“Quando beltà splendea” The poetry of Giacomo Leopardi


The life and works of Giacomo Leopardi are a fixture in the Italian school syllabus. But many teachers give their pupils an image of the poet conditioned by the commonplace of his “pessimism” (whether historical or cosmic), as if this was an effective key to a correct interpretation of the biography and work of the poet from Recanati. So the conventional wisdom sees Leopardi as a physically disfigured poet, unlucky in love and for this reason despairing in his writings. This vision of Leopardi’s relationship with the world, rejected scornfully and sarcastically by the poet himself in various works, appears incapable of explaining the greatness of his ideas, the feelings expressed in his art and philosophical thought.

The lyrics in the Canti in particular, which constitute the theme of the exhibition When beauty shone – tell of the experience of a relationship with time and space, with nature and beauty, with woman and the infinite, in which we find different “moments”: the sense of disproportion between man and reality; human life as a “dream”, the source of images and profound, wide-ranging meditations; disillusionment over the possibility of fulfilling all that we long for with all our heart and hence bitterness, despondency and despair. In this unexhausted succession there always remains, however, living and recurrent, the desire for happiness, at times mistreated, concealed and even denied, and yet never extinguished and somehow always open to the possibility of fulfillment.

The layout of the exhibition presents texts, photographs and live readings. It is meant to enable visitors to comprehend the lyrics in the Canti, in the order and according to the arrangement devised by the author. The desire for happiness was chosen as the thread uniting the four sections in which the exhibition is organized, titled “A desire greater than glory”, “A desire greater than beauty”, “A desire greater than love” and “A desire greater than the universe.”
Leopardi’s human and poetic quest is first confronted the patriotic ideals of the Risorgimento (All’Italia), then the discovery of wonder at the fascination of nature (Ultimo canto di Saffo; Il passero solitario) and in the peace of night at Recanati (La sera del dì di festa); from the heart of reality he proceeds to the celebration of an ideal and absent woman (Alla sua donna) and to regret for what has not been (A Silvia); again nature, beauty and love are passed in review only to discover the emptiness of human life, yet shaken by a serried succession of questions (Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia). The last songs again contemplate the birth and extinction of illusions (Il pensiero dominante; A se stesso; Aspasia); they reflect on the mystery of human nature, which is dust and shadow and yet capable of elevated feelings (Sopra il ritratto di una bella donna scolpito nel monumento sepolcrale della medesima), and close in disenchantment and bitterness (Palinodia la marchese Gino Capponi; La ginestra o il fiore del deserto).

What remains in the last phase of Leopardi’s poetry and life – as at the conclusion of our visit to the exhibition – is an intense sense of beauty, without which there is no poetry, the familiarity of the you, human or personified, with which the poet addresses Italy or Silvia, the stars, Aspasia and the moon, and the vivid sensation of an effect which is the opposite of what it is presented. “Leopardi produces the contrary effect to what he intends […] He calls love, glory and virtue illusions, and he kindles an inexhaustible desire in your breast. […] While he calls all life a phantom and an error, you do not know how, yet you feel yourself clinging more strongly to all that is noble and great in life.” (F. De Sanctis).

Curated by Edoardo Barbieri, Simone Carriero, Gaia Cavestri, Michele Colombo, Daniele Gomarasca, Alessandro Ledda, Gianluca Sgroi.
With the collaboration of Cecilia Bassani, Daniele Ciacci, Valentina Costantini, Francesco De Carlo, Chiara Sordi.