Backstories Discussion of writing style Review of Biographical Fiction Review of historical fiction

“…Peace in a little heap of vivid dust” – The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa

Because I absolutely loved Lampedusa, by Steven Price, I had to go back to the novel which caused all the fuss: the original novel, The Leopard, written by Tomasi di Lampedusa, the protagonist of Price’s novel.

I finally had in my greedy little paws my copy of The Leopard written by the real Giuseppe Tomasi, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa. On the cover the author is just given as “Tomasi of Lampedusa”, as though everyone would know who the “Tomasi” is and why he is “of Lampedusa”.


It may physically be a thin little paperback, but this edition has all the right credentials: it was translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun, has a Foreword and Appendix that have been translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman, has numerous appendices, and – critically – contains a Foreword and Afterword by Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the adopted son of the author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The young man depicted in Price’s novel is now, in 2021, an old man, 87 years old. Born in 1934, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi is Professor of Music History at the University of Palermo and a world-renowned Musicologist.

He is also the editor of texts devoted to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and the various editions and versions of The Leopard, since he was actually present when his adopted father wrote the novel. He knows from first-hand experience which chapters were written when, and how, and where Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa changed and edited them: which bits of paper and notes and the author added, and which parts were rewritten, added, or deleted.

The author had his doubts about the relevancy of the subject of his novel, and about his writing skills, and this, together with the fact that the novel was published after his death, has led to the publication and study of a slew of correspondence from the author, and extensive discussions and documentation about the contents of the novel.

Quite a small novel – in size

However, before reading the long list of riders, cautions, additions, and references included with this short novel of only eight chapters, I wanted to just read it and see what the fuss is about.

The events depicted in the eight chapters in the book take place over a period of just 23 years, from 1860 to 1883:

  • Introduction to the Prince – May 1860
  • Donnafugata – August 1860
  • The Troubles of Don Fabrizio – October 1860
  • Love at Donnafugata – November 1860
  • Father Pirrone Pays a Visit – February 1861
  • A Ball – November 1862
  • Death of a Prince – July 1883
  • Relics – May 1910

The last chapter, set in 1910, are about the surviving children of the Prince, who have, like the religious objects that they fanatically hoard, become relics.

The “leopard” to which Tomasi referred in the novel was probably, at the time when the story takes place, a medium-sized, wild feline called a serval, as shown in the created image, above.


A little gem

Is this novel as important, as eloquent, as timeless as people have said? Yes, it is. It is one of those short but magnificent novels that I will read again and again.

I was fascinated by the character of the “Prince of Salina” (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s ancestor) and really moved by the depiction of his life that crumbles away, like a civilization dying off. What makes it particularly interesting is that it is very close to being Biographical Fiction, based on historical persons and places, with fictional aspects added, rather than purely Historical Fiction.

In a letter written to his friend Baron Enrico Merlo di Tagliavia, Tomasi himself describes the relationship between the historical and fictional characters:

“There is no need to tell you that the “Prince of Salina” is the Prince of Lampedusa, my great-grandfather Giulio Fabrizio; everything about him is real: his build, his mathematics, the pretense of violence, the skepticism, the wife, the German mother, the refusal to be a senator: Father Pirrone is also authentic, even his name.

I think I have given them both a greater degree of intelligence than in fact was the case. … Tancredi is, physically and in his behavior, Giò; morally a blend of Senator Scalea and his son Pietro. I’ve no idea who Angelica is, but bear in mind that the name Sedàra is quite similar to “Favara.” …

Donnafugata as a village is Palma; as a palace, Santa Margherita. … Bendicò is a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.”

The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Extract from the Foreword of the Colquhoun translation, Pantheon paperback edition, p. xii.

However, the novel’s timeline, between 1860 and 1910, matches the lifespan of the real “Leopard”, the Prince of Salina: Giulio Fabrizio Ferdinando Francesco Baldassare Melchiorre Salvatore Antonino Domenico Rosario Gaetano Tomasi, VIII principe di Lampedusa, IX duca di Palma, 1813 to 1885. How that for a title?

Giulio Fabrizio Ferdinando Francesco Baldassare Melchiorre Salvatore Antonino Domenico Rosario Gaetano Tomasi, VIII principe di Lampedusa, IX duca di Palma. Birthdate: April 12, 1813. Birthplace: Palermo, Sicilia, Italy. Death: September 27, 1885 (72 years), in Florence, Tuscany, Italy. (Source:

The author, to whom I will refer as Tomasi due to his long name, was the last, 11th Prince of Lampedusa. His father was Giulio Maria Tomasi, 10th Prince of Lampedusa, 11th Duke of Palma. His grandfather was the the 9th Prince of Lampedusa, and the 10th Duke of Palma. His great-grandfather, in the image above, was the 8th Prince of Lampedusa, and the 9th Duke of Palma.

Writing style

A few peculiar phrases

There are definitely some oddities that have come about due to the many translations and versions (some authorized, some not). In a handful of places, amidst Tomasi’s elegant and evocative prose, which so carefully and precisely depicts the reign and the world of the Prince from 1860 onwards, there are anachronistic comparisons. They are oddly modern words for the time in which the novel is set.

For example, this phrase: “…put in modern terms he could be said to be in the state of mind of someone to-day who thinks he has boarded one of the easy-going old planes pottering between Palermo and Naples, and suddenly finds himself shut inside a Super Jet…”. (p. 73) “Like clinics adept at treatment based on fundamentally false analyses of blood and urine which they are too lazy to rectify, the Sicilians (of that time) ended by killing off the patient, that is themselves, by a niggling and hair-splitting rarely connected with any real understanding…” (p. 79)

There is no reason why the voice of the author should not be different or more modern than those of the characters, and why that voice should not appear in the novel, directly addressing the reader. It is the prerogative of the author. Terry Pratchett quite frequently does this in his Discworld novels, when he uses metaphors and expressions that don’t fit the Discworld constructed world. Sometimes when he spins out a humorous line, it ends up as a different, modern-day metaphor rather than the image with which it started out. It could start with a joke about “Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler’s” horrible sausages, and end up as a darkly funny comment about medical care in the UK’s NHS. Nevertheless, these occurrences did catch my attention and bothered me, since they distracted me from the immersive style of the novel.

Engaging streams of consciousness

As for the rest of the text, it is simply wonderfully evocative and engaging. There is hardly a page that is not worth quoting from.

Tomasi’s style is to write paragraph-long, flowing sentences, very much stream of consciousness, in which perhaps one or two words, usually in the last phrase, has deep significance and needs to be remembered in the pages that follow.

The characters are quite irresistible, from the Prince’s children and his adopted son, “Tancredi” and Tancredi’s luscious fiancée “Angelica”, to the up-and-coming, newly wealthy gentry, to the bureaucrats and politics who run (or try to run) Sicily. Tomasi’s depiction of Sicilians is particularly interesting. When I think of Sicily, I think of the Mafia, of perfume, orchards, white-walled churches. I remember images from The Godfather films. The Prince describes, perhaps justifies, the mentality of Sicilians, which is shaped by the nature of the island on which they live and its long, brutal history. I read it and wondered about Tomasi’s feelings about Sicilians, and about how accurate that description of the archetype was at the time in which the book is set.

Giuseppe Tomasi, the real Principe di Lampedusa, Duca di Palma di Montechiaro (Undated photograph – but he was probably in his late fifties. (Source: Wikimedia, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Selected quotations

The Prince explains Sicilians

“‘Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep, is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts: I must say, between ourselves, that I have strong doubts whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage.

All Sicilian self-expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfilment; our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our langour, our exotic ices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again; our meditative air is that of a void wanting to scrutinise the enigmas of Nirvana.
From that comes the power among us of certain people, of those who are half awake: that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life; novelties attract us only when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents; from that comes the extraordinary phenomenon of the constant formation of myths which would be venerable if they were really ancient, but which are really nothing but sinister attempts to plunge us back into a past that attracts us only because it is dead.‘”

(The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa, p. 137)

*Note: Bolded text added to original for emphasis

The decline of the nobility

The characters, fictionalized versions of real historical persons, are all, in a way, representative of the end of an era. A significant milestone in the story is the entry into Italy and eventual victory of Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose rule and influence spearheaded the process of unification of loosely aligned states and territories into the Kingdom of Italy in 1871. Like bears emerging from hibernation and the seclusion of their caves and suddenly finding themselves surrounded by towns rather than forests, the nobility of Italy, acting and ruling like kings and ignoring politics and economics for generations, emerged into the late 19th century to be faced with a new world in which they no longer held the power.

Here, the Prince, also called “Don Fabrizio” in the novel, and his entourage, arrive in the town of Donnafugata (note that the spelling is for British English):

“The crowd of peasants stood there silent, but their motionless eyes emitted a curiosity that was in no way hostile, for the poor of Donnafugata really did have a certain affection for their tolerant lord who so often forgot to ask for their little rents of kind or money; also, used as they were to seeing the bewhiskered Leopard on the palace façade, on the Church front, above the baroque fountains, on the majolica tiles in their houses, they were glad to set eyes now on the real animal in nankeen trousers, distributing friendly shakes of the paw to all, his features amiably wreathed in feline smiles. ‘Yes, indeed; everything is the same as before, better, in fact, than before.’
And the Prince, who had seen Tumeo peering at him from behind the others’ shoulders, called out to him, ‘You come too, of course, Don Ciccio, and bring Teresina.’ And he added, turning to the others, ‘And after dinner, at none o-clock, we shall be happy to see all our friends.’ For a long time Donnafugata commented on these last words.

And the Prince, who had found Donnafugata unchanged, was found very much changed himself; for never before would he have issued so cordial an invitation: and from that moment, invisibly, began the decline of his prestige.

(The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa, pp. 42 – 44)

*Note: Bolded text added to original for emphasis

In this quote, Tomasi foreshadows the end of the novel, with just one incident and one sentence. Authoritarianism, patronage, power and perhaps cruelty were features of the nobility in those days, and while not harmless, were at least signs of stability and immutability. With that one gesture, the Prince’s slide from omnipotence began.

Death of a prince

The Prince was slightly more interested in worldly matters than other rulers – he studied Astronomy and he knew Mathematics – and though he had no interest in or desire to rule in Sicily, he realized (unlike many others) that the rising mercantile class may not have noble ancestry, but they did know how to network, manipulate, influence and get rich. So he leaves his favourite adopted son to marry the daughter of such a person, and eventually accepts the end of the world as he has known it. The Leopard, by the way, is subtitled “Death of a Prince”.

“Don Fabrizio looked at himself in the wardrobe mirror: recognised his own suit more than himself; very tall and emaciated, with sunken cheeks and three days’ growth of beard; he looked like one of those maniac Englishmen who amble around the vignettes in books by Jules Verne which he used to give Fabrizieto as Christmas presents. A Leopard in very bad trim.

Why, he wondered, did God not want anyone to die with their own face on? For the same happens to us all: we all die with a mask on our features; even the young; even that blood-daubed soldier, even Paolo, when he’s been raised from the cobbles with taut crumpled features as passers-by rushed in the dust after his runaway horse.”

(The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa, p. 187)

*Note: Bolded text added to original for emphasis

The Prince remembers his home

The thoughts of Don Fabrizio at the end of his life echo those of the author, Tomasi, who had had to say goodbye to his family home, the Lampedusa palace near Palermo, which was bombed and badly damaged during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. Apart from the fact that he did not have the money to rebuild the palace, he was faced with his own end and the end of his dynasty.

“He could turn his head to the left; beside Monte Pellegrino could be seen a cleft in the circle of hills and, beyond, two hillocks at whose feet lay his home. Unreachable to him as this was, it seemed very far away; he thought of his own observatory, of the telescopes now destined to years of dust; of poor Father Pirrone, who was dust too; of the paintings of his estates, of the monkeys on the hangings, of the big brass bed-stead in which his dear Stella had died; of all those things which now seemed to him humble however precious, just braided metal, woven threads and canvas corded with sap and earth, which he had kept alive and would shortly be plunged, though no fault of their own, into a limbo of abandon and oblivion.

His heart tightened, he forgot his own agony thinking of the imminent end of those poor dear things. The inert row of houses behind him, the wall of hills, the sun-scourged distance, prevented him thinking clearly of Donnafugata; it seemed like a house in a dream, no longer his; all he had of his own now was this exhausted body, those slate tiles under his feet, that surging of dark water towards the abyss. He was alone, a shipwrecked man adrift on a raft, prey of untameable currents.”

(The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa, p. 189)

*Note: Bolded text added to original for emphasis

Tomasi, seeing the physical evidence of the end of the so-called “minor nobility” in Italy (a decline which started even before the unification of Italy), was nevertheless troubled by the fact that he had no child to carry on the Tomasi and ducal lineage. That is why, after his mother died in 1946, Tomasi and his wife legally adopted Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, conferring on him the title of Duke of Palma. Ironically, it was not that so much, as the act of writing the novel that has kept the memory of Tomasi and his ancestors alive.

Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi and his wife, the current Duke and Duchess, started restoring the last home of Tomasi, the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi in the centre of Palermo, in the 1970s. Since completing the restoration and partly opening the museum sections to the public, the Duke and Duchess have lived in the palazzo.

The legacy of a prince

I think that the author wanted to convey that immortality cannot be obtained through titles, property or even power. Worlds, epochs and eras come and go. Perhaps only memories – particularly of great trauma and great beauty – can survive into the future. A legacy may not be physical possessions, but something intangible. That is my guess about the meaning of the book.

As it turns out, Tomasi’s legacy is his writing, and his novel became world-famous when Luchino Visconti made a film of The Leopard in 1963. Then other portrayals in the media followed, and novels about the novel, and the historic architecture associated with the family was rediscovered and the buildings opened to the public. The subject of the novel, which was, in Tomasi’s day, an unpopular subject, namely the portrayal of a despised upper class in post-war Italy, was not a problem any more by the time it was published.

My favourite lines

This extract, below, contains my favourite lines from the novel, because of the imagery, the technique of revealing the ending of the story, and the summation of the core idea:

The core idea at the heart of the novel is the belief of the protagonist, Don Fabrizio, and perhaps also of the author, that things – houses, art, furniture, groves, titles, estates, even church holdings – are not worth holding onto forever. They are merely objects. They hold you back and tie you to the past, and to the pain of the past. They “hint at bitter memories”.

The way in which Tomasi reveals this, speaks to the importance of this passage in the novel. As Tomasi explained (refer to the quotation, above), “Bendicò is a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.” “Bendicò” was the Duke’s beloved pet, and this final passage is about the dog:

Alone in the mouldering palace, Don Fabrizio’s surviving daughter throws out the taxidermied remains of “Bendicò”, many years after her father has died. Ignored in a corner, the stuffed dog has become moth-eaten and dusty. How evocatively Tomasi puts it: …it stared at her with the humble reproach of things discarded, in the hope of final riddance. A humble reproach indeed, hoping simply to be discarded. The stuffed animal seems to ask her: Why have you left me in this dusty corner to decay? And then Tomasi closes the novel with the tender, sorrowful, yet hopeful thought, that peace will come, once the dead have returned to dust.

“As the carcass was dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things discarded in the hope of final riddance. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into the corner of the yard visited every day by the dustman.

During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a little heap of vivid dust.”

(The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa, p. 212)

*Note: Bolded text added to original for emphasis

While trying to convey the charm of this novel, as well as its power, even now, to disconcert the reader, I had a hard time deciding which passages to quote – everything seemed worth re-reading and re-savouring.

Anyone who has ever grown older, seen the world change, and questioned their place in it, will read The Leopard and feel a very distinct sense of recognition. And each reader will find something different in it that is fascinating, charming and tragic.

About the header and images

A colourized image of the author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, right, and his great-grandfather, Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa (left), the protagonist of The Leopard. All images in this post are from, unless indicated otherwise.

%d bloggers like this: