Born in Palermo on 23 December 1896, astronomer, future duke of Palma and prince of Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa was the younger son of Giulio Maria Tomasi the Prince of Lampedusa, and Beatrice Mastrogiovanni Pocket of Cutò. His elder sister Stefania died of diptheria at the age of three in 1897, and so he grew up effectively as an only child.
Tomasi was an open-minded sort, characteristic of his mother's sense of life. She had a broader sense of life and culture than most Sicilian aristocrats of her day, and with Tomasi being a bit of a handful as a youngster, she was the only one able to keep him under control. After the war, he spent some time travelling both alone and accompanied by his mother, around Italy and across Europe. In contrast, Tomasi shared a rather cold relationship with his father. The family had once been wealthy, but most of this wealth was in property, and was lost earlier (before his birth?).
Tomasi was taught to write Italian and French by Donna Carmela, while at Santa Maria di Belicea, the family's summer residence. Following this, he attented a liceo classico, a high school with a classics-based curriculum. He read Latin and Greek, spoke German and French and, unusually for an Italian in his time, also studied English. He read many books, in many languages from the family library, but his family, and more specifically his mother, did not approve of his enthusiasm with literature.
As a beginning to his father's wish that he become a diplomat, he attended the University of Rome to study Law in 1915. He was there until being enlisted at the beginning of World War I, but never completed his degree.
Personal and Professional Life
Tomasi served in the Italian army as an artillery officer during World War I, but was captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp in Hungary. After his escape he returned to Italy on foot. He continued his military service until being discharged as a lieutenant in 1920. Tomasi's plans for a diplomatic career were ended by a nervous breakdown (as a result of his experiences in WWI?).
Returning to Palermo after being discharged, he travelled extensively alone, but more often with his mother, throughout northern Italy and the rest of Europe. In 1925, he went to with his mother to visit his uncle, an Italian Ambassador in London. It was here he met the Latvian aristocrat Alexandra Wolff Stomersee, who was at that point studying psychology. In 1932, they married at Riga in the Orthodox Church. Despite this marriage, Tomasi and his wife did not always live together. Until Latvia's re-annexation to the Soviet Union following the war, Tomasi spent summers there with his wife.
Of all the places Tomasi had visited in his travels, his most cherished place was the westward isle of England where he met his wife Alexandra. His time in England gave him opportunity to nurture his love for English literature and culture, as well as a break from the increasingly constrained environment of Fascist Italy. Being an aristocrat with first-hand knowledge of Britain, his experiences were beyond that of most Italians, and because of this knowledge, he was not regarded in good terms by many of those who were gaining power in Italy. Despite the Fascist regime's obsessive suspicion of Italy's English-speaking intellectuals, and their ban on the study of English, Tomasi's life in back Palermo was not disturbed, probably because he wasn't there for much of the time, and because his views were rarely made public.
When Tomasi's father died in 1934, the young heir and Duke of Palma took on the title of Prince of Lampedusa, an island the family had not actually been in posession for generations. However, he owned other estates elsewhere in Sicily. The prince was drafted in 1940, but he was discharged in 1942, supposedly (and officially) because he performed agricultural activities deemed useful to the nation, but possibly for his "suspect" foreign connections. For the next few years, he lived near the coastal town of Capo d'Orlando with his wife, mother and cousins. The family palace in Palermo was severely damaged by Allied bombs in the Spring of 1943, and Tomasi's mother died in 1946. After the war, Tomasi and his wife purchased an old family property in Via Butera, near the Lanza family's palatial residence in Palermo.
Tomasi was seen as a conservative, probably because he didn't make his views heard. Letters sent home during World War I show he held a somewhat pacifist view towards the war effort, but his convictions were not of the extent that he would choose to desert the army.
To paraphrase Lanza Tomasi:
"Lampedusa has been painted as a conservative, but it was not so. He did vote to retain the monarchy in the 1946 referendum. After that I think he voted for the Christian Democrats. But he was familiar with Marx, he studied Lenin, Croce and Gramsci. And he believed in the French Revolution. Although he was famous as a chronicler of the aristocracy, he felt that the guillotining of Louis XVI was 'The best chopping off of a head in history'. He was convinced that history had to move forwards through a massive shock every so often."
translation with thanks to Albert Herring...
He spent time following international politics
, reading the Courier
, and the Newspaper of Sicily
over coffee. Television
did not appeal to him; when the Casimiros acquired a large television set, he remarked that you couldn't talk with that contraption
In 1926-27, Tomasi had three articles on brief introductions to French writers of the 16th century, published in a Genoese periodical.
After his mother's death in 1946 , Tomasi was free to pursue his interest in English literary criticism, and he often met with a group of young intellectuals to discuss these subjects. Several of his critical essays were published. In 1954 he attended a literary meeting in northern Italy, where his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, was awarded a prize for his poetry. The year after, he began writing 'The Leopard' (Il Gattopardo), which had been stirring in his mind for many years.
Upon completion, Tomasi submitted the manuscript for 'The Leopard' anonymously. He died of lung cancer in Rome on 23 July 1957, having been told of the rejection of his manuscript. The book was rejected by the novelist and critic Elio Vittorini, who worked for the Einaudi publishing firm, but was accepted by Giorgio Bassani for Feltrinelli. Tomasi's only other completed work of fiction is 'The Professor and the Mermaid' (also published as 'The Siren and Lighea'), a short story which delves into the world of myth and fantasy. 'Stories' (Racconti) (1961), 'Lessons on Stendhal' (1977) and 'An inviation to French letters of the 1500's' (1979), appeared posthumously. 'The Leopard' was winner of the Strega Prize in 1959, and was made into a film by Luchino Visconti in 1963, starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.
The adopted son of Tomasi, a student of music and director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi confessed: "Lampedusa sure was a man of secrets".
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