Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is by far the most well-known writer belonging to the Sicilian aristocracy. Time and tide have faded other names, yet his complex legacy endures, so much so that it’s often hard to believe his one and only novel wasn’t actually published during his lifetime. The Leopard stands as testament to his creative thought, but it also presents a few challenges to those who are trying to escape the mordantly pessimistic view Prince Salina carries to his grave.
No doubt the themes worked through in the novel were often mulled over during hours of conversation with Giuseppe’s coterie, including his adopted son Gioachino. Just how do anachronistic social elites face a changing world? If one were to believe Salina’s nephew Tancredi, they change in order to stay the same. Or like Lucio Piccolo, Lampedusa’s cousin, they could shut themselves away in rural seclusion or urban salons, facing away from the waves of modernity. Piccolo spent much of his time composing poetry; although certainly not the modernist poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti or that of the later New Vanguardists.
Piccolo’s verses are beautifully Baroque at heart and their relative success was the spur for Giuseppe Tomasi’s own efforts. Although the poet and the novelist varied in medium, they share a wistful glance towards a more glorious past. When Lucio sent his poems to the great Eugenio Montale for consideration, two events are indicative of his mindset: not living in the real world, he massively underestimated the cost of sending a packet in the post and secondly, he included a letter that captured his inspiration – the ornate world of church, convent and incense, inhabited by an increasingly rare breed of Palermitan.
Montale was impressed with the verses and invited the poet to San Pellegrino. He took his cousin, Lampedusa, with him and the two arrived like a dusty blast from the belle époque past – overdressed and underprepared for a very different world. When not venturing tentatively out into the twentieth century, Piccolo spent most of his time in the town of Capo d’Orlando on the northern Sicilian coast. The Piccolo family residence is now a foundation dedicated to the memory of Lucio and his unconventional siblings. The Fondazione Famiglia Piccolo di Calanovella is located on the outskirst of Capo d’Orlando; in fact it’s easy to miss it as you swerve around a bend in the Vina district of town.
Once through the entrance gates, you drive a pine clad driveway that leads to a gravel reception area in front of a comfortable country house. The temptation is always to associate the word ‘grand’ with an aristocratic residence, although it’s undoubtedly well-appointed the property still retains the faint trace of ‘downsizing’ that the Piccolo family had to endure, owing to their father’s death and an economic crisis. That said, it’s an impressive edifice to this pair of English mortals!!
The affable oddity of their lifestyle is immediately apparent on entering the property through the central stairway. An oval hall acts as the conduit for a series of other rooms, including the central living space which divides the villa into two halves, both literally and metaphorically. To this day, more than 40 years after the poet’s death, his ‘half’ of the room reflects his tastes. There are magazines on tables as if Piccolo had put them down and wandered off for a stroll around the terrace.
He had an interest in the esoteric, maintaining a correspondence with W B Yeats who was pursuing his own Celtic twilight. Lucio dreamt of creating a Sicilian version that would poetically detail the island’s myth and legend, a task that was never realised. He didn’t share these occult leanings with Giuseppe Tomasi, but much more besides formed part of their literary sparring. The letters that passed between the two are ample evidence of their playfully antagonistic relationship tinged with an obvious affection. It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture the pair squirrelled away in the purpose-built library arguing over some nuance in the poetry of Lord Byron.
Lucio’s brother Casimiro occupied the other ‘half’ of the central salon. The two sides are organised very differently. The older Piccolo brother suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, hence the seemingly neurotic neatness of the furniture and décor. From an early age Casimiro showed an aptitude for drawing, which developed into his passion for painting and photography. He often combined this with the family’s arcane pursuits: the walls of the villa are adorned with much of his work including watercolours of sprites and pixies. Casimiro liked to escape into the garden during the wee small hours and imagine a whole plethora of supernatural beings populating the grounds.
The oldest of the three unmarried siblings was Agata Giovanna, or simply Giovanna to the family. Her twin passions were gardening and cooking. Surrounding the Villa Piccolo, Giovanna created a garden containing a series of rare plant species brought from around the world. She had a specimen of Puya berteroniana, part of the bromeliad family, brought from Brazil and as the foundation’s website points out, it’s the only specimen still to be found in Sicily. The garden remains an enchanting location, with arbour-covered walks, laced with the exotic and native from cycads to birds of paradise. In addition to the expanse that stretches upwards from the villa, there is a segment that leads from the salon’s French windows – the view of the Tyrrhenian is not to be missed.
It’s easy to see how these three timid children wove their own world of make-believe, far from the madding crowds. It was a world that the equally shy Lampedusa was happy to embrace on his frequent visits. Perhaps the most iconic of all their eccentricities is the pet cemetery. In the top right corner of the garden as you leave the house, there is a walled section containing the serried ranks of little tombstones, each one marking the demise of a beloved family dog and the occasional cat. Judging by the quantity, the Piccolos outlived a good number of their animal companions. The names of Farouk, Puch and Bey et al, each etched in the small stones, proudly announce the inhabitant and his/her place in the familial affections. It represents an endearing eccentricity writ large. When the author and journalist Gaia Servadio visited, she recalled their behaviour affectionately, noting they were all ‘cuckoo’, a quaint English phrase that encapsulates their mixture of diffidence, agreeable peculiarity and other-worldliness.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains.’
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.
They are both available worldwide. Click the covers below to view them on Amazon:-