Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece is his 1963 historical epic The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, which actually refers to a smaller spotted wild cat, the serval, which is the heraldic animal of the Princes of Salina in Sicily). Visconti’s film is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the 1958 novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The Leopard became the best-selling Italian novel of all time, carrying off many critical laurels as well. In its beauty of language, philosophical depth, and emotional power, The Leopard is one of the greatest novels I have ever read, and Visconti’s film does it full justice. Both are works of genius.
Set during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy into a modern nation-state, The Leopard is sometimes called “the Italian Gone with the Wind,” which is an apt comparison, although The Leopard is better both as a book and a film. Like Gone with the Wind, The Leopard is a historical romance set against the backdrop of a war of national unification in which a modern, bourgeois-liberal industrial society (the Northern Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, ruled from Turin by the House of Savoy), triumphs over a feudal, agrarian aristocracy (the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, encompassing Sicily and Southern Italy and ruled from Naples by the house of Bourbon). Even the time period is basically the same. The novel The Leopard is set primarily in 1860–62, and the film takes place entirely in this time frame.
The story begins in May of 1860, when Giuseppe Garibaldi, a charismatic nationalist general, raised an insurgent force of 1000 volunteers and landed in Sicily to overthrow the Bourbons. The Garibaldini fought for no king or parliament. They fought for the nationalist idea. They fought for a unified Italy that did not yet exist.
Garibaldi fought his way to Palermo, declared himself dictator, then raised new troops to take the fight to the mainland, where he overthrew the last Bourbon king, Francis II. Then Garibaldi handed the kingdom over to king Victor Emanuel of Piedmont and Sardinia and retired into private life. Plebiscites were held throughout Italy, except in Venice, which was under Austrian rule. All of Italy, save the Papal States, agreed to unification under the House of Savoy. In 1862, Garibaldi raised an army to march on Rome and forcibly incorporate the Papal States, but he was stopped by troops loyal to the new unified kingdom.
Lampedusa was a Sicilian aristocrat and a partisan of aristocracy. As a study of classical aristocratic virtues, The Leopard can be placed alongside Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As a meditation on the decline of aristocracy into oligarchy, it can be placed alongside Plato’s Republic. Visconti, however, was both an aristocrat and a self-professed Communist. Thus his adaptation also highlights other aspects of the novel, dramatizing how the revolutionary energies unleashed by the ideas of the sovereign people and a unified national state were coopted by the old Italian aristocracy and corrupted by the rising middle classes. Although I am a national populist, not a Marxist, there is much truth in Visconti’s depiction.
The hero of The Leopard is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the head of an ancient Sicilian noble family. In the film, he is played by American actor Burt Lancaster, which is perfect casting, for Don Fabrizio is described as a hulking blue-eyed blond. Visconti’s casting of the whole Corbera clan is remarkable. Princess Maria Stella, played by Rina Morelli, perfectly fits her description in the book, and the couple’s children all resemble their parents and their siblings.
Another important character is the prince’s nephew and ward, Tancredi, the orphaned and impoverished prince of Falconeri, whom Lampeusa describes as blue-eyed, dark-haired, and rakishly handsome. Tancredi is brought to life on film by Alain Delon. Tancredi is an adventurous lad who has fallen in with liberals, nationalists, and revolutionaries. When Garibaldi lands, Tancredi rushes to join him.
Tancredi is described as charming, ambitious, and somewhat unscrupulous. Thus it is never clear how deep his commitment to the Risorgimento actually is. When he speaks to his uncle, the prince of Salina, he tells him that everything must change so that everything can remain the same. The revolution will ultimately pass away, and Sicily’s immemorial customs and ancient aristocracy will quietly reassert themselves. It is never clear if this rather cynical view is accepted by Tancredi himself or simply crafted for his uncle’s consumption. But as the story—and especially the film—unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that if Tancredi ever believed in the ideals of the Risorgimento, he eventually dropped them.
The prince of Salina uses Tancredi’s connections to Garibaldi and his wealth and prestige to insulate himself and his family from the chaos of the revolution. With sublime indifference to current events, the family departs Palermo on its annual retreat to the village of Donnafugata, where they have inherited an immense palace.
Visconti’s portrayal of their journey and welcome is remarkable. The family arrives, emerging from the enclosed sweatboxes of their carriages, their elegant clothes white with dust from the unpaved mountain roads. Greeted ceremoniously by their retainers and the village notables, they immediately attend a church service. Visconti’s camera slowly pans the prince and his family, all of them studies of dignity and decorum although drenched in sweat and caked with filth. Only after thanking God for their safe journey do they retire to their palace and freshen up.
The dignified arrival of the Salinas stands in sharp contrast to Visconti’s farcical treatment of the local plebiscite presided over by Don Calogero Sedàra, the mayor of Donnafugata. Sedàra is a strong proponent of the new order. He makes no pretense of partiality. After the prince votes, he proposes a toast with a liqueur in the three colors of the new Italian flag. The prince, who straddles the worlds of the Bourbons and the Savoyards, chooses the Bourbon white, drinks, and winces at the cloying taste.
When Don Calogero reads the results, a brass band continually interrupts him. As it turns out, he has cooked the books. Of the 512 votes cast, 512 are yesses. In truth, the plebiscites were widely fraudulent. The new order had not even legitimated its power, and it was already abusing the public trust.
Who is Don Calogero Sedàra? He is the man of the future. Just as the prince of Salina represents the best of the aristocracy, Sedàra represents the virtues and limitations of the rising middle classes. Sedàra is a man of humble birth but outsized ambition and avarice, which he pursues single-mindedly with boundless intelligence and energy. Now, like the prince, a man of around 50, Sedàra has amassed a large fortune, become mayor, and is the leader of the revolutionary forces in his district. Sedàra is described as a “beetle of a man,” and his portrayal by Paolo Stoppa is of limited success. Stoppa aptly communicates Sedàra’s avarice and gaucheries but not his intelligence and hard work.
Sedàra’s wife is never seen. She is reputed to be a woman of great beauty but bestial manners, probably due to mental illness. Her father was one of the prince’s peasants known as Pepe Cowshit. They have only one child, their daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale, almost perfect casting, although she lacks Angelica’s green eyes), who has inherited her father’s intelligence and ambition as well as her mother’s beauty, which—reinforced by her father’s wealth and a bit of polishing at a Florentine finishing school—makes her a formidable force.
On the night of his arrival in Donnafugata, the prince holds a dinner for the local notables, including Don Calogero. In the novel, it is explained that the prince does not wear formal evening clothes at this dinner because he knows the villagers don’t have them. It is a magnanimous gesture, designed to make class distinctions less onerous on the dignity of the villagers.
But in comes Don Calogero, in white tie and tails, a gesture that in the prince’s eyes is more significant than the revolution itself. Indeed, it is the revolution itself. Although ill-tailored and ill-shaven, Sedàra’s clothes put him above the prince and his family, at least to those who reckon by appearances. Those who know the truth, however, understand that this outcome has occurred only by virtue of the prince’s magnanimous condescension and Sedàra’s social climbing. (In the film, the prince’s magnanimous gesture is not communicated, so the Salinas’ surprise at Sedàra being overdressed comes off as mere snobbery, when the truth is precisely the opposite.)
All is forgotten, however, when the radiant Angelica appears. Tancredi is instantly smitten. But this presents a problem. Earlier that very day, the family’s Jesuit chaplain father Pirrone told the prince that his eldest daughter, Concetta, wished to marry her cousin Tancredi and believed the feeling to be mutual. The prince, however, dismissed the idea because the timid and submissive Concetta is not a suitable bride for an ambitious man like Tancredi, who needs an equally ambitious wife and a far larger dowry than he could afford to provide Concetta. Angelica, however, is a perfect match, because she is beautiful, intelligent, a wealthy only-child, and a dedicated social climber.
One of the most interesting characters in The Leopard is Ciccio Tumeo (played by Serge Reggiani), the local church organist and the prince’s hunting companion. Tumeo is an intelligent and thoughtful commoner. He is also a far more zealous guardian of the traditional order than the prince. Tumeo is a Bourbon loyalist because of the patronage and kindness extended to his family by the deposed king’s ancestors. He was educated at royal expense, and when his family was in need, they petitioned the court for aid and received it. In his essentially feudal view, this patronage binds and obliges him to the Bourbons. Thus he voted “no” in the plebiscite and was incensed that his vote was changed by Sedàra, whom Ciccio regards as a dishonorable opportunist.
Tumeo tells the prince of Sedàra’s bestial wife and her father, Pepe Cowshit. When the prince informs Tumeo that on that very evening he is going to tell Sedàra of Tancredi’s proposal of marriage to Angelica, he thinks the match is not appropriate because of Angelica’s background. Furthermore, the prince off-handedly informs Tumeo that to prevent him from leaking news of the engagement, he and his hunting dog Teresina will be locked in the prince’s gunroom until the deal is struck.
The prince obviously values Tumeo’s judgment and companionship. So why doesn’t he simply swear Tumeo to silence? Probably because the prince thinks that Tumeo’s oath is worthless, because he is not a gentleman. This casual condescension appears earlier in the film as well, when upon his arrival in Donnafugata, the prince greets Teresina before he greets her master. (Actually, such behavior is common among “dog people” of all classes, and nobody takes it personally.)
The final sequence of the film is set two years later at a grand ball in Palermo in which Angelica and Don Calogero are introduced into Sicily’s high society. It seems a rather long wait, but the setting is determined by the politics of the times. Garibaldi’s attempt to march on Rome has been defeated by troops loyal to the new king in Turin. The house of Savoy is firmly in control. The revolutionary energies stirred by the Risorgimento’s idea of a sovereign Italian people in a united nation-state have been largely coopted and corrupted by the glamor and prestige of the old aristocracy and the avarice of the bourgeoisie.
The aristocracy, however, is doomed to slow displacement. They have expensive tastes and, like Tancredi’s father the prince of Falconeri, are often very bad at managing money. In the past, great aristocratic fortunes could be replenished every few generations by the loot of a victorious war. But in the nineteenth century, the usual route was to marry the daughters of the rising oligarchy, who crave the status and lifestyle of the aristocracy and are better at making and managing money.
We see the process of corruption from the very beginning of The Leopard. When Tancredi and two of his fellow Garibaldini visit the prince near Palermo in their dashing red uniforms, a young Northerner, Count Cavriaghi (Terence Hill), addresses the prince as “excellence,” an honorific abolished by Garibaldi. An aristocrat himself, with tastes in poetry, music, and painting, Cavriaghi is dazzled by the Salina palace, especially its magnificent frescos. Later, after Tancredi’s engagement, Cavriaghi pays court to the prince’s daughter Concetta. Later when Tancredi and Cavriaghi appear in Donnafugata, they wear the Prussian blue uniforms of the national army. They have accepted demotions in rank from Garibaldi’s forces for a rise in social status.
The aristocracy magically softens Don Calogero’s revolutionary fervor as well, to the point that he buys a title for himself. When he informs the prince of this at the end of their engagement negotiations, both the prince and father Pirrone walk away as if he has said nothing. Later, when the prince turns down an invitation to join the senate in Turin, he recommends Sedàra instead, dryly remarking that “his family is an old one, or soon will be.”
By the ball, the process of corruption is complete. The leaders of the new army and the jumped-up bourgeoisie like the Sedàras are feted by the old aristocracy. Colonel Pallavicino, who defeated Garibalidi’s last insurgency at Aspromonte, is an especially honored guest. They feast and dance till dawn. Then, in a detail added to the movie, Pallavicino goes off to execute deserters who went to Garibaldi’s side at Aspromonte. Tancredi and Sedàra, the former revolutionary now dressed in top hat and tails, approve. It is time for law and order. It is time to get down to business.
At the ball, the prince meditates on mortality. He is in decline. His family is in decline. His class is in decline. After the party, the prince chooses to walk home. Seeing a priest on his way to administer someone’s last rites, he kneels and crosses himself, then looks up to Venus, as the morning star, and prays to be delivered from the realm of change. A mathematician and astronomer, the prince is essentially a Platonist. He sees numbers as unchanging and the heavens as a realm of eternal, cyclical change. The prince is both perfectly Catholic and perfectly pagan.
Three chapters of the novel were not adapted to the screen.
Chapter V, “Father Pirrone Plays a Visit,” tells of the priest’s 1861 excursion to his home village. However, the best lines of the chapter, where Pirrone discourses on the nature of the aristocracy to drowsy peasants, were incorporated into the film, in a scene during the Salinas’ journey to Donnafugata.
Chapter VII, “Death of a Prince,” narrates the prince’s last days in 1883, emphasizing the pagan themes intimated at the end of the ball. The prince has two visions of Venus, at a train station as he returns to Palermo, and on his deathbed, where she appears to guide his soul to the unchanging realm. This chapter is utterly heartbreaking. I wish Visconti had included it in his film.
Chapter VIII, “Relics,” is set in 1910 and narrates the total ruin of the great house of Salina, whose prestige and substance have been squandered by the high living and bad business decisions of the prince’s male heirs and the superstitious pieties of three of his four daughters, who have become old maids (apparently, they could not find a place in the new order). Angelica, now widowed, seems to have flourished, although there is no mention of any children to carry on the Falconeri name. It is fitting, then, that the last word of the novel is “dust.”
The Leopard is obviously a deeply pessimistic meditation on the decline of aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes. Written by the last prince of Lampedusa, whose adopted son inherited his property but not his title, the novel was rejected by both publishers to which it was submitted. Then, before he could submit it to another publisher, the author died of cancer, aged 60. But The Leopard’s pessimism is somewhat belied by its spectacular posthumous success, both as a novel and a film. Because of books like The Leopard, we can at least hope that healthy archaic values and institutions can someday return and that, by understanding the seeds of decay, we can perhaps avert it.
Lampedusa was a reactionary and an advocate of aristocracy. I am not. In my view, Garibaldi’s only flaw was unifying Italy as a monarchy not a republic. Although I cannot help but admire the prince of Salina’s virtues and magnificent way of life, his political instincts were entirely wrong.
The prince never should have married Tancredi to Angelica or contemplated any alliance with the Sedàras of the world. He should have married Tancredi to Concetta, who because of his cynicism ended up an embittered old maid. He should have taken a seat in the new senate, not ceded it out of cynicism to the likes of Don Calogero Sedàra.
Furthermore, just as the prince was too willing to ally himself with the middle classes, he was entirely too dismissive of improving the lot of the common people, in violation of the feudal ethos that bound the most decent man in the whole book, Ciccio Tumeo, to the deposed Bourbons. Sicily today is objectively better off with paved roads, running water, sewers, and other improvements airily dismissed by the prince.
In short, the best outcome for Italy would have been a marriage of the feudal-warrior ethos of the old aristocracy with a progressive national populism, cutting out the rising oligarchy altogether. This position is actually represented in The Leopard by Cavalier Chevalley di Monterzuolo (played by Leslie French), the Piedmontese functionary who asks the prince to join the new senate. In the twentieth century, this synthesis was finally realized by Mussolini, only to be reversed by the Second World War, with some help from the dried-up husk of the house of Savoy.
When the prince bids Chevalley goodbye, he says, “We were the leopards, the lions. Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us—leopards, lions, jackals, and sheep—we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.” An accurate prophecy—but a self-fulfilling one. It was the dereliction of men like the prince of Salina who made it so.
The Leopard’s depiction of the corruption of Garibaldi’s national-populist revolution offers many lessons to national populists today. We should count ourselves fortunate that the old monarchies and aristocracies of Europe are pretty much dead, and those that remain are pretty much politically irrelevant. National populists believe that political sovereignty resides in the nation, not in dynasties. Political legitimacy flows from representing the common good of the people, not from dynastic descent. Social and political hierarchies are justified only by the common good of society, not by divine right or hereditary caste. Monarchy and aristocracy have a seductive glamor, but they are at best imperfect images of just political hierarchies.
However, national populists should emulate the honor-centered warrior ethos of the old aristocracies, as well as their feudal sense of social responsibility, which are the necessary correctives to bourgeois materialism and individualism.
Lampedusa makes clear that the material magnificence of the old aristocracy springs from essentially spiritual and anti-materialist values. Aristocracies arise by subordinating material interests, including the instinct of self-preservation, to the pursuit of honor. Aristocracies transmute material wealth into spiritual values like honor and prestige through munificence and the creation of beautiful and useless things, such as the entire realm of high culture.
But The Leopard also shows how high living combined with an ethos of generosity leads to the ruin of great estates and the rise of oligarchy. Oligarchs can better maintain the opulent lifestyles of the aristocracy because they are materialists, individualists, and fundamentally selfish. The bourgeois ethos subordinates honor and culture to self-preservation and commodious living. Obviously, a cash-poor revolutionary movement like national populism needs to adopt the warrior ethos of the aristocracy, but we can’t afford aristocratic pretensions in the material realm. We need to be revolutionary ascetics if we are to free ourselves from the trammels of oligarchy.
Everything about this movie is superb: the directing, casting, acting, costumes, camerawork, sets, and Nino Rota’s ravishing Romantic score. I have one reservation. Not a criticism so much as a reservation. The Leopard is a short novel but a very long movie, clocking in at 185 minutes in its definitive version. The ball sequence alone occupies the last 50 minutes. I resisted watching for years, simply because of the time investment. But there is something magical about this movie. When the ball started, I no longer felt I was watching a movie. I felt I was in it. And it made such a strong impression that it was all I remembered about the movie when I re-watched it after more than a decade to write this essay. Buy the Blu-ray and watch it in installments if you must, but you must watch it.
Visconti’s film will especially appeal to lovers of historical costume dramas, romances, and comedies of manners. If you like Jane Austen adaptations, you will find The Leopard especially appealing, for like Austen, Lampedusa is a student of classical virtue ethics and creates very subtle character portraits. Thus I highly recommend The Leopard, the novel and the film. They are two twentieth-century masterpieces, which can be appreciated both as escapist entertainment and as profound meditations on politics, morals, and the human condition.