WAF Newsletter - Lockdown rereading The Leopard - April 2020

Lockdown (re)reading – The Leopard

Jeremy Melvin, 22 April 2020

I like books about architecture, writes Jeremy Melvin.

From a young age I poured over FRS Yorke’s The Modern House (and learnt to read plans and calibrate them with photographs as a result). In my teens my father gave me Alastair Service’s The Architects of London and Peter Davey’s Arts and Crafts Architecture, and a few years later, Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey’s study of Soane’s early career. All remain treasured possessions; Service, in particular, shows distinct signs of frequent reading.

There are many volumes that evoke a sense of nostalgia or pleasure when they catch my eye from my bookshelves. Summerson’s Georgian London is still the best key to understanding London’s historical development, spawning several generations of historians of London’s architecture, such as Andrew Saint and Elizabeth McKellar. Wolfgang Herrmann’s Gottfried Semper recalls my struggles, some 30 years ago, to come to terms with the prolix German revolutionary, rather as Mark Swenarton’s Artisans and Architects brings back memories of his and Adrian Forty’s stimulating teaching. Katherine Shonfield’s Walls Have Feelings resurrects, at least in my imagination, a dear friend who died far too young. A more recent addition to this roll of honour is Joseph Rykwert’s memoir Remembering Places, by turns chilling, fascinating and entertaining, and elegantly written throughout.

But the book which most haunts my perception of architecture is not shelved with them. It is not even, at least ostensibly, about architecture. It is Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) published posthumously in 1958, with Archibald Colquhoun’s English translation following in 1961.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard

There then came Luchino Visconti’s eponymous film of 1963, where the sheer beauty of Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon (depending on taste), plus the towering presence of Burt Lancaster, overwhelmed the beauty of Sicilian Baroque architecture, some of it specially if temporarily restored. Lampedusa’s adopted son and many other young Palermo aristocrats played extras.

What makes the book so architectural is many-layered. First, and not unusually for a novel, it is grounded in its place, in this case Palermo and various properties in the Sicilian hinterland owned by the novel’s main protagonist, Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina (loosely based on Lampedusa’s own great grandfather, Prince Guilio an amateur astronomer who lived at the time of the Risorgimento). It is possible to visit the locations, albeit mainly in ruins, and to trace the journey across the island’s interior from Palermo to the family’s country house at Donnafugata (in the novel) based on the home of Lampedusa’s mother’s family at Santa Margherita Belice.

The Cuto Palazzo (Lampedusa's mother's family) in Santa Margherita Belice

These are lovingly described, based on the author’s childhood memories (he was born in 1896), when Sicily was enjoying a brief and unfamiliar burst of affluence and Lampedusa’s family was only just beginning its fall. As a line explains to readers, a bomb made in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in 1943 put paid to a gorgeous ballroom which provides a climactic moment in novel and film.

Architecture provides the setting for the novel’s action: the invasion of Sicily by Garibaldi’s Red Shirts in May 1860; the plebiscite later the same year that abolished the kingdom of Naples and brought Sicily into the new Kingdom of Italy, ruled by the northern kings of Piedmont; the love affair between Salina’s beloved nephew Tancredi and Angelica, daughter of his unscrupulous steward Don Calogero; and finally Don Fabrizio’s death (in one of his least frequented homes). But it also becomes a metaphorical layer for the narrative, especially the overarching theme of decline, of an individual from the height of virility, a family from the summit of society, and a class to be usurped by the nascent Mafiosi. As Visconti said, when filming a scene with the family covered in dust during a thanksgiving service for their safe arrival, ‘Death, death’, picking up on Salina’s recollection, described no doubt autobiographically by Lampedusa, of ancestral corpses in the Capuchin church in Palermo.

Similarly, as Tancredi and Angelica, led by desire, waft through the forgotten corners of his uncle’s palace (a house where all the rooms can be known is not worth living in, Salina believes), the architecture is both an agent and a warning. They both feel a frisson when they discover a long-abandoned suite of rooms, clearly set up for bondage and sado-masochism, a reminder of the pains of purely sensory love in general, and theirs in particular.

The third, and in my view most important, layer of architecture in the novel, and its strongest claim to greatness, is how it helps to depict an entire culture. Sicily is of course one of the cradles of European civilization. An important theme of the novel is survival, notably of the aristocracy through numerous social upheavals – one of its most famous lines is given to Tancredi, ‘things must change in order for things to stay the same’. Sicily itself and its aristocratic overlords (the Salina descend from the emperor Tiberius), become in inherent part of that culture’s survival.

Lampedusa himself embodied it too, in more than one sense. As a descendent of several ancient aristocratic families, he was steeped in its lore and deeply conscious of its role in European culture. He was remarkably well read (in most major European languages) and when he first met his wife, the Latvian aristocrat Alessandra Wolff as a guest of her uncle, Mussolini’s ambassador to the UK, they were asked to leave the residence to make way for important dinner guests. So, sharing the same literary formation, they walked all night around London tracing Dickensian locations.

He continued to read voraciously, but only towards the end of his life, in the 1950s, did he start to put his thinking into shape. He ran a sort of informal literary salon from the back room of a Palermo patisserie, in which anyone could join though it helped to be more or less fluent and well versed in Italian, French, German and English literature. He also completed his novel and a small number of short stories, though did not live to see their publication due to his death from emphysema in 1957.

It is through the alchemy of a great novel that architecture becomes a trope and an analogue for European culture in general. It perhaps could only have been written by someone so steeped in its upper-class belief system, and from one of its points of origin. It is, in this sense, a novel about privilege and inequity, and as such it ran against the current of most post-war Italian literature, though that did not stop the deeply aristocratic – and Marxist – Visconti from making the film of it. But it is also one of the most vivid depictions of architecture I know. As such, it deserves a place on the bookshelves of any architectural bibliophile.

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