Leopardi, following a family tradition, began his studies under the tutelage of two priests, but his innate thirst for knowledge found its satisfaction primarily in his father's extraordinary library. Initially guided by Father Sebastiano Sanchini, Leopardi quickly liberated himself by immersing his mind in vast and profound reading. He committed himself so deeply to his "mad and most desperate" studies that, within a short time, he had acquired an extraordinary knowledge of classical and philological culture, but he suffered from the lack of an open and stimulating formal instruction.
Between the ages of twelve and nineteen, he studied constantly, driven by a need to learn as much as possible, as well as to escape, at least spiritually, from the rigid environment of the paternal palazzo. His continuous study undermined an already fragile physical constitution, and his illness denied him even youth's simplest pleasures.
In 1817 Pietro Giordani, a classicist, arrived at the Leopardi estate. Giacomo became his lifelong friend and he derived from this friendship a sense of hope for the future. Meanwhile, his life at Recanati weighed on him increasingly, to the point that he attempted finally to escape in 1818, but was caught by his father and returned home. From then on, relations between father and son continued to deteriorate and Giacomo was constantly monitored in his own home by the rest of the family.
When, in 1822, he was briefly able to stay in Rome with his uncle, he was deeply disappointed by the atmosphere of corruption and decadence and by the hypocrisy of the Church. He was extremely impressed by the tomb of Torquato Tasso, to whom he felt naturally bonded by a common sense of unhappiness. While Foscolo lived tumultuously between adventures, amorous relations, and books, Leopardi was barely able to escape from his domestic oppression. To Leopardi, Rome seemed squalid and modest when compared to the idealized image that he had created of it while fantasizing over the "sweaty papers" of the classics. Already before leaving home to establish himself, he had experienced a burning amorous disillusionment caused by his falling in love with his cousin Geltrude Cassi. His physical ailments, which continued to worsen, contributed to the collapse of any last, residual traces of illusions and hopes. Virtue, Love, Justice and Heroism appeared to be nothing but empty words to the poet.
In 1824, the bookstore owner Stella called him to Milan, asking him to write several works, among which a Crestomazia della prosa e della poesia italiane. During this period, the poet had lived at various points in Milan, Bologna, Florence and Pisa.
In 1824, at Milan, Leopardi met Alessandro Manzoni, but they did not quite see things eye to eye. In Florence, he made some solid and lasting friendships, paid a visit to Giordani and met the poet Pietro Colletta.
In 1828, physically infirm and worn out by work, Leopardi had to refuse the offer of a professorship at Bonn or Berlin which was made by the ambassador of Prussia in Rome and, in the same year, he had to abandon his work with Stella and return to Recanati.
In 1830, Colletta offered him, thanks to the financial contribution of the "friends of Tuscany", the opportunity to return to Florence. The subsequent printing of the Canti allowed the poet to live far away from Recanati until 1832.
Later, he moved to Napoli near his friend Antonio Ranieri, where he hoped to benefit physically from the climate. He died during the cholera epidemic of 1837. Thanks to Antonio Ranieri's intervention with the authorities, Leopardi's remains were prevented from being ignominiously tossed into a common ditch - as the strict hygienic regulations of the time required - and he was buried in the atrium of the church of San Vitale at Fuorigrotta. In 1939 his tomb, moved to the Parco Virgiliano, was declared a national monument.
Up until 1815, Leopardi was essentially an erudite philologist. After this period he began to dedicate himself to literature and the search for beauty, as he affirms in a famous letter to Giordani of 1817.
Pompeo in Egitto ("Pompey in Egypt", 1812 ), written at the age of fourteen, is an anti-Caesarean manifesto. Pompey is represented as the defender of republican liberties. Storia dell'Astronomia ("History of Astronomy", 1813) is a compilation of all of the knowledge accumulated in this field up to the time of Leopardi. From the same year is Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi ("Essay on the popular errors of the ancients"), an essay in which the ancient myths are brought back to life. The errors are the fantastic and vague imaginings of the ancients. Antiquity, in Leopardi's vision, is the infancy of the human species, which sees the personifications of its myths and dreams in the stars. Orazione agli Italiani in Occasione della Liberazione del Piceno ("Oration to the Italians on the liberation of Piceno", 1815) is a paean to the liberation achieved by Italy after the intervention of the Austrians against Murat, while the coeve translation of the Batracomiomachia (the war between the frogs and mice in which Zeus eventually sends in the crabs to exterminate them all), an ironic rhapsody which pokes fun at Homer's Iliad and was once attributed to him.
In 1816 Leopardi published Discorso sopra la vita e le opere di Frontone ("Discorse on the life and Works of Fronto"). In the same year he however fell into a period of crisis, during which he threw into doubt all of his childhood formation. In this year, he wrote L'appressamento della morte, a poem in terza rima in which the poet experiences death, which he believes to be imminent, as a comfort. In this year also, there would begin other physical sufferings and a serious degeneration of his eyesight. He was becoming acutely aware, at this point, of the lacerating contrast between the interior life of man and his incapacity of manifesting it in his relations with others.
Leopardi abandoned his philological studies and moved increasingly closer to poetry through the reading of Italian authors of the 14th, 16th and 17th centuries, as well as of some of his Italian and French contemporaries.
Even his vision of the world underwent a radical change: he ceased to seek comfort in religion, which permeated all of his childhood, and became increasingly inclined toward an empirical and mechanistic vision of the universe inspired by John Locke among others.
Thanks to his friendship with Giordani, with whom, in 1817, he had begun a prolific correspondence, his distancing from the conservatism of his father became even sharper. It was in the following year that he wrote All'Italia ("To Italy") and Sopra il Monumento di Dante ("Above the Monument of Dante"), two very polemical and classical patriotic hymns in which Leopardi expressed his adhesion to liberal and strongly secular ideas.
In the same period, he participated in the debate, which engulfed the literary Europe of the time, between the classicists and the romanticists, affirming his position in favour of the first in the Discorso di un Italiano attorno alla poesia romantica ("Discourse of an Italian concerning romantic poetry").
In 1816 the idyll Le rimembranze and Inno a Nettuno ("Hymn to Neptune") were published. The second, written in ancient Greek, was taken by many critics as an authentic Greek classic. He also translated the second book of the Aeneid and the first book of the Odyssey. In the same year, in a letter to the compilers of the Biblioteca Nazionale (Monti, Acerbi, Giordani), Leopardi argued against the famous article of Madame de Staël, who invited Italians to stop looking to their past and to study the works of foreigners in order to reinvigorate their literature.
Leopardi maintained that "knowing", which is acceptable, is not the same thing as "imitating", which is what Madame de Stael was demanding, and that Italian literature should not allow itself to be contaminated by the modern forms of literature but look to the Greeks and Latin classics. The poet must be original, not suffocated by study and imitation: only the first poet in the history of humanity could have been truly original since he had had no one to influence him. It is therefore necessary to get as close to the originals as possible by drawing inspiration from one's own sentiments without imitating anyone.
In 1817 he fell in love with Gertrude Cassi Lazzari and wrote Memorie del primo amore ("Memories of first love"). In 1818 he issued Il primo amore and began writing a diary which he would continue for fifteen years (1817-1832), the Zilbaldone.
The publication took place thanks to a special governmental commission presided over by Giosuè Carducci in occasion of the centennial anniversary of the poet's birth. It was only in 1937, after the republication of the original text enriched with notes and indexes by the literary critic Francesco Flora, that the work definitively took on the name by which it is known today.
In the Zibaldone, Leopardi compares the innocent and happy state of nature with the condition of modern man, corrupted by an excessively developed faculty of reason which, rejecting the necessary illusions of myth and religion in favor of a dark reality of annihilation and emptiness, can only generate unhappiness. The Zibaldone contains the poetic and existential itinerary of Leopardi himself; it is a miscellaneous of philosophical annotations, schemes, entire compositions, moral reflections, judgements, small idylls, erudite discussions and impressions. Leopardi, even while remaining outside of the circles of philosophical debate of the 19th Century, was able to elaborate an extremely innovative and provocative vision of the world. It is not much of a stretch to define Leopardi as the father of what would eventually come to be called nihilism.
In 1819, the poet attempted to escape from his oppressive domestic situation, travelling to Rome. But he was caught by his father. In this period, his personal pessimism evolves into the peculiar intellectual pessimism of Leopardi.
Le Rimembranze and L'appressamento alla morte also belong to this early period of the art of Leopardi.
In all of the idylls, the initial sparks, offered by memory or by the sweetness of nature, transmute their colors into the intuition of universal pain, of the transience of things, of the oppressive weight of eternity, of the inexorable passing of time, of the blind power of nature.
His meditations bring him to the conclusion that morality is meaningless; Jove rewards only the selfish and plays arbitrary games with hapless mankind. Man is more unhappy than the rest of the animal kingdom because the latter do not know that they are unhappy and therefore do not meditate on the question of suicide and, even if they could, nothing would prevent them from carrying out the act without hesitation.
In Saffo, Leopardi sees himself retarded, but in reality the poetess of Lesbos was neither deformed nor unhappy as she is depicted by Leopardi, who based his depiction on a false traditional belief of the time. Saffo knew, tasted, and sang of beauty and love more than was possible for Leopardi. But the resignation to unhappiness, to pain and to solitude, and the renunciation of the joys of life, sounds in the verses of Leopardi like the sincere sigh of a feminine soul.
The canto is a sweet apostrophe to the placid nights, once dear to the serene poetess, but the words turn rapidly to a violent evocation of nature in tempest which echoes her inner turmoil. The anguishing and accusative questions which Leopardi poses to a destiny which has denied beauty to the miserable Saffo are cut short by the thought of death. After having wished to the man she has loved in vain that little bit of happiness which is possible to attain on this earth, Saffo concludes by affirming that of all the hopes for joy, of all the illusions, there remains to await her only Tartarus.
In the Primavera, Leopardi praises the ancient times when the nymphs populated the fields, the woods, the springs, the flowers and the trees.
Although the lyrical style is apparently classical, it is also pervaded by the characteristic dissatisfaction with the present of the romantics. Leopardi, here, romanticizes the pure intentions of the Greeks, since he was actually romantic in his sentiments and classical in his imagination and intellect.
In the Epistolario a Carlo Pepoli, Leopardi attempts to prove to his friend the quasi-Buddhist thesis according to which, since life has no other aim but happiness and since happiness is unattainable, all of life is nothing but an interminable struggle. But he who refuses to work is oppressed by the tedium of life and must seek distraction in useless pastimes. Moreover, those who dedicate themselves to poetry, if they have no fatherland, are tormented more than those who do by a lack of freedom because they fully appreciate the value of the idea of nationhood.
At this point, a disillusioned Leopardi considers abandoning poetry for philosophy, but without any hope of glory. He has resigned himself to the certainty of pain and of boredom to which mankind is condemned and he therefore believes it necessary to abandon the illusions and poetry in order to speculate on the laws and destiny of the universe.
Having reconquered the gift of sentiment, the poet accepts life as it is because it is revived by the feeling of suffering which torments his heart and, so long as he lives he will not rebel against those who condemn him to live. This recovered serenity consists in the contemplation of ones' own conscience of one's own sentiments, even when desolation and despair envelops the soul.
Leopardi rejoices to have rediscovered in himself the capacity to be moved and to experience pain, after a long period of impassibility and boredom. With the Risorgimento, lyricism is reawakened in the poet, who composes cantos, generally brief, in which a small spark or a scene is expanded, extending itself into an eternal vision of existence. He reevokes images, memories and moments of past happiness.
Nerina and Silvia are both dreams, evanescent phantasms; life for Leopardi is an illusion, the only reality being death. The woman, Silvia, Nerina, or "la sua donna" are always only the reflection of the poet himself, since life itself is, for him, an elusive and deceptive phantasm.
The sheep-herder, a man of humble condition, directs his words to the moon in a polite but insistent tone, seething with melancholy. It is precisely the absence of response on the part of the celestial orb which provokes him to continue to investigate, ever more profoundly, into the role of the moon, and therefore into that of humanity, with respect to life and the world, defining ever more sharply the "arid truth" so dear to the poetry of Leopardi. In the first strophe, in fact, the sheep-herder, even while defining the moon as silent, actually expects a response from it and discoveries many analogies between his own condition and that of the moon: both of them arise in the morning, follow their always self-identical paths and finally stop to rest. The life of the moon, as much as that of the sheep-herder, seems completely senseless. There appears, however, in the middle of this strophe, a very important distinction: the course of human life is finite and its passage, similar to that of a "veccheriel bianco" (cfr. Petrarch, canzoniera XVI), terminates tragically in the "horrid abyss" of death. Such a condition, which is defined in the second strophe as a condition of profound suffering ("se la vita è sventura, perché da noi si dura?") is extremely different from that of the Moon, which seems instead to be eternal, "virgin", "and intact.".
In the third strophe, the sheep-herder turns again to the moon with renewed vigor and hope, believing that the orb, precisely because of this privileged extra-worldly condition, can provide him the answers to his most urgent questions: what is life? What could possibly be its purpose since it is necessarily finite? What is the first cause of all being? But the moon, as the sheep-herder learns quickly, cannot provide the answers to these questions even if it knew them, since such is nature: distant, incomprehensible, mute if not indifferent to the concerns of man. The sheep-herder's search for sense and happiness continues all the way to the final two strophes. In the fourth, the sheep-herder turns to his flock, observing how the lack of self-awareness that each sheep has allows it to live out, in apparent tranquillity, its brief existence, without suffering or boredom. But this idea is ultimately rejected by the sheep-herder himself in the final strophe, in which he admits that, probably, in whatever form life is born and manifests itself, whether moon, sheep or man, whatever it is capable of doing, life is equally bleak and tragic.
In this period, Leopardi's relations with his family are reduced to a minimum and Leopardi is constrained to maintain himself on his own financially. The next year he was asked by the publisher Stella to write a "Crestomazia" (an anthology).
The poet of universal suffering sings of a good which surpasses the ills of life and, for an instant, seems to become the singer of a possible happiness. But the idea of death as the only hope for man returns, since the world offers only two beautiful things: love and death.
Il pensiero dominante represents the first ecstatic moment of love, which almost nullifies the awareness of human unhappiness. It is worth the price of tolerating the suffering of a long life in order to experience the joy of such beauty. Il pensiero dominante and Il risorgimento are the only poems of joy written by Leopardi, though even in those two poems there always reappears, inextinguishable, the pessimism which sees in the object of joy a vain image created by the imagination.
Amore e morte is a meditation on the torment and annihilation which accompanies love. Love and death, in fact, are twins. The one is the generator of all things beautiful and the other puts an end to all ills. Love makes strong and cancels the fear of death and when it dominates the soul, it makes it desire death. Some, who are won over by passion, will die for it happily. Others kill themselves because of the wounds of love. But happiness consists in dying in the drunkenness of passion. Of the two twins, Leopardi dares to invoke only death, which is no longer symbolized by the horrid Ade of Saffo, but by a young virgin who grants peace for eternity. Death is the sister of love and is the great consoler who, along with her brother, is the best that the world can offer.
The poet, vainly searching for love, takes his revenge on destiny and the woman who have rejected him, above all Targioni, whose memory continues to disturb the poet after more than a year away from her. The memory of the woman loved in vain constantly returns, but the canto, inspired by disdain for the provocative and, simultaneously, distancing behavior of the woman also expresses resignation to one's fate and the pride of having been able to recover one's own independence. Aspasia, in her limitedness as a woman cannot grasp the profundity of masculine thought.
Leopardi, even while being highly conscious of the indifference of nature, never ceased entirely to love it. In these verses, the poet poses challenging and pointed questions to nature, enumerating the ills and sufferings which, because of death, are inflicted on humanity. Under the influence of love, the poet had apparently found happiness at least in death (il pensiero dominante, amore e la morte). Now, instead, even this last illusion has fallen and he sees nothing but unhappiness everywhere.
The poet, drawing his inspiration from a funerary sculpture, evokes the image of a beautiful woman and compares her breathtaking beauty to the heart-rendingly sad image that she has become; one that is no more than mud, dust and skeleton. As well as being centred on the transience of beauty and of human things, the poem points to the specular antinomy between human ideals and natural truth. Leopardi does not deny - if anything, he emphasizes - the beauty of the human species in general, and by the end of the poem extends his point to all possible forms of beauty, intellectual as well as aesthetic. However, this universal beauty remains unattainable to a human nature that is nothing but "polvere e ombra" ("dust and shadow"), and that may touch - but never possess - the ideals that it perceives, remaining rooted to the natural world in which it was born, as well as to its demands.
Leopardi, after having described the nothingness of the world and of man with respect to the universe; after having lamented the precariousness of the human condition threatened by the capriciousness of nature, not as exceptional evils but as continuous and constant; and after having satirized the arrogance and the credulity of man, who propounds ideas of progress and hopes, even while knowing he is mortal, to render himself eternal, concluded with the observation that reciprocal solidarity is the only defence against the common enemy which is nature (see Plotinus and Porphyry).
Vesuvius, the great mountain which brings destruction, dominates the entire poem. The only attainable truth is death, toward which man must inexorably advance, abandoning every illusion and becoming conscious of his own miserable condition. Such awareness will placate the mutual hatreds.
An essential change occurs with the Ginestra, which closes the poetic career of Leopardi along with Il Tramonto della Luna, which takes up the old themes of the fall of youthful illusions. The poem reiterates and reaffirms the sharp anti-optimistic and anti-religious polemic, but in a new and democratic register. Here, Leopardi no longer denies the possibility of civic progress: he seeks to construct an idea of progress founded precisely on his pessimism.
On the literary level, it is the maximum realization of that anti-idyllic "new poetic" with which Leopardi had already experimented from the 1830s.
It is a vast poem, symphonically constructed with brilliant alternations of tone, from the grandiose and tragic painting of the volcano threatening destruction and of extensions of infertile lava, to the sharp ideological argumentation, to the cosmic sparks which project the nothingness of the earth and of man in the immensity of the universe, to the vision of the infinite passage of centuries of human history on which the immutable threat of nature has always weighed, to the gentle notes dedicated to the "flower in the desert", in which are compressed complex symbolic meanings: pity toward the sufferings of man and the dignity which should be characteristic of man when confronted with the invincible force of a nature which crushes him.
In 1845, Ranieri published the definitive edition of the Cantos according to the will of the author.
The bulk of the contents of "Pensieri" are derived from the Zibaldone. The tone is sharply argumentative with respect to humanity, which Leopardi judges to be malevolent and it almost seems as if the poet wants to take his final revenge on the world. The "Pensieri" constitute the driest part of Leopardi's work and testify to a moment of gelid desperation and total disdain for man and his vanities.
The term Paralipòmeni is Greek for "things left undone or unsaid". Batracomiomachìa means "war between the frogs and the mice." Batracomiomachia was also the title of a pseudo-Homeric poem which was actually written in the forth or fifth century BC and translated by Leopardi between 1815 and 1826. The title therefore alludes to an integration of the original work, which is taken up again where it left off and the narrative progresses. The subject is a fable regarding the conflict between the mice that inhabit the nation of Topaia and the invading crabs. But behind the plot, there is hidden a robust sarcastic and polemical motivation. The animals and their doings have an allegorical value. In the crabs, portrayed unsympathetically and with monstrous characteristics, it is easy to recognize the Austrians; in the mice, sometimes generous but mostly ingenuous and cowardly, the liberal Italians. The poem represents the historical events that took place between 1815 and 1821: the oppressive climate of the Restoration desired by the Holy Alliance and the fruitless attempts at insurrection of 1820-21. Even the revolutionary movements of 1831 are included by Leopardi, who was able to follow them by way of the moderate Tuscan circles which he frequented and who perhaps provided him with the inspiration for the work. The adoption of the poetic genre required the abandonment of the lyric style and the adoption of a narrative pace marked by a constant critical-satirical tension toward the ideological and philosophical myths of contemporary culture: Christian spiritualism, faith in progress, and anthropocentrism. Even the slogans of the political struggle of the liberals are derided, both in their expression of expectation of foreign intervention and in their faith in the model of a constitutional monarchy. In this fashion, the Paralipomeni represent another part of Leopardi's polemical war with the present, and above all an exceptional sally into the territory of historical/political commentary, generally not confronted by Leopardi in a direct form. Of the Italian Risorgimento, he delineates the fundamental limits here with an extraordinary tempestivity: the tendency to compromise with ancient interests and constituted powers, the vanity, the opportunism, the ideological ingenuousness, the lack of an opportune pragmatic awareness. The style generally renounces the expressive concentration of the lyric texts and extends itself in a wide and relaxed discursive pace, with alterations between adventurous moments and ferociously caricatural and polemical points, of description and philosophical digressions.