Giacomo Leopardi

1798 –

Giacomo Leopardi, an Italian poet, scholar, and philosopher, was born on June 29, 1798, in Recanati, Papal States, where he was raised. The eldest son of aristocratic—albeit, not wealthy—parents, the precocious Leopardi spent much of his childhood in his father’s library. His father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, was a conservative nobleman, holding beliefs with which Giacomo would grow to disagree. His mother, who took charge of rebuilding the family fortune after Count Monaldo gambled it away, was said to have been cold and neglectful. Although Leopardi’s parents agreed to train their son for an ecclesiastical career, Count Monaldo encouraged his son’s pursuit of scholarship. By age fourteen, Leopardi had outgrown his tutors and was left to study under his own direction, learning Greek, Latin, and several modern languages.

Leopardi’s early writings were primarily philological. At seventeen, Leopardi completed his first major work, “Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi” [“Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients”] (1815), which would be published posthumously. In 1816, Leopardi published his translation of Book One of Homer’s Odyssey and, in 1817, his translation of Book Two of Virgil’s Aeneid. It was during this time that Leopardi turned from philosophy to poetry, due, in part, to his developing ill health for which he cited “excessive study” as the cause. Isolated physically and spiritually, Leopardi’s pessimism grew, dominating his imagination and manifesting in his work. Taking influence from both Dante and Petrarch, Leopardi wrote his 1816 poem “L’appressamento della morte” [“The Approach of Death”] in terza rima.

In 1818, Leopardi made his debut as a poet with the publication of two odes: “All’ Italia” [“To Italy”] and “il Monumento di Dante” [“The Monument of Dante”]. After a visit from his friend, the classicist Pietro Giordani, Leopardi longed to escape from the Recanati estate, and, in 1822, he arrived at his uncle’s home in Rome. Leopardi took little pleasure in his stay, residing in Rome for only a few months before returning home with even greater disillusion. The following year, 1824, saw the publication of his verse collection Canzoni [Songs]. Leopardi left Recanati for the second time in 1825 after being offered a position working for the publisher Stella of Milan.

Over the next several years, Leopardi traveled between Bologna, Florence, Milan, and Pisa, meanwhile publishing his collected Versi [Verses] (1826), and Operette morali [Small Moral Works] (1827), a philosophical prose work consisting primarily of dialogue. In 1828, Leopardi was forced to return home due to lack of funds. During this time, Leopardi composed many poems, including the well-known “A Silvia” [“To Silvia”] (1828), a work detailing a youth’s lost potential due to personal tragedy. With the financial assistance of friends, Leopardi was able once again to leave Recanati for Florence, bolstered, too, by the publication of I Canti [Cantos] (1831). Later, Leopardi moved to Naples with the hope that his health would benefit from the warmer climate. Here, he wrote his long poem “La Ginestra, o, Ilfiore del deserto” [“The Broom, or the Flower of the Desert”] (1836), and began work on a collection titled Pensieri [Thoughts], which was left unfinished.

Giacomo Leopardi died suddenly on June 14, 1837, during the second world cholera pandemic in Europe (1829–1849).