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In the courtyard of the Villa Lampedusa, a few miles from Palermo, Frisian cows pick their way carefully through the rubble. Their home is a wasteland of defunct objects: broken boxes, squashed petrol cans, a clutter of old bath tubs. The villa itself is deserted, its broken shutters creaking with languor in the hot afternoon breeze. The façade is cracked and pockmarked, the stucco has faded to a mild ochre, but the Rococo ceilings are still intact – delicate, highly-wrought arrangements of fruit and flowers.

Yet in spite of its dilapidation, the villa is in better condition than most of the family houses which Giuseppe di Lampedusa knew as a child. The Palazzo Cuto at Santa Margherita, the most beautiful of all the palaces and the inspiration for Donnafugata in The Leopard, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968: the courtyards are full of ruined masonry, the garden which was once ‘a paradise of parched scents’ is overgrown by thistles seven feet tall. The ducal palace at Palma di Montechiaro stands gaunt and derelict, while the Villa Cuto is now a squalid tenement forming part of the station yard at Bagheria. There is nothing left of the family house in Torretta: it was demolished a quarter of a century ago and replaced by a monstrous orange school. In the middle of Palermo the site of the Palazzo Lampedusa remains untouched since the American bombing of 1943: the uncleared debris covers half an acre of the old city.

Nature, climate, human folly and neglect: these, and foreign invasion, were the agents which destroyed the family homes. Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who died in 1957 when the destruction was yet incomplete, would have appreciated the irony of it. To him they were only too familiar, not merely as the combination which had wrecked the patrimony of a great princely family, but as the demons which had paralysed Sicily and sabotaged all hope of its resurrection.

The pessimistic, fatalist version of Sicilian history propounded in The Leopard angered the Communist and fellow-travelling intelligentsia of post-war Italy. Yet Lampedusa’s scepticism was the product, not of reactionary ideals or aristocratic nostalgia, but of a strong sense of his island’s history. He did not deny Progress its place in England and France, but he was sceptical about its application to Sicily. The indigenous forces, the forces of climate and environment which had shaped the island’s history and formed its people’s character, had strangled and would always strangle the fine schemes of the reformers. ‘In Sicily,’ remarks Prince Fabrizio in The Leopard, ‘it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of “doing” at all ... The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery.’

Lampedusa blamed the ‘violence of landscape’ and the ‘cruelty of climate’ for the indolence and complacency of the Sicilians. For him ‘the real Sicily’ was a ‘comfortless and irrational’ landscape, ‘desolate, breathless, oppressed by a leaden sun’. His writing was full of references to ‘the furnace of summer’, ‘the vehemence of light’, ‘this summer of ours which is as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success’. The sun was ‘the true ruler of Sicily’ which together with the landscape distorted all growth and nullified all human endeavour. They shrivelled or they magnified, leaving nothing as it should be, even transforming roses from Paris into obscene objects like flesh-coloured cabbages.

Lampedusa loved Sicily as well as hated it, and both The Leopard and the short story ‘Lighea’ contain descriptions of the beauty of the landscape: the fields of waving corn around Etna, the Nebrodi hills, the colour of the sea beyond Augusta. But it was a landscape fit for gods or lotus-eaters, a paradise for the senses, not a place for human beings who had to work. Eternal Sicily was a Classical landscape where the gods had sojourned, but it was not a country where rational beings could survive.

If the torpor and irrationality of the people were the products of climate and landscape, Lampedusa believed that it was the introduction of alien civilisations which was responsible for the Sicilian impermeability to anything new. There were too many invaders and too many monuments, none of them understood or even resisted, which led to what Lampedusa described as ‘a terrifying insularity of mind’. Two and a half thousand years as a colony had made Sicily incapable of thinking for itself, incapable even of wishing to improve. Every reformer from the Arabs to the Piedmontese had been confronted and defeated by Sicilian fatalism. ‘Anyone who wanted to change anything in the Sicilian character,’ wrote Lampedusa, has ‘soon acquired the reputation of being a fool’.

In the most controversial passage of The Leopard, Prince Fabrizio (who was clearly putting forward much of Lampedusa’s own view of Sicilian history) ascribed Sicilian behaviour to a hankering after death. Sicilians were interested in the artistic fashions of other countries only when these were out of date; they were attracted by the past only because it was dead. Their most famous characteristics – their langour, their sensuality and their violence – demonstrated their desire for immobility and death. They were thus attracted simultaneously by immortality and oblivion.

‘If Sicily is still as it was in my day,’ says the professor La Ciura in ‘Lighea’, ‘I imagine nothing good ever happens there, as it hasn’t for three thousand years.’ The story was written thirty years ago and was placed in 1938. Over the intervening years many things have happened in Sicily, but it is difficult to think of any which La Ciura would have approved of. There have been great victories in health and communications: the republic has over-seen the eradication of malaria, the reduction of the latifondi, the industrialisation of Syracuse and the eastern seaboard, the emergence of Augusta as a great sea-port. You could no longer describe Sicily as Lampedusa did in the memoirs of his childhood: villages with open drains and pigs in the main street, ‘weltering in poverty and dog-days, and in an ignorance against which they never reacted with the very faintest of flickers’. But the victories have been won mainly in the east, far from Palermo and the Mafia provinces which Lampedusa wrote about. The appearance of Palermo has changed a great deal since his day, but its spirit is much the same. The city is notorious for tax evasion, property speculation and political corruption. Violence still seems endemic, gangland murders still fill the columns of the Giornale di Sicilia. Yet it is the inhabitants’ attitudes to their city, the lack of any civic feeling, the indifference to the decay of their historic buildings, which have changed least of all since Lampedusa’s bitter observations. He blamed poverty and neglect for making Sicily ‘the most destructive of countries’, yet Palermo is much richer now than it was thirty years ago, and it is still the worst preserved city in Europe. If you walk around old Seville or the smaller inland towns of western Andalusia, you find restoration in progress in almost every street. In Palermo I saw two buildings receiving attention: the heart of the old city still consists mostly of slums and dilapidated mansions.

The countryside is treated with similar neglect, and the traveller to the island may well wonder why a place with so much natural beauty deserved to suffer so intensely from the indifference of its people. As I walked one evening by the sea, I remembered Lampedusa’s description of ‘the enchantment of certain summer nights within sight of Castellamare bay, when stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea and the spirit of anyone lying back among the lentisks is lost in a vortex of sky, while the body is tense and alert, fearing the approach of demons’. This may never have been an experience much valued by the population of Castellamare, but no one now can have the opportunity of repeating it. The bay is ringed with concrete bungalows in various stages of incompletion, and the pagan mystery of the place is lost in a smudge of shoddy architecture.

Lampedusa often exaggerated the extremism of Sicily – a Sicilian June is certainly not so glum as a Russian February – but his predictions were shrewder than his Catholic and left-wing critics allowed at the time. Sicily could not be redeemed by technology, or refineries, or motorways traversing the island. The abolition of feudalism would not release latent energies with sufficient power to dismantle the archaic network of patronage and corruption. Lampedusa had little sympathy for his fellow aristocrats (they had ‘a low consumption of general ideas’) and he had no illusions about their adequacy as a ruling class. Like Prince Fabrizio, he ‘watched the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it’. Yet he knew that the people who came after would be no better. The day of the leopard was over, and the rule of the jackal had begun.

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