Saturday, October 16, 2010

Leopardi on Christopher Columbus

The year that I studied in Florence, I took a class on the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)  in which I had to write a paper and give a presentation on his poem "Ad Angelo Mai."  What, you may well ask, does this have to do with Columbus Day?  Well, Leopardi devoted no less than two stanzas of this poem to Columbus' voyage.  I figured I'd take this opportunity to discuss the poem, share the excerpt relating to Christopher Columbus and attempt a translation.

Ad Angelo Mai

Leopardi wrote "Ad Angelo Mai" in 1820.  This was to be one of his hefty historical, patriotic/civic "canzoni" (as opposed to his shorter idylls)  much like "All'Italia" ("To Italy") and "Sopra il monumento di Dante" ("On the statue of Dante") which were both published in 1818.  The poem's full title is "Ad Angelo Mai quand'ebbe trovato i libri di Cicerone della Repubblica" ("To Angelo Mai upon his discovery of the books of Cicero's Republic").  As its name suggests, this was an occasional poem, ostensibly dedicated to the head of the Vatican library to celebrate his rediscovery among the archives of the Papal State of Cicero's De re publica, a work which had been lost to the ages up until then.   However, Leopardi quickly moves on from this exciting subject to cover an entirely different poetic agenda.  He later admitted that he used this classicist dedication to a monsignor as a smokescreen in order to obscure the poem’s nihilist themes from would-be censors.  Foremost among these figured the poet’s father, the reactionary Count Monaldo Leopardi, who was fiercely loyal to the pope and opposed Italian unification.  In the previous year, Monaldo had prevented the publication of Leopardi’s back alley abortion poem (a sort of failed experiment with gritty social realism which is rarely read today).   

In the canzone, Leopardi praises Mai for waking the dead from their tombs and allowing their voices, which have been mute for so long, to speak to their decadent descendants stagnating in “this dead century.”  Leopardi then leads us on a journey through history, focusing primarily on the lives of the great Italian poets.  We start out with Dante and Petrarch, continue with Ludovico Ariosto (author of Orlando Furioso) and Torquato Tasso (author of Gerusalemme liberata), and end with Vittorio Alfieri (18th-century Italian poet and playwright).  As Leopardi paints it, the great poets were all uniformly miserable – Dante died in exile; Tasso went mad.

Leopardi on Columbus

In between Petrarch and Ariosto, Leopardi takes a break from the poets to check in on Christopher Columbus. Here, Columbus’ discovery of the New World represents a key moment in the transition from the ancient to the modern era, and the poet describes his voyage in heroic, mythic terms.  Yet the results for mankind are resoundingly negative: Columbus’ expedition would once and for all dispel the ancients’ myths of distant lands populated by fantastical creatures and of the heavenly bodies as deities that slept somewhere beyond the Ocean sea after they finished their arc across the sky.  Soon we’d be left with a world that is all mapped out and governed by the laws of science and reason.  Here’s stanzas 5 and 6 of the poem followed by my translation:

Ma tua vita era allor con gli astri e il mare,
Ligure ardita prole,
Quand'oltre alle colonne, ed oltre ai liti
Cui strider l'onde all'attuffar del sole
80Parve udir su la sera, agl'infiniti
Flutti commesso, ritrovasti il raggio
Del Sol caduto, e il giorno
Che nasce allor ch'ai nostri è giunto al fondo;
E rotto di natura ogni contrasto,
85Ignota immensa terra al tuo viaggio
Fu gloria, e del ritorno
Ai rischi. Ahi ahi, ma conosciuto il mondo
Non cresce, anzi si scema, e assai più vasto
L'etra sonante e l'alma terra e il mare
90Al fanciullin, che non al saggio, appare.

Nostri sogni leggiadri ove son giti
Dell'ignoto ricetto
D'ignoti abitatori, o del diurno
Degli astri albergo, e del rimoto letto
95Della giovane Aurora, e del notturno
Occulto sonno del maggior pianeta?
Ecco svaniro a un punto,
E figurato è il mondo in breve carta;
Ecco tutto è simile, e discoprendo,
100Solo il nulla s'accresce. A noi ti vieta
Il vero appena è giunto,
O caro immaginar; da te s'apparta
Nostra mente in eterno; allo stupendo
Poter tuo primo ne sottraggon gli anni;
105E il conforto perì de' nostri affanni.

But your life was then with the stars and the sea,
Ardent son of Liguria,
When beyond the Pillars, and beyond the shores
Where the hissing of the waves upon the sun’s drowning
Could seemingly be heard in the evening, to the infinite waves
Entrusting yourself , you rediscovered the rays
Of the fallen Sun, and the day
That is born then that to our people has struck bottom;
And nature robbed of every distinction,
Immense unknown land to your voyage
Was glory, and to the return
To danger.  Ah Alas, but known the world
Doesn’t grow, rather it shrinks, and how much vaster
The resounding sky and the nurturing earth and the sea
To the child, and not to the wise man, appears.

Where have they gone, our gracious dreams
Of unknown refuges
Of unknown inhabitants, or of the daytime
Lodging of the stars, and the distant bed
Of young Aurora, and the nocturnal
Hidden slumber of the largest planet?
Alas they’ve vanished in an instant,
And the world is sketched on a bit of paper;
Now everything is the same, and upon discovery,
Only the emptiness grows. The truth
Keeps you from us as soon as it’s reached,
O dear imagination; From you our mind
Is separated for eternity; From your stupendous
Initial power the years take away;
And the comfort to our woes has perished.

Dialogue between Columbus and Pedro Gutierrez

Leopardi would revisit the topic of Columbus’ first expedition across the Atlantic in 1824 when he wrote his “Dialogo di Cristoforo Colombo e di Pietro Gutierrez” (“Dialogue between Christopher Columbus and Pedro Gutiérrez”) which is included among the Operette Morali.  Operette Morali literally translates as “short moral works” and the collection is comprised of fictional dialogues and short stories, the most famous of which is probably the “Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander” in which nature is revealed to be an indifferent stepmother.

History tells us that Pedro Gutiérrez sailed aboard the Santa María together with Columbus and that he was involved in several noteworthy episodes including the crew’s first sighting of land.  However outside of these accounts of the voyage of discovery, no other historical record regarding Gutiérrez seems to exist.  His title is given as “repostero de estradas del Rey” (“porter of the King’s dais”) or sometimes as “royal steward” in English.  Thus it’s clear that he was a courtier to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile and León.  What’s not clear is whether he was on board the Santa María as a representative of the crown or merely as a private volunteer.  It’s also unclear whether Gutiérrez was a very young man in 1492: many people seem to assume this, probably influenced by the word “porter” or “steward” in his title, but maybe his was a position of honor at court (like Gentleman of the Wardrobe or Lord of the Bedchamber or something) which might have been granted to a more senior gentleman as well.

At any rate, Leopardi’s Dialogue takes place towards the end of Columbus’ crossing when his crew is growing restive and even he is starting to doubt his gamble.  Perhaps, he tells Gutiérrez, it was wrong to assume that the western hemisphere is divided into ocean and dry land like the eastern one-- maybe it’s all water or maybe half of it is occupied by some hitherto unknown element.  Nevertheless, Columbus concludes that risking one’s life at sea is preferable to the alternative, a life filled with nothing but boredom, and the danger makes one appreciate things that are otherwise taken for granted such as life and dry land.

Here’s a link to an 1893 translation of the Dialogue (and the rest of the Operette Morali) by one Major-General Patrick Maxwell

Illustration of Columbus' ships found on