Living Legends from The Leopard

I never dreamed of having lunch with the adopted son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the famous Italian novel, The Leopard, and his wife, Duchess Nicoletta Polo Lanza. But there I was staying in an apartment in their historic seventeenth century palazzo.

Prince Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, a professor of Music and author of books on opera, met Nicoletta when she was working for the music section of the Venice Biennale. Unlike the prototype of ossified Sicilian aristocrats, they are both active, forward thinking, fascinating people, who speak multiple languages and introduce themselves by their first names.

The Leopard is the story of Don Fabrizio, a Sicilian nobleman, at the time of the Unification of Italy in 1860. The world he has known as a landed aristocrat is crumbling even as he faces his own mortality. (Think Gone With the Wind written in literary style.) The author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa died in 1957 before he knew that his novel would be accepted for publication (1958).

Click here to order in English: The Leopard: A Novel

In the book, Don Fabrizio his own sons and daughters but relies on his dashing nephew, Tancredi, who has quick witted strategies for dealing with the dramatic arrival of Garibaldi’s redshirts in Sicily. As the Leopard faces the end of an era, Tancredi cajoles his uncle with the most quoted line of the book, “If we want things to stay as they are, they are going to have to change.”

Tomasi di Lampedusa adored Gioacchino (Giò) and adopted him as a son at the very end of his life, even though Giò’s prominent, aristocratic parents the Lanzas di Mazzarino, were right in Palermo. It was a choice agreed upon by all concerned.

In the practical sense, Tomasi di Lampedusa and his Latvian wife, Licy, were childless and needed an heir. Probably as importantly, Tomasi Di Lampedusa let go of postwar feelings of sadness and loss when he spent time with the spirited adolescent, Gioacchino. The author eventually used Giò as the model for Tancredi in the book and revealed the importance of their quasi father-son relationship in Tancredi’s rapport with the Leopard.

Gioacchino has recently published A Biography Through Images of Tomasi Di Lampedusa (in English, which he speaks fluently). The book illuminates the the historical context of the novel (mid to late nineteenth century) and how that relates to the author’s own lifetime (early to mid-twentieth century).


Click here to order: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: A Biography Through Images

Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote the book after the Allied bombings devastated Palermo including the home where he grew up. Like the Leopard, he was dealing with the end of an era. He was trying to reconstruct his life amidst loss. But there, the similarities between him and Don Fabrizio end.

The author was an academic, who had lived, traveled and taught internationally. He repeatedly expressed hope for openness, change and new attitudes in Sicily. Ironically, the book and the Leopard himself are often interpreted as proof that the South of Italy is hopelessly caught in patterns of the past.

Like Tomasi di Lampedusa, Gioacchino is an international intellectual, who has led cultural institutions including: the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, the City Theater of Bologna, the Roman Philharmonic Academy, and most recently, the National Institute of Ancient Theater at Syracuse.

Walking through the rooms of the palazzo in Via Butera with Gioacchino, I had the sense that we might run into Tomasi di Lampedusa himself. His library, with books that he read over and over, is intact. Giaocchino is editing his letters and meticulously cares for the collection of books and manuscripts.

The original manuscript of The Leopard is displayed in one of the main rooms of the palazzo.
manuscript clear

As wonderful as the books, manuscripts and house were, the real treat was spending the better part of a day with Gioacchino and Nicholetta. They are both involved in cultural, artistic and entrepreneurial activities that support Tomasi di Lampedusa’s hope for a better Sicily. One of the most important is their project to host guests in the historic, family palazzo.

Nicoletta also offers a cooking adventure, called Cooking With the Duchess, where participants meet her early in the morning to go to one of the old Palermo markets. She demonstrates the importance of having trust with the vendors as she buys everything needed for lunch, then, brings everyone back to her kitchen to prepare it. At lunchtime, the group sits down with Nicholetta and Gioacchino to enjoy the meal in the dining room of the villa in Via Butera.
dining rm table set
The palazzo is in the heart of the old part of Palermo by the marina and the port. It is within easy walking distance of Palermo’s historic and cultural sites as well as the best restaurants, bars and a new beach bar.

For more information about visiting Palermo and the Tomasi di Lampedusa villa:

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