Leopardi's Historical Poetics in the Canzone "Ad Angelo Mai"

by John Alcorn, Dario Del Puppo
Leopardi's Historical Poetics in the Canzone "Ad Angelo Mai"
John Alcorn, Dario Del Puppo
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

Leopardi's Historical Poetics in the Canzone "Ad Angelo Main

he canzone, "Ad Angelo Mai quand'ebbe trovato i libri di Cicerone della Repubblica" (1820),l raises interesting questions about poet- ry as a medium for representing history. Though likened to a philoso- phy of history by Francesco De ~anctis,~

it is perhaps best analyzed as an expression of what we shall call Leopardi's historical poetics, a cen- tral element of which is the representation of an idiosyncratic canon of glorious figures in Italian history. In this paper we wish to elucidate Leopardi's historical poetics and make sense of his choice of canon by exploring his philological sensibility and his affinities with the figures whom he evokes. In Section One we consider his philological sensi- bility through the prism of Friedrich Nietzsche's typology of history, as set out in the essay, "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." In this light we discuss Leopardi's notions of truth, reason, beauty, and imagination, and their place in the canzone. In Section Two we analyze the poem's framework and its canon of great-hearted spir- its. We argue that the poem expresses two, conflicting conceptions of history. In Section Three we return to Leopardi's philological sensibil- ity and discuss his representation of Columbus.


Philology and archaeology contribute to a representation of the past, which in turn can help to create a national identity, or what Benedict Anderson terms "imagined community." An imagined com- munity with the past is a resource in creating a new imagined com- munity in the present. This is apparent in the development of the Ri- sorgimento, and the canzone to Mai is an attempt to grapple with these interdependent dimensions of imagined community at the nadir of the Restoration. Nietzsche's discussion of the value of history is a useful, general framework for making sense of Leopardi's vision of history in the canzone.

Nietzsche's Typology of His toy

It is not by chance that an admirer of Leopardi, Friedrich Niet- zsche, himself a philologist, addressed issues which are relevant to Leopardi's poem. Nietzsche writes:
ITALICA Volume 72 Number 1 (1995)

We need history, certainly, but we need it for reasons different from those for which the idler in the garden of knowledge needs it, even though he may look nobly down on our rough and charmless needs and requirements. We need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and ac- tion, not so as to turn comfortably away from life and action, let alone for the purpose of extenuating the self-seeking life and the base and cowardly action. We want to serve history only to the extent that his- tory serves life. ...(59)

The German philosopher also provides a useful typology:

History pertains to the living man in three respects. .. . This threefold relationship corresponds to three species of history-insofar as it is permissible to distinguish between a monumental, an antiquarian and a critical species of history. (67; textual emphasis)

Let us briefly rehearse Nietzsche's types. Monumental history teaches us that the "greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again" (69; textual emphasis). In this mode, the historian deliberately ignores many deeds which are not considered exemplary. Monumental history has little use for "abso- lute veracity" and underscores the practical effects of inquiry rather than erudition or explanation. In short, it is less interested in estab- lishing the truth about events, than in creating a meaningful analogy or model for contemporaries.

Antiquarian history, instead, is characterized by the historian's pi- ous reverence for past deeds and by a desire to conserve every artifact which has come down to us through the ages. Nietzsche explains:

By tending with care that which has existed from of old, he wants to preserve for those who shall come into existence after him the condi- tions under which he himself came into existenceand thus he serves life. (72-73)

At first glance, this seems a noble objective, for the antiquarian deems all evidence pertinent and can therefore both satisfy a passion for scholarly pursuits and contribute to our knowledge of the past. Yet Nietzsche's antiquarian closely resembles Leopardi's caricature of pedants:

Non ho ancora potuto conoscere un letterato Romano che intenda sotto il nome di letteratura altro che 1'Archeologia. Filosofia, morqle, politica, scienza del cuore umano, eloquenza, poesia, filologia, futto cib 6 straniero in Roma, e pare un giuoco da fanciulli, a paragone del trovare se quel pezzo di rame o di sasso appartenne a Marcantonio o a Marca- grippa. (Letter to Monaldo Leopardi from Rome, 9 December 1822; Tutte le opere 1: 1133-34)

For Nietzsche, the antiquarian's "blind rage for collecting" leaves mankind "encased in the stench of must and mould" (75).

Although Nietzsche overstates his point, he underscores a premise about historical inquiry which is basically true: evidence of past events and actions cannot by itself provide the fullness of meaning. Historical knowledge requires interpretation and judgment. The monumental historian is selective, whereas the antiquarian is inca- pable of exercising good judgment about what should be preserved and studied. The real problem, continues Nietzsche, is that antiquari- anism "knows only how to preserve life, not how to engender it; it al- ways undervalues that which is becoming because it has no instinct for divining it-as monumental history, for example" (75; textual emphasis).

Lastly, Nietzsche describes the critical mode of historical inquiry as follows:

If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it. .. .(75-76)

Nietzsche's critical history is not based on a trascendent sense of jus- tice but on life alone, "that dark driving power that insatiably thirsts for itself" (76). There is of course much overlap among Nietzsche's categories. For example, the monumental mode can be as destructive as critical history in its selection of phenomena worth perpetuating. The antiquarian is also subject to the necessity which compels the critical historian to make hard choices. A difference is that the antiquarian does not choose "to break up or dissolve a part of the past." Selection occurs nonetheless because the quantity of artifacts and information taxes a society's capacity for conservation. By placing enormous strain on society's resources, antiquarian overload might lead paradoxically to degeneration of historical memory. In sum, Nietzsche's historical types underscore the subjective uses of information and artifacts from the past, and provide concepts which are manageable and useful for examining Leopardi's philological sensibility.

Leopardi's Philological Sensibility

In light of Nietzsche's categories, how might one characterize Leopardi's approach to history in the period when he composed "Ad Angelo ~ai"?~

We have seen that Leopardi rejects the antiquarian mode. His approach is largely monumental, though with an element of critical history. The monumental approach is manifest in the po- em's pageant of great-hearted Italians. The poem's vatic tone corre- sponds to the "divining" feature of monumental history: "When the past speaks it always speaks as an oracle: only if you are an architect of the future and know the present will you understand it" (Nietzsche 94). In an image which fascinated De ~anctis? monumental history shades over into a twist on critical history, as Leopardi accuses his contemporaries of precluding a future by squandering the past: "ozio circonda / I monumenti vostri" ("Ad Angelo Mai" 43-44). The twist is that, whereas Nietzsche defines the critical mode as an effort to "break up and dissolve a part of the past .. . by bringing it before the tribunal" (75-76), Leopardi writes in order to break up and condemn the present by recovering a monumental past.

In his modernist critique of Enlightenment and Romantic historio- graphy, Nietzsche dethrones Reason; and in his typology of history, rational belief takes a back seat to desire and will, where it appears to be merely instrumental. Leopardi, too, is a harsh critic of rationalism, witness his argument in the "Discorso intorno alla poesia Romantica" (1818), that "La ragione P nemica nelle cose umane di quasi ogni grandezza" (Tutte le opere 1: 921). Reason is, however, crucial to un- derstanding the ancient poets' close relationship to nature, the key to artistic creativity:

Ora da tutto questo e dalle altre cose che si son dette, agevolmente si comprende che la poesia dovette essere agli antichi oltremisura piu facile e spontanea che non pub essere presentemente a nessuno, e che a' tempi nostri per imitare poetando la natura vergine e primitiva, e parlar il linguaggio della natura (lo dirb con dolore della condizione nostra, con disprezzo delle risa dei romantici) 6 pressochk necessario lo studio lungo e profondo de' poeti antichi. (Tutte le opere 1: 930-31)

The object of Reason, il vero, is thus at once a necessary condition for and a solvent of the object of imagination, il bello. In a notebook entry dated 12-23 July 1820, Leopardi states: "La cognizione del vero cioP dei limiti e definizioni delle cose, circoscrive l'immaginaz." (Zibaldone di pensieri 1: 167). Correlatively, monumental history can no longer be innocent of an element of critical history. We shall explore the tension within this hybrid in Section Three.

To clarify Leopardi's approach to history, consider how the basic ways of framing historical inquiry differ in their respective objects of scrutiny. When speaking of history, for example, we typically mean a process or set of processes of change occurring in a particular time and place, the existence of which we can conjecture from presently available evidence together with our knowledge of how different kinds of processes of change typically occur. History is the object of inquiry for the critical historian. The past, on the other hand, can be likened to an ocean of actions and events whose murky water we ob- serve from a distance and cannot fathom. This is the realm of the anti- quarian, for whom history is a collection of facts. Finally, when we speak of having a sense of the past, we attempt to give meaning to events and actions from the perspective of utility. We assume that there is a relation between the present and the past and that a sense of the past shapes an individual's or community's identity and informs behavior in the present. For Leopardi, a sense of the past is a poetic understanding of the relation among historical facts. A difference be- tween history, past, and a sense of the past is that the lattermost concept has room for the objects of the former, whereas the converse is not so readily the case.

Necessary Illusions

Parallel to the tension of il be110 and il vero is the conflict between Leopardi's belief that illusioni are necessary and his awareness of their irrationality. This conflict has implications for his understanding of action. In a notebook entry dated 26 March 1820Leopardi writes:

Per le grandi azioni che la maggior parte non possono provenire se non da illusione, non basta ordinariamente l'inganno della fantasia come sarebbe quello di un filosofo, e come sono le illusioni de' nostri giorni tanto scarsi di grandi fatti, ma si richiede l'inganno della ragione, come presso gli antichi. (Zibaldone di pensieri 1: 119)

Heroic actions require more than flights of imagination, they demand self-deception. It might be argued that in espousing self-deception Leopardi resolves the conflict between illusioni and ragione in favor of the former, but the matter is more complicated. In the same notebook entry Leopardi refers to a news report from Germany describing the assassination of the conservative playwright, August-Friedrich Kotze- bue, by a young liberal. Leopardi judges that the assassin was moti- vated by "fanfaluche mistiche," a mindset "che ingombra la ragione," rather than "per effetto della semplice antica illusione di liberta" (1: 119). Leopardi dissociates illusioni from delirium and madness, argu- ing that great deeds spring from stances that leave room for reason. We have come full circle. Illusioni are necessary and require l'inganno della ragione, yet cannot produce grandi azioni if they crowd out reason. Reason appears to be a necessary negative component of grandi azioni. To complicate matters further, there is a second-order effect: the im- plications for action of awareness of the structure of grandi azioni. Does reflexivity undermine the possibility of great actions? Leopardi gives poetic expression to the ideal of 'rational illusioni' and the implications of reflexivity in the canzone to Mai.


Composition and Themes

"Ad Angelo Mai" is in the tradition of Italian classicist poetry which champions a patriotic cause. One thinks in particular of Ugo Foscolo's poemetto, "Dei Sepolcri" (1804): in which tombs and associ- ated rituals prolong the memory of historical events and figures. By contrast, "Ad Angelo Mai" expresses Leopardi's plaint at the ineluct- able demise of historical imagination.6

In the dedication to the first edition of "Ad Angelo Mai," Leopardi writes: "la facolth dell'immaginare e del ritrovare e spenta in Italia, ancorchk gli stranieri ce l'attribuiscano tuttavia come nostra speciale e primaria qualita, ed e secca ogni vena di affetto e di Vera eloquenza" (Tutte le opere 1: 55-56). He quotes Petrarch, for whom weeping is a natural disposition ("ed io son un di quei che '1 pianger giova," Canzoniere 37.69), and states that his own tears are instead caused by his- torical circumstances and the will of fortune. Like Leopardi's other canzoni of this period, the poem to Mai is based on the Petrarchan model. Dante (229-30) explains in the De vulgari eloquentia (2.3) that the canzone is characterized by a high style and a serious subject mat- ter (229-30). Indeed, in canzoni such as "All'Italia" Petrarch combines lyrical expression with political purpose. The canzone form enables Leopardi to establish a link to Dante and Petrarch, who open the canon of great-hearted spirits in the poem. Like Petrarch before him, Leopardi describes the abysmal state of contemporary Italy and shames his interlocutors into action.

The poem consists of twelve stanzas of fifteen verse^.^ The first four stanzas (1-60) and the concluding verses of the last stanza (175- 80) comprise the poem's conceptual framework. The intermediate stanzas (61-175) represent the pageant of great-hearted spirits and the thoughts they evoke in the poet. In the fifth stanza there are the por- traits of Dante (61-66) and Petrarch (66-75). The sixth and seventh stanzas (vv. 76-105) represent Columbus and the consequences of his voyage for humankind. The eighth stanza (106-20) evokes Ariosto. The ninth and tenth stanzas (121-50) summon Tasso from his "sconsolato avello." The eleventh stanza and introduction to the twelfth portray Alfieri. Leopardi concludes the pageant of great- hearted spirits with an invocation to Angelo Mai, "scopritor famoso," to resurrect the dead since the living are fast asleep.

The Canzone's Conceptual Framework

The poem's exordium conjures the historical context. In an age when Italy is but an imagined polity, Mai is a real-life, modern-day Clio who symbolizes philological inquiry. Leopardi praises Mai's dis- covery while lambasting the "secol morto" (4) enveloped in a "nebbia di tedio" (5). Tedio is the phenomenological equivalent of il nulla, which appears in the fifth stanza. Leopardi notes that historical knowledge is subject to the will of the gods:

Certo senza de' numi alto consiglio

Non 6 ch'ove pih lento

E grave e il disperato obblio. (16-18)

Archaeology and philology are of ambiguous utility if they require the unpredictable cooperation of the gods. In this vein Leopardi sug- gests that disperato obblio (18) can eventually dissolve historical mem-

ory.Rather than view these verses as a nihilistic reflection on historical knowledge and as a critique of free will, we should recognize that Leopardi identifies a constraint which all historians face: the destruc- tive effects of time, nature, and history itself on the artifacts which are the raw material of historical memory. Historical memory thus re- quires an immense effort to preserve and recover meaningful artifacts. Though this effort is made systematic in the disciplines of archaelogy and philology, the results must be fragmentary, and the fragments unrepresentative. The accidents of time, nature, and history lend a random element to the pattern of historical artifacts, an element which Leopardi represents as the will of the gods. Following a conventional view, Leopardi portrays the gods as fickle, underscoring humankind's frailty and vulnerability; yet he interprets Mai's unexpected discovery as a sign of the gods' good will:

Ancora 6 pio

Dunque all'Italia il cielo; anco si cura

Di noi qualche irnmortale. (20-22)

The young Leopardi clings to a 'centering' view of the universe, in which the gods care (in unpredictable and not necessarily providen- tial ways) for human history.

These verses (16-22) fuel Leopardi's indictment of his contempo- raries, whom not even the favor of the gods shakes from cowardly torpor. "Codarda" modifies "patria," Leopardi's imagined commu- nity (30),deepening the criticism of national character in verses 24-25: "virtude / rugginosa dell'itala natura." Luigi Blasucci (86) describes concrete poetic images such as virtude/rugginosa and tedio che n'affoga as Leopardi's materialization of the ab~tract.~

Further excellent exam- ples are disperato obblio (18) and dira / obblivione (50-51). Here the ad- jectives (disperato, dira) express his subjective, existential condition whereas the nouns (obblio, obblivione) reveal Nature's devastating ef- fects on historical memory.

The rhetorical questions in the first three stanzas are a characteris- tic feature of Leopardi's poetics in this period. The poet also employs this device in "All'Italia" and "Sopra il monument0 a Dante." Luigi Russo (640) and De Sanctis (115) note that the rhetorical questions prepare the poetic impetus of the central stanzas, yet proceed to argue that this part of the canzone is less effective than the representation of illustrious cultural figures which follows.

Leopardi dramatically introduces the third stanza with the follow- ing questions:

Di noi serbate, o gloriosi, ancor

Qualche speranza? in tutto

Noi siam periti? (31-33)

The discovery of artifacts provides the material evidence for a com- parison between the poet's contemporaries and previous civilizations. The study of past actions and events helps build a sense of imagined community or historical identity. The pressing question for Leopardi is whether his age meets the expectations of previous civilizations. There is a subtle shift in poetic voice from "patria" to "Di noi." The former is objective and ostensive, whereas the latter is subjective and collective.

To understand the deeds and works of a previous civilization re- quires imagination. Leopardi explains this in the case of old texts in a notebook entry dated 22 November 1820:

Del resto per intendere i filosofi, e quasi ogni scrittore, 6 necessario, come per intendere i poeti, aver tanta forza d'immaginazione, e di sen- timento, e tanta capacith di riflettere, da potersi porre nei panni dello scrittore, e in quel punto precis0 di vista e di situazione, in cui egli si trovava nel considerare le cose di cui scrive; altrimenti non troverete mai che'egli sia chiaro abbastanza, per quanto lo sia in effetto. (Zibaldone di pensieri 1:227)

The faculty of imagination thus requires the capacity for empathy.

Historical imagination is a kind of vicarious memory. It can there- fore be tinged with temporal emotions (the complex emotions associ- ated with memory and anticipation). How one imagines, and forms, a sense of the past is often complicated by the way one's emotions are associated with memory and anticipation. This is evident in verses 33-


A voi forse il futuro
Conoscer non si toglie. Io son distrutto
N6 schermo alcuno ho dal dolor, che scuro
M'6 I'avvenire, e tutto quanto io scerno.

The image of a dark future is closely related to Leopardi's sense of the past. Awareness of the fragility of historical memory quickens his de- sire for historical knowledge, for to forget the past is to compromise the fut~re.~

Leopardi draws attention to a sign of moral decay and at- rophied memory, the "ozio" (43) that surrounds the monuments to the past. A sense of historical closure finds formal expression in the rhymes futuro-scuro (33; 35) and viltade-etade (44-45).

At the beginning of the fourth stanza Leopardi again invokes Mai, "Bennato ingegno," suggesting that the Vatican scholar was destined to great deeds. In his letter to Mai of January 1820, Leopardi writes:

Ella P proprio un miracolo di mille cose, d'ingegno di gusto di dottrina di diligenza di studio infatigabile, di fortuna tutta nuova ed unica. Insomma, V.S. ci fa tornare ai tempi dei Petrarca e dei Poggi, quando ogni giorno era illustrato da una nuova scoperta classica, e la mara- viglia e la gioia de' letterati non trovava riposo. (Tutte le opere 1:1091)

Leopardi's conception of Mai's contribution and his use of Mai's dis- covery as an occasion to conjure Dante, Petrarch, Columbus, Ariosto, Tasso, and Alfieri invites a comparison with Dante's use of Virgil in the Divina Cornmedia. In these works Mai and Virgil are more than dramatic characters or interlocutors: Virgil is a symbol of human rea- son and Mai is a symbol of philology. Dante and Leopardi sit in judgment on their times and aspire to change the behavior of their contemporaries through art. The contrasts are, of course, substantial. In the mimetic scene narrated in Inferno IV, Virgil is a direct link be- tween Dante and antiquity. This episode well illustrates Dante's op- timism regarding historical recovery and the continuation of a literary tradition. By contrast, Mai is not a guide but a catalyst for historical memory. Moreover, Dante feigns an encounter between modernity and antiquity, whereas Leopardi evokes the great-hearted spirits in a doleful ubi sunt which underscores his longing for the values personi- fied in them.

Identifijing with the Great-Hearted Spirits

Despite the complexity of Leopardi's affinities with Dante and Pe- trarch he devotes merely ten verses to them (61-70). By omitting to mention them by name he underscores their prominence in the Italian cultural imagination. Their contemporary interest is spelled out in the remark, "Ahi dal dolor comincia e nasce / L'italo canto" (69-70). Dante is a symbol of the poetry which can spring from political op- pression, and Petrarch is a symbol of the song of unrequited love. Leopardi contrasts the life-affirming pain which Dante and Petrarch experienced and the unbearable, destructive pain of "noia" (70-72):1°

Oh te beato,

A cui fu vita il pianto! A noi cinse le fasce

Cinse il fastidio; a noi presso la culla

Immoto siede, e su la tomba, il nulla. (72-75)

Leopardi thus enlarges his lament beyond the Italian question, ex- pressing a sense of a general oppression of humankind by il nulla. Leopardi moves from blaming the current state of Italy on the ozio of his contemporaries and the unfathomable actions of the gods to argue that political redemption is further undermined by a demoralizing awareness of the human condition. Perhaps Leopardi is saying that the obstacles confronting him are much greater than the ones faced by Dante and Petrarch. To create an imagined community now requires not only a shared historical identity, but a common understanding of the negative effects of noia.

Leopardi's representation of Columbus in the sixth and seventh stanzas is more elaborate than his representations of Dante and Pe- trarch because it is the locus of reflections on myth and imagination, two requirements of great deeds. His representation of the "ligure ardito" can also be seen as a comment on the distinction between two conceptions of the universe: one anthropocentric, the other decentered. Columbus represents the destruction of myth. He is the only non-poet in Leopardi's canon. Columbus's voyage is of special interest as a metaphor for Leopardi's predicament and as a clue to Leopardi's use of Mai as a symbol. Hence we shall defer further discussion of Colum- bus to Section Three and pass directly to Leopardi's representation of Ariosto.

Ariosto is depicted as the "cantor vago dell'arme e degli amori"

(108) who fills our lives with "felici errori," a Leopardian synonym for useful illusioni. Leopardi's nostalgia for illusioni has an element in common with his praise of pain, for both are life-affirming. Leopardi's affinity with Ariosto, the least philosophical among the great-hearted spirits, rests on a distinction between two types of imagination. In a notebook entry dated 5 July 1820 Leopardi explains that Dante and Homer manifest the strength of imagination, Ariosto and Ovid its fe- cundity:

Quella facilmente rende l'uomo infelice per la profondit& delle sensa- zioni, questa a1 contrario lo rallegra colla varieta e colla facilita di fer- marsi sopra tutti gli oggetti e di abbandonarli, e conseguentemente colla copia delle distrazioni. (Zibaldone di pensieri 1: 154)

Ariosto's imagination does not produce lasting passions of the kind that sustain great action, but consoles humankind in times of misfor- tune (1:154).In the Ariosto stanza the vatic and tormented tone of the previous strophes gives way to a lyrical voice: Nascevi ai dolci sogni intanto, e il primo

Sole splendeati in vista,

Cantor vago. .. . (106-08);

a voi pensando,

In mille vane amenitl si perde

La mente mia. Di vanitl, di belle

Fole e strani pensieri

Si componea l'umana vita. (113-17)

The lyricism is a stylistic complement to the tragic tone of the repre- sentations of the other figures, while it reinforces the complex emo- tions triggered by nostalgia. The evocation dissolves in the stanza's conclusion where Leopardi blames humankind for banishing sweet illusions, the only solace in the face of bitter truths. Though less central than works that encourage one to imagine (historically) possi- ble worlds, Ariosto's fantastic literature also has a place in creating a sense of imagined community.

A sense that everything is vain, except for pain and suffering, is at- tributed to Tasso, the only figure who is named and the one with whom Leopardi identifies most closely. The altercasting of Tasso in the ninth and tenth stanzas comprises a complex of social and per- sonal themes, namely, a profound sense of social and political alien- ation (127-28); lack of love (128-30); constant meditation on "il nulla" (130-32); and the knowledge that glory comes late or posthumously ("tardo onore," 132-34); all of which contribute to psychological alienation and madness (14143). Tasso is a symbol of the Romantic notion of the artist as a misunderstood and tormented visionary (145- 46). In evoking Tasso's vicissitudes, Leopardi predicts a similar fate for himself, the consequence of a shared illness ("nostro mal," 135).

The identification with Tasso has implications for Leopardi's views on political action and historical knowledge. In his belief that art has the power to cement an imagined community, Leopardi is a man of his times. He attributes this power not to politicians or to theorists but to artists; in particular, to poets. Perhaps it is for this reason that Machiavelli is not represented in the canon. Indeed, the author of The Prince theorized the possibility that base motives can contribute to glorious actions. Leopardi loathes opportunism, a political necessity. Like Machiavelli, he recognizes the importance of exempla in political education, but his choice of canonical figures is guided by wholly dif- ferent principles.

In Leopardi's view, Italian cultural history would have ended with Tasso were it not for the "Allobrogo feroce," Vittorio Alfieri. Leopar- di's neglect of other figures conflicts with the traditional literary- historical view of the eighteenth century as a period of political and cultural innovation. He overlooks civic-minded and patriotic figures such as Ludovico Antonio Muratori in historical studies and Cesare Beccaria in political and legal theory. He ignores Carlo Goldoni whose theatrical reform was widely acknowledged and debated. The most surprising lacuna is the omission of Giuseppe Parini, whose concep- tion of glory is the subject of a moral essay written by Leopardi in 1824. Leopardi selects Alfieri as a kindred spirit for his opposition to tyranny and for his tragic temperament. Timpanaro (Classicismoe illuminism~149) explains that Leopardi was also moved by the antithe- istic strand in Alfieri's tragedies. By altercasting Alfieri, Leopardi af- firms his desire to combat the will of the gods, who in the second stanza act as inscrutable catalysts or obstacles to historical knowledge and who, thereby, either promote or inhibit the development of a col- lective identity. There, humankind has not been abandoned by the gods. In the poem's conclusion, however, Leopardi's representation of Alfieri suggests that the transcendent is the enemy.ll In this light Leopardi's criticism of his contemporaries makes sense. If psychologi- cal alienation is a given of human existence, then,one may either sur- render to the inevitable, or combat it by promoting human dignity. With the help of Alfieri, Leopardi finds that the struggle for glory and dignity lends meaning to human existence. Leopardi's imagined community is a community of kindred and noble spirits and not merely a political entity.

In the poem's conclusion Leopardi again invokes Mai, the "scopri- tor famoso" (175), exhorting him to wake the dead since the living are fast asleep. May this century of mud (179), augurs the poet, thirst for life and rise to do illustrious deeds, or may it wallow in shame. The concluding rhyme "agogni-vergogni" recapitulates the poem's tenor. Leopardi's exhortation turns on a distinction between the ethos of his contemporaries and that of the great-hearted spirits, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. Bernard Williams ably explains this distinction:

What arouses guilt in an agent is an act or omission of a sort that typi- cally elicits from other people anger, resentment, or indignation. What the agent may offer in order to turn this away is reparation; he may also fear punishment or may inflict it on himself. What arouses shame, on the other hand, is something that typically elicits from others con- tempt or derision or avoidance. . . . It will lower the agent's self-respect and diminish him in his own eyes. ...More positively, shame may be expressed in attempts to reconstruct or improve oneself. (89-90)

In a notebook entry dated 22 August 1822, Leopardi states that there is nothing more shameful for the spirited individual than shame itself: "Nessuna cosa 6 vergognosa per l'uomo di spirit0 ne capace di farlo vergognare, e provare il dispiacevole sentimento di questa pas- sione, se non solamente il vergognarsi e l'arrossire" (Zibaldone di pen- sieri 2: 1397).The structure and conclusion of the canzone to Mai indi- cate that Leopardi predicates the regeneration of Italian history and culture upon the mechanisms of a shame culture. The effective scope of his imagined community can thus be no greater than the grip of such an ethos on his interlocutors. Nevertheless, by expressing his conception in verse, Leopardi reclaims a social purpose for letters. Perhaps this explains Leopardi's exclusion of the Arcadian and Neo- classical poets who came between Tasso and Alfieri. For Leopardi, poetry stirs the soul and promotes action, much as Alfieri attempts to do with theater. Even in Foscolo's inspiring poem about the civic value of tombs poetry is seen as one among many human activities which contribute to social identity. Leopardi appears to privilege po- etry as the most inspirational art form because he believes that poetry speaks the language of the emotions and character, and that it is thus most suited to inspire a sense of imagined community.


Between Classicism and Romanticism

The passage from pessimismo storico to pessimismo cosmico occurs when Leopardi appreciates the degree to which nature rather than historical circumstances is responsible for unhappiness. The study of history contributes to this passage insofar as history manifests human frailty before nature. In the canzone to Mai Leopardi expresses an in- termediate position comprising conflicting strands. One strand is normative: historical knowledge should have the hortatory function of inspiring actions aimed at alleviating la noia, and, more ambi- tiously, at recasting one's imagined community. The other strand is a second-order effect in which recognition of the vulnerability of histor- ical identity, a vulnerability which historical inquiry itself discloses, induces skepticism about the possibility of a new imagined commu- nity. The second-order effect undermines the normative function.

Leopardi's treatment of Italian cultural history is different from po- litically conservative classicism (Mai's current) and progressive Ro- manticism.I2 Mai takes philology and historical disciplines to lend legitimacy to Catholic doctrine and prestige to the Ancien regime, whereas progressive Romantics promote Italian nationalism. Though Leopardi shares the classicists' belief that classical antiquity and mythology are sources of aesthetic inspiration, he rejects their political aims. And, conversely, though he shares the Romantics' aim of na- tional unification, he rejects their repudiation of myths and their op- timism.l

Leopardi's Three Ways of Seeing

In a notebook entry dated 20 January 1820, written immediately af- ter the completion of the canzone to Mai, Leopardi explores a threefold typology of 'ways of seeing': heroic, natural and philosophical (Zibaldone di pensieri 1: 116-18). His typology invites comparison with Nietzsche's threefold typology of history and the everyday ways of framing historical inquiry mentioned above (Section One). The heroic way of seeing closely resembles monumental history and captures a sense of the past because it appeals to the imagination:

L'una e la piu beata, di quelli per li quali esse hanno anche pih spirito che corpo, e voglio dire degli uomini di genio e sensibili, ai quali non c'P cosa che non parli all'immaginazione o a1 cuore, e che trovano da per tutto materia di sublimarsi e di sentire e di vivere, e un rapport0 continuo delle cose coll'infinito e coll'uomo, e una vita indefinibile e vaga, in somma di quelli che considerano il tutto sotto un aspetto in- finito e in relazione cogli slanci dell'animo loro. (Zibaldone 1: 116)

The poet ascribes three attributes to the natural way of seeing: it is the most common way of seeing; it is superficial; and it provides the most durable happiness to individuals. Unlike the heroic way of seeing, it does not produce great actions but a sense of complacency:

e senza dar gran risalto a1 sentimento dell'esistenza, riempie per0 la vita di una pienezza non sentita, ma sempre uguale e uniforme, e con- duce per una strada piana e in relazione colle circostanze dalla nascita a1 sepolcro. (Zibaldone di pensieri 1: 117)

Like Nietzsche's antiquarian mode, the natural way of seeing is non- judgmental. It thus expresses a static mediocritas or complacency which the poet rejects, echoing his criticism of Roman antiquarians.

Leopardi characterizes the philosophical way of seeing as follows:

La terza e la sola funesta e miserabile, e tuttavia la sola Vera, di quelli per cui le cose non hanno nP spirito nP corpo, ma son tutte vane e senza sostanza, e voglio dire dei filosofi e degli uomini per lo piu di senti- mento che dopo l'esperienza e la lugubre cognizione delle cose, dalla prima maniera passano di salto a quest'ultima senza toccare la secon- da, e trovano e sentono da per tutto il nulla e il vuoto, e la vanita delle cure umane e dei desideri e delle speranze e di tutte le illusioni inerenti alla vita per mod0 che senza esse non P vita. (1: 117)

He argues further that reason, though generally extolled as human- kind's distinctive faculty, cannot relieve misery, let alone provide happiness. He admires the heroic way of seeing, but recognizes that post-Enlightenment intellectuals, and he among them, are prone to the philosophical way of seeing. Reason has irreversibly disclosed il nulla. The development of civilization issues in the tyranny of rational thinking which in turn diminishes the motivation for grandezza. The poet draws the paradoxical conclusion that to dwell on il nulla is "una verissima pazzia," but the most reasonable madness known to hu- mankind and therefore the only true wisdom. The philosophical way of seeing resembles Nietzsche's conception of critical history and is close to current notions of history.

The canzone to Mai gives poetic representation to a particular con- flict between belief and desire: between his belief that monumental history can no longer inspire great action and political change in the age of the philosophical way of seeing, and his desire for such action and change. Leopardi introduces a quandary which goes beyond a subjective, youthful expression of the conflicting emotions of desire for hope and glory, on the one hand, and frustration, anger, bitterness, and despair, on the other. Leopardi's poem illustrates two conflicting views of history: the philosophical perspective (or critical history) and the heroic view (or monumental history). The poet prefers the latter given his desire for action, but recognizes that as a thinker influenced by the Enlightenment he cannot escape the former. It is noteworthy that he reaffirms monumental history precisely in an age when histo- rians are shifting decisively to critical history, witness Leopold von Ranke's (57) celebrated project in 1824 of representing history "wie es eigentlich gewesen." To believe that great actions are still possible, Leopardi must renounce a part of his intellectual formation. Reason has relegated human beings to the role of passive spectators of life; historical inquiry thus serves little purpose. In the canzone he ex- presses this belief but does not fully accept it.

There is another important feature of Leopardi's treatment of past actions and events: the impossibility of detaching the emotional from the rational self. In Leopardi's language, illusioni are not only useful, they are necessary. Contemplation of il nulla does not enable human- kind to dispense with the emotional self: the epicurean ideal of ataraxy eludes us. As moral agents, humans cannot remove the emo- tional, psychological self from the world. Leopardi cannot reconcile critical and monumental history in the canzone, just as he cannot square the philosophical with the heroic way of seeing.

One of the poem's most interesting portraits expresses Leopardi's complex historical sensibility and illumines the poet's intentions. Columbus, the "ligure ardita prole," is a symbol of daring. A modern Ulysses, he personifies the risk-taker who undertakes great actions; he is a figure worthy of both the Romantic notion of hero and the En- lightenment ideal of intellectual progress. Yet in a set of brilliant verses Leopardi tempers his portrait of Columbus by expressing a sense of loss in the great discovery, a perverse effect of Columbus's epistemic journey: "Ecco svaniro a un punto, / E figurato 2 il mondo in breve carta; / Ecco tutto P simile, e discoprendo, / Solo il nulla s'ac- cresce" (97-100). Leopardi revisits and enlarges this kind of perverse effect in the moral essay, "I1 Copernico," in which he underscores the demystifying consequences of knowledge. Columbus unsettles the European view of the world; Copernicus debunks the anthropocentric conception of the Universe. Columbus's journey represents the eradi- cation of myth and the impossibility of creating new myths. In this sense Leopardi is unlike Nietzsche, whose discussion of the advan- tages and disadvantages of history for life is a brief for will and desire. Instead Leopardi's representation of Columbus affirms the irre- versibility of the critical mode guided by reason.14 There is thus a parallel between Mai's discovery of the ciceronian manuscript and Columbus's discovery of the New World. A sense of a genuinely tragic element in knowledge colors Leopardi's representations of the two discoveries.

Let us gather the threads of our discussion. The canzone to Mai and contemporary writings reveal Leopardi's concern with the pheno- menology of historical imagination. He historicizes this subject and provides a simple typology for making sense of it. He argues that awareness of the phenomenology of historical imagination is in ten- sion with the psychology of action required for grandi azioni. As a moralist, Leopardi wishes his philosophical meditations to issue in art that might influence the attitudes and actions of his readers. The ten- sion between insight and aspiration is represented in the canzone in the form of a canon of great actors interwoven with reflections upon the perverse effects of knowledge, itself the product of great actions. Monumental history is interwoven with critical history. The poet's pe- culiar representation of history at once affirms reason and reveals rea- son's limits. Poetry, the language of the emotions and the imagination, is life-affirming (like Nietzsche's monumental history), yet also speaks bitter truths.


Trinity College/Hartford, CT


In Leopardi (1981 :67-106). It was composed in January 1820, published in July of the same year in Bologna, and then revised and published anew during Leopardi's lifetime, in 1824 (Bologna), 1831 (Florence) and 1835 (Naples). In a letter to Pietro Brighenti of 28 April 1820, Leopardi writes that the deliberately innocent title enabled the canzone to escape his father's censorship: "I1 titolo della seconda inedita si & trovato fortunatamente innocentissirno. Si tratta di un Monsignore. Ma mio padre non s'immagina che vi sia qualcuno che da tutti i soggetti sa trarre occasione di parlar di quello che pib gl'importa, e non sospetta punto che sotto quel titolo si nasconda una Canzone piena di orribile fanatismo" (Z'utte le opere 1: 1100).


Sanctis hailed the poem: "Canzone straordinaria, se mai ce ne fu. ...Prima c'era I'artista, gik maestro di stile; ora c'b anche il poeta, c'b lui" (1 15) and "La can- zone b un primo poema del mondo, cosi com'b visto dal giovine. E' come una filosofia della storia, dove tutto b coordinato, come in uno schema" (1 19).

3~oger Baillet states that 'history' is the "materia sofferta del Canto, asservita dalla poesia che se ne giova, trasformata dal filtro della memoria, come di un'espe- rienza viva della gioventa e mai come meditazione matura, da storico, sui fatti del passato" (95).

4~ccording to De Sanctis, "Quest'ultima frase b gigantesca: b la piramide nel de- sert~" (1 15).

5~esare Federico Goffis explains that unlike Leopardi, Foscolo wishes to con- struct myths. He suggests that Leopardi engages in a veiled polemic with Foscolo and that "Ad Angelo Mai" is an emendation of "Dei Sepolcri" (687-88).

6~anteDella Terza notes that the poem to Mai is unique among the patriotic po- etry of the time "proprio per I'audace simbiosi tra storia letteraria e visione del mondo che essa propone . . ." (10).

7~nlike Leopardi's previous canzoni, "Ad Angelo Mai" has a uniform rhyme scheme. Like the earlier canzone, "Sopra il monument0 a Dante," "Ad Angelo Main exhibits a contrast between regularity of prosody and irregularity of syntax (Fubini 50-5 1). This contrast is compounded by Leopardi's use of rhymed couplets at the end of each strophe. The stanzas' axiomatic and epigraphic conclusions express his bitter- ness.

8~lasucci and Galimberti provide close analyses of linguistic and stylistic features. 9~henegative effects of historical amnesia described by Leopardi recall the con- trapasso suffered by heretics in Dante's Inferno. There is a difference however. In Dante's text the impaired vision which afflicts the souls of heretics is a manifestation of divine justice, whereas in Leopardi the historical blindness which afflicts the living is caused by a prosaic ethos and is a manifestation of the fragility of historical mem- ory. Galimberti (54-56) suggests that Leopardi was inspired by Dante's representa- tion of Statius's encounter with Virgil in Purgatorio XXI. 1°"~nche il dolore che nasce dalla noia e dal sentimento della vanitk delle cose b pih tollerabile assai che la stessa noia" (Zibaldone dipensieri 1: 93). l l~ee in particular Alfieri's Saul. Vitilio Masiello explains that in the tragedies before Saul Alfieri represents political conflict, usually altercasting a dominant and powerful antagonist to a vanquished protagonist. In Saul, however, Alfieri represents the protagonist's existential struggle against the backdrop of "un pi6 ampio, cosmico rapport0 di forze" (16162). 12see Springer (Introduction and chapter three). Springer distinguishes two types of archaeological representation: the encomiastic mode of the Church and the horta- tory mode of the democratic opposition (2). Springer describes them in terms that may also readily apply to philology and historiography: "To the nostalgic evocation of an irretrievable past they substitute, respectively, the pious idealization of the present and the apocalyptic projection of a democratic future" (3). 13~eopardiis not the only "progressive" classicist of the early nineteenth century. Timpanaro (Classicismo e illuminismo 40-1 17) discusses at length the political and cultural views of the poet's friend and mentor, Pietro Giordani, who was certainly the most prominent of the "progressive" classicists. 14~eopardi underestimates the role of imagination in modem science. For an il- luminating comparison of artistic and scientific imagination, and their respective strengths and limits, see O'Hear.


Alcom, John and Dario Del Puppo. "Memory and Anticipation: The Temporal Struc- ture of the Emotions in the Poetry of Giacomo Leopardi." Unpublished conference paper delivered at the NEMLA Convention. March 27 1993.

Alighieri, Dante. Tutte le opere. Ed. Luigi Blasucci. Firenze: Sansoni, 1981. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983. Baillet, Roger. "La storia, pih che coesione, materia sofferta del canto." I1 pensiero storico e politico di Giacomo Leopardi. Atti del VI Convegno internazionale di

studi leopardiani. Firenze: Olschki, 1989. 91-96. Binni, Walter. La protesta di Leopardi. Firenze: Sansoni, 1977. Blasucci, Luigi. "Livelli e correzioni del1"Angelo Mai'." Leopardi e i segnali del-

I'infinito. Bologna: I1 Mulino, 1985. 81-95. Cohen, L. Jonathan. An Essay on Belief and Acceptance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. Della Terza, Dante. "La canzone ad Angelo Mai." Gradiva 4.4 (1990-1991): 1-10. De Sanctis, Francesco. Giacomo Leopardi. Ed. E. Ghidetti. Roma: Riuniti, 1983. Galimberti, Cesare. "Stile 'vago' e linguaggio del vero nella canzone 'Ad Angelo

Mai'." Linguaggio del vero in Leopardi. Firenze: Olschki, 1959. 1147. Giordano, Emilio. ''L'eti delle macchine: appunti sul concetto leopardiano di 'Storia'." I1 pensiero storico e politico di Giacomo Leopardi. Firenze: Olschki, 1989.285-306. Goffis, Cesare Federico. "La canzone ad Angelo Mai e i 'Sepolcri'." Miscellanea di studi in onore di Vittore Branca IV. Firenze: Olschki, 1983. 2: 677-702. Leopardi, Giacomo. Tutte le opere. Ed. W. Binni and E. Ghidetti. 2 vols. Firenze:

Sansoni, 1976. -. Canti. Ed. E. Peruzzi. Milano: Rizzoli, 198 1. -. Canti. Ed. M. Fubini. Torino: Loescher, 1978. -. Zibaldone di pensieri. Ed. G. Pacella. 3 vols. Milano: Garzanti, 1991. Luporini, Cesare. Leopardi progressivo. Roma: Riuniti, 1980. Masiello, Vitilio. "I1 Saul e la crisi intema dell'umanesimo alfieriano." L'ideologia

tragica di Vittorio Alfieri. Roma: Edizioni delI1Ateneo, 1964. 157-86.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." Untimely
Meditations. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 57-123.
O'Hear, Anthony. The Element of Fire: Science, Art and the Human World. London:

Routledge, 1988. Russo, Luigi, and Riccardo Rugani, eds. I classici italiani. L'Ottocento. Vol 3, Part 1. Firenze: Sansoni, 1959. Springer, Carolyn. The Marble Wilderness: Ruins and Representation in Italian Ro- manticism, 1775-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Talamo, Giuseppe. "Leopardi e la storia d'ltalia a lui contemporanea." I1 pensiero storico e politico di Giacomo Leopardi. Firenze: Olschki, 1989.69-90.

Timpanaro, Sebastiano. Classicismo e illuminismo nell'ottocento italiano. Pisa: Nistri-Lischi, 1969.

-.Lafilologia di Giacomo Leopardi. Bari: Laterza, 1977. Treves, Pietro. Lo studio dell'antichita classica nell'ottocento. Milano e Napoli: Ric- ciardi, 1962.47 1-89.

von Ranke, Leopold. Preface. Histories of Romance and Germanic Peoples. The Va- rieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Ed. Fritz Stem. New York: Vin- tage, 1973.5442,

Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

  • Recommend Us