I am in Palermo, and had a quintessentially Palermo experience today: I went to visit Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi di Lampedusa, who is the adopted son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957), who wrote The Leopard (“Gattopardo”), published posthumously in 1958. The book, one of my favorites, chronicles the struggles of the aristocracy to survive in face of the social changes that came about with Garibaldi and the unification of Italy. Tomasi di Lampedusa himself was from a long line of aristocrats. He adopted Gioacchino because he had none of his own children, and while Gioacchino had a perfectly fine family already (the aristocratic Lanzas) it was common in those days for aristocrats to adopt a son to continue the family line and inheritance. Gioacchino had been part of a group of young intellectuals around Tomasi di Lampedusa, and apparently the favorite.
During his lifetime, Lampedusa had none of the fame he developed after Gattopardo was published. His cousins were diplomats and achieved various successes, but Lampedusa wasn’t as ambitious. He had been captured during WWI, thought Hungarian and a traitor, and presumably tortured and imprisoned; “treated badly,” is how the relatives describe it, saying he was never the same. He married a princess from the Baltics, a tall, fat woman, who became one of Sigmund Freud’s first accolytes in the 1920s. She taught physicians psychotherapy and evidently couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone without analyzing them. She and Lampedusa spent summers apart and traveled together during the winters. “Naturally, they had no children.”
Lampedusa occupied himself in Palermo with a sort of private school where he taught young aristocratics manners and literature. During his lifetime he published a history of English literature as well as one of French literature, but he didn’t write any novels himself. It was ony when one of his cousins won a literary award, and Lampedusa accompanied him to the ceremony, that he went home and decided that if his cousin could win an award, so could he. So he wrote The Leopard. He never lived to see it published.
His palace is just off the ramparts in Palermo, which were bombed in World War II. (His previous residence was also bombed.) All that remained of what was once an enormous palace was Tomasi di Lampedusa’s history library, which was one of several libraries. His wife had died, he had little money, he couldn’t take care of the property. Giaocchino, who gave me a tour after our talk, has since reconstructed the house; the top floor is a palace, full of paintings and 18th-century furniture (but laundry is hung on indoor lines on the way up the stairs to these mostly ceremonial quarters). The bottom floor, where the family lives, is also grand, and gives on to a terrace full of flowers and a pond with turtles. The outside façade is bright yellow that you can see from the port. Giaocchino is an opera expert and director and so a grand piano dominates one room, and a harpsichord, another (I loved playing a few bars of the well-tempered clavier on that thing).
I was interviewing Gioacchino for a story for Afar, which you will have to subscribe to if you want to read it: www.afar.com.
The palace had an endless series of high-ceilinged rooms, filled with paintings—portraits of ancestors, forgotten aristocratic women in their finery, Sicilian landscapes, most 18th century. I was most amazed by the libraries, three of them, which were Tomasi di Lampedusa’s own books, floor to ceiling, ranging from huge volumes of Italian dictionaries to literature in French, German, Italian; histories, cookbooks, travelogues. It was disorganized; Gioacchino told me it would cost 3 euros a book to catalogue what is there. Like most of the aristocracy, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s mansion is in disarray–and keeping up appearances to host costly dinners for wealthy groups and societies. Giacchiamo himself only uses the stately top floor, apart from the libraries, for his own anniversary parties and other special events. He is an incredibly learned man, and our conversation ranged from literature to cuisine to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
I visited another villa in Palermo, the last, also, of its sort, owned by the Tasca family, who own the Regaleali line of wines and olive oils; it’s been there since the 18th century. My friend Fabrizia is from that family (she is also the nice of Giaocchino); her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza, has a cooking school at Regaleali and is partly responsible for bringing Sicilian cuisine to the United States in the 1990s. Chefs from all over the world have made Regaleali, in the country outside of Palermo, a stop whenever they come to Sicily; so has the Queen of England. The villa is enormous and musty, with furniture that belongs in a museum, and can be rented, per floor, for $20,000 a week, including the gardens outside, and lake, which has a cantankerous swan and a fake Romantic grotto with stalagmites.
All this is heady stuff for a gal from Littleton, Colorado, but a wonderful view into another world.
At another part of the Sicilian spectrum I met Mary Taylor Simeti, a Harvard-educated daughter of a MOMA director who came here after college to work on a government project of some sort. She fell in love with an Italian and stayed, and now lives outside a small town on a farm and knows everything there is to know about Sicilian cuisine and history (see “Persephone’s Island).
Meantime, today I wandered with Fabrizia around the market in Palermo, where she introduced me to cannoli-makers and the best breads, along with fried chickpeas and stands that had piles of legumes—a real casbah atmosphere.
It’s still warm out in the evening, and the days have taken on the kind of slowness that makes it possible to imagine life among those aristocrats, on the farm, or closing down the markets during mid-day for a nap…