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Zibaldone – Voices

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Lessico leopardiano – a new project about Giacomo Leopardi’s thought

by Martina Piperno (University of Warwick)

Lessico leopardiano is an interdisciplinary and inter-faculty project that was started in La Sapienza, Università di Roma and is directed by Prof Novella Bellucci, Franco D’Intino and Stefano Gensini. The research team is composed mainly of PhD students, post-docs and young researchers, and is one of the widest in the academic world, involving around thirty people. The project was launched in 2011: a conference on this topic was organized in Frascati (Rome) in May 2011 and in the same year the first publication was released, Per un lessico leopardiano (Rome: Palombi, 2011).

The project was re-funded in 2012, and the team is now working on a new publication, expected for the end of 2013. The 2011 book was extremely dynamic and various, comparing different methodological approaches; the research group is now working on a much more homogeneous oeuvre. It is expected be much more similar to a ‘dictionary of ideas’, useful to get oriented in the labyrinth of Leopardi’s works and in particular in the Zibaldone. For the future, Bellucci, D’Intino and Gensini are thinking of working on an online version of the lexicon, which could be updated and expanded indefinitely, and would be more flexible in the interconnection of the lexemes.

Why do we want to write a Leopardian lexicon? Because we appreciate in Leopardi, as in few other authors in Italian literature, a unique property of language: some entries are exclusive to Leopardi’s language, they are necessary to speak about Leopardi’s thought, and they cannot be replaced or paraphrased. A primary example is the word ‘assuefazione’: interpreters use it without rephrasing it, as it has actually no real alternatives, no synonyms. The same applies to many other words. Leopardi exploits the resources of the Italian language and constitutes a highly personalized idiolexis to express his philosophic system. Stating this principle is less straightforward than it might seem. In fact, it means recognizing a full philosophical dimension to Leopardi, and considering the vocabulary he chooses as an analytic one, capable of re-naming, that is to say re-interpreting, objects.

The peculiarity of Leopardi’s lexical choices is also due to his special position in the history of the Italian language: Leopardi writes in the period known to language historians as ‘fine dell’italiano letterario di tradizione’. The lyrical vocabulary started to sound old-fashioned to the ears and pens of Leopardi’s contemporaries. Traditional vocabulary was gradually supplanted by daily, customary language. Leopardi could therefore deviate from traditional rhetoric, selecting his vocabulary more freely and giving a highly personal mark to his language. This phenomenon is particularly recognizable in poetry: in Leopardi’s lyrical lexicon ‘consecrated by the tradition, the traditional meaning revives and merges with the new instilled one’[1].

It is well-known that the most important innovations in Leopardi’s language affect the signifiers more than the signified: traditional literary language is used to convey contents of compelling modernity, so that it sounds old-fashioned, backward and dull. See, for example the contrast, between the obsolete vocabulary and images with the modern ones in Palinodia a Gino Capponi: ‘aureo secolo ormai volgono, o Gino, / i fusi delle Parche’ versus ‘ogni giornale […] da tutti i lidi lo promette al mondo’. Giovanni Nencioni wrote that that was an ‘antiquarian’ use of traditional signifiers.

Leopardi’s prose, particularly that of the Operette morali, shows similar phenomena. The mixing of styles and the extreme lexical variety are normally detected by the most important studies. Leopardi often uses ironically deformed vocabulary, alienated and alienating – as it is in the beginning of Storia del genere umano. The short prose is characterized by a series of poetic ‘words’ (for the definition of ‘word’ in Leopardi, see below), programmatically used to achieve an effect of deep lyricism. But the effect is illusory, and it is progressively extinguished by the disenchantment that slowly takes over.

The poet’s extreme awareness of semiotic and textual facts is one of the primary reasons for a lexical search in his oeuvre. Leopardi is in fact strongly sensitive to his linguistic resources. Categories such as ‘words’ and ‘terms’ (Zib. 109-10), and the corresponding categories of ‘property’ and ‘precision’ (Zib. 1234) distinguish between ‘units of meaning’, and not among formal characteristics of the lexemes. For this reason, we may regard Leopardi as a sort of ante litteram semiotician.

Finally, Leopardi’s awareness of his own authority on the language, in particular for what concerns the relationship between sign and signified, is extremely clear in the Zibaldone. There he makes exercises of clarification (‘e quando dico moderno intendo principalmente le più moderne commedie satire’, Zib. 41), semantic inversion (‘ciò che si chiama perfezionamento, e io chiamo corruzione’, Zib. 1559), punctualization (‘quella che io chiamo qui filosofia propria’, Zib. 2730) or invents new structures (‘questo genere di verbi […] che io chiamo continuativo con voce nuova, perché nuova è l’osservazione’). This is a sort of progressive clarification and self-explanation of Leopardi’s highly personal language.

Furthermore, Leopardi was not satisfied with modern Italian language, ill-equipped to adapt to and express the new literature and the new philosophy. The exertion of lexicon forms an implicit part of Leopardi’s project of renovating Italian language. Leopardian words are re-semanticized; so that we must admit the existence of a Leopardian language that needs to be studied independently. We must ‘interpret Leopardi according to the values of his personal language, not of a dry and collective langue[2]. For all these reasons, the hypothesis of the compilation of a Leopardian lexicon looks like a productive and interesting line of research, if not a necessary one.


[1] ‘consacrato dalla tradizione […] il significato tradizionale si fonde e si ravviva col senso nuovo che vi ha trasfuso’ (Emilio Peruzzi, ‘Saggio di lettura leopardiana’, Vox Romanica XV (1956), p. 101.

[2] ‘interpretare Leopardi secondo i valori della sua lingua individuale, e non secondo una asettica langue collettiva’ (E. Peruzzi,  Studi leopardiani, II (Florence: Olschki, 1919), p. 9).

Martina Piperno is the current co-ordinator of the Leopardi’s Lexicon project. She graduated in 2012 in Rome La Sapienza with a thesis on the semantic area of change and mutability in Leopardi. Now she is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick: her thesis tackles the theme of the relationship between Leopardi and Giambattista Vico, and it is supervised by Dr Fabio Camilletti and Dr David Lines.

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One comment on “Zibaldone – Voices

  1. tvayyyy
    March 10, 2015

    Reblogged this on TVAyyyy and commented:
    Very interesting. “It is well-known that the most important innovations in Leopardi’s language affect the signifiers more than the signified: traditional literary language is used to convey contents of compelling modernity, so that it sounds old-fashioned, backward and dull. “

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2013 by in Voices.
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