Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews  entry Jan. 2004, box added Aug. 2019, poem added Sept 2019

1. G
iacomo Leopardi 
(1798-1837)    2. Leopardi's Stomach (from The Serpent Coiled in Naples)
 3. Giacomo Leopardi in Naples (a poem)

As the narrow-gauge Circumvesuviana railway wends its way east along the coast from the city of Naples in the direction of the Sorrentine peninsula, it passes through a number of small stations on the slopes of Vesuvius. Two of the stations have to do with the life of this, Italy's greatest Romantic poet. One station is named, simply, "Leopardi" and the other "Ginestre" (the Italian name for the broom plant, the yellow-flowered shrub that grows abundantly on the slopes, and, as well, the title of a remarkable poem by Leopardi). If this so-called "poet of melancholy" ever found any relief at all in his terribly unhappy life, perhaps it was here, in and near Naples.

There are few child prodigies in literature. Presumably, meaningful reflections on the human condition come from having a few years under your belt — time to love, struggle, wander and let those experiences set for a while, a process less necessary to early greatness in music and mathematics. Thus, we are amazed at Metastasio, Rimbaud and Mary Shelley writing fine literature at 19 or 20.

Leopardi is in that unusual group. By the age of 16, he was a Latin and Greek scholar; and by 18 he had written lasting poetry. His natural precociousness was no doubt helped along by being a recluse for the first 20 years of his life, holing up in his father's vast library, teaching himself the classics as well as modern European languages. He suffered both from poor eye-sight (that got worse as he grew older) and by a deformity of the spine, a lifelong source of pain, physical as well as social.

          Villa delle Ginestre
He spent time in his home town of Recanati in central Italy as well as in Rome and Florence. Then, in 1833, he moved to Naples to keep the company of Antonio and Paolina Ranieri, brother and sister, whom he had met in Rome. He then moved a number of times in Naples. The cholera epidemic of 1835 caused him to move farther out of the city, winding up at Villa Ferrigni, now called the Villa delle Ginestre (photo, left); it is near the small knoll upon which perches the monastery of Sant' Alfonso. Vesuvius looms directly above, and Leopardi's final home is, indeed, near both of the modern train stations mentioned above, named in his honor. It is here that he wrote that 1,800 years had passed "...since the peopled places disappeared, crushed by fiery might, and the peasant busy at his vine...still lifts his eyes suspiciously to the fatal peak..." (in the prose translation of George Kay from the Penguin Book of Italian Verse, published in 1958).

If by melancholy we mean something like wistfulness, a longing for a happier past or even an unachievable ideal state, then much of Leopard's poetry is not even that. It is simply bleak. He writes of his own loneliness and of nature as a "betrayer" and "a brutal force." He writes of the "infinite vanity of everything." So if his friendship with the Ranieris made him as happy as he could ever be, maybe all we are saying is that he liked the Neapolitan sherbet and sweets, or that he got a kick out of trying to guess lottery numbers, or went to San Carlo (to fill in his total lack of musical culture), or "worshipped from afar" Paolina Ranieri. (She apparently —as a term of endearment, one hopes— referred to him as "il mio gobbetto"—my little hunchback.) Not much, but at least it's something.

Leopardi died in 1837. At the time, it was rumored that he had in fact died from cholera, but that seems not to have been the case. His remains were entombed in the  church of San Vitale in the Fuorigrotta section of Naples and then moved to a small space near the Mergellina entrance to the ancient Roman tunnel that connected Naples with the western part of the bay. A monument marks his tomb; it is near the purported last resting place of fellow poet, Virgil.

Because of the quality —or even lack— of translations, Leopardi is not as well known in the English-speaking world as he should be. Translators of poetry, of course, run the risk, as they say, of "losing poetry in the translation" and, at the other extreme, of "gaining poetry", of writing a beautiful poem that is too original to really be called a translation. I know that Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and Robert Bly have translated some of Leopardi into English. My favorite English translation is of a poem written at the graveside of a woman. Her image has been cut into the tombstone. Leopardi says to the image:

Tal fosti: or qui sotterra
Polve e scheletro sei. Su l'ossa e il fango
Immobilmente collocato invano,
Muto, mirando dell' etadi il volo
Sta, di memoria solo
E di dolor custode, il simulacro
Della scorsa beltà.

Ezra Pound's translation of these first few lines is:

Such wast thou,
Who art now
But buried dust and rusted skeleton. Above the bones and mire,
Motionless, placed in vain,
Mute mirror of the flight of speeding years, Sole guard of grief
Sole guard of memory
Standeth this image of the beauty sped.

That strikes me as perfect.

2.   Added in August, 2019, an excerpt from the forthcoming The Serpent Coiled in Naples by Marius Kociejoski [MK].

My index reference subtitle in the excerpts table, below, is "Leopardi."
MK's original title for this sixth chapter in his book is
Leopardi's Stomach   

Leopardi and his friend Antonio Ranieri arrived in Naples on October 2nd 1833. Three days later, he wrote to his father,

 I arrived here happily, that is to say without injury and without misadventure. My health otherwise is not up to much and my eyes are still in the same state. Yet I find the mildness of the climate, the beauty of the city, and the amiable and good-natured temperament of the inhabitants very agreeable.
Villa delle Ginestre,        
Leopardi's home near Naples

Six months later, he was rather less enamoured of the place.

The Naples climate is of some benefit to me; but in other
respects living here doesn’t suit me very well.
One year later, he was in full revolt, speaking of the need to get away
from these scoundrels and buffoons, high class and low, all thieves and rogues, b.f. [baroni fottuti, which is highly impolite]* who fully deserve the Spaniards and the gallows.
*[A rough description of what that phrase means is "Effing phonies full of aristocratic airs."] jm
Strangely, though, as the city becomes imperilled with cholera he seems to become more reconciled to the place. I suspect it was because he knew he had produced his best work there. If he was bound to be miserable then it hardly matters where, but he may have been marginally less so in Naples, which, in the Leopardian universe is a mighty bundle. A jovial Leopardi is almost too horrible to contemplate.
The poet died, aged 38, on June 14th, 1837, the Feast of Saint Antonio. That morning he consumed close to three pounds of the confetti cannellini di Sulmona, the sugared almonds with a sliver of cinnamon on the inside, for which the town of Sulmona remains famous, its other claim to fame being that Ovid was born there. At five in the afternoon, he had a hot broth followed by sorbet, the combination of hot and cold being one stated cause for his death from pulmonary oedema or dropsy as it was then called. At least that was what was written on the death certificate by Doctor Stefano Mollica who never actually attended to him.
Here we enter a shadowy world of half-truths and morbidities. Antonio Ranieri’s account of his seven-year friendship with the poet, Sette anni di sodalizio con Giacomo Leopardi (1880), is famously unreliable. When looking at Ranieri’s photograph I can’t tell whether I am looking into the face of a buffoon or a sage. Maybe, though, it’s a bit of both. It has been suggested that when he wrote his memoir he was going a bit senile, but I should think there was rather more than poor memory at stake and that it is the sadly familiar story of the lesser man proclaiming himself the hero in the life of the greater man, which ought to sweeten our view of him a little, were it not that over a century later all we feel is annoyance. All things considered, he did take care of Leopardi and, a common enough scenario, probably did so to the point of being both jealous and possessive of him. Were it not that Ranieri arranged for his invalid friend to go and breathe the fresh air between Torre del Greco and Vesuvius we would have been deprived of his greatest poem “La Ginestra”. The old codger was merely seeking his dues.
Still there’s no getting away from the fact that Ranieri’s account is full of holes. Why did the kindly Dr Niccolò Mannella who did attend to the poet in his final hours decline to write the cause of death on the death certificate? Was it dropsy or cholera that took the poet’s life? The bit of Ranieri’s story that presents the most difficulties is where he claims to have
prevented his friend’s corpse from joining the many thousands of victims of cholera in the mass grave at Fontanelle. It had been decreed that all who died from the epidemic, rich and poor alike, should be taken to either Poggioreale or the tuff caves of Fontanelle and there their naked bodies covered with quicklime. These were, for the time, sensible
measures. Maybe Ranieri’s failure to prevent such a fate for his friend prompted him to create a fiction he found increasingly awkward to escape.
There is written evidence that the poet was indeed taken to Fontanelle, a document from the Ufficio di Stato Civile (document n. 568) which states:
"Giacomo Leopardi mort il 14 giugno 1837, sepolto nel cimitero dei colerisi. Ha ricevuto i sacramenti." [Giacomo Leopardi, died 14 June 1837, interred in the cemetery for cholera victims. Had last rties.]
Ranieri claims that with a bribe of coin and fresh fish he managed to get the priest at the church of San Vitale in Fuorigrotta to conduct a funeral. Some priests can be had at a price. A funeral did take place. But whose? The coffin must have sat lightly on the shoulders of its bearers. When the tomb was examined in 1900 there were some bones, the most substantial of which were two femurs a bit too long for Leopardi’s height, but no skull or thoracic cage bones, either of which would have been enough to point to the identity of the person whose paltry remains these supposedly were. Stranger still, there was also a shoe that in later years was purchased by the opera singer Beniamino Gigli and donated by him to the city of Recanati, which is where both he and Leopardi were born. Where was the other shoe?

After the church of San Vitale was demolished in 1939 in order to make way for one of Mussolini’s architectural schemes these motley remains were moved to the Parco Vergiliano in Piedigrotta, very close to where the magus and author of the Aeneid is said to have been buried. It is a lovely spot, tucked away from the nearby motorway. There one may peer into the entrance of the Crypta napolitana that goes all the way to Pozzuoli, which was constructed by Lucius Cocceius Auctus who also built the Grotta di Cocceio going from Lake Avernus to Cumae.

I was late getting there, the gates were locked, but the kindly attendant allowed me in and walked me to the grave. The tomb is anything but humble (image, right). Leopardi would surely have poked fun at it and if indeed the bones it covers are not his then he would have cackled at me, my head bowed in reverence. This raises the question of what it is that one reveres, memory or substance. If, as many scholars insist, the poet died of cholera then it stands to reason that one of the tens of thousands of skulls on display at the Fontanelle cemetry is his. Might I not for just an instant have peered into the sockets that once housed Leopardi’s eyes?

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts on Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item (after #15) from MK.

Ch. 1 - introduction -     Ch. 2 - An Octopus in Forcella Ch. 3 - Listening to Naples  - Ch. 4 - Lake Averno
Ch. 5 - Street Music -  Ch. 6 - Leopardi (above)  -  Ch. 7 - R.di Sangro  - Ch. 8 - Old Bones - Ch.9- The Devil -
Ch. 10- Signor Volcano - Ch. 10 (2)Ch. 11- Pulcinella  - Ch.12 - Boom - Boom (2) - Ch.13 - Two Women -
Ch.14- The Ghost Palace - Ch. 15- An Infintesimal Particle -     (extra) Riccardo Carbone, photographer

3.   Added in Sept. 2019

Giacomo Leopardi in Naples

                                                                            Do you know that something very strange is happening to me?...

                                                                            When I think of my impending destruction, I seem to see myself in a ditch,

                                                                            with a crowd of ribald fools dancing on my belly.

                                                                        — Leopardi to Paolina Ranieri, 1837

Shall we, my sweet tooth, consume another ice?

I signal Vito il padrone whose grave nod bespeaks the substance

Of any man who knows what his art is,

And the making of ices is surely one.

I must beware my friend Ranieri who would deny me this sad pleasure

Although my clock almost strikes twelve.

Antonio Ranieri, who, if I could believe in God would drive Him from my table

And then sermonize on the evils of chocolate

This man whom I love plugs my brain with his cackle:

'The mood on the Largo della Carità spells plague,

And still, my Giacomo, you cannot bear to leave Naples.

What will you not gamble for Vito's matchless ices?'

All Naples is one huge, sleepless pantomime

As was that other place the gods covered with ashes.

The mountain broods beneath its canopy of smoke

While these revellers with their booming voices and pointed shoes,

These plumed creatures whom progress loves,

Make corridors in air.

The pursuit of happiness brings them none.

They drape the skeleton of all things with their festering pride,

And fearing the tumble through endless space wage war upon silence.

Should they win, where then my verses?

The ancients scorned the man who sups alone,

And yet what deeper shame than to be seen from above slobbering over an ice?

Or to be judged by the stains on one's clothes?

I should banish all pleasure to the cubicle.

Who, if suddenly the world broke, would probe the rubble,

And finding here my skull with a spoon stuck inside,

Summon up the pale flesh which covered the bone?

Would they conclude this man of words loved so much the life he could not have

That he loved death even more?

They shall review my bones from all sides,

Saying the darkness which goes so deep can only be pure sunlight in reverse,

Or, as that bastard Florentine said of me,

'There is no God because I am a hunchback;

I am a hunchback because there is no God.'

Bah, I'd rather that Vito bury me.

The place is suddenly hopping alive,

As if from nowhere all these people pressing close, their breath stale

And their talk even worse.

I shall command my own table.

I was born in a sepulchre.

When I consider the years swaddled in that dark place,

A cold, high room where the aching for knowledge doubled me,

Small wonder the world's light blinded me.

And now I shall perish where the mountain hugging the shore makes a cradle.

I must praise the bread a certain woman bakes.

You will not find such bread anywhere outside Naples although Genoa comes close,

And this madonna of the loaves is Genovese.

The world becomes for me a narrow place,

A simple truth Ranieri might consider when he comes to write my notice,

Although I fear the enthusiasm which in him outweighs intelligence

One day night become menace.

Already I gauge my own death in his voice,

And when he asks what my needs are, I say only those which he would deny me.

A doctor stands always by his side.

'You must quit Naples,' they tell me, 'Go, before the cholera comes.'

I shall not forsake the bread this woman bakes.

The fewer my needs, the more precise they must be

Should they make the narrow world bearable.

Perhaps I should love Paolina more.

The sister of Antonio Ranieri reads me verses,

And although Ariosto, Tasso, Dante sound strange on a southern tongue

I would swap heaven for the bright lamp in her voice.

She is so completely without malice.

The other night she stumbled over some passage;

A deep blush spread through the awkward silence,

And it was as though she wished she could hide behind the language,

Thus spare me the illusion of love.

La donna che non si trova.

The women on the Largo della Carità glide,

And if they seem to me of a world other than the one which spurned me

The plain girl who reads me verses

Shall be my earthly guide.




I will write in my book of consolations the names

Of those whom destiny might otherwise blur on stone.

The critics and poetasters must fend for themselves.

They would burn up the whole language for a single shred of praise,

Yet I alone give them credence.

When finally the swine dance attendance on me

(And yes, that one in particular who mocked my shape)

Will they say this man of words sugared his lemonade so it became a thick syrup galvanizing the flies?

An age whose minds are clogged with obscenities will note

What Vito, a man of honour, commits to silence.

A peasant from the Abruzzi plays on his bagpipe.

Ah, that I should have wasted breath bullying language

When this man with his solemn music pulls darkness over the bay of Naples.

Although God hides and Signor Leopardi must die

A sudden gladness swamps me.

Scende la luna; e si scolora il mondo.

Almighty blindness conquers me,

Yet still I see my silver spoon rise

And then dip towards the round horizon of my table where God is a flickering candle.

Perhaps Vito, the purveyor of ices, can say more of what pleasure is

And what place it has on the curve of the infinite than any struggler with rhymes.

On this night, however, let it be said some deep chord ancient and spare,

As pure in sound as anything Pindar wrote,

Cut a swathe through the cluttering age.

A painted wagon thunders over the cobblestones.

Already I can hear from another, darker vehicle the hooded voice

Crying 'Chi ha morti, li cavi!'

But what is death when Madama Girolama bakes

The bread that shall always carry the sound of her name?

Vito places the chairs on the tables;

Moonlight sweeps the floor bare.

This is a strange forest which I must now leave.

Say Giacomo Leopardi found peace at Naples.

from Collected Poems by Marius Kociejowski
first published in England in 2019 by Carcanet Press Limited
Alliance House, 30 Cross Street, Manchester, M2 7AQ
(text © Marius Kociejowski 2019)
Presented here by kind concession of the author.

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