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Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film

Portrait of Leopardi c. 1820.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam

Il Giovane favoloso, a film released in Italy this autumn, describes the life of the country's greatest Romantic poet (in fact its greatest poet, together with Dante and Petrarch). This undertaking, by director Mario Martone, was highly ambitious: Elio Germano as Leopardi re-enacts the life of this great literary figure and philosopher, born in the Marche in east Italy in 1798 and who died at just 38. Germano succeeds superbly in the role, reciting the some of Leopardi's most famous poems, and letters to his close friend and mentor Pietro Giordani. The film was given its première at the Venice Film Festival in September and was also shown at the London Film Festival in October (hopefully it will soon be on general release in the UK and US). The locations include the poet’s home town of Recanati, as well as Florence, Rome and Naples (where he died during a cholera outbreak), and will be greatly appreciated by all who love Italy. The music, by Sascha Ring, is very beautiful.

 

The Zibaldone, Leopardi’s notebook and diary full of philosophical observations, which was first published many decades after his death, has now been published in an English edition (Penguin Classics, 2013, eds Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino). It is the first complete translation into English of this fundamental work.

 

Despite his fame, Leopardi is difficult to define: fluent in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he was a Classical scholar as well as a philosopher and in many ways anticipated 20th-century thinking, being critical of the belief in progress and close to existential theories. In some ways he can be compared to Wordsworth, although the English poet is much more joyful in spirit. Leopardi was intensely religious as a boy though his views grew more unorthodox and critical as the years went by: interestingly, the only disparaging review in the Italian press so far has been in the Vatican newspaper, the Osservatore Romano (25th October).

 

The film takes almost all its dialogue straight from original documents or letters, and Elio Germano's capacity to immerse himself totally in the role has been much remarked on. In Recanati the film was shot in Leopardi's family home, where the actor also lived for many months, even learning to write with a quill pen. The Neapolitan director has worked much in theatre (and in fact he recently staged Leopardi's Operette morali, an allegorical dialogue) and this is evident throughout the film. It was daring to decide to let Germano recite some of the poems as if he was composing them, but these passages of the film are some of the most moving. Very little artistic licence has been taken, although the scene in the brothel in Naples is invented and is perhaps one of the few disappointing moments in the narrative. All in all the film is an honest reconstruction of Leopardi's life which avoids clichés and shows up his more lively side and underlines his quick ironic humour, managing to get away from the label of 'pessimist' which is all too often attached to him and which has perhaps tended to limit appreciation of his deep character.

 

This is the first time that Leopardi’s poetry has been recited on the big screen and the film ends in a villa on the slopes of Vesuvius during an eruption, while Leopardi composes his last poem, La Ginestra.

 

The supporting roles are very well played, from his close friend Ranieri (Michele Riondino), who represents the poet’s fragile attachment to the real world, to Leopardi’s father Monaldo (Massimo Popolizio, until now mainly known as a stage actor), whose human side is successfully portrayed alongside his determined ambition to bring up his children imbued with literature. He would have approved, perhaps, of the fact that classes of Italian schoolchildren are being taken to see this film.

 

Where to find Leopardi in the Blue Guides:

Leopardi's home town of Recanati is covered in detail in Ellen Grady's Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino, the new, fully-revised 2nd edition of which is fresh off the press. His former home is now a museum and much of the early part of the film was shot in and around it. The ball game known as pallone al bracciale, re-enacted in the film with Leopardi as a spectator, is described in the same Blue Guide (and also in Blue Guide Central Italy). The poet's relationship to the English colony in Pisa, where he stayed for a year in 1827, is recorded in Alta Macadam's Blue Guide Tuscany, available in print and digital. You will find Leopardi’s grave site in Naples in Paul Blanchard's Blue Guide Southern Italy, also available in print and digital.

Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic

"The name Sassoferrato derives from the Latin saxum ferratum, ‘stone encircled by iron’; it stands on a rocky crest, in an area rich in iron ore. Close by, at the confluence of the Sentino and Marena rivers, stood the Roman city of Sentinum, where in 295 BC the Romans achieved a momentous victory at the Battle of Sentinum, or Battle of the Nations, over the Gauls, Etruscans and Samnites; later (in 41 BC) it was destroyed on behalf of Octavian by Salvidienus Rufus and, when Octavian became Caesar Augustus, rebuilt for his veterans. Sentinum was probably abandoned in the early Middle Ages, when the survivors of enemy attacks, pestilences and poverty built a new settlement on the top of the mountain, recorded from the 11th century, and the lower town in the 13th century. Control of the town passed from one liege lord to another. The last of these aristocratic tyrants, Luigi degli Atti, was killed in 1460, and after that Sassoferrato became a free commune under the aegis of the Papal States, with its own statutes and coat of arms: a stone encircled by an iron band. The economy, based on potteries, stone quarries, bell-casting and the manufacture of nails, flourished. Nowadays the main activities besides farming are footwear, leather, clothing and bathroom fittings."

 

The above extract from Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino makes Sassoferrato sound a likeable sort of place, perhaps not with any particular claim to fame or attention. But read on. Roman Sentinum yielded to the world one of the most beautiful and enigmatic mosaics ever found: the Aion Mosaic, which was sold to Ludwig of Bavaria in 1828 and is now in Munich.

 

Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786–1868) was an interesting monarch in many ways. The behaviour of his scandalous mistress Lola Montez, the Munich Beer Riots and his abdication in the face of open revolt in 1848 have given tongues more to talk about perhaps than his love of the Greek and Roman world and his desire to recreate them in some measure in Munich. He built the grandiose complex of the Königsplatz, wth its monumental gateway, the Propylaion, and its twin Neoclassical museum buildings: the Antikensammlungen and the Glyptothek. Behind them is the abbey church of St Bonifaz, where he lies buried, the church exterior modelled on San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome. The entire ensemble is extraordinary. And while the architecture is one thing, the portable objects that the buildings contain are quite another. One of these is a mosaic from Roman Sentinum, dated c. AD 200 and showing Aion, god of Unbounded Time and Eternity, standing naked within a hoop of the Zodiac. At his feet reclines Tellus the earth goddess, surrounded by her offspring, the Four Seasons. King Ludwig acquired the work in 1828. It is beautifully preserved (as his agent, Johann Martin von Wagner remarked: damaged only in two small places) and unique in the arrangement of its subject matter. Close inspection reveals that the signs of the Zodiac appear in the wrong order. Aion has his hand on Pisces, the sign that coincides with the spring equinox and the beginning of the year, but Aries and Sagittarius are in the wrong place. Why might this be? Did the mosaicists follow their pattern-book incorrectly when they made it up? Has it been wrongly restored? Or is the “mistake” a deliberate one? It is, if we believe Filippo Venturi, who ascribes to the work a complicated symbolism, not only esoteric and eschatalogical but also connected to imperial propaganda. His thesis (in Italian) can be read here. The villa at Sentinum, he believes, can only have belonged to someone not only learned but supremely well-connected, perhaps to a relative of the imperial household itself.

Detail of the Aion Mosaic showing the order of the zodiacal signs as Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo. Aries is missing.
The right-hand side of the Zodiac loop showing the irregular order: Aries, Sagittarius, Libra and Scorpio.

Text and images © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

05.12.2014
11:51

The Aventine and Turner in Rome

News in early December of the sale through Sotheby's of Turner's great landscape painting "Rome, from Mount Aventine" has been given much publicity because of the record price of £30.3 million it fetched: the most ever paid for a painting by Turner.

 

In preparation for a new edition of Blue Guide Rome I recently revisited the park on the Aventine hill beside the church of Santa Sabina, which must have been close to the place where Turner would have made his pencil sketches, or coloured drawings, in the early morning, on his second trip to Rome in 1828. The view is still remarkably similar, looking downstream at the Tiber beyond a solitary umbrella pine, with St Peter's on the skyline and the city of Rome spread out on either bank. When the picture was first exhibited in London in 1836 Constable commented: "Turner has outdone himself, he seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and airy".

 

The Aventine remains one of the most peaceful places to visit in all Rome. In the little park, aptly called the Giardino degli Aranci because it is planted with orange trees (laden with fruit in this season), apart from the magnificent view from the balustrade, there are numerous tall umbrella pines with their eccentrically shaped trunks (so beloved of Turner, who frequently included them in his landscapes). Near the entrance—and just beyond one of the city's most delightful wall fountains—is the church of Santa Sabina, justly considered the most beautiful early-Christian basilica in all Rome. It is wonderfully illuminated by thirty-four windows in the nave and apse. It has classical fluted columns, with Corinthian capitals reused from a Roman building of the 2nd century AD, as well as ancient marble inlay in precious marbles and porphyry and a long mosaic inscription. But it also possesses one of the least appreciated works of art in the city still in situ: its original 5th-century carved wooden doors.

Miracles of Christ from the Santa Sabina doors.

These doors can easily be missed since the church is entered from a side door (you have to go round to the portico on the left to find them). A coin-operated light has recently been installed which is essential to examine the panels, eighteen in all, with stories from the Old and New Testaments. Although they are high up you can make out many of the scenes, including Elijah in his chariot of fire with Elisha tugging at his mantle; Moses while still a shepherd tending his five sheep, and then talking with God on Mount Horeb; the Egyptians being drowned in the Red Sea; and three miracles of Christ, who holds a 'magic' wand (shown healing the blind man; next to seven wine jars at the marriage of Cana; and perfomring the miracle of the loaves and fishes). An eerie Crucifixion scene, said to be one of the earliest in existence, with the Crosses hardly visible at all, has Christ and the thieves depicted with outstretched arms. The charming Ascension of Christ shows two angels struggling to lift Him upwards as four of the Apostles watch in amazement. One only hopes Turner took some time off from his sketching to have a look at these, too.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Rome. Santa Sabina and its doors are also covered in detail in two other Blue Guides titles: Pilgrim’s Rome and Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

01.12.2014
11:59

Artwork of the Month: December

The Man in Pink

"The Man in Pink" by Giovanni Battista Moroni is part of the exhibition devoted to this superb 16th-century portrait painter now on at the Royal Academy in London. For a review of the show (and more about the man in pink), see here.

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