Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is considered one of the most important Italian novels ever written, in addition to being the top-selling novel in Italian history. It is certainly one of the greatest historical novels in world literature, and along with another great Italian work, The Betrothed, really is a ‘must read’ for anyone considering themselves well read and/or for those wanting a real feel for the soul of Italy. Opening in May 1860 the story takes place during the social upheaval around the time of the Risorgimento; the class system was collapsing and the upper classes were having to adjust or wither away. The Leopard follows the Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio and his family as they are swept up in these changes. The book is based on Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, a Prince of Lampedusa.
The theme of inevitability of change and societal impact of such, for better and worse, is predominant and runs throughout the book. In the famous words spoken by Tancredi to Don Fabrizio, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Fabrizio understands that change cannot be stopped, and is powerless to influence it. I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. The book perfectly draws a picture of this evolution and its impact on nobles, the clergy and the everyman. It also highlights the inevitable uselessness of war and strife that often accompanies such change.
Dying for somebody or for something, that was positively normal, of course; but the person dying should know, or at least feel sure, that someone knows for whom or for what he is dying…
Despite the idealism of the uprising, some things always stay the same, one being the workings of politicians, at least those of the populist stripe.
Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the prince were resoled in a trice by Don Calogero; free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency, and plain good manners, he moved through the jungle of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed.
Falling under the banner of realism, the books seemingly conservative themes, particularly showing some positive aspects of tradition and the aristocratic class system that had dominated Italian politics for centuries, produced some backlash from Neo-realists, Marxists and Socialists. As you can see from the following quotes, Lampedusa certainly had some respect for what nobility did provide to society.
For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories…
…it’s differences of attitude, not estates and feudal rights, which make a noble.
Some of these traditions and attitudes had been extremely helpful to those less fortunate, and, if nothing else, provided stability and a way of life. Yet, in reality, and as shown in the book, the clergy and nobility often did not live up to such standards. In fact, Lampedusa’s depiction of nobles and clergy offended conservatives by what they saw as an overly negative portrait. Regardless of giving political offense to those seeking it (left and right), mortality and decay are at the forefront of the novel, as we witness Don Fabrizio aging towards an ultimate death as the society he inhabits disintegrates around him. His own decay and death symbolizes the end of what was and points to a new future. Whether that future is a good one or not is unknown; the only forgone conclusion is that time marches forward and transforms all it touches.
Lastly, as with most great novels, the theme of love plays a part. The hope, the disappointment…
Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.
And from where ‘love’ is born, often under mistaken identity:
When they were old and uselessly wise their thoughts would go back to those days with insistent regret; they had been days when desire was always present because it was overcome, when many beds had been offered and refused, when the sensual urge, because restrained, had for one second been sublimated in renunciation, that is into real love.
Interestingly, The Leopard is Lampedusa’s only novel and it was first published posthumously in 1958. Lampedusa (1896-1957) submitted the completed novel to two publishers before his death, both rejected it. Once published, it quickly became clear that it was a great work. Lampedusa was posthumously awarded the Strega Prize in 1959. In 1963, the book was made into a film which which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
This edition perfectly embodies one ‘sweet spot’ of the Shiff-era, when Limited Editions Club (LEC) quality and design had returned to very high standards, yet were (and are) still affordable for many collectors. The design of this book is beautiful, very conservatively noble, if you will, with natural linen binding, wonderfully soft-textured paper and flawless typesetting (Caslon typeface) and printing done by Martino Mardersteig at Stamperia Valdonega. The haunting frontispiece etching by Italian artist Piero Guccione leaves on wishing for more, but it is the sole illustration in the edition. The translation by Archibald Colquhoun is well thought of, something that cannot quite be said about his translation of The Betrothed (which the LEC did not use). While not inexpensive, one can usually find this in near fine or better condition for $200-300, at which price it is a bargain.
About the Edition
- Designed by Benjamin Shiff
- Frontispiece Etching by Piero Guccione; he drew two plates with master printer Walter Rossi at Rossi’s atelier Vigna Antoninianna in Rome; printed in yellow and brown
- Translation by Archibald Colquhoun
- Introduction by Leonardo Sciascia
- Typesetting and printing done by Martino Mardersteig at Stamperia Valdonega
- Typeface is Caslon
- Paper made from cotton linters by Giovanni Magnani at his mill is Pescia
- Folded, collated, sewed and bound by Craig Jensen in Austin, Texas
- Bound in natural linen with a spine label of Nigerian goatskin stamped in gold
- Limited to 750 copies, signed by Piero Guccione
Pictures of the Edition
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