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Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)

This book, Lampedusa’s only novel, was rejected by the first two publishers it was submitted to and then only published posthumously. It has since become Italy’s top-selling novel and is considered a classic of modern Italian literature. The story is about Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, based on Lampedusa’s great-grandfather. It is set during the Risorgimento, a period when Italy was seeking reunification, to throw off the foreign yoke of Austrian domination and also when Italians wanted greater human rights. Don Fabrizio is an old-fashioned conservative prince. He rules his family firmly and generally gets his own way. But things are changing. It is 1860 and Garibaldi has landed in Sicily and is pushing inland. He is gaining support not only from the people but also from Don Fabrizio’s workers and from his nephew.

We see Don Fabrizio’s character right from the beginning. There is a formal prayer before dinner – Don Fabrizio is very keen on tradition and, in particular, religious traditions. But he is soon off to visit his mistress. His wife is saintly and obviously their sex life is limited. I gave her seven children but have never seen her navel, he laments. He has seven children but it is his nephew, Tancredi, whom he prefers, even though Tancredi behaves badly and prefers the beautiful Angelica to Don Fabrizio’s daughter, Concetta. Tancredi is off to fight with Garibaldi, not because of any republican ideals but to make sure that the aristocracy is not left out when the dust has settled. He is further reassured when his tenants, who favour Garibaldi, point out that aristocrats like him will not be affected by the revolution.

But Lampedusa’s great skill is to show that Don Fabrizio, despite his old-fashioned ways, has good points and bad points and the comparison is made in particular with Angelica’s father, Don Calogero. We first meet him in the second part of the book, when he is to dine with Don Fabrizio. Don Fabrizio is somewhat worried about the meeting, not least because Don Calogero has done quite well financially recently. However, he is reassured when he sees him in inappropriate coat and tails and can mock him. He is even more concerned when he learns that Don Calogero has fixed the election on whether Sicily should be part of the new Italy. But Don Fabrizio has to decide whether Don Calogero would be a suitable father-in-law for Tancredi and Angelica a suitable wife and Lampedusa skilfully shows how Don Fabrizio weighs up the pros and cons in his mind.

Much of the novel is set in the years of the Risorgimento – 1860-1863 – but Lampedusa gives us two later periods, 1883, the year of Don Fabrizio’s death and 1910, the fiftieth anniversary of Garibaldi’s uprising, when Don Fabrizio’s three daughters are old ladies. What this gives us is a portrait of an age and how Italy has changed (and, in some cases not changed). Lampedusa’s great skill is to give us this portrait of such an important time in Italy’s history, while doing it from the edge (we never see Garibaldi in action, for example) and to give us a well-rounded portrait of a complex man who is conflicted between hanging on to his traditional ways and embracing the new Italy, which will be very different from his Sicily (where, he says, people prefer to do nothing), as well as giving us a fascinating plot involving love and intrigue, the staple of many great novels. It is understandable why this novel was rejected and attacked – criticising, as it does, both the aristocracy and the clergy but is also clear why it is now recognised as a classic of Italian literature.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Feltrinelli
First published in English 1960 by Collins/Pantheon
Translated by Archibald Colquhoun