Giuseppe di Lampedusa can't help but write passionately about the history of his own family. But that doesn't mean he wishes he could go back in time and bring them back. In fact, one of the things that has made this book such an enduring classic is the way Lampedusa speaks emotionally about the past without ever getting nostalgic. For example, he writes, "[The] lament of cicadas filled the sky. It was like a death rattle of parched Sicily at the end of August vainly awaiting rain" (2.8).
Now this passage is super poetic and bittersweet in its references to death. But at the same time, Lampedusa always hits us with the fact that death is an inevitable part of history, whether it's the death of individuals or of certain ways of life. Through memory and fiction, we can reconnect with bygone eras, and that sure is nice. But that doesn't mean that history would be worth changing… or even repeating.
Don't go and get sentimental about what you read in this book, because Lampedusa sure ain't sentimental. He's an astoundingly beautiful writer, but he's not nostalgic.
Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote this book because he wanted to preserve some record of the past. He was actually the descendant of a long line of Sicilian princes, so he based the characters in this book directly on his ancestors. Historical fiction was really coming into its own during his lifetime, and the genre gave him an opportunity to plug in his flux capacitor and transport himself back into his family's past so he could make peace with it and move on with his own life. And no, he never had to play a rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" along the way.
What makes his book especially compelling is that the decline of The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and its aristocracy isn't something many people have written novels about. By writing this book, Lampedusa is able to teach us about a very specific part of Italian history that touches on universal human themes like mortality and love. It's like a two-for-one deal as far as learning goes: we get our meal of "Uh, oh, we're all doomed," with a side of Sicilian history.
The Leopard is the official symbol of the House of Salina, the aristocratic family whose decline is really the main focus of this book. On several occasions, the book even compares its main character (Prince Fabrizio) to a leopard. He's strong, but also graceful… like a leopard.
The novel closes with Fabrizio's daughter, Concetta, thinking the she's seen a leopard running in the corner of her eye. But it's only an old stuffed dog getting thrown into the garbage, which is kind of what history is doing with the House of Salina. Womp womp.
One of the sad things about the leopard in this book is that its gracefulness and power are being replaced by the "new men" of Italy, who the book compares to jackals and hyenas. These people aren't graceful at all; they're scavengers and opportunists looking to exploit any situation to make a quick buck. Don't get us wrong— the fall of the aristocracy is basically a good thing— but Lampedusa shows us the seedy side of the hustling required to get ahead in politics. Democracy, after all, gives us Frank Underwood.
Oh, and fun fact about The Leopard; it should be called The Ocelot or The Cheetah. That's what the Italian Il Gattopardo translates to. But since an ocelot or cheetah just doesn't connote the same beauty and grace as a leopard (we might think of Chester Cheeto instead of this graceful dude), it's better symbolism.
During the flight down from the window his form recomposed itself for an instant, in the air one could have seen dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, and its right foreleg seemed to be raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust. (8.56)
In the final moments of this book, Concetta—one of the last surviving members of the Salina family—glances outside and thinks she sees a leopard running in the air. She realizes her mistake when she sees that the figure is just her old stuffed dog Bendicò getting thrown into the trash.
This awesome ending basically sums up the entire book. The Leopard has shown us a glimpse of the gracefulness and pride (i.e. leopard-like qualities) that used to belong to the Salina family. Now like Bendicò, the Salina family has been thrown into the garbage can of history. That's just the way history works, folks: it's brutal.
It's little wonder why Giuseppe di Lampedusa decided to set this book during the Italian "Risorgimento" or "The Resurgence," since this was the process that stripped Lampedusa's own family of its royal status. Generally speaking, the process started in 1815 and kept going until 1871, but this book focuses on the moment that The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies got absorbed into the larger Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
It took some fighting to make this happen, but at the end of the day, the people of southern Italy (including Sicily) took a general vote and decided to join Italy (although it's not clear how rigged that vote actually was). As we find out in The Leopard, this decision basically meant the end of the Sicilian aristocracy: the social order that the book's main character, Fabrizio, is a part of.
On a physical level, Giuseppe di Lampedusa doesn't hold back when it comes to describing the setting of this book—his native island of Sicily. In the very first chapter, we watch Prince Fabrizio walk into his garden, where the narrator tells us,
[The] garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy, and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints. (1.15)
But this book's setting isn't always about beauty. Lampedusa also mentions just how insanely dusty the island of Sicily can be. People need to change their clothes twice a day just to wear something clean. No matter what you're hearing about the setting, you can count on Lampedusa to be super descriptive about it. On top of all that, it's important to remember that Prince Fabrizio's family has lived among the houses and towns in this book for centuries, which gives us a very deep sense of his connection to these places:
All around quivered the funereal countryside, yellow with stubble, black with burned patches; the lament of cicadas filled the sky. (2.8)
The reference to funerals shows that Prince Fabrizio's connection with this setting is coming to an end. Soon, the whole modern world will be bought and sold by whoever has the most money. Fabrizio's ancestral homes will eventually be divided up and sold off, and the sadness of this is reflected in almost every description Lampedusa gives us.
Lampedusa's prose is pretty readable, but it's also dense. He likes to turn every thing he writes into a symbol, and this can often result in slow, tough reading.
If you're just looking for plot, you can blow through this book fairly quickly, because not a whole lot happens. But please, please, please don't: the real awesomeness of The Leopard is buried in the descriptions that Lampedusa makes of people's appearances and their surroundings.
Like other books that forgo intricate plotting for beautiful language (lookin' at you, Mrs. Dalloway), The Leopard is totally rewarding and is considered one of the best historical novels ever.
Sure, it might be easier to breeze through The Hunger Games again. But then you'd be missing out on a phenomenal, brilliant, life-changing read. And you know we at Shmoop don't use the words "phenomenal," "brilliant," and "life changing" very often. We do, however, use the word "read" quite a lot.
Well for starters, it's important to know that we're reading a translation of a book that was original written and published in Italian, so the style we end up with in English is part-Lampedusa, part-translator. That said, though, Lampedusa's writing is so jammed with symbolism that his images all convert pretty well from Italian into English.
Seriously, pick out any random line in this book and you're bound to find it crammed with symbols. Let's look at, say, the first line of the fourth paragraph in the book: "The divinities frescoed on the ceiling awoke" (1.4).
Now this isn't literally what's happening. What Lampedusa is saying is that the Roman gods and goddesses painted all over the walls of the Salinas' house are so vivid that they look as though they're alive.
But this description suggests that centuries of tradition are living within the walls of the Salina house, as well as in the members of the Salina family. It also suggests that Fabrizio has a soft spot for the Roman deities... which is true, as well see at the end of the book when he hallucinates that he sees Venus before him.
Now that's quite a bit jammed into a 7-word line, but it's representative of what you're going to get in this book: symbolism, a side symbolism salad, some symbolism chips and a nice glass of symbolismade.
"The Leopard" is not only the name of this book, but also the symbol of the House of Salina, Prince Fabrizio's aristocratic family. The leopard means a whole bunch of things, but on a general level, it symbolizes the power and gracefulness of the Italian aristocracy. It's a symbol that goes all the way back to the Etruscans, who were some of the first inhabitants of Sicily. At one point, we hear that there is a stone leopard above the door of Fabrizio's country home: "Over the great solid but sagging door, a stone Leopard pranced, in spite of legs broken off by flung stones" (2.4). As you can imagine, the fact that this leopard's legs have been broken off doesn't bode well for the future of the Salinas or the Italian aristocracy in general.
Later in the novel, Fabrizio refers to himself directly as a leopard, saying, "We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who'll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas" (4.104). In other words, he's saying that the old world of Sicily was once run by powerful, graceful aristocrats. The modern Italy, though, is going to be run by people who know how to pick every last bit of meat off of a good deal. They'll be cheaters, swindlers, and scavengers, like jackals and hyenas.
In the final scene of The Leopard, Fabrizio's daughter Concetta (now an old woman) catches something out of the corner of her eye:
During the flight down from the window his form recomposed itself for an instant in the air one could have seen dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, and its right foreleg seemed to be raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust. (8.56)
She thinks that she sees a running leopard, but then she realizes that it's just her old stuffed dog Bendicò getting tossed in the garbage. This little detail basically sums up what we've seen throughout this entire book: the grace and power of the Salina family (symbolized by a leopard) is getting thrown into the trash bin of history along with the rest of Sicily's aristocratic past.
Prince Fabrizio is thrown off his game when he first learns that Don Calogero, the mayor of Donnafugata, has become even wealthier than him. He knew that the day would come when "self-made men" would start becoming more powerful than old world aristocrats, but he has trouble coming up against it face-to-face.
He's even humiliated when he learns that Don Calogero is going to visit him wearing a "suit with tails." A suit with tails symbolizes wealth and status. Fabrizio can't believe that some local nobody is going to waltz into his house wearing fancy clothes like this just because he's made a few bucks in his time. We hear about Fabrizio's concern directly when the book says,
Now, with his sensibility to presages and symbols, he saw revolution in that white tie and two black tails moving at this moment up the stairs of his own home. Not only was he, the Prince, no longer the major landowner in Donnafugata, but he now found himself forced to receive, when in afternoon dress himself, a guest appearing in evening clothes. (2.65)
Fabrizio has heard throughout this book that a revolution is happening in the streets, but it's not until he sees a man he considers beneath him wearing a suit with tails that he truly feels the impact of social change.
In the end, he's happy to find that Calogero's coat is horrifically tailored, which reassures him that people with new money will never be able to have the sense of style that it takes generations of wealth to produce. As the book tells us, "Though perfectly adequate as a political demonstration, it was obvious that, as tailoring, Don Calogero's tailcoat was a disastrous failure" (2.66). Failure or not, though, Fabrizio can see the writing on the wall. The future belongs to men like Calogero, and not him.
Venus is a planet in our solar system that lights up in the night sky, which itself is named after a goddess from ancient mythology. And not just any goddess, but the goddess of love.
Fabrizio sees both the star and the goddess when he looks out at the night sky. Appearing as both a faraway star and an unobtainable (and super-hot) goddess, Venus represents all of the satisfaction that the Prince thinks he'll never be able to achieve in his life. At the same time, though, he thinks of this woman-star as being faithful to him, thinking,
There was Venus, wrapped in her turban of autumn mist. She was always faithful, always waiting for Don Fabrizio on his early morning outings, as Donnafugata before a shoot, now after a ball. (6.75)
It's only at the moment of his death that Prince Fabrizio comes face to face with Venus. Chances are that her appearance at his bedside is actually a hallucination brought on by a stroke, but that doesn't really matter.
As he drifts into death, Fabrizio sees Venus at his bed and thinks,
It was she, the creature forever yearned for, coming to fetch him; strange that one so young should yield to him; the time for the train's departure must be very close. When she was face to face with him she raised her veil, and there, modest, but ready to be possessed, she looked lovelier than she ever had when glimpsed in stellar space. (7.28)
The appearance of Venus means that Fabrizio has finally found the sense of calm acceptance he's always wanted out of life. Turns out though that this acceptance can only happen at the moment of his death, since it's pretty hard to keep worrying once you're dead… and super easy to keep worrying the whole time you're alive and kicking.
And if that weren't enough of a historical tidbit, the three-color design of the later flag was modeled on the flag France adopted after their revolution in 1789. Prince Fabrizio sees this design for the first time at a ball in Donnafugata. But instead of a flag, the party hosts show this symbol using glasses of colored wine:
On a small table was a plate with some ancient biscuits covered with fly droppings and a dozen little squat glasses brimming with rosolio: four red, four green, four white, the last in the center: an ingenuous symbol of the new national flag which tempered the Prince's remorse with a smile. (3.29)
Fabrizio smiles at this because the spread of drinks and biscuits is already covered in fly droppings. He knows that one day, the Kingdom of Italy won't exist anymore, just like his own Kingdom of the Two Sicilies no longer exists.
History would go on to prove Fabrizio right, too, as the Kingdom of Italy would stop existing in 1946. Lampedusa knew this when he wrote The Leopard, so having the fly-poop speckled tablecloth is extra poignant. And it's extra gross, too, even without the symbolism. Yuck.
The narrator of The Leopard is most likely Giuseppe di Lampedusa himself. But instead of making this obvious and saying "I" like a first-person narrator, Giuseppe decides to play god and to write in a voice that knows everything that happens in the book and everything that is going to happen. This narrator is spooky in his knowledge of Italian history, and gives us little flash-forwards about what is going to happen to our beloved characters.
We read at one point about "[A] reputation quite unjustified in reality but which helped to destroy the prestige at Donnafugata and Querceta, without in any way halting the collapse of the family fortunes" (4.3). At another moment, the narrator tells us that much of the Salinas' property will eventually be destroyed by bombs in World War II. Hey, we even get word from this wise old owl of a narrator that Angelica and Tancredi's marriage ain't gonna be smooth sailing.
The Leopard might not be what you think of as a typical tragedy, with all of the bloody battles and unfortunate coincidences. But it does align with the definition of tragedy: and has a hero that falls (with a thud) from grace. The Leopard is the story of how a proud Prince stands back and watches as his family loses all of its royal prestige and eventually sinks into obscurity. Unlike most tragic figures, the guy doesn't even put up a fight.
When we first meet Prince Fabrizio (our tragic hero), the wheels are already in motion for his country to collapse—and his royal status along with it. Instead of hopping on a horse and fighting the enemies, though, the Prince goes to visit one of his mistresses in the evening and spends the rest of his time awaiting the inevitable. He is frustrated by the fact that he's going to leave no family legacy. But he also feels as if there's nothing worth protecting in the old Sicilian aristocracy.
The novel switches briefly to comedy when Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi falls in love with the beautiful Angelica and becomes engaged to her. The narrator informs us, though, that this marriage will turn out to be not all that great. That's Mr. Narrator, you killjoy. Meanwhile, Prince Fabrizio feels the cold hand of time dragging its bony fingers across his face.
He spends almost every waking moment thinking about how he's getting older and weaker. He's frustrated, but can't think of any way to prevent what's happening. Like people, old families are destined to wither and die eventually.
A foreign political official visits Fabrizio to ask whether he'd consider becoming a senator in the new Italian government. Fabrizio is too proud to go from being a prince to a senator, though. He rejects the offer and decides to live the rest of his life spending his family's old money and feeling bored. Both he and his family no longer have a future, and he decides that wallowing is the best option. C'mom, Fab: go for a jog or something. Get those endorphins pumping.
Sixteen years following the unification of Italy, Prince Fabrizio dies from a series of strokes. He finds himself ready to die. There's barely anything left of his former pride and he can't see any reason to go on living. In his final moments, he sees an angelic Venus standing at the edge of his bed and feels comfort in the thought that death will prevent him from worrying anymore. The novel continues for a while after his death, but its message remains the same: a certain way of life has ended, and there is nothing left for the survivors of former times.
Meet Prince Fabrizio di Salina, a large moody guy who realizes that his family's royal history is coming to an end. Foreign troops are about to absorb his home island of Sicily into the new United Italy. He tries to get his mind off of what's happening by seeing a mistress, but it doesn't really help. He can feel himself getting older by the day, and he knows that he's not going to leave much behind once his family loses its royal status. That said, he doesn't see all that much that's worth protecting in the Sicilian aristocracy. He knows that his family has had its day. Now it's time for Italians to give democracy a shot.
Prince Fabrizio takes his family to their country estate in Donnafugata to take their minds off all the political stuff happening around them. While there, Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi falls in love with a local girl and becomes engaged to her. Meanwhile, foreign troops take over Sicily and hold a public vote (a plebiscite) asking people whether they'd like to join Italy. Everyone knows that the people will vote "yes," but the officials rig the vote just in case.
A visiting government official asks Prince Fabrizio if he'd like to be a senator in the new Kingdom of Italy, but Fabrizio refuses, saying that the rigging of the plebiscite showed too much disrespect. Besides, the Prince has gotten weary with the world and no longer has the competitive fire that's required to survive in the new Italy.
Sixteen years after the unification of Italy, Prince Fabrizio dies of old age. In his final moments, he sees an angelic woman standing over his bed and welcoming him into the next life. He has always been bitter about the collapse of his royal family, but he knows in the end that he'll find peace in death.
Twenty-two years after the death of Prince Fabrizio, we look in on his three daughters, who are all seventy or older. A local religious official comes to inspect the holy relics in their chapel to see if they're appropriate for a place where mass is being held. He determines that most of them aren't and advises the sisters to throw them out. The sister Concetta suddenly feels a lot like her father did at the end of his life. She wonders what, if anything, she's leaving behind.
Thinking back on her life, Concetta decides to throw out Bendicò, the old family dog who's been stuffed and preserved since she was a little girl. When the servant carries the dog to the trash bin, Concetta thinks that she sees a leopard—the emblem of her once-aristocratic family—running. But it only lasts a second. Then she realizes that she just saw Bendicò going into the garbage. Ooof. That hurts.
Prince Fabrizio sits down with his family for dinner. He's in ill humor because he knows his status as a royal prince is going to disappear once foreign troops invade his country and unify Sicily with Italy. He visits his mistress to get his mind off things, but it doesn't help for long. He feels old and tired and realizes that all things must pass… including himself. His family's has royal status for centuries, but now someone else is going to be powerful.
Fabrizio and his family travel to their country estate in Donnafugata. While there, Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi falls in love with a local girl and gets engaged to her. Foreign troops take control of Sicily and Fabrizio is offered a role as senator in the new government. He's too proud to go from Prince to senator, though. Besides, he no longer has the energy to care about holding power. He's willing to just live out the rest of his life in boredom and despair. Now that sounds like a depressing plan.
Sixteen years after the unification of Italy, Prince Fabrizio dies of a stroke. In his final moments, he sees the figure of Venus appear at the edge of his bed. This is the woman he's been waiting for his entire life, and it looks like only in the moment of death is he able to embrace her. We know that she's just a figment of his imagination, but she still represents the peacefulness that Fabrizio has wished for his entire life.
After Fabrizio's death, we flash forward another twenty-two years. Now Fabrizio's daughters are also very old. None of them have had children, so the royal Salina line will end once they're dead. A religious official inspects their family chapel and removes a bunch of phony old religious artifacts that the sisters thought were real. In the book's final moments, the sister Concetta decides to throw out their family dog, Bendicò, who's been dead and stuffed since her father's time. Throwing it out marks the end of the book and the end of the Salina family.