Where I am reading can become so inextricably bound to what I am reading that in recalling the book later, I find myself returned to the place where I was sitting and memories of the life I was leading.

I celebrated my eightieth birthday in Todi with my closest friend, in her flat at the top of a seventeenth-century palazzo with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. For a week we drove around Umbria and the Marches and, between one marvel and the next, ate deliciously al fresco in Perugia, Montefalco and Pitigliano, and other villages whose atmospheres still inhabit me. And at the end of each day, I read Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, which I found in her library. Like a novel, it has a good story to tell, and its scholarship is lightly yet accurately handled in elegant prose.

I was haunted by this book about Italy’s greatest poet since Dante. Leo- pardi set up quarters in my mind. I thought about his restricted life, his few intense male friendships and the absence of all female love. I began to read his poetry and some of the classics he translated, and talked to another friend about the Dialogues. I found myself identifying with him emotion- ally, and recognised his tendency to invent those with whom he fell in love. In friendship, he yearned for minds as much as hearts.

Three years after my initial reading, I returned to Italy to visit Leopardi’s ancestral city. I knew that the poet had loathed it, calling it ‘ignoble’, ‘a place in which learning and wisdom are most often matter for laughter’. He despised its citizens, finding no one there of culture with whom to talk, nowhere to buy a book, nobody who recognised his genius. His situation was that of ‘a pearl in a dung heap’. But that was three hundred years ago! Surely, Recanati would have changed.

I set out at once for the red-brick Palazzo Leopardi in which the family have lived (they continue so to do) since the eleventh century. I walked the snaking streets, struck by how no recognisable pattern governed the arrangement of the cobbles, thrown down rashly; how buildings face one another too closely, in stolid indifference; not a flower, not an ornament distinguishes one from another, but each rises high in an attempt to catch sunlight. In Giacomo’s day forty palazzi kept carriages and horses, and it would have been as hazardous to cross the streets then as it is now with the cars that hurtle by. I had to press my back against ‘the luckless walls’ or risk being flattened.

I found no piazza with benches from which to overlook the vineyards and olive groves below: every piazza looks in upon itself. There seems no thought to the layout; once one has embarked on a street one must follow it to its tail, for no alleys cut through from one thoroughfare to another. There is something inhospitable about Recanati. Like an old cheese, it is rotten from the centre. It is not animated enough to be in decay. There are six fine churches dating from the twelfth century (sadly over-restored in the nineteenth century), and a flattering monument to Giacomo commissioned by Mussolini, who never once visited to view it. But where were the cats? Where the lively taverns, antiquarians, the smell of coffee, the sound of raised voices, the shops? All I might have bought were a beach ball, some knitting wool, a piece of costume jewellery and a pizza – and not a very tasty one at that.

After a long and dispiriting walk, I reached the palazzo, which sits on the edge of the awkwardly shaped hill upon which Recanati is built. Its li- brary, created by Leopardi’s bibliophile father, became domain and refuge for the poet, bringing the world and time within his grasp. I had formed a clear mental picture of how it looked, but no second-hand description could compete with the experience of actually being there, compensation in itself for the uninspiring approach. I breathed in the atmosphere of the three floor-to-ceiling book-lined rooms, peered into the glass cases to examine the poet’s copperplate manuscripts, saw his white china ink stand, the large family tree on the wall facing the table at which he wrote shivering in damp cold under flickering candlelight, and the brown rugs in which he wrapped his frail body.

Born on 25 June 1798, for ten years from the age of seven, ‘years of mad and desperate study’, Giacomo was tutored in this library by his personal priest, in the belief that knowledge held the key to a brilliant happy future. He himself wore the tonsure from the age of twelve, by which time he had mastered Latin, by fifteen Hebrew, Greek, French and English. He made himself fluent in every verse form, and his translations of the classics were acknowledged for their faithfulness to the originals and for their elegance.

But this frenzied regime – and the restrictions his parents enforced on his social life – undermined his physical health. He was not permitted to wan- der unaccompanied beyond the confines of the seven-thousand square me- tres of the palazzo, and by the age of twenty-four, had never taken a walk without his father, a tutor or a servant. Even his correspondence – both re- ceived and dispatched – was censored. He suffered insomnia, deteriorated eyesight and bowel dysfunction. The scoliosis with which he may have been born led to his becoming hunchbacked. His psychological health was destroyed by his incarceration, his mother’s lack of engagement with him and his father’s refusal to acknowledge what scholars recognised as his outstanding capabilities. He became melancholic, given to mood swings of excessive gaiety and excessive sorrow, and when he could see no way of escaping from Recanati, his thoughts turned to suicide. ‘I lived out the years alone, obscure, loveless, lifeless.’ He longed for death as much as for a woman (he is thought to have died a virgin.)

He broke down before he started to write poetry. Yet he was to say of his years of study that they were the happiest of his life.

It was friendship that saved him. Two men – Pietro Giordani and Antonio Ranieri – recognised his genius and offered intellectual companionship and friendship. Ranieri shared Leopardi’s final seven years, caring for every aspect of his needs with the devotion of a mother and writing ‘that never was, nor will be again, a friendship equal to that which bound me to my adored Leopardi.’

Why is it then, that despite the esteem in which Leopardi is held in Italy, he is almost unknown in the English-speaking world? Is it because his poetry depends upon a sonority that is lost in translation? Or because, until last year, there was no complete translation of the Zibaldone, the four-thou- sand-five-hundred-page notebook he kept from 1817-32, the repository of his encyclopaedic interests (comparable to Coleridge’s Biographia Literar- ia)? Perhaps he has been overlooked by a people dedicated to the demands of the stiff upper lip, for his is demonstrably flaccid. Leopardi was the poet of human grief, a self-absorbed invalid whose view of life’s passage was that it is ‘the journey of a sick cripple carrying an enormous load across steep mountains and impossibly bleak, barren, unforgiving lands, through snow, frost, rain, wind and scorching heat, walking days and nights on end to arrive at some precipice or ditch into which he is fated to fall.’

He writes as a Realist painter paints: beyond what he sees, he simultan- eously discovers infinity, to which the torture of the real and actual has no access. It is here that some grain of optimism emerges from his soul and he manages to bathe the best of his poetry in the light he discerns from the darkness in which he lived. Remembrance is fundamental to his poetic feeling; even painful memory is pleasurable for its return of the past.

In his poem, ‘L’infinito’, Leopardi commends the occluded view for sharp- ening his imagination. Did he feel some ambiguity about his physical situ- ation, an awareness of the value of a cloistered existence on his creativity? Indeed, if ever biology were destiny, it was for him; Recanati was both nourishment and emotional torture, as Illiers was for Proust and Dublin for Joyce.

I felt the sharp disjunction between Giacomo and Recanati. But had he had the good fortune to be born in Venice or Florence, with their rich cultural life and lively, beautiful streets, might literary history not have been impoverished?

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