The Last Leopard
The Last Leopard
David Gilmour’s biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa unearths the life story of the creator of The Leopard, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. A book whose imagery, once tasted, haunts the reader for ever, The Leopard describes the golden era of nine teenth century Sicily in all its sensual, fading, aristocratic glory. But beneath the surface lurk Sicily’s millennial contagions – corruption, brutality and inequality. Who wrote this masterpiece, this work of art? The answer is as unlikely as one might hope. A fascinating meditation on what it is that makes a writer.
‘Outstandingly good ... Lampedusa has found a biographer worthy of The Leopard.’ - Allan Massie, Daily Telegraph
‘... a triumph of fine writing: elegant, witty, concise – everything a good biography should be.’ - Ian Thomson, Independent
The Last Leopard: A life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
Format: 334pp demi pb
David Gilmour's books include award-winning biographies of Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon. He is also the author of The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj and of several books on Spain and the Middle East. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a former Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, he is a contributor to the Spectator and the New York Review of Books. He is currently writing a book on Giuseppe Verdi and the unification of Italy. The Last Leopard won the Marsh Biography Award in 1989.
Extracts from Chapter One
IN THE COURTYARD of the Villa Lampedusa, a few miles from Palermo, Friesian cows pick their way carefully through the rubble. Their home is a wasteland of defunct objects: broken boxes, squashed petrol cans, a clutter of old bathtubs. The Villa itself is deserted, its broken shutters creaking with languor in the hot afternoon breeze. The façade is cracked and pockmarked, and the stucco has faded to a mild ochre; only the ceilings are intact, delicate, highly-wrought arrangements of fruit and flowers.
Most of the family homes recalled in the memoirs of Giuseppe Tomasi, last Prince of Lampedusa, are in similar stages of advanced ruin: the others have been destroyed altogether. The palace at Palma di Montechiaro, feudal base of the Lampedusas in southern Sicily, stands gaunt and derelict; their house at Torretta, in the hills west of Palermo, has been demolished and replaced by a monstrous orange school. The places of his mother’s family have fared no better: at Bagheria the Villa Cutò is now a squalid tenement forming part of the station yard. More dismal still is the state of the Palazzo Cutò at Santa Margherita, most beautiful of all the palaces and inspiration for Donnafugata in The Leopard. Stricken by an earthquake twenty years ago, its wreckage remains undisturbed, the courtyards filled with beams and ruined masonry, the palm trees knocked sideways, some of them half buried. The front slumps down one side of the town’s piazza, displaying broken balustrades and twisted balconies: all that remains of the internal decoration is a primitive fresco of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome. Behind the devastation, the garden which Lampedusa described as ‘a paradise of parched scents’ has become a wilderness infested with giant thistles. In its integrity he described the house as ‘a kind of eighteenth-century Pompeii, all miraculously preserved intact’; in its desolation it symbolises the death of the Sicily to which he had belonged.
Biographers who travel ‘in the footsteps’ of their subjects invite delusions and disappointment: amid buildings decayed and gardens neglected, in once-peaceful places desecrated by
highways and concrete, it is often difficult to imagine the inspiration of the writer or the poet. But if it is hard to conceive of nightingales in north London, it is harder still to picture the myrtles and fountains of Donnafugata. Sicily, wrote Lampedusa, is ‘the most destructive of countries’, over-burdened by a past for which it has little respect. Yet even he, disillusioned by his island and pessimistic of the future though he was, would have been surprised by the rapidity and extent of this decay.
In the course of a recent journey through Sicily I visited each of the Cutò and Lampedusa houses in turn. Amid all the other spectres of decadence, all the other evidence of feudal and island decline, one sight stood out in a special, abject category of its own. The old Palazzo Lampedusa in Palermo, birthplace and home of the prince, was destroyed in the American bombing of 1943: more than forty years later it was still there, in the heart of the old city, gutted and plundered; the ‘repugnant ruins’, which had so distressed its last owner, remained untouched. I tried to photograph the derelict outer wall, the only part visible from the street, but three carabinieri approached, shaking their heads and wagging their fingers. They were charming and polite, explaining that photography was forbidden in that area because of the proximity of the police station. It was useless to claim that my sole interest was the remains of the Palazzo Lampedusa: no one, they laughed incredulously, could be interested in a ruined wall.
As I retreated along the Via Lampedusa, I noticed a loose plank in the padlocked gates of the palace. The next day was Sunday and I rose before dawn, reached the building in the grey half-light, and squeezed through the gap in the gate. The front courtyard was full of rubble but I remembered the layout of the palace from Lampedusa’s memoirs and knew which way to climb. As the light improved I could recognise some of the rooms: his mother’s boudoir with its domed ceiling in gold and shades of blue, her dressing room overlooking the Oratory of Santa Zita, the place of Giuseppe’s earliest memory. Perhaps the most pathetic sight in the place was the wreck of the old library. Tattered shreds of green velvet lay among splinters of cornice and large chunks of plaster; from a pile of rusty chair springs stuck a faded parasol. Underneath the rubble, scattered pages of
Lampedusa’s favourite authors mixed with the remains of his library catalogue, burnt and insect-eaten cards bearing the names of Shakespeare, Dickens and others. Buried among them, I found a number of more personal documents: photographs, ancestral correspondence, papers in his own handwriting, letters from his mother which testified to the closeness of their relationship.
It was after a visit to Sicily in 1985 that I decided to write a book about Lampedusa, but I had little idea then of the form it would eventually take. I had been to Palma di Montechiaro to see Andrea Vitello, a medical doctor who had been doing research on Lampedusa and his ancestors for many years, and had shown him my discoveries. I knew he was working on a biography, but I did not realise that the widowed Princess of Lampedusa had denied him access to all the material she had in her home in Palermo; nor did I realise, until I saw it later, how much documentary evidence of Lampedusa’s life had survived there.
I did not consider attempting a biography myself until after I met Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Lampedusa’s adopted son, during a visit to London at the beginning of 1987. I became a friend of him and his second wife Nicoletta, and they invited my wife and myself to stay at their home in Palermo, the house in Via Butera where Lampedusa had spent the last ten years of his life and in which his wife had lived out her widowhood. It is a commonplace for a writer to declare that ‘without the help of so-and so, this book could not have been written’, but in my case it is the exact truth. Without Gioacchino’s help I would never have come near to an understanding of Lampedusa. During the days he allowed me to search his house for documents; in the evenings he answered innumerable questions and told countless anecdotes. At breakfast he would direct me to a disused room and suggest I might find something in an old cupboard: I would go there, force it open with difficulty, and encounter a cascade of Lampedusa’s letters. One evening, after Gioacchino had gone to Rome, I went down to the basement and noticed an old cardboard box in a corner. Inside were documents which had not been seen since Lampedusa’s death: the diaries of his last years, the files of his time in the Red Cross, letters, unpublished essays, a commonplace book, some photograph albums of the 1920s.