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Giacomo Leopardi, master of light

Searching for the faint, dim moonlight and the sun's flickering rays in the works of the poet from Recanati

Published: 25 Jul 2019
Giacomo Leopardi used light with the wisdom of an artist; when he imagined a scene, he reflected on the source and intensity of the light that illuminated it, and how it filtered into the landscape or entered rooms and landed on objects. His was not just a talent but the result of a well-trained eye: in the countryside and city, day or night, he observed the different conditions of light and took note of the effects this had on his soul. He would then recreate them through words in his poetry and writings. Sometimes he would linger on particular details, others evoked more vague atmospheres with limited adjectives in the right context. An extract from the Zibaldone sums up his main observations and justifies them in light of the "theory of pleasure". It starts here:

From that part of my theory of pleasure where it is shown how objects that are seen only in half or where there are obstacles in front of them etc... assigns us undefined ideas, explains why the light from the sun or moon is pleasing, seen in places where they are not seen and where the source of light is not revealed; a place only partially illuminated by that light; the reflection of that light and the various material effects that derive from it; the penetration of that light in places where it becomes uncertain and obstructed and not clearly distinguishable, as though through rushes, in a forest, in half-closed balconies etc. etc.; that light seen in a place or on an object etc. where it does not penetrate and does directly strike, but is replicated and distributed by another place or object etc. on which it lands.

Extracts 1744-1745 (Zibaldone), Giacomo Leopardi
Giacomo Leopardi, master of light

Il Colle dell’Infinito. Photo: Giuseppe Saluzzi.

Giacomo Leopardi used light with the wisdom of an artist
But what is the theory of pleasure? In short, this is Leopardi's articulated idea that the most enjoyable activity of all and the only one capable of satisfying our needs, is activating our imagination. Even deceiving yourself. as the poet bitterly notes, is enjoyable - as long as it lasts. And as much in everyday experience as in poetry, the imagination is stimulated in particular by what is vague and undefined, that is, what leaves room for the imagination. We asked Chiara Fenoglio, researcher at Turin University and expert on the work of the poet from Recanati, to help us put the theory of pleasure into context: "This is a highly complex theory" she explains, "which Leopardi expanded upon in more than 4,000 pages in the Zibaldone. The starting point is the knowledge, deduced from the seventeenth century eudaemonist theory that, pleasure in itself does not exist but an infinite number of particular limited, temporary pleasures. From here derives the idea that only in the indeterminate and imagination can a genuine pleasure be achieved; this is what happens, for example in L’infinito or in the work dedicated to Tasso. The need, however, "to hold small things in esteem", also derives from this as Leopardi writes in a less well known page in Zibaldone, and to develop that "sense of soul" that is certainly not the way to happiness but probably the only serious hypothesis for a life that is not (too) unhappy".
Giacomo Leopardi, master of light

Giacomo Leopardi ritratto da A. Ferrazzi nel 1820 circa; a destra, Chiara Fenoglio (Università di Torino)

Leopardi translates the theory into practise through his poetry. The notes on the most evocative conditions of light in the Zibaldone come to light in his poetry: «Almost all of Leopardi's Canti», explains Fenoglio, «are filled with a faint light, mostly moonlight which from La sera del dì di festa to Il tramonto della luna lights up the scene. Everything is toned down, as though the direct view, in full light, did not allow for poetic meditation".

In La sera del dì di festa, in particular, the night is “bright” – as bright as night can be – and the moon reveals the outline of the mountains in the distance, while the dim light of lanterns filters from the windows of houses; the light from the landscape conveys a reassuring tranquillity which reflects in the "simple sleepiness" of the woman returning home from a village party. The same scene, facing the poet who cannot sleep, rotates around melancholic and then tragic tones. Nature itself has condemned him to desperation, and to formulate the sentence, made reference to a light effect, the sparkle in eyes damp with tears: “of nothing more / do your eyes shine than of tears”.

Carmelo Bene reads La sera del dì di festa by Giacomo Leopardi

Even in the first stanza of Il tramonto della luna, the dim light of the night-time landscape and then darkness are filled with poetic meaning. "The silvery light of the moon", explains Fenoglio, "leaves the world orphaned of hope and meaning". The landscape from dim moonlight to total darkness is eroded in these lines: The moon descends; and discolours the world; Shadows disappear, and a Darkness descends on valley and mountain; The night remains bereaved, And singing, with melancholy tune, The extreme dawn of the fleeting light, Which before was his commander, Bids farewell to the cart man of his life; In equal measure he disappears, and he Leaves behind the mortal age Youth. «The splendour of the sun is less present», continues Fenoglio, «and, if anything, it is filtered and indirect, uncertain or impeded; as is the case in Il sogno where the rays meander "between the closed shutters" of the poet's room. Or as in La vita solitaria, where the flickering rays from the sun make way for the morning rain».

The question arises as to whether Leopardi was not inspired directly by an artist. But we know very little about Leopardi's favourite paintings explains Fenoglio, "he reflects much more on music". To make up for this, we can attempt to piece together a few things and come up with a reasonable hypothesis. For example. Lorenzo Lotto's Annunciation is housed in Recanati, Fenoglio reminds us, and adds: "I always thought it could be a significant point of reference for Leopardi, for his ability to create a beauty which is frightening and of which the Zibaldone talks about starting with Montesquieu".
Giacomo Leopardi, master of light

Lorenzo Lotto's Annunciation (circa 1527)

Even if we have no guarantee of Leopardi's taste in art, we are very familiar with one of the places which he loved most and rendered immortal: Monte Tabor in Recanati, better known as "the hill in L’infinito”. The verses in L’infinito are some of the most well-known of his Canti, and 2019 celebrates the two-hundredth anniversary of their composition. Chiara Fenoglio provides us with two recommendations, she who, after being obliged to study them at school, can no longer find in them vitality or beauty: first of all, «read the pages of the Zibaldone which between 1819 and 1821 Leopardi wrote on the topic of the "second glance" and the infinite/indeterminate; for example theframmento 1744», which we mentioned at the beginning of the article. "And then go back to Monte Tabor, at the top of the hill next to Leopardi's house: a dazzling experience (to stay on track with the topic of light).