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Zibaldone

Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi by A. Ferrazzi c. 1820

Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi by A. Ferrazzi, ca. 1820

Giacomo Leopardi (b. June 29, 1798 Recanati, Italy – d. June 14, 1837 Naples) was a nineteenth century Italian poet, essayist, scholar, philosopher, philologist, and atheist. He has been ranked alongside Dante as one of the most important Italian literary figures, and praised by Schoepenhauer, Leopardi’s influence can be seen in modern modes of thought such as nihilism and existentialism. Though revered by Italians as one of their greatest thinkers, Leopardi has remained relatively obscure elsewhere. Among his important works are his Canti, a collection of poems completed in 1835, Operette Morali or “Small Moral Works”, and the Zibaldone.

Published in seven volumes in 1898, over a half century after his death, the Zibaldone is essentially a very large miscellany of observations, personal thoughts, essays, literary criticism, and philological writing. It wasn’t until 1937 when the work was republished that it became widely known as Zibaldone. Among its themes are pessimism, the human condition, and our excesses against nature. The first English translation of the work was published in Britain and America in the summer of 2013, and is over two thousand pages long.

 

From the Zibaldone (p. 2118 of Leopardi’s original manuscript, p.920 of the new English translation, FSG 2013):

It is pleasurable to be the spectator of vigorous, etc. etc., actions of any sort, not only those relative to man. Thunder, storm, hail, a strong wind, seen or heard, and its effects, etc. Every keen sensation in man brings with it a vein of pleasure, however unpleasurable it is within itself, however terrible, or painful, etc. I heard a farmer whose land was often severely damaged by a nearby river say that nonetheless the sight of the flood was a pleasure as it advanced, rushing swiftly toward his fields, with a thunderous noise, and carrying with it a great mass of rocks, mud, etc. And such images, while ugly in themselves, always turn out to be beautiful in poetry, in painting, in eloquence, etc.

 

The Zibaldone Project…

 

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The Unit of the World

Frontispiece from Poems (1921) by Alice Meynell, from a drawing by John Singer Sargent

Frontispiece from Poems (1921) by Alice Meynell, from a drawing by John Singer Sargent

Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 - 1685 ), The Spinner, 1652, etching on laid paper, 13.7 x 17.5 cm (5 3/8 x 6 7/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 – 1685 ), The Spinner, 1652, etching on laid paper, 13.7 x 17.5 cm (5 3/8 x 6 7/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

The following is an excerpt from The Unit of the World, an essay by the Victorian writer and suffragist, Alice Meynell, from her book, The Rhythm of Life:

The quarrel of Art with Nature goes on apace.  The painters have long been talking of selecting, then of rejecting, or even, with Mr. Whistler, of supplanting.  And then Mr. Oscar Wilde, in the witty and delicate series of inversions which he headed ‘The Decay of Lying,’ declared war with all the irresponsibility naturally attending an act so serious.  He seems to affirm that Nature is less proportionate to man than is architecture; that the house is built and the sofa is made measurable by the unit measure of the body; but that the landscape is set to some other scale.  ‘I prefer houses to the open air.  In a house we all feel of the proper proportions.  Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is absolutely the result of indoor life.’  Nevertheless, before it is too late, let me assert that though nature is not always clearly and obviously made to man’s measure, he is yet the unit by which she is measurable.  The proportion may be far to seek at times, but the proportion is there.  Man’s farms about the lower Alps, his summer pastures aloft, have their relation to the whole construction of the range; and the range is great because it is great in regard to the village lodged in a steep valley in the foot hills.  The relation of flower and fruit to his hands and mouth, to his capacity and senses (I am dealing with size, and nothing else), is a very commonplace of our conditions in the world.  The arm of man is sufficient to dig just as deep as the harvest is to be sown.  And if some of the cheerful little evidences of the more popular forms of teleology are apt to be baffled, or indefinitely postponed, by the retorts that suggest themselves to the modern child, there remains the subtle and indisputable witness borne by art itself: the body of man composes with the mass and the detail of the world.  The picture is irrefutable, and the picture arranges the figure amongst its natural accessories in the landscape, and would not have them otherwise.

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