The Secrets of The Leopard – an interview with Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi.
Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi welcomes me into his flat in the Palazzo Tomasi di Lampedusa in Via Butera 28 in Palermo. He has recently published a biography of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, his adoptive father, with Alma Books. The book is entitled “A Biography Through Images.” We sit down at the table in his dining room, which opens on to a terrace that looks out on to the sea.
How did your passion for music begin?
My grandmother was Spanish and played the piano really well. And she had a beautiful library. From age thirteen to age seventeen, I was practicing composition, which was already my passion. I had confidence in myself from knowing that I was my mother’s favourite child. My father was a man whom I feared because of his terrible outbursts. He lived in Palermo in Palazzo Mazzarino, which was one of the Lanza palazzos.
Why is it that you were adopted by Prince Tomasi di Lampedusa, Duke of Palma di Montechiaro, when you had a legitimate father who was of the Lanza di Mazzarino family?
Because Lanza Tomasi didn’t have heirs. He was a distant cousin. At the end of the war, Tomasi di Lampedusa had become poor. He used to say about Palermo, “What other city has five beggar princes?” But he wasn’t to the point of being a beggar. He had a wife from the Baltics, and she helped him make the most of himself and to meet young people like Francesco Orlando, Francesco Agnello, and me, and we had all chosen to follow a certain path. For that matter, Francesco Orlando then became a professor of comparative literature in Pisa. We frequented Pietro Sgadari di Lo Monaco’s salon, and Tomasi di Lampedusa came as well. He was a solitary, taciturn man, but he was interested in young people like us. He was the same age as my father, and they’d both been in World War I. Lampedusa wasn’t a man whose brilliance was apparent, but he frequented the “Bellini Club”, of which my father was president. However, my mother used to say that the “Sports Club” – whose members were the so-called “smart set”, mainly nouveau riche and the gentry, was more fun.
What was life like in Palermo?
Nobody worked among the aristocracy at that time. They were so-called small and large “rentiers.” There was also a third club that was frequented mainly in summer – “Il Circolo della Vela”, the sailing club in Mondello. Tomasi di Lampedusa was depressed after the war, and the war had absolutely left him with some trauma.
But why were you interested in this man?
Because he had a great wealth of knowledge, and he told funny, fascinating stories in such a great way. His wife convinced him to give English lessons and he had one student – Francesco Orlando. Lampedusa would then give me the text from those lessons. He, Agnello, Orlando and I frequented him from 1954 to 1957, which is when he died at age sixty. He already seemed like an elderly man, but many people who had been in World War I were weak, or ill because they’d been exposed to gases in the trenches. Lampedusa had terrible osteoarthritis, and he walked with a cane. He didn’t drink, but he smoked a lot.
How old were you when you met him?
I became friends with him at age eighteen. We went to see the Antonello da Messina exhibition at the Messina museum together. It was an historic show where they displayed many of the Flemish paintings from Sicilian collections, which were later sold off or lost. At that time, the Sicilian nobility had a lot of Flemish paintings. We went by car, and on the way back we stopped at the home of his cousins, the Piccolos. The younger brother Lucio Piccolo was a professional man of letters. His older brother Casimiro was a very cultured man and loved to speak for hours with Lampedusa about Anatole France. You could say that Lampedusa was a “divine dilettante.”
What language did he speak with his wife?
They spoke French. He spoke it very well, though he did make various errors in the writing (the famous “accord du participe”), while his Italian was amazing even if it was regional. He had a creative Italian like that of the novelist Giovanni Verga. He and someone from Tuscany may not have understood one another!
Did he like Sicilian literature?
Yes. He liked Giovanni Verga immensely. He thought that “Mastro-don Gesualdo” was a sublime novel. His admiration for Luigi Pirandello whom he had met in London, was limitless. He said he was the most intelligent man he’d ever met. Despite the fact that his wife didn’t think highly of Vitaliano Brancati, he was a great admirer of his. In addition to French, he spoke English and German, but they were dead languages for him in the sense that he read them and understood them, but his English was quite particular. He didn’t have an Italian accent. He had a made-up accent.
Were you around for the writing of “The Leopard“?
Yes, certainly. Lampedusa said he wanted to write a novel, but he didn’t write anything for many years. World War II was a horrible disaster for him, though he didn’t play a role in it like he had in World War I. It was a terrible shock to see the city of Palermo destroyed by the bombings and to lose his home, which he considered his nest. It was the Lampedusa Palazzo behind Santa Cita. After the war, he sold the ruins of the palazzo and went to stay in an apartment in the palazzo where I live now, which was originally a university residence. Lampedusa became a close friend of mine, and a close friend of my girlfriend who would later become my wife. At that time, I had no money, and I was living the life of an intellectual. I studied music privately, and I would later go to Germany to study.
What was Lampedusa’s life like in Palermo?
His days were peculiar. He and his wife kept different hours. They didn’t see each other a lot, but they were indispensible to one another. She was a psychoanalyst, and she’d wake up around one o’clock and begin her psychoanalytical sessions from four o’clock to nine in the evening. Then they would eat together, and she would continue working at night. He, on the other hand, would get up around seven in the morning. He would go out and make his way around four different cafes with a bag in which he kept two or three books. His first stop was at the Birreria Italia where he got a cappuccino. Then he went to the Extra Bar, which was one of the most frequented cafes in Palermo. Then he’d stop at the Flaccovio bookshop and around eleven o’clock, he went to Caffè Caflisch, which was the best pastry shop in Palermo. There he would meet with some magistrate friends of his that worked in the Court of Audit. At midday he’d go to Mazara. He loved to eat pastries there and sit for three or four hours writing or meeting with friends who came to see him there.
How did he write?
He wrote with an ordinary pen in large notebooks. He wrote on every other page, and with one line for spacing. You have to keep in mind that it was another world back then. To call Rome on the phone from Palermo, for example, you had to go through the operator and wait two or even three hours.
Lampedusa never left Palermo?
He had travelled a lot in his younger years, but at that time, he only went to Capo di Orlando to the Piccolo cousins’ house twice a month. They believed in spiritualism, and when I went to visit them, I had a great time because it was like a magical world.
When would you see Lampedusa?
I would go visit him around one o’clock. As I said, he would write between two and four or half past four and then would return home. And he’d eat with his wife – typically a bad meal because she wasn’t a good cook. She would attempt to recreate Baltic delicacies in a country where neither fresh herring nor sour cream existed.
Was he an elegant man?
No. He couldn’t be called elegant. He was a gentleman of a certain age with limited means. He lived on the fringes of society and frequented six or seven people at the most.
Did you understand he was such a great writer?
For us, “The Leopard” was great fun, a mischievous and fascinating reconstruction of our past history – if not of our present as well. It was a sort of satirical report on what was going around us.
His wife and my mother, on the other hand, took the book very seriously. They were both very widely read on an international level.
My aunts were widely read as well. But for them “The Leopard” rubbed salt in wounds. My paternal aunt, Lucia Lanza di Mazzarino, wondered why he didn’t leave all of these dead people in peace. After death, there’s nothing else to add. This is a very Sicilian attitude. In Sicily, the dead should remain dead. She asked why “The Leopard” had to dredge up the past.
Did he read the book to you as he was writing?
Yes. He read out loud because writers at that time read out loud. Even Montale read his poems out loud. The reading of a work was something very important. Just think that Wagner, who at the beginning wasn’t successful as a musician, won over his audience and even women by reading his books aloud. Lampedusa read to me, Orlando, Agnello and to the Piccolos. There were different versions, stops and starts, and changes. The first chapter was the day Garibaldi disembarked in Marsala. Initially his novel was supposed to take place in a single day like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but then it just all came tumbling out. He stopped writing the novel to write “Childhood Memories,” which is published in his book of short stories. He wrote a letter to Enrico Merlo before leaving for Rome on what would be a journey of no return (in May of 1957) that was the key to understanding his novel. After the war, Merlo had given Lampedusa’s name to Charles Poletti’s military government as a man of anti-Fascist sentiment, so he was made president of the Red Cross and stayed there for two years.
When did he fall ill?
In Capo di Orlando at the home of his cousins – the Piccolos – in the very early Spring of 1957. He was spitting up blood. He went to a geriatrician and the x-rays showed an advanced pulmonary tumour. So he went to Rome to be seen by a very famous surgeon named Valdoni, but there was nothing to be done. It was too late to operate. He died a very short time later.
When were you adopted by Lampedusa?
His wife Alessandra had the idea, and he adopted me. It was December of 1956. He wanted his family name to be carried on. My father went to see King Umberto in exile to ask for his permission for me to be adopted, and to carry on the title of Duke of Palma. The adoption was granted after a year.
How many copies of “The Leopard” have been sold?
They say around ten million, and the book is still selling. Publishing the book was very complicated. He sent the book via Lucio Piccolo to Count Federici who worked at Mondadori. He was anxious to publish it, and he sent the first four chapters. Today the book has eight chapters. At the end of August 1956, Mondadori said “no,” that they wouldn’t publish it. His bookseller friend Flaccovio in Palermo sent the manuscript to Vittorini who managed Einaudi’s “I Gettoni” series. The rejection came while Lampedusa was dying. About a year before, his wife Alessandra had given a copy of the manuscript to a friend of a friend of Elena Croce’s. In 1957, Giuseppe Del Bo, who was the director of the Feltrinelli Foundation, made a suggestion to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli to create a series featuring contemporary writers. Giorgio Bassani, who at that point had only published his “Storie Ferraresi,” was chosen to oversee it. Bassani went in search of new writers and new books. His friend Elena Croce gave him the book to read. The book came out after his death (on 28 November 1958), and was an immediate success. One thousand six hundred copies of the book were printed, and almost all of the critics – from Bo to Milano to Montale – spoke very highly of it. They were saying it was a masterpiece. At the beginning, the left-wing intelligentsia were very unpleasant about it, but the Catholics were even more so because they considered the book to be scandalous, saying it was the most immoral book to have been published since the times of Sade. In 1959, “The Leopard” won the Strega Prize and it had sold two hundred thousand copies, which was a lot at that time. The producer Goffredo Lombardo bought the rights to the film – a film that wasn’t initially a success from an economic point of view. Initially he was in discussions with Giannini and Soldati as potential directors. Visconti wanted Laurence Olivier to star as the Prince of Salina, but Lombardo had money problems at that time because he’d lost a lot of money producing a remake of “Samson and Delilah.” Visconti was not a big spender as has often been reported. He was a demanding director, but he knew exactly what he was going to shoot minute by minute for the two hours and fifteen minutes of the film. But in a way, as a nobleman whose family had ruled during the Renaissance, he didn’t have any pity for the weak, and Lombardo was weak at that time.
Aside from being the adopted son of Tomasi di Lampedusa, you are also a famous musicologist.
A friend gave my name and the name of other young people to an important lawyer in Palermo named Nino Sorgi who was producing a film on the bandit Giuliano by Franco Rosi. Our names were given to work on the film. There I met Suso Cecchi d’Amico who suggested I go to Rome to work for the cinema. At that time, they were making a lot of films, and she said I would surely find work, which is what happened. I also became good friends with her husband, Lele d’Amico who got me started teaching. At that time I wrote many articles, and I was up for the role of music critic at the Corriere della Sera, and both the Montanellis and the Crespi family, who owned the newspaper at the time, were pushing for my candidacy. But when Spadolini became editor-in-chief, he brought Duilio Courir with him, and they got rid of me. But I was a journalist for years before becoming a music director and, most importantly, an expert on contemporary music. But we aren’t here to talk about my career. What I can say is that I have worked a lot throughout my entire life, and I will continue to do so.
January 4th 2015