from The Moral Essays (1824)
Born in Recamati, Italy, in 1798 to a conservative family, Giacomo Leopardi was a brilliant scholar and philosopher who, at the age of sixteen, had already taught himself Latin and Greek as well as several modern languages. Suffering from a congenital spinal condition and blindness brought on by long study, Leopardi led a miserable life, which manifested itself in his exquisitely sad lyric poetry and his philosophy of despair. He died in Naples in 1837.
The dialogue included here shows Leopardi's ironic modernity: his celebration of the transitory fashion as a relation of death. Like Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, Leopardi draws an analogy between the elegantly attired body and the corpse at a funeral. The perfect moment of fashion is like the appearance of the dead shortly before they are interred. They appear perfect, without a single hair misplaced, and yet they are lifeless. This immobile beauty, combined with an awareness of how short-lived fashions are, led Leopardi to equate fashion with death. We see how unconventional this pairing was by the fact that death at first does not see the relation. Only fashion, the quintessentially modern figure, understands how closely death follows on style.
FASHION: Madame Death, Madame Death!
DEATH: Wait till the time is ripe, and I'll come without your calling.
FASHION: Madame Death!
DEATH: Go to the devil. I'll come when you don't want me.
FASHION: As if I weren't immortal!
DEATH: Immortal? “Already now the thousandth year hath passed” since the times of the immortals.