Shocked by his nation’s degraded social conditions, the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi questioned why the geographical expression “Italy” could reach soaring heights in cultural expression yet also fail its basic political challenges. His answer to this problem appeared in one of his less-known works, the Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’italiani (Discourse on the Present State of the Costumes of the Italians 1823), a meditation on the still-vexed issue of italianità (“Italianness” or “Italian identity”). The treatise raises concerns about Italy’s place in the world—and the poet’s role in it—that draw on Leopardi’s understanding of Europe’s modernizing forces, a major theme of his collected poems, the Canti (1835). In my talk, I will explore how Leopardi’s writings offer a valuable perspective on Italy’s presence in an international network beholden to capitalist modes of expansion and quantitative models of growth—which, to Leopardi’s horror, were being applied to something as inchoate as human life. I will analyze Leopardi’s ideas on Italy as a “society-free” nation in the Discorso, then connect that text’s sociological inquiry to his thoughts on modernization in the “Palinodia al marchese Gino Capponi” (“Recantation for Marchese Gino Capponi” 1835). I will also show how Leopardi’s analysis of local and international issues relates to his views on the role of poetry in what he believed to be an age of prose.
Co-sponsored by Italian Studies at Notre Dame and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.