His childhood was the period he would always look back to as the happiest of his life. He spent it as a cosseted only child – his only sister had died when she was only two a few days after his own birth – moving and playing around the numberless rooms of the palace where he had been born, in Vicolo Lampedusa in Palermo, with the solitary taste of a child who, as he would later write, “took delight more in the company of things than of people” and enjoying the long summer periods spent in the house at Santa Margherita Belice, which belonged to his mother’s family.
And above all, he spent it under the protective wing of his much-beloved mother, an extremely charming woman, widely learned and brought up in an unconventional manner, who transmitted to her son her cosmopolite cultural open-mindedness and her detachment from the most provincial aspects of aristocratic Palermo. She personally taught him French and chose for him nannies that could teach him German. Tomasi would later learn English, as a personal choice.
Those childhood and early adolescence days, when his parents led a mundane life in Palermo enlivened by the vivifying and activating presence of the prestigious international contacts held by the Florios, ended brusquely after the death of Giulia Trigona, his mother’s sister, killed by her lover. The event drove the Tomasi family to put an end to their mundane life. After all, it was the final period of Palermo’s golden age under the influence of the Florios, and the war was about to break out.
In 1914 Giuseppe Tomasi took a diploma at Liceo Garibaldi in Palermo, a high school with a bias for classical studies, and the following year he enrolled at the Law Faculty in Rome. He was perhaps thinking of starting a diplomatic career, following in his uncle Pietro’s footsteps, the only one of the Lampedusas who had devoted himself to a profession. But his university studies proved unsuitable to Giuseppe’s temperament and inclinations.
He intermittently concentrated on them and on the whole probably only took one exam. Instead, he took part in the war: when it broke out he was recalled for military service, in 1917 he became an officer, he was sent to the front, he witnessed the defeat at Caporetto and was taken prisoner by the Austrians. He managed to escape from the Hungarian prisoner-of -war camp where he had been interned. He remained with the army until 1920.
In the next few years he travelled to Italy and to Europe, almost always with his mother, and for long periods he resided in Genoa and in Piedmont, with friends – Bruno Revel, Guido Lajolo, Massimo Erede – whom he had met during his imprisonment and whom he would always think back to as his dearest friends.
In 1925, in London, while he was staying at his uncle Pietro’s, who resided there as ambassador, Tomasi met Alessandra (Licy) Wolff Stomersee, whose family belonged to the old Latvian aristocracy, a woman with a wide culture and varied interests, who was to become a psychoanalyst.
The relationship between the two would lead, in 1932, to their marriage, which was celebrated in Riga; after the wedding the couple settled in Palermo, at Palazzo Lampedusa. But living together proved difficult for Licy and Giuseppe’s mother and the inflexible Latvian went back to live between Stomersee castle and Rome. So the relationship between the couple continued mainly in an epistolary form, and the two only periodically lived together, at Stomersee in the summer and in Rome at Christmas.
In the meanwhile Tomasi had published, between 1926 and 1927, three essays (on Morand, Yeats and Gundolf) in the Genoese magazine Le opere e i giorni (Works and Days). Those were to be the only works that were published while he was living. The thirties passed in the intermittent conjugal relationship described above.
In 1934 Giulio Tomasi died and Giuseppe inherited the title of prince of Lampedusa and the “status” of head of the family.
In 1940, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Tomasi was recalled for military service but, being the head of a farm, he was soon discharged and in 1942, with his mother, he moved to Capo D’Orlando where Licy would later join them, to escape from the bombings in Palermo. But the bombings would not spare the house where the prince had been born, his most beloved home and the one he most felt as his, which was destroyed in April 1943.
Another difficult loss would affect Tomasi at the end of the war: in 1946 his mother died. In 1947 Giuseppe and Licy purchased, on her will, two floors of a house in Via Butera n°28, which had belonged to the Tomasi family in the previous century, and restored them. There they lived starting from 1949, leading a secluded life, seeing very few people and occasionally opening the library on the piano nobile, where the princess would receive visitors about twice a month. Giuseppe Tomasi was to spend the last years of his life in this house, frequenting the Bellini circle (where the town’s aristocracy met), some cafés where he would sit down to read, write and meet old acquaintances, and some bookshops.
Among his favourite trips were the ones to Capo d’Orlando, where he visited his cousins Lucio, Casimiro and Giovanna Piccolo in their villa.
Around 1953 Tomasi met a group of young intellectuals (among them Francesco Orlando and Gioacchino Lanza di Mazzarino) and started spending time with them, starting in the Palace in Via Butera a cenacle, dominated by his boundless culture and by his unique style. To them he would be an unforgettable master, particularly to Orlando, for whom he held a series of lessons on English literature and to whom he dictated The Leopard.
The relationship with Gioacchino Lanza evolved in such a way that he became his adopted son.
It was the end of 1954 when Tomasi started working on The Leopard, the idea for which had probably been nagging him for years and which was initially conceived as the description of a day in the life of one of his forefathers, during the landing of Garibaldi’s Thousand.
While he was working on The Leopard, Tomasi also wrote Racconti d’infanzia, which were followed by the other Racconti (La gioia e La legge, The Siren) and the draft for the novel The Blind Kittens.
Tomasi completed the novel within two years and presented it first to Mondadori and then to Elio Vittorini for Einaudi. Both refused it and this greatly pained him. In 1957 he was diagnosed lung cancer, which brought his life to an end in Rome on 23rd July of that same year.
The typescript of The Leopard was then sent to Elena Croce and Giorgio Bassani, who took care of its publication through Feltrinelli. Ever since it was first published, in November 1958, the novel was extremely successful (although there was also bitter criticism, it was consecrated by an enormous reading public such as no other XX century Italian novel has ever equalled). The Leopard was awarded the Strega prize in 1959. The book was then translated in the whole world and Luchino Visconti made it into a memorable film in 1963.
The plot of The Leopard is so well known that it hardly seems worth recalling it. It is centred on the character of Prince Fabrizio Salina, the head of a family belonging to the highest Sicilian aristocracy, but also a man endowed with subtle critical intelligence, who witnesses the decline of the Bourbon reign, Garibaldi’s enterprise followed by the establishment of the united kingdom of Italy, who witnesses the social ascent of the members of a new class.
The historical theme and the point of view from which Sicily and Sicilians are observed are interwoven with the protagonist’s existential problems, characterised by an acute sense of decline and of death superimposed upon a vigorous sensuality and a strong and proud personality. Although the plot certainly contributed to the readers’ fascination, the novel is not at all characterised by a typical XIX century structure, based upon intrigue and on the novel; on the contrary it reveals a deep awareness of XX century literary developments.
He spent his childhood summers at the Filangeri-Cuto palace. Surrounded by prickly pears, vineyards and olive groves, which cover the flanks of its hilly territory and indicate that we are in one of the areas of Sicily whwre precious wines and olive oil are produced, Santa Margherita was founded at the end of the sixteenth century by Antonio Cornera on the remains of a remote Arabian strong-hold. It develops around Filangeri Palace, Tomasi’s house, which “Placed in the town centre, right in the shady Square, spread over an enormous extension and numbered counting large and small three hundred rooms (…) it enclosed official apartments, living-rooms, guestrooms for thirty people, rooms for the servants, three enormous courtyards, stabled and stores, private theatre and church, a huge and very beautiful garden and a larghe orchard…”.
This is how Tomasi remembers it and this is how Maria caterina d’Asburgo Lorena, Ferdinando IV Bourbon’s wife, saw it when sent there into exile for some months by the English military governor of Sicily, Lord Bentick, who had grown impatient of her talents in political intrigue.
It was the year 1812 when the Neapolitan court baished by Murat was forced into its second sicilian exile. The queen was received in santa Margherita by the prince Niccolò Filangeri di Cutò, who on that occasion had the palace widely restored according to the late Luois XVI style, still current in Sicily at a time when the English fleet had preserved it from Napoleonic occupation.
The memory of the queen’s flyght seems to have inspired the name “Donnafugata” given by Tomasi to the summer residence of the Leopard .
Santa Marghetita is only a few kilometres away from the beaches that lie on the southern coast of Sicily, from the thermal bath in Sciacca and from the Greek temples in Segesta and Selinunte, which, as is common knowledge, is the largest archaeological basin in the Mediterranean. But the whole Valle del Belìce is scattered with archaeological sites and finds belonging to different periods, starting from the Neolithic one, which bear witness to its millenary civilization. Most relevant among them are certainly those on Monte Adranone, in the Sambuca territory, and the Cave di Cusa, from which the materials for the construction of the temples in Selinunte were extracted.