The Leopard in Historical Context, (1963): Luchino Visconti
The Historical Context of The Leopard, (1963):director Luchino Visconti
Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned
Visconti needs to be recognised as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century. Visconti's aesthetic approach is fascinating and other themes such as homosexuality are very important to his oeuvre but it is the way in which Visconti develops these themes within an overarching intellectual framework which I think will ultimately lead to a wider recognition of his greatness. Some of Visconti's greatness stems from his treatment of history itself. Something which Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has commented upon:
It is in the quality of his meditation on history that Visconti distinguishes himself from all other film-makers, past or present. There have been great film-makers who have occasionally delved into the past for one reason or another... But none of these, not even Eisenstein, applies to his re-creation of the past a serious and thought through theory of history... Perhaps it is because we no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti's greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be. (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 216)
Sometimes it is only in retrospect that true greatness can be appreciated. Even Nowell-Smith one of the most important commentators writing in English on Visconti admits that his original criticism of Death in Venice missed many things of importance. If only all critics could be so honest about their errors accordingly.
Introduction: The representation of history
This posting functions only as a brief synopsis and introduction to Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963). a full synopsis will be provided in a different posting. This posting is primarily concerened with establishing the background history to the film and providing an analysis based upon this. This piece was part of a presentation which argues that The Leopard can be bracketed with The Damned (1979). Taken as a pair of films I argue that amongst other things Visconti is seeking to examine the limited modernising role of Liberalism through its use of nationalism and the contradictory nature of this Liberalism which always has the potential to revert into a non-modernising political formation through nationalism. The Damned and its representation of Nazism epitomises this potential.
Nationalism for Visconti on this reading is therefore within a doomed or even negative dialectic in which the progressive impetus originally embedded within Nationalism as a political force which could overthrow the Ancien Regime will become compromised by that regime and ultimately become a reactionary force within society.
My presentation argued that the two films can usefully be compared as representing the flawed highpoint of 19th century Liberal / National revolutions The Risorgimento through The Leopard whilst The Damned shows the ultimate dangers of nationalism through the barbarism of Nazism. Thus Visconti has framed an important period of European history in a bracket of attitudes to nationalism. Many of his future films sought to combine a cultural and political historical approach to this period eschewing historical approaches which tend to separate the two strands of history. For Visconti it appears as though they are strongly intertwined.
Frequently the reviews of these films largely miss the exploration of the mechanisms of history which Visconti was keen to represent and at times are considered firstly as 'heritage' films as in the case of The Leopard. Heritage films are reliant upon costume drama for their mise en scene set in an historical period different to our own but make little or no claims upon historical authenticity neither do they examine the mechanisms of history.
By comparison The Damned has been understood as a slightly aberrant and 'melodramatic' exploration into the sexual depravities surrounding Nazism in The Damned. This does the film an injustice by dehistoricising it.
Garibaldi's Redshirts at the battle for Palermo
Visconti is renowned for his attention to detail. These shirts were soaked in tea and left in the sun in order to replicate the fading of the originals which would have happened during the course of the campaign.
Historical Background to The Leopard
Visconti made two historical films about the period of the Risorgimento (This translates as Resurgence / Rebirth) which is the process of the unification of Italy during the 19th century. The first stirrings of nationalism can be discerned as early as the late 18th century during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte governed Italy. The overthrow of Napoleon led to Italy being carved up at the Congress of Vienna (1815) when the great powers allotted the regions of Venetia and Lombardy to direct control of Austria to ensure that France didn’t have an easy invasion route into Italy again.
Before Napoleon Italy had never been a unified state. It was comprised of eight separate regions with their own Princes (The Pope controlling the Papal States) and each area with a distinctive dialect, rather than a regional accent, which many can still speak today. As a language Italian was underdeveloped and certainly didn’t exist as a form of ‘Received’ language and pronunciation.
After the Congress of Vienna a number of secret societies formed called the Carbonari (Charcoal Burners). They weren’t especially well educated, neither was there a clear manifesto, and the elements comprising this movement were fairly heterogeneous. They were loosely linked by a desire to unify Italy and get rid of foreign powers although whether the Italy of their dreams should be a widely enfranchised democracy or just a liberal bourgeois regime united behind a constitutional monarch was an underlying polarisation which was to continue throughout the whole of the unification process. The unification process was drawn out not being completed until 1870.
There are a range of historical perspectives on the Risorgimento which were strongly political. Visconti was well aware of these and was making his films in such a way as to challenge right wing nationalist views on the period.
The key historiographical positions which have developed are usefully outlined by Martin Clark 1984 who also stresses that historical writing in Italy is very clearly ‘committed’ ‘to cheer on their own team’. Much historical writing is then hagiographic, or denunciatory, or ‘Whig’.
They have tended to be dominant within academia. Their major influence has been taken from Benedetto Croce with an ‘ethico-political’ approach. Croce stressed men and ideas and spent little time on either social structures or economic issues. In the 1950s historians like Rosario Romeo opened up the economic history arena challenging the Marxist historians of the time. Liberals like others, suggests Clark, have moved towards an overemphasis upon documents and ‘facts’ rather than interpretation and synthesis.
Another leading school was mentored by Salvemini and Gobbetti. Denis Mack Smith a British historian is their best known exponent. They are anti-Facist, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and to some extent anti-Liberal. This is because they criticise weakness of liberal governments, lack of popular support and a a ready acceptance of Southern corruption. Radicals are ‘delightfully pessimistic’ (whatever that is meant to mean) don’t write ‘total history’ but do reach a huge audience.
Clark argues that this school has been perhaps the most influential since 1945. Grouped around the journal Studi Storici . The main influence upon this group has been Gramsci whose work was published in Italy in 1945 after the end of the war. Gramsci’s main influence has been on the examination of the development of hegemony and consensus as a governing practice oiling the wheels of social change. Furthermore, the role of the intellectual as a disseminator of ideas of social change was emphasised. Gramsci also focused on the political importance of the peasantry as well.
Clark suggests that this school of Marxist thought had its limitations for they were ‘strangely uninterested in class divisions’. For them working class history usually meant a history of working class leaders. ‘Abstract entities , like proletariats and petty bourgeois, filled their pages; real workers and peasants rarely appeared, much less details of factory work, labouring skills or farming implements’. One can compare this attitude to that of British historians influenced by Marxism such as Hobsbawm and E. P Thompson).
Visconti’s Risorgimento Films: Senso (1954) / The Leopard (1963)
Visconti produced two films about the Risorgimento. At the time he made these the main historiographical perspectives were as outlined above. As a Marxist he was by now strongly influenced by Gramsci but also some of the work of the Radicals such as Gobbetti. His film Senso was strongly attacked by the army and there was a huge battle with censorship as well as with the producers. Even the final product went down as a political storm for it was very critical about the dominant way in which the Risorgimento was being represented.
Between 1949 & 1954 there were twelve films with the Risorgimento as their central theme made. Only Senso made a critique of the dominant position which was that Italian Unification had been brought by a spirit of self sacrifice. That passions were high on this subject as well as an underlying need to represent a united Italy following the take-over by Christian Democrats in 1948 is evidenced by the critical reception by one Italian historian of Dennis Mack’s (Radical) Italy a Modern History (1959) a few years later. ‘ The Risorgimento was not due to fortunate circumstances or to selfish interests ... It was a spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the way of exile and in the galleys, it was the blood of Italian youth on the battlefields ... It was the passion of a people for its Italian identity’. (quote taken from an ‘A’ level textbook and naughtily not sourced).
Senso was about the victory of the Austrians over the Italian army near Custoza (June 1866). Due to general mismanagement and incompetence based upon a story by Boito which recounts the infidelities of a Countess both to her husband and to the nationalist cause by falling for an Austrian officer. Visconti’s adaptation was very different but incomplete because of censorship. The historical reality was that France had made different secret deals with both Prussia and Austria by then at war with each other. In both cases Napoleon III promised to remain neutral provided that the winners passed Venetia firstly to him and with the understanding that it would then be passed to the Italian kingdom which had come about in 1861. In reality the Prussian victory at Sadowa meant that Venetia was passed to France and thence to Italy without the Italians being able to win it, much to the chagrin of the Italians.
This story wasn’t what was required at the time the film was made. It would have had contemporary resonances of the Allies being the primary liberators of Italy and undermine the myths of resistance and national solidarity which were being strongly promoted. As the Communists had been cut out of government by then there were clearly strong underlying political stakes. Senso is probably best seen as a cultural political intervention within the politics of the moment.
The Leopard is a less melodramatic film in the English sense of the term but it is deeply suffused with a sense of history at the meta level. Visconti manages to combine a range of intellectual influences into this film which perhaps will come in due course to gain the full recognition it deserves. It is informed by Marx and Gramsci at the level of history as well as by Lukacs whose sense of realism revolves around the character type. For Lukacs this means a character who is someone entirely of their class but who embodies the contradictions of history most fully.
Without once representing the working and peasant classes as a fundamental force of progress The Leopard combines a deep level of class analysis with an understand of the contradictory forces of history. The Prince understands along with Don Calogero, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) and of course Tancredi (Alain Delon) that Italy is at a turning point. Tancredi’s youth, dandyism and vigour as well as being a nephew from a more impoverished branch of the aristocracy thus slightly outside of the establishment have led him to understand that the invasion of Garibaldi’s 1,000 in Sicily gives him an opportunity to break away from the static society of Sicily where his only hope for the future would be marriage to the shy Concetta his cousin and daughter of the Prince. This would perpetuate the physical and cultural inbreeding of the Sicilian gentry which, Visconti implies, is gradually sapping the elite of its vigour.
Tancredi quickly persuades his uncle the Prince of Salina that everything must change on the surface so that fundamental social relations don’t change. There is no loyalty to the new young King of Naples who has failed to respond positively to the winds of change emanating from Piedmont and who is effectively allied with Austria. Tancredi is attracted to the romanticism and panache of the adventurist Garibaldian ‘Redshirts’. The Prince even gives him some money to help him on his way. The Prince has quickly realised that the fundamental social order will not be changed in a revolutionary manner but that a reordering of sorts is necessary in order for his class to survive.
The Prince has an important discussion with the priest in his study surrounded by telescopes. These function as a metaphor for farsightedness, they are redolent of Galileo and his relationship to the Church, and they establish the Prince as a man of Enlightenment, an intellectual. This is contrasted with the house of another of the Sicilian aristocracy where the ball scene is held at the end of the film.
Here the Prince and his family are greeted on their arrival by the inhabitants of his summer retreat in Donnafugata.
The film shifts to the fighting in Palermo where the Redshirts win. The film moves to the Prince’s summer residence in Donnafugata away from the hotter Palermo area. They have already gained a travel permit from the Garibaldians. Many of the Garibaldian officers are from a similar class background to Tancredi. Tancredi’s position as a captain in the Garibaldian army allows them to get through a roadblock whilst the peasants are noticeably not allowed to pass. This is a clear indicator of the social limits of the revolution against the Bourbons.
In Donnafugata the processes by which a new social elite is recomposed from a mixture of old and new elements is represented. Don Calogero is the mayor and a scheming businessman who like a Hyena preys upon the needs of a distressed aristocracy, buying up some of their lands when they are desperate for some cash to support their old ways of living. Throughout the film Don Calogero is portrayed as a man who is Dickensian in many ways knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Don Calogero has a beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who he introduces into polite society when invited with other petit bourgeois locals to dinner with the Prince. Sexually and erotically Tancredi is swept of his feet much to the disgust of Concetta who wants Tancredi. The prince goes into the background of Angelica’s family and quickly realises that Angelica would be a suitable match for Tancredi and vows to help him.
Here Tancredi has been courting Angelica in an old part of the Prince's palace. Angelica is playing hard to get. As a potential member of the rising bouregois class allied to the aristocracy she knows her virginity is a key part of her road to success. She is clearly not interested in having an illegitimate child with a member of the local aristocracy. Here mise en scene, in which actor performance is an essential part, has been raised by Visconti's direction to a level in which the history of class and sexuality in terms of power and history is literally embodied in a single scene.
To do this he has to overcome the protestations of both his wife and don Ciccio the Church organist who is an honest and faithful loyalist to the now deposed Bourbon dynasty. It is he who makes it clear to the Prince that the plebiscite in October 1860 was rigged by Don Calogero. The Prince is determined to make it as easy as possible for Tancredi and overrides these protestations. It is the Prince who has the foresight to be able to act in the interests of his class.
It is important to make a voluntary match of a dynamic couple bringing in new blood as well as money for his fortune must already be split seven ways. A match with Concetta would not be a happy one. The Prince also recognises that a match with another of
Throughout Visconti makes it plain that ‘being in love’ is more of a social mechanism than a permanent state of being. Throughout the film Concetta cannot get over Tancredi although he has never signalled any direct intentions towards her. She turns down other opportunities, and towards the end Angelica tells her that she needs to be more pragmatic and change her views. Concetta is stuck in a demure Catholicised torpor and shows none of the flirtatious dynamism required of Angelica if she is to make the grade in the new society. Concetta represents the fading world of the aristocracy of the past whilst Tancredi backed by the Prince recognises the mechanisms of social change and the need to adapt to survive.
Although many make a point of the Prince’s tiredness and awareness of death it is as a synecdoche of a fading class. The other family members are also highlighted like this at the ball for when the Prince is rejuvenated by his dance with Angelica; Concetta, her brother and mother look on totally enervated. They don’t appear to have the vibrancy to take a full place in the developing new Italy. By comparison just as the Prince is leaving the ball Tancredi tells him that he is going to be a candidate for the new government in Turin.
A role in government of the new order is something that the Prince recognises he cannot become involved in even when he is offered a place in the senate by Chevalley who is a representative of the Liberal regime under King Victor Emmanuel II. The Prince isn’t temperamentally trained or suited to making legislation and he also recognises that he is a part of the old order and someone who is sympathetic to it. Chevalley is disappointed and astounded, he is a Liberal idealist and he doesn’t at all like the suggestion of Segaro (Don Calogero) who he knows to be totally opportunistic and unscrupulous taking a political position. Nothing will change he argues. When Chevalley leaves the Prince famously comes out with the statement that the Lions and Leopards (the Aristocrats) will be replaced by Hyenas and Jackals. This is a reference to don Calogero’s abilities to gradually pick off the weaker aristocracy by gaining their land and then a weaker aristocrat (Tancredi) by marrying into the status (symbolic capital of the aristocracy). It was something that Visconti was familiar with from his own background.
Visconti’s representation of the Risorgimento
The film continuously critiques the myth of the Risorgimento as a homogenous struggle of the popular masses. It was a myth which the Italian centre and rightwing had long promoted and their resistance had led to Senso running foul of the censors. In The Leopard Tancredi and his officer friends who were Garibaldians have by the winter following their victory in Palermo changed their uniforms from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to being officers in the new Piedmontese army. They reappear at Donnafugata after November 1860 when Garibaldi would have entered Naples in triumph accompanying King Victor Emmanuel.
It was at this time that Garibaldi was offered the rank of Major General along with various privileges. These he turned down as he thought that his Redshirts were being badly treated by the Victor Emmanuel. Tancredi now represents the ruling elites who had been incorporated into the official forces. Some critics such as Bacon, have seen Tancredi as opportunistic ‘whereas Tancredi’s portrayal is nothing if not critical , that of the prince is quite the opposite...’ (p 94).
However Tancredi made clear at the outset that his allegiance was to Victor Emmanuel and that he was only a Garibaldian volunteer because there was no other option. The Prince has always understood the contradictions. In historical reality those who marched with Garibaldi were never an homogenous political grouping representing only a loose political alliance. Many Mazzinian republicans fought with Garibaldi working to a more radical agenda than Garibaldi would have supported.
It was another factor which caused the mistrust of Garibaldi amongst the elites as well as his adventurist approach in general. I argue that Tancredi is entirely true to his class position. By recognising that his material position isn’t good he is acting in both his own as well as his class interests this is why the Prince of Salina is supporting him. Concetta is entirely unable to understand the social and class dynamics of events. When Tancredi says that the rabble who deserted to support Garibaldi were justly to be executed Concetta rightly turns on him and says he wouldn’t have talked like that earlier, but no officer of any military force is going to look favourably upon mutiny.
The Prince’s class needs people on the inside and the fact that Angelica recognises the role of the Prince while they are dancing reinforces the point.
Garibaldi’s adventurism is commented upon in the Ball sequence for there the regular officers of the new Army of the now King of Italy, (Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in 1861), are talking about the Battle of Aspromante which happened in 1862.
The battle was between regular government troops and Garibaldi who had started a march on Rome from
This could lead to a false sentimentality for Garibaldi amongst audiences. Garibaldi himself was no radical politically. Despite appealing to the Sicilian peasantry by supporting land reform in the few weeks that he was in direct control of
Where the film functions well is in showing how the state was prepared to act very firmly in the interests of Liberalism which had clear strategic aims and an agenda. Adventurists like Garibaldi tied to an idealist concept of Nationalism were not the people who were going to develop and embed the new political order. A period of stability was required to consolidate and Garibaldi was stopped.
Here the Prince (Burt Lancaster) dances with Claudia Cardinale (Angelica) at the ball which takes approximately 40 minutes of the end of the film. It functions amongst other things as a public recognition of angelica as an arrivant. The scene cuts to the rest of the family watching the couple dance, with Concetta and her mother looking faded and draw. Again it is Visconti's use of mise en scene which encapsulates class relations and the underlying dynamics in an instant. This is part of the genius of Visconti.
Overall The Leopard makes it clear that nationalism as ‘the passion of a people for its Italian identity’ was never a reality. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti makes it implicitly clear rather than explicit that the rising power of the Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Chevalley represents modern social thinking which argues that good quality social administration would increase the lot of the poor. This was a position which was enacted for the first time under Bismarck of course. Visconti when interviewed later is firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed if social inequality is to be eradicated.
Elsewhere I will be posting an analysis of The Leopard combined with Visconti’s treatment of Nazism in The Damned (1969). In this I argue that Visconti has deliberately explored the failures of European Liberalism to be able to deliver the promise of social progress through a route which is dependent upon nationalism. It is nationalism which is ultimately irreconcilable with social progress and in its Liberal formulation is doomed to a failure marked by barbarism. Visconti by treating the Risorgimento as the highpoint of Liberal Nationalism is able to contrast it to the depths plumbed by Nazism. Interestingly revolutions of both a progressive and a regressive nature tend to eat their children, a point made by Zizek in his foreward to the recently reprinted book by Adorno In Search of Wa,gner (Verso, 2005):
Is not the key paradox of every revolutionary process, in the course of which not only is violence needed to overcome the existing violence, but the revolution, in order to stabilise itself into a New Order, has to eat its children. (Zizek, Slavoj, 2005 p xxvi).
This is something which Visconti clearly seems to understand for the closing scenes of The Leopard feature the sounds of the exectution of radical Garibaldians who have their opposite numbers in the slaughter of the SA in the 'Night of the Long Knives' which he depicts more openly in The Damned.
Link to Tales of a Festival site with link to live Visconti interview en francais!
Link to Buffalo film Seminar Series on The Leopard. contains extracts from both Nowell-Smith and Bondanella on the film.
For other internal links see: