Ebbene, that's a lion head, I know, but I'll try to get to the point soon enough. Behind this great 19th century door is Palermo's Palazzo Lanza Tomasi: now a complex of private flats, apartments for travellers to rent, handsome courtyards on different floors, the residential piano nobile of the present owners Gioacchino and Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi - the Duke and Duchess of Palma* to give them their titles, which I like to suppose they seldom use - and the rooms in which lived Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Gioacchino's adoptive father and author of one of the greatest 20th century novels.
He moved here five years after the bombing of the Palazzo Lampedusa adjoining the Oratory of Santa Zita in 1943 - a major wartime trauma for the deeply sensitive, introspective writer - and Via Butera remained his home until his death in 1957 at the age of 60.
We happened to book an apartment without even knowing the connection to the author of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo; this is not the place to go in to the Italian word's exact meaning), which I packed to re-read along with David Gilmour's biography of Lampedusa. All we knew was that our base was to be in the old town with a sliver of a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Perhaps that situation, above all the street on which we stayed, was why I fell in love with Palermo more or less on first sight, behaviour which a recent pundit on Sicily declares is only for the mentally unhinged. I didn't buy his book.
The palace backs on to a high walkway on top of the 16th century Spanish bastion
which also takes you past the slightly older (17th century) Palazzo Butera of the wealthy Lanza Branciforte family.
At the foot of the bastion is the Foro Italico. Before the Second World War the promenade met the sea here; a painting in the palace shows a high-society scene. This, believe it or not, was a bandstand for the leisured classes.
All the wartime rubble pushed the sea back a couple of hundred yards; a visitor in the 1950s remembers the writer and his wife leaning over to watch prostitutes leading clients into the debris. Plans may or may not be realised in 2014 to transform the green beyond into something smarter.
Anyway, it was just before we left for Sicily that we learned through a friend of a friend that Gioacchino, husband of the charming Nicoletta with whom I'd already had a friendly e-mail exchange, happened to be the great man's adopted son as well as a distinguished professor of music and former opera house intendant (see the Teatro Massimo entry). For anyone who knows the film rather than the book, the fact that some of his spirited characteristics went in to the character of Tancredi is of assistance in declaring that Gioacchino IS Alain Delon (Visconti's Tancredi). Here he is in 1955 standing with Lampedusa in the ruined castle of Montechiaro.
Shortly before his death Lampedusa became especially fond, among the acolytes who attended his evidently brilliant courses on English and French literature, of Gioacchino and the girl he was soon to marry, his first wife Mirella. So the chronology, about which I was slightly incredulous to begin with, makes sense.
You can see from this 1893 enamelled silver matchbox crest (image kindly provided by Gioacchino) that the arms of Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe's great-grandfather and the partial model for the fictional leopard-prince Don Fabrizio, feature what looks like a lion rather than a leopard. Here's the famous portrait in the palace with vivacious Nicoletta and Gioacchino, having willingly consented, photographed beneath it.
I wrote 'partial' just now because while the physical build, the essential manliness and quick temper of the novel's astronomer-prince seem to be prerogatives of the original - and indeed are so well conveyed by a weirdly dubbed Burt Lancaster in the curate's-egg film - his incurable pessimism and almost Wotanish willing of 'the end' as represented in so many splendid speeches would seem to be Lampedusa's own.
He was a wilting scion of a never very productive family. Indeed, it was in danger of dying out as early as the 16th century, when the self-scouring 'saint-duke', the first, of Palma who founded a cathedral in this small south Sicilian town and turned his palace in to a Benedictine convent produced a brood of daughters most of whom became nuns. Chief among them was Isabella who took dictation from the devil and was regularly punished by him in a very Fiery Angelish sort of possession. The painting of these early ascetics, mystics and - dare I say it - hysterics hangs in the large drawing room of the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi.
Lampedusa has been maligned as an aristocratic reactionary. Instead, he had a curious ability to see both, or all, sides; he was as Gioacchino put it last week on a visit for, among other things, a 50th anniversary screening of the Visconti film at the Italian Cultural Institute, 'a disenchanted judge of how the world went around'. The Leopard may sympathise with the eclipse of a noble family by the mafioso-like rise of the middle man, but in one of the two chapters (or part) added later, 'Father Pirrone pays a visit', Lampedusa gives a village perspective on the nobles while hardly portraying local affairs in a flattering light.
History fascinated him. He had curious sympathies with the French Revolution and the development of the English consitution, even if he remained ironic about the Italian predicament, encapsulated in the famous (and still, to me, ambiguous) line in The Leopard 'everything must change so that everything can stay the same'. There were two libraries in the Palazzo, one for literature and this one in which Gioacchino sits, just off the great drawing room, devoted entirely to history books up to Churchill's time (the French section is huge).
While Lampedusa's interior life was absorbed by an astonishing range of literature, English always to the forefront, his outward biography verges on the dull. He travelled a great deal around Europe in his youth, and a recently published volume of 1920s letters from 'The Monster' to his friends back in Sicily shows what a lively correspondent he was; in later years he rarely budged from northern Sicily. His Baltic wedding to his uncle Pietro's stepdaughter, the mannish Alessandra 'Licy' Wolff, who later became Italy's first woman psychoanalyst - a factor, surely, in the novel's handling of love and death - led to a marriage compromised by his status as figlio di mamma. Licy could not bear to share him with the domineering Beatrice di Lampedusa and the couple spent many years living apart.
The tragedy was that, as Gilmour puts it, 'death came to him later than he had once hoped but sooner than he then wanted, destroying him not after he had succumbed to despair, not at the final stage of his disillusion with life, but, tragically, at the most vital and active period of his existence.' In 1955, only two years before his death, he began work on The Leopard and continued to add to it; he did not live to see its publication. I, for one, wish there were more, but as it stands the novel is a perfect miniature War and Peace, one of the few books to show human nature in the round as sympathetically as Tolstoy. The pessimism is hard going but gives the work its special flavour.
Visconti's film has shortcomings where the novel, as far as I can see, has none. The acting strikes many false notes: Claudia Cardinale is coquettishly courtesan rather than naturally sensuous as Angelica, the magnificent daughter of the 'upstart' new man Don Calogero - how Chekhovian that is - who captures the heart of the prince's attractive nephew Tancredi (the gorgeous Alain Delon) as well as that of painfully ageing Don Fabrizio himself. Her cackling at Tancredi's outspoken table conversation is awful; blame the dubbing, as one must for the princess's hysterics and for the totally inappropriate, tenorish voice given to Lancaster's prince**.
The pace is uncertain and, in the ball scene, crippling, perhaps deliberately so if Visconti wants us to get a sense of how boring and endless these society occasions could be (though Rota could have written a few more waltzes and ecossaises rather than recycling a handful). It was a cop-out to the conventions of epic film to show Tancredi engaged in Risorgimento fighting, a scene which does not exist in the novel and is of more interest in showing left-wing Visconti's sympathies (he stands, of course, at the other end of the political scale from Lampedusa).
Yet it all looks ravishing in the latest brushed-up print; Visconti takes painstaking care to try and recapture Lampedusa's delight in the details of vanished splendour. And at least, in league with the author of the screenplay Suso Ceccho D'Amico, he tries to give us a sense of the various dialogues' richness. The prince's point of view comes across in the conversations with Don Ciccio, the organist and fellow-hunter on the country estate of Donnafugata, and above all with Chevalley, the Piedmontese Secretary to the Prefecture who wants him to take up a place on the Senate. Don Fabrizio's reasons for refusal form the heart of the novel, or at least its attitude to Sicilian life. I can't quote it all here, but I'll try to extract the pith in Archibald Colquhoun's enduring translation. The lines in bold are more or less those uttered in the short clip I found of Lancaster in this scene on YouTube, clearly posted by a Sicilian who had the sense of 'plus ça change'.
'Just listen to me, Chevalley, will you? If it were merely a question of some honorific, of a simple title to put on a visiting card, no more, I should be pleased to accept; I feel that at this decisive moment for the future of the Italian state it is the duty of us all to support it, and to avoid any impression of disunity in the eyes of these foreign States which are watching us with alarm or hope, both of them unjustified, but that do at the moment exist.'
'Well then, Prince, why not accept?'
'Be patient now, Chevalley, I'll explain in a moment; we Sicilians have become accustomed, by a long, a very long hegemony of rulers who were not of our religion and did not speak our language, to split hairs. If we had not done so, we'd never have coped with Byzantine tax gatherers, with Berber Emirs, with Spanish Viceroys. Now the bent is endemic, we're made like that. I said "support", I did not say "participate". In these last six months, since your Garibaldi set foot at Marsala, too many things have been started without our being consulted for you now to ask a member of the old governing class to help develop them and carry them through. I do not wish to discuss now if what was done was good or bad; for my part I believe much of it to have been bad; but I'd like to tell you at once what you'll only understand after spending a year among us.
'In Sicily it doesn't matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of "doing" at all. We are old, Chevalley, very old. For over 25 centuries we've been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own...we're worn out and exhausted.'
Chevalley was disturbed now. 'But that is all over, isn't it? Now Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free part of a free State.'
'The intention is good, Chevalley, but it comes too late, and I've already said that it is mainly our fault...
'Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts: I must say, between ourselves, that I have strong doubts whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. All Sicilian self-expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfilment: our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic ices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again; our meditative air is that of a void wanting to scrutinise the enigmas of Nirvana. From that comes the power among us of certain people, of those who are half awake...
'...Anyway, I've explained myself badly. I said Sicilians, I should have added Sicily, the atmosphere, the climate, the landscape of Sicily. Those are the forces which have formed our minds together with and perhaps more than alien pressure and varied invasions: this landscape which knows no mean between sensuous sag and hellish drought; which is never petty, never ordinary, never relaxed as should be a country made for rational beings to live in; this country of ours in which the infernal round Randazzo is a few miles from the beauty of Taormina Bay; this climate which inflicts us with six feverish months at a temperature of 104...this summer of ours which is as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success...
'This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent and yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from all directions, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression works of art we found enigmatic and taxes we found only too intelligible, and which they spent elsewhere. All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.'
Maybe things are changing, or my superficial traveller's mind would like to think so. But then I've never lived through the worst Cosa Nostra years or endured the 'cruelty' of the Sicilian summer. Yet even in Lampedusa's pessimism there's that fascination which, it seems, can never wrest a Sicilian away from his - and her, especially since Letizia Battaglia says much the same in a different context - homeland. If the island obsesses me after two visits totalling three weeks, what can it do to a native?
*I questioned that too, at first: Parma, surely? No, Palma is a town in the south of Sicily, as I explain later on.
**I learn there's an English language version for the American market, where Lancaster speaks in his own voice.
Photos of the palazzo and the Lanza Tomasis are mine; thanks to Gioacchino for the reproduction of the 1950s images and the silver matchbox crest; others are mostly wiki-web drawn (any credits gladly given on request)