died on June 14, 1837.
A collection of 61 poems, I canti represents Leopardi's major poetic achievement. Its three chronological divisions reveal the development of his philosophical pessimism, far deeper than the subjective romantic melancholy of many contemporaries.
In the first stage (1819-1820) Leopardi discloses his intimate suffering and views himself cut off from the happiness that others may find in life. The best examples are "To the Moon," "The Infinite," and the longer "The Evening before the Holiday," in which Leopardi contrasts his constant personal anguish with the joys of others who focus solely on the festivities of the forthcoming day while Leopardi's imagination leaps past the morrow to see the return to everyday, humdrum existence.
The second phase (1821-1823) advances an explanation for the suffering that everyone must endure. As the human species evolved, reason and experience proved that early illusions of felicity were false. Leopardi develops a corollary to this historical process: as the child matures to adulthood, he learns through bitter experience that his youthful ideals were mistaken. Leopardi concludes that modern society deprived people of happiness. "To spring," subtitled "Concerning Ancient Myths," most forcefully depicts this stance.
In the final stage (1828-1837) the poems are almost philosophical in their relentless quest for truth, however bitter. Leopardi portrays a world devoid of Providential order in which Nature, now the pitiless enemy, has given man intelligence with which to realize the nothingness of life. A note of hope emerges in La ginestra, his last major poem, in which he points to human compassion and solidarity in suffering as the only relief from anguish, boredom, and loneliness. Other key poems are "Memories," "The Lonely Thrush," and "The Nocturnal Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia."
In addition to I canti, Leopardi wrote several important works. The Operette morali (Short Moral Works), written between 1823 and 1828, divides into 24 parts, 19 composed upon his return from Rome and 5 in the following years. Although they assume various forms—dialogues, narrations, and lyrical prose pieces—their unity derives from Leopardi's search for truth in a hostile world devoid of all hope. Leopardi concludes that the only possible happiness lies in man's renunciation of illusions and his acceptance of death.
The Zibaldone (1817-1832, written mostly about 1827) is a collection of notes, sketches, ideas for poems, and philosophical and literary discussions. From its several thousand pages, frequently redundant, emerges Leopardi's view of poetry as creation and invention, not mere imitation. In rejecting the utilitarian spirit of the time, Leopardi sought solace in the pursuit of beauty, cultivated despite his awareness that most modern men avoided lyrical poetry while inexorably exploring the grim truth of Nature's cruel indifference. The Pensieri (Thoughts), 111 short prose sections published posthumously, continues the Zibaldone. Leopardi's Collected Letters, a further guide to his works, reflects his principal concerns during various stages of his tragically brief existence.
The most thorough, readable study on Leopardi in English is J. H. Whitfield, Giacomo Leopardi (1954). Also of value are two books written by Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Biography (1935) and Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (1953).
Barricelli, Jean Pierre, Giacomo Leopardi, Boston: Twayne, 1986.