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  • Leopardi’s Transgressive Calendar
  • Ernest Fontana

The editors of the recently published English translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone—the philosophical and philological commentary/notebook begun in the summer of 1817, when he was 19 years of age, and abandoned in the winter of 1832, four years before his death in Naples—note that for the first time, in his entry on April 20, 1821, Leopardi supplements the date of the secular calendar with a Roman Catholic festival, such as Good Friday.1 Leopardi’s references to the Catholic calendar increase in early 1822 and continue with greater frequency until the reference to Holy Week 1829 (Z 4489, p. 2041). These cited festivals range from major holidays, such as Christmas (Z 3998–4001, pp. 1681–84) and Easter (Z 4254, p. 1886), to more obscure feasts, such as the Translation of the Holy House to Loreto (Z 4229–30, p. 1866) and the feast of St. Flavian (Z 3906, p. 1624). Certainly the Catholic liturgical calendar was of great importance in Leopardi’s native Recanati, which was part of the Papal States, and to his devout parents, Count Monaldo and Countess Adelaide, with whom he passed much of his unhappy life.2

Nevertheless, Leopardi inveighs against the practice in Italy and Spain of the frequent reference to the Catholic calendar of feasts. He sees this practice, which he himself often observes, as a sign of intellectual and cultural backwardness: “Without activity, without industry, without spirit of literature, arts, etc., the life of the Spanish and Italians is reduced to a routine of inaction, of indolence, of old and fixed ways, of spectacles and feasts, regulated by the Calendar, of habits, etc. But never any innovation among them either in the public or private sphere, of any sort which shows life in any way at all” (Z 3861, p. 1598). In this same entry, Leopardi continues to rage against this practice and lament its effects. “We have not walked forward, we have been trampled and pushed. We are and were completely passive.” [End Page 538]

It is my contention that Leopardi’s frequent citations of traditional Catholic religious festivals is his attempt to subvert the sclerotic mental framework of his society, to inscribe in the privacy of his journal his own antithetical and heterodox reflections. Here I go further than Carsaniga, who has noted that Leopardi’s entries for religious festivals contain “some of the most polemical pages he wrote against the Christian religion.”3 For Leopardi those feast days became provocations. He is inspired, in his Zibaldone entries, to resist, transgress, and invert their traditional religious meanings. These entries are often acts of intellectual selfmobilization within a cultural milieu he perceives as torpid and inert.

In a less combative mood, Leopardi does acknowledge in the Zibaldone that Christian “popular festivals” do provide the “memory of great examples” to the populace (Z 1438, p. 678). Yet these Christian festivals are, for Leopardi, merely attenuated survivals of ancient pre-Christian festivals and represent “the falling away of life, boredom, nothingness, and death” (Z 1439, p. 678). For Leopardi the citation of these festivals in his journal is, therefore, a mechanism of self-arousal and self-vivification. For Leopardi the ancient pre-Christian festivals arose from an institution “so very full of life, energetic, a source of greatness, a spur to activity” (Z 1439, p. 678).4 It is this energy, this repressed pre-Christian vitality, that Leopardi seeks to recover in many of his Catholic festival entries. Paradoxically, his textual activity is often spurred by these attenuated and reduced Catholic festivals.

A vivid example is Leopardi’s antithetical and inspired reflection in his entry for All Souls’ Day, 1823. On this day, when Christians are called upon to remember and pray for the dead, Leopardi writes, instead: “What we call spirit in character, manner, and acts,” whose “opposite in a way is death.” In his All Souls’ Day entry, Leopardi swerves away from thoughts of death to the concept of “vivacity of spirit,”5 an energy in matter that is opposed to all that is “weak, sluggish, unvaried” (Z 3854, p. 1594). The Catholic feast of the dead spurs Leopardi to...


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