Ten Steps

Critical Inquiries on Leopardi

by Fabio Camilletti (Volume editor) Paola Cori (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection XII, 324 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 23


This book is a ten-step journey around the thought and poetry of the most sensitive Italian visionary of modernity, Giacomo Leopardi, whose contribution to Western thought has been acclaimed by admirers from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche to Benjamin. A variety of readings, moving between different disciplines and approaches – including film studies, psychoanalysis, and queer theory – shed new light on Leopardi’s fascinating and at the same time epistemologically radical compound of poetic imagination and philosophical complexity. An advocate of an ultra-philosophy, which aims to negotiate the fracture opened in Western imagination by the irrecoverable loss of ancient «illusions», Leopardi’s thought seems more relevant than ever in the post-human era, offering an (un)timely meditation on desire, suffering, and imagination as the foundational features of humanity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Trans-National Crossings
  • 1. The Making of Leopardi in English
  • 2. Leopardi and the ‘Zibaldone’ into the New Millennium
  • Part II: Phenomena of Plurilingualism
  • 3. Le idee e le parole. Il lessico straniero nello ‘Zibaldone’
  • 4. Philological Cosmopolitanism and European Nationalisms: The Background to Leopardi’s Sanskrit References in the ‘Zibaldone’
  • Part III: Forms of Desire
  • 5. ‘L’infinito’ come condizione di un’esperienza possibile
  • 6. ‘Time-image’ in Poetry and Cinema: Leopardi and Antonioni
  • 7. Leopardi avec Sade: Impotence and jouissance in ‘La ginestra’
  • Part IV: Thinking and Performing in the Material World
  • 8. Ending the Ancient Covenant: Leopardi and Molecular Biology
  • 9. Leopardi’s Atheism and Religious Existentialism
  • 10. Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘Zibaldone’ of (Queer) Thoughts
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← viii | ix → Acknowledgements

The publication of this book – hopefully, a further step in the continuous, committed, and lively presence of Italian Studies in Birmingham – was made possible thanks to the kindness and generosity of the Dante Society and the Leopardi Centre at the University of Birmingham, and The Harry C. Davis Fund.

Fabio Camilletti wishes to thank Pauline Julier for having first inspired the essay on Leopardi and Sade, and Michael Caesar, Franco D’Intino, and Alessandro Grilli for the helpful feedback received in the course of its gestation. Paola Cori would like to thank Giulio Giusti for his comments on an early draft of her article on Leopardi and Antonioni. We also wish to thank Pamela Williams for her detailed comments on the introduction, Martina Piperno for her editorial work, the editors of the series for having accepted this book, and all the contributors for their careful work, their patience, and their collaboration in this volume.← ix | x →

← x | xi → Note

Quotations from the Zibaldone follow Giuseppe Pacella’s critical edition (Zibaldone di pensieri, ed. by Giuseppe Pacella, 3 vols (Milan: Garzanti, 1990)), abbreviated as Zib. and followed by the page number in the manuscript and by the date. References from Leopardi’s letters follow the Epistolario edited by Franco Brioschi and Patrizia Landi (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1998), abbreviated as E; quotations from the Scritti e frammenti autobiografici are given from Franco D’Intino’s critical edition (Rome: Salerno, 1995), abbreviated as SFA. Quotations from other texts follow Lucio Felici and Emanuele Trevi’s edition of Leopardi’s Tutte le poesie e tutte le prose (Rome: Newton Compton, 1997), abbreviated as TPP. All references are followed by page numbers.← xi | xii →




In the Zibaldone, the intellectual journal he kept from 1817 to 1832, Leopardi drafts in September 1821 a long fragment on the slow and gradual development of the ‘human spirit’. Whereas this expression may sound quite telling – the first edition of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit having been published just a few years before, in 1807 – Leopardi’s statement displays a significant deviation from the assumptions of dawning Idealism, in that it outlines a narrative of scientific discoveries that may sound quite familiar to the contemporary reader, more than fifty years after Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Indeed, Leopardi questions the very notion of ‘genius’ as the motor of civilisation, as well as the harmonious progress envisioned by eighteenth-century Eudemonism; rather, he stresses phenomena of disruption, fracture, and non-linear development. The relationship he describes between the individual and society is an untimely one, and in a sense that comes close to the one Friedrich Nietzsche will later give to this term in his Untimely Meditations. There is a constant margin separating revolutionary discoveries (which, from Leopardi’s viewpoint, are uniquely due to individual geniuses) and their assimilation on the part of the broader community:

Io credo […] che i progressi dello spirito umano siano opera principalmente degl’ingegni mediocri. Uno spirito raro, ricevuti che ha da’ suoi contemporanei i lumi propri dell’età sua, si spinge innanzi e fa dieci passi nella carriera. Il mondo ride, lo perseguita a un bisogno, e lo scomunica, nè si muove dal suo posto, o vogliamo dire, non accelera la sua marcia. Intanto gli spiriti mediocri, parte aiutati dalle scoperte di quel grande, ma più di tutto pel naturale andamento delle cose, e per forza ← 1 | 2 → delle proprie meditazioni, fanno un mezzo passo. […] I loro successori fanno un altro mezzo passo con eguale fortuna. Così di mano in mano, finchè si arriva a compiere il decimo passo, e a trovarsi nel punto dove quel grande spirito si trovò tanto tempo prima. Ma egli o è già dimenticato, o l’opinione prevalsa intorno a lui dura ancora, o finalmente il mondo non gli rende alcuna giustizia […]. Così la sua gloria si ridurrà ad una sterile ammirazione, e ad un passeggero elogio che ne farà qualche altro spirito profondo che consideri com’egli fosse andato innanzi allo spirito umano nella sua carriera. (Zib. 1729–31, 18 September 1821)

It is not unlikely that Leopardi, who, just one year before, had compared his own intellectual progression from poetry to philosophy to the development of ‘lo spirito umano in generale’ (Zib. 143, 1 July 1820), was also cryptically speaking of himself, and of the kind of legacy his quintessentially untimely oeuvre – as he perceived it, and to some extent sold it to the literary market – could be expected to pass on to Italian and European cultures.

In this sense, the ‘ten steps’ evoked in this passage may serve as a powerful metaphor for interrogating, after two centuries, the afterlife of such a legacy inside and outside Italy: a presence that is by no means unproblematic, if as late as 1999 Alessandro Carrera was still describing the Italian view of Leopardi’s fame abroad as that of an incomplete and ultimately failed reception.1 As Carrera acknowledged, this view was more grounded in a vague impression than in an actual state of the art: ‘per quante attestazioni di stima i non italiani ci possano fornire, a noi resta sempre il sospetto che gli stranieri non capiscano e non amino Leopardi come dovrebbero, e che forse non afferrino neanche bene perché dovrebbero’.2 This claim can be confirmed by an overview, albeit superficial, of the many endeavours aimed at disseminating Leopardi outside Italy, whose urgency and good intention seems constantly to have been reaffirmed as a mission.3 The reasons for ← 2 | 3 → this persistent jeremiad, Carrera answered, were rooted in an unresolved relationship between Italians and their own culture, which Leopardi would epitomise to the highest degree: ‘ci è difficile spiegare agli stranieri chi è Leopardi perché ci è difficile spiegare chi siamo noi’.4

A first question that might be asked is why should Leopardi have to be explained anyway, rather than received directly by potential audiences that might be impacted by his thought. Just to make a well-known example, the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon reception of Dante did not occur because Italians managed to sell the Comedy on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the contribution of such famous émigrés as Foscolo and Gabriele Rossetti: it happened because, for several reasons (whose reconstruction lies beyond the scope of this discussion), the Anglo-Saxon public absorbed it directly by means of translations, illustrations, and rewritings. And, certainly, the scarce attention on the part of non-Italian scholars to early nineteenth-century Italian culture – what Joseph Luzzi terms the ‘ubiquity [of Italian Romanticism] in Italian scholarship yet its invisibility in foreign criticism’5 – may be interpreted as one of the results of ‘the diffusion of Italy as a premodern culture in the Romantic foreign imaginary’, which in turn determines a ‘Meridionalist’ perception that still haunts, to a great extent and in different ways, contemporary criticism.6

Much has changed since 1999. The activity of the Leopardi Centre, founded in 1998 at the University of Birmingham, has promoted the ← 3 | 4 → growth of an Anglophone literary criticism on Leopardi through a fruitful collaboration between Italian and Anglo-American scholars. Moreover, Jonathan Galassi’s recent translation of the Canti (2010), and those of the Zibaldone and the Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica, respectively edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (2013) and by Fabio Camilletti and Gabrielle Sims (2013), will surely enhance closer dialogue between Leopardi-related literary criticism and other disciplines with a strongly comparative slant both within and beyond Italian Studies.

However, Carrera’s analysis does stress interestingly how the Italian view of Leopardi abroad has not been empirically grounded, but is rather a perception and a feeling; and that it is rooted, in the fact that Leopardi has been an open problem for Italian culture throughout the slow self-construction of its identity since the nineteenth century and through the twentieth century. It is as if his oeuvre were an intrinsically foreign body and, at the same time, an absolutely familiar presence, mirroring the tensions underlying Italy’s troubled modernity. Significantly, Carrera opened his introduction by quoting a paper given by Italo Calvino in 1979, in which Calvino took precisely the example of Leopardi’s reception outside of the peninsula in order to address the broader question of the cultural image of Italy abroad:

fuor dei confini dell’Italia Leopardi semplicemente non esiste. Non c’è modo di far capire chi è; non c’è modo di definirlo in rapporto ad altri personaggi, di far capire perché per noi è cosi importante ed è importante in tanti modi diversi e tutti veri … La trasmissione del contesto culturale italiano nel suo complesso deve fare i conti con zone d’ombra di cui quella di Leopardi è la più impressionante e macroscopica.7

Calvino’s statement, as Carrera notes, was maybe excessively apocalyptic; and Nicolas Perella has recently called it a ‘defeatist’ approach.8 As a matter of fact, such a trenchant argument definitely tells us more about ← 4 | 5 → Calvino than about Leopardi, especially if we consider Calvino’s construction over time of Leopardi as the intermediate point of a sub-cluster of writers in the Italian literary tradition – running in a line from Cavalcanti, Ariosto and Galileo – which should plausibly culminate with Calvino himself. From such a perspective, Leopardi would become the spiritual father of Calvino’s anti-Gothic use of fantastic themes, in so far as Leopardi detaches himself from the macabre vogues of Northern literatures (which, for Calvino, are intrinsically alien from Italian sensibility)9 by recuperating the legacies of Lucian and Voltaire, and thus reconciling fantastic literature with Enlightenment rationalism by means of a ‘mente lucida, controllo della ragione sull’ispirazione istintiva o inconscia, disciplina stilistica’.10 Calvino’s Leopardi is a postmodernist ahead of his time, in being able to ‘distinguere e mescolare finzione e verità, gioco e spavento, fascinazione e distacco’.11 In sum, the poet of lightness and disenchantment par excellence, already embodying many of the features that we connect to Calvino himself: such as the fascination for meta-literary games and dissimulated quotations, a joyful and gracious irony, a sharpness and levity in style, and a self-aware employment of literary masks.12

Of course, Calvino is only an example, although quite a relevant one: his legacy is still one of the strongest influences in Italian culture at many levels, and its pervasiveness is first and foremost confirmed by Carla Benedetti’s and Claudio Giunta’s recent attempts to question it – in different ways and for diverse reasons – as if a reassessment of Calvino’s cultural afterlife was needed as a sort of ritual parricide for contemporary Italian ← 5 | 6 → culture.13 Concerning Leopardi’s specific case, the key-themes of Calvino’s reading (as game, as meta-literature, as a quintessentially Enlightened and cerebral understanding of fantasy) have been widely questioned and re-problematised by recent criticism.14 Still, the example of Calvino vividly epitomises, in the time-span between the paper of 1979 and the inclusion of Leopardi in his own private pantheon in the Lezioni americane, constant patterns in Italy’s twentieth-century confrontation with Leopardi and his legacy: the opposition between Italy and foreign countries, narrativised as a divergence between Italian attention to Leopardi and foreign neglect; the oscillation between Italian culture stressing its own peculiarity and looking, at the same time, for legitimisation and recognition on the part of foreign audiences; the domestication of Leopardi, framed systematically within pre-fixed schemes – nihilist, progressive, unconsciously Catholic, Marxist or postmodernist ante litteram; and the comparison with foreign authors, whose themes Leopardi is judged to ‘echo’ for abstract and undefined reasons of Zeitgeist (as happens with the German, English, or French Romantics), or even to anticipate (as with Baudelaire), using a critical narration that, more or less unconsciously, reproduces the Victorian dialectic between ‘forerunners’ and ‘later poets’.

← 6 | 7 → All these patterns confirm Leopardi’s role as an ambiguous and troubling presence within the Italian canon, and the reverberations this role possessed – and still possesses – as far as dissemination is concerned. The shadow they cast, we believe, is the first and most engaging challenge posed to those who attempt any experiment in cultural translation, which cannot be literally confined to the sole translation of literary works. Rethinking Leopardi’s problematic (and, therefore, quintessentially paradigmatic) case through the joint cooperation of Italian and international scholars may, therefore, lead to reflection on the Italian literary tradition from a different angle, and also to the way it works as an element of ‘difference’ – in Roberto Esposito’s terms – in contemporary culture and theory.15 Not by chance, in Esposito’s analysis Leopardi plays a central role, in that his work – and most notably the Zibaldone – would precisely display all those features that constitute the very core of Italy’s exceptionality in Western culture: geographical and intellectual deterritorialisation; lack of any substantial break with classical antiquity; ‘historicisation of the non-historical’; incorporation of conflict; and practical and a-systematic praxes of philosophy-making. Re-reading Leopardi from this angle would mean addressing, through a multifaceted prism, the problem of Italy’s peculiarity in Western thought, and at the same time tackling concerns that have become increasingly relevant, in recent years, for Italian Studies as a discipline.

Since, as we may assume, we are currently in the ‘tenth step’ – Leopardi’s oeuvre having been translated into the most widespread Western languages, and witnessing an increasing critical attention on the part of a broad community of scholars in Italy and beyond – are we in a better position to assess and evaluate Leopardi’s position within the Italian and European canon? This book, which by a fascinating matter of chance is composed of ten essays, is an attempt at giving a provisional answer at least, by re-thinking Leopardi’s oeuvre from a wide plurality of angles and through an intentionally open interdisciplinary – as well as international – perspective.


← 7 | 8 → If we take the Lettera ai Sigg. compilatori della ‘Biblioteca Italiana’ (1816) and the Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica (1818) as Leopardi’s first foray in his duel with the post-Waterloo Italian intellectual scene,16 it can be said that his own intellectual career almost coincides, from a chronological point of view, with the Bourbon Restoration: that is to say, with that fluid and instable period between the Napoleonic wars and the Risorgimento, in which Italian identity is slowly forged, through closer dialogue and complex processes of cultural negotiation between the elites of the several pre-Unification states.17 Leopardi’s work becomes then a powerful litmus test for questioning the very notion of ‘Italianness’, both in relation to its peculiarly changeable nature in these decades and to the even more problematic position of Leopardi himself towards it.18 Indeed, every analysis of the relationship between Leopardi and Italian culture, both within his oeuvre and in its afterlife, even in relation to his translation and dissemination, must begin with the consideration that Italian identity has undergone a slow and ramified process of construction, like every other national identity, but with peculiar features due to specific (geo)political and cultural contingencies. It should also be remarked that Leopardi ← 8 | 9 → himself attempted to take part in this process – with his ‘patriotic songs’, the Operette morali as an experiment in giving birth to a ‘national book’, the Crestomazia de’ prosatori as an ideal canon of Italian prose,19 and the Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degli italiani – without having any significant impact on the culture of his contemporaries.

In the construction of Italian culture and identity in the years of the Bourbon Restoration, Leopardi’s oeuvre stands alone as an example of unresolved potentialities: to put it bluntly, what would have happened if Italian culture, in the crucial year 1827, had adopted the Operette as its foundational book rather than Manzoni’s I promessi sposi? Probably, the matter could not have gone differently; and, surely, the award of a prize by the Crusca Academy to Carlo Botta’s Storia d’Italia rather than to the Operette is an eloquent expression of the priorities of the cultural establishment at that time. However, it is as if, in that golden moment, two possibilities for Italian culture were coexisting: and, as Sebastiano Timpanaro correctly acknowledged, choosing Manzoni was a telling symptom – in 1827 as well as in the late 1970s – of the peculiar and persistent anti-radicalism of Italian culture throughout its modernity.20

Leopardi’s ambiguous position within the Italian canon is also confirmed by the way it has been manipulated and domesticated by criticism over the decades, on the one hand by more or less relegating to the margins the radical philosophy of the Zibaldone, and on the other, among the Canti, by generating arbitrary enclosures – such as that of the ‘grandi idilli’ – that undermine the thought-provoking polyphony of Leopardi’s poetic experiment. Indeed, Cosetta Veronese has recently spoken, in relation to Leopardi’s immediate afterlife, of a process of scapegoating, in terms theorised by René Girard, and tending in two contradictory and yet complementary movements of ‘sacrifice and exclusion’ and ‘sanctification ← 9 | 10 → and inclusion’.21 The exaltation of Leopardi, together with Dante, as one of the ‘peaks’ of national literature, is consequently mirrored and counterbalanced by the silencing of the most radical and troubling aspects of his thought. The alleged ‘untranslatability’ of Leopardi then sounds like the most eloquent symptom of an unresolved conflict, of a process of repression censoring its object in the very moment of exalting it; in the same way, the aforementioned tendency to frame Leopardi within pre-formed ideological schemes – be they nihilism, progressivism, radical materialism, or pensiero debole – can be interpreted as a systematic domestication of a thought finding its most characteristic features in its eschewing every form of classification Perhaps the best example of such explanatory theories, is the alternating reception of Cesare Luporini’s Leopardi progressivo (1947), which is periodically brought back into circulation or criticised in turn, as if we were witnessing the systematic re-enactment of the debates of the 1950s and 1960s coming full circle again and again.


XII, 324
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Benjamin Schopenhauer Nietzsche ultra-philosophy
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XII, 324 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Fabio Camilletti (Volume editor) Paola Cori (Volume editor)

Fabio Camilletti is Associate Professor of Italian at the University of Warwick and Honorary Research Fellow at the Leopardi Centre, University of Birmingham. He has worked extensively on European literature of the Romantic age and has recently completed two monographs on Leopardi and Italian Romanticism. Paola Cori is Honorary Research Fellow at the Leopardi Centre, University of Birmingham. She completed her PhD at Birmingham and was awarded a Giacomo Leopardi Prize by the Centro Nazionale di Studi Leopardiani. She has published articles in leading international journals and she is currently working on two monographs on Leopardi.


Title: Ten Steps