The author was born in 1896 into the old aristocratic family described in the novel, that had been in Sicily for centuries. He fought in the Great War, but for the rest of his life spent his days mainly reading literature and discussing it with friends in the cafes of Palermo. He remained outside the literary establishment and published nothing during his lifetime except a few articles in an obscure periodical.
Lampedusa was married to a Baltic baroness, but had no offspring, and aware that he would be the last Prince, later in life - when he was already in his fifties - he began to write about his family. Another impetus was an Allied bomb which destroyed the family palazzo in Palermo and which made him want to record the family history. Unfortunately, Lampedusa died in 1957, before completely finishing his novel, the fruit of a lifetime of reading and discussing literature - Lampedusa was especially inspired by Stendhal.
The novel was published posthumously and immediately hailed as a masterpiece. The title is based on the coat of arms of Tomasi's family, but the animal called "gattopardo" actually refers to an African serval rather than a leopard.
[Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, photo Wikipedia]
Episodic in form, the book consists of eight chapters, each marked by a date. The story is told by an omniscient narrator who, from a vantage point of temporal distance, imposes his own feelings and impressions upon the flux of existence. Most chapters take place in the early 1860s; the last chapter, a sort of epilogue, in 1910.
The novel tells the story of the charming Don Fabrizio, the world-weary Prince of Salina, a physical giant who unconsciously bends cutlery when in a dark mood. The scion of an old feudal family, he is a taciturn and solitary man, and a lover of astronomy, who rules over extensive lands and hundreds of people (including his own large family), in a mix of splendor and squalor.
The book opens in 1860 with the landing in Sicily of Garibaldi and his forces intent on unifying Italy. As a result of the political upheaval, the prince's position is eroded by the new middle class. He is forced to choose between continuing to uphold aristocratic values, or breaking tradition and securing the continuity of his family's influence.
Don Fabrizio chooses the latter and accepts that his nephew, Tancredi, joins Garibaldi. Tancredi is motivated more by opportunism than idealism and eventually becomes a diplomat of the new reunified Italy. To further his career, he must marry money (the old family has none left) - which inevitably means marrying down. Tancredi woes Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a shabby peasant who has come into land and money (and will go on to become an important politician) and an illiterate mother - both of whom are initially unfit for polite society, which leads to some bitterly humorous scenes. It is Tancredi who speaks the novel's most famous line, an ironic maxim: "Everything must change so that everything can stay the same."
But the decline of the nobility is inevitable and the novel wallows in the sensuality of decline and death, in decrepit palaces and burnt landscapes, and in an all-pervading sense of languidness. The Prince has a favorite dog, Bendico, and as Lampedusa has remarked, this dog is an important character as well, in fact almost the key to the novel, for in the end ruin even comes to the dog. But mortality and decay are also contrasted with the everlasting and enduring in the prince's love for astronomy and the resilience to change of the Sicilian people.
Lampedusa's novel was filmed in 1963 by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale. The film in the main faithfully follows the novel and is especially famous for the visualization of a long, magnificent ball scene in a gilded Palermo salon.
This great novel has been beautifully translated by Archibald Colquhoun (Pantheon Books).