The passage of time really doesn't affect this post, my final one on Sicily: the specific topic -- the cooking class in Palermo with Nicoletta Polo, the wife of Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, who is the adopted son of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) the singular book about Sicily – hasn’t changed, though the pandemic certainly curtailed in-person classes for many months. As I mentioned in my initial post on Sicily, the cooking class is the main reason I planned the trip in the first place. The entire experience -- staying in one of the apartments in the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, taking the class, and seeing the private rooms of the apartment and the original manuscript of The Leopard -- is on my short list of the most memorable of my life. While there are some cookbook authors who offer classes in their homes (Diana Kennedy, Giuliano Hazan, and Patricia Wells are a few), I'm not aware of any other cooking classes that are held in the homes of literary figures. It is positively a completely immersive experience like no other.
Some background about the Tomasi, Lampedusa, and Lanza family names may be helpful here as they are all interconnected: the Tomasi name dates back as far as the late 1500s, to a Mario Tomasi, descendant of one branch of the Tomasi family that moved from central Italy to the Kingdom of Naples. Mario was a powerful lord who had armed two galleys for the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, but he was also arrested for embezzlement and imprisoned. After his release, he married Francesca Caro, heiress to the Barons of Montechiaro (Montechiaro refers to the town of Palma de Montechiaro, in southern Sicily in the province of Agrigento) and the Lords of Lampedusa, a family of sea captains who came to Sicily from Spain. Lampedusa is an island 173 miles off the southern coast of Sicily, southwest of Malta and very close to Tunisia, and in recent years has become known as a refugee island due to the large number of migrants who have landed there. A very moving account of a particularly tragic day in the island’s migration history is The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, an award-winning BBC reporter. The optician, Carmine Menna, rarely gives interviews because he is haunted by what he witnessed that day. “Hundreds of drowning people were in the water screaming for help with their last breath,” Kirby writes, “And it was at that moment that the Optician understood that it was no longer an option to stay a spectator on the sidelines. He realized the migration crisis was just as much his problem as anyone else’s.” Learn more, and help, by reading ‘Europe Begins at Lampedusa’ and Comitato 3 ottobre.
The Lanza name appears in the family history in the 13th century, when the Lanza Branciforte family, of Swabian origin, moved to Sicily. This family eventually owned the whole bastioned seafront on this side of Palermo, and in the 17th century they built the Branciforte di Butera palace. In 1849 the palazzo was bought by Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, with the indemnity paid by the king of Naples for the expropriation of the island of Lampedusa. Giulio’s full name was actually Fabrizio Ferdinando Francesco Baldassare Melchiorre Salvatore Antonino Domenico Rosario Gaetano Tomasi, and he was also the 8th Prince of Lampedusa and the 9th Duke of Palma de Montechiaro, and the great-grandfather of The Leopard’s author. The author’s father was Giulio Maria Tomasi, and his mother was Beatrice Mastrogiovanni Tasca Filangeri di Cutò, whose family was from Naples. Giuseppe di Lampedusa was the last Prince of Lampedusa, the 11th (if you, like me, are wondering how there could still be Princes of Lampedusa after Giulio Fabrizio, it’s because the abolition of feudalism in 1812 separated titles from land, so people who had titles might no longer own the actual places. This was explained to me by Louis Mendola, author of Sicilian Geneaology and Heraldry (and many other good books), who I had the great pleasure of meeting in Palermo in 2019. He added that the state confiscated the island of Lampedusa and compensated the prince for it, but the prince could still call himself a prince and so could his heirs.) An added note about the Tasca and Lanza names: you may recall in an earlier post that I recommended the cookbooks by Anna Tasca Lanza, who was very influential in introducing Sicilian cuisine to Americans. Anna was Nicoletta's sister-in-law, and since her passing in 2010, the cooking classes at Tenuta Regaleali are taught by Anna's daughter, Fabrizia, Gioacchino's and Nicoletta's niece (Regaleali wines are poured during the lunch prepared in the cooking class; they’re imported by Winebow and are generally not too hard to find in North America).
The Leopard, which covers the years from 1860 to 1883 with the final chapter placed in 1910, is one of my most favorite books, and is the most perfect companion read for a trip to Sicily. The edition I recommend is the 2007 paperback published by Pantheon on the occasion of the novel's 50th anniversary, which is the version translated into English by Archibald Colquhoun and includes a Foreword by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (as an aside, Gioacchino is a renowned music history educator, opera specialist, and author, and a former director of The Italian Cultural Institute in New York). When it was agreed that Lampedusa would adopt Gioacchino, Lampedusa went to Portugal to see King Umberto II (the last king of Italy who was exiled in 1946 after voters abolished the monarchy in a referendum) to ask his permission for the adoption and to carry on the title of Duke of Palma. ‘Leopardo’ is the more common translation for leopard, while a more proper translation of ‘gattopardo’ refers to wild cats, like ocelots, which (significantly) were diminishing in number by the mid-1800s in Europe; in Sicilian dialects during Lampedusa’s time a leopard was referred to as gattopardu. British critic Jonathan Jones, in a piece called 'A Place in the Sun' (The Guardian, 3 May, 2003) wrote that the book has become a morbidly seductive guidebook to Sicily, "its glamour and despair; the sensual revelling in decrepit palaces, burnt landscapes studded with temples, sugary pasticceria (Lampedusa spent a lot of time in cake shops) and the magnificent ball in a gilded Palermo salon that is so gloriously visualised in Visconti's just re-released 1963 film of the book, make you breathe Sicily." In my opinion the book should be read slowly so that the beauty and wisdom of sentences and passages may be fully understood and appreciated. While the film by Luchino Visconti (1963) is quite good, under no circumstances should it be seen without first reading the book. There are so very many quotable lines. Most quoted is, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” but I like others even more:
“Again the Prince found himself facing one of the enigmas of Sicily: in this secret island, where houses are barred and peasants refuse to admit they even know the way to their own village in clear view on a hillock within a few minutes’ walk from here, in spite of the ostentatious show of mystery, reserve is a myth.”
“Then one of them asked me what those Italian volunteers were really coming to do in Sicily. ‘They are coming to teach us good manners,’ I replied in English. ‘But they won’t succeed, because we think we are gods.’”
“I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.”
The book's significance is enormous: it's one of the best selling Italian novels of the 20th century, with more than 10 million copies sold; it's required reading in many high schools in Sicily and throughout Italy; the book and its author were featured on an Italian postage stamp; and it was honored with the Premio Strega, a prestigious Italian literary award. Mary Taylor Simeti, in her wonderful book Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, notes that the word gattopardesco entered the Italian language, describing anything that reflects the opulent tastes of the Sicilian aristocracy (the timbale of macaroni in Visconti’s film is described as "Leopardesque"). In Robert V. Camuto's Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, in the chapter featuring Planeta, Camuto is in conversation with Peppe, the foreman of Planeta’s vineyards, and Peppe asks, “Have you read Il Gattopardo?” and Camuto replies that he has. “Read it again,” Peppe said. Further, the illustrated book Sicilian Twilight: The Last Leopards, by the team of Jean-Bernard Naudin, Gerard Gefen, Lydia Fasoli, and Fanny Calefati di Canalotti (The Vendome Press, 2000), details this unique aristocratic slice of Sicily in chapters like ‘A Brief History of the Leopards,’ ‘The Character of a Leopard,’ and ‘A Day in the Life of a Leopard.’ As revealed in the book, Sicily's great families had several residences, "one in town, another a short distance away, and one or several estates" and "When speaking of town, it was naturally Palermo." Families were able to maintain these residences because of the large incomes they were fortunate to enjoy over past centuries and because of primogeniture, which guaranteed the right of succession to the firstborn, legitimate child (as opposed to any illegitimate child or a shared inheritance), so they were able to avoid the dissolution of their fortunes. Lampedusa had at least six family residences, including the town house in Palermo (in the via Lampedusa at number 17, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943); the house and castle at Palma di Montechiaro; and the castle of Santa Margherita Belice (an inland mountain town fictionalized as the summer village of Donnafugata in the novel; the castle was destroyed by an earthquake some years after Lampedusa’s death). Marlena de Blasi, author of That Summer in Sicily, provides a note about the possible origins of the word Donnafugata: Ayn as Jafat is Arabic for "fountain of health," which then became Ronnafuata, and over centuries, was further corrupted into Donnafugata. It's also the trade name of the Sicilian wines produced by the Rallo family, fourth-generation winemakers of Etna, Marsala, Pantelleria, and Vittoria.
Regarding the homes of the Leopards, Gerard Gefen notes in Sicilian Twilight that many of them had no distinctive façade and were not limited to a particular street or part of town. He adds that "we must settle a little problem of vocabulary as in Sicily, more than elsewhere, the nature of things counts more than their appellation. No Leopard would have used the term Palazzo, or palace, to designate his dwelling. He would have left that expression to the lower classes, accountants, lawyers, tradesmen, or servants, while he would speak of his Casa, or house, with a capital C when writing, but never when speaking. In fact, in Italian the word 'palazzo' designates any large building, noble or ignoble, of which those that house a state organization are to be absolutely avoided."
While there is a resemblance between the Leopards of Sicily and other aristocracies, Gefen says the Sicilian nobility was by far the last feudal phenomenon in Western Europe, and on the final page of the book he summarizes, "The truth is that there is no "last Leopard" because the end of the species was already written into its generic structure, and the race, already on the way to extinction at the end of the 19th century, was swallowed up in the great cataclysm of World War I, at the same time as the gold standard, the petits Savoyards, the Tsars of Russia, and the supremacy of good old Europe.” (Petits Savoyards refers to children from the Savoy region of France who were sent to work in other parts of France during the winter months when their families couldn’t afford to feed them; they often became street musicians or chimney sweeps and were part of French popular culture from the 18th to the early 20th century.)
And so now, after that rather long detour, we come back to the palazzo at number 28, via Butera, the last home of Lampedusa until his death in 1957 and the site of the cooking classes. The day begins at 8:30, when everyone gathers at the office and then finds seats in vans, which drive a short distance to the Il Capo market. Nicoletta, officially known as the Duchess of Palma as Gioacchino is the Duke, stops at a number of market stalls (she knows practically everyone) to pick up the particular ingredients for that day's lunch. Along the way she shares a lot of market lore and points out various culinary items that are unique to Sicily; what you see depends on the season of your visit. Once back at Butera, everyone goes up to the (gorgeous) outdoor terrace to pick herbs (and look at all the turtles that are walking around), and then it's downstairs to the kitchen, where everyone is assigned a task (culinary novices need not worry: there are all sorts of simple things to do to prepare for the meal, which is never very fussy, and almost all the tasks are undertaken by more than one person). After a few hours, when the preparation is nearly complete, everyone takes a break for a glass of sparkling wine. At this moment, as I looked around at everyone raising their glasses in a toast, sunlight was also pouring in through the floor to ceiling French doors which opened onto an interior courtyard open to the sky. This was the first time throughout the day that I had to pinch myself as a reminder that I really was here. In addition to helping prepare a meal, over the last four hours I had met some of my fellow students, wonderful people from other parts of the world, and our conversations were stimulating, warm, and sometimes funny, usually when Nicoletta made us laugh. Finally, the last steps in the meal are completed, and everyone walks to the dining room, where a beautiful table has been set. Students who are part of a couple are requested not to sit together, and Nicoletta sits at one end of the long table and Gioacchino sits at the opposite end. A team of servers brings out each dish and serves everyone individually. I loved every dish on our menu, but perhaps the casarecce pasta was my favorite precisely because it seemed like it would be good but not great, but it turned out to be incredibly delicious -- creamy even though there is no cream in the recipe; I think the quality of the pasta has something to do with this.
After the meal, Nicoletta and Gio lead everyone on a tour of the other public rooms of the palazzo (as opposed to their private quarters). These include the library and the ballroom, where the manuscript of The Leopard is kept in a glass vitrine. And then, by about 4:00 or so, the day with the duchess is over. At times when I think of it, it seems like a dream. But I really was there.
Interested travelers should visit the site noted at the beginning of this post and contact Nicoletta by email to inquire about joining a class as there is no set schedule. Some cooking class students stay elsewhere in Palermo, but I recommend staying in one of the Butera 28 apartments (see my earlier Palermo post on 3 May, 2020 for more details). In her recent end-of-year newsletter, Nicoletta wrote that the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi is now a member of the Associazione Nazionale Case della Memoria (National Association of Houses of Memory) and it has been accredited and certified by the prestigious Dream&Charme (the apartments in the palazzo received certification and the palazzo itself was awarded a five-star certification as well). She also reported that the accomplished Palermo-born pianist, Danilo Manto, now living in Milan, performed a recorded concert in the ballroom of the palazzo in 2021 (not only is it a beautiful version of Chopin’s Walz in A Flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1, but there are great images of the ballroom).
Related Recommended Reads & Walking Tours & Lampedusa's Grave:
'Annals of Place: The Palace the the City' by Fernanda Eberstadt, The New Yorker (23 December, 1991). This excellent, atmospheric article was what introduced me to The Leopard, thirty-one years ago. Besides being about Lampedusa, Gioacchino, and Nicoletta, it's also about Palermo, and is some of the best writing about the city, at that particular time, anywhere.
Childhood Memories and Other Stories, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, foreword by Ian Thomson, translated by Stephen Parkin (Alma Books, 2013). In addition to Lampedusa's memories of two childhood houses -- the mansion in Palermo and the palazzo Filangeri di Cutò in Santa Margherita di Belice, home of his maternal family members -- there are works of fiction.
Lampedusa: A Novel, Steven Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). A beautifully written book that recounts the last years of Lampedusa's life when he was working on The Leopard. The gorgeous jacket photo is of the ballroom in the palazzo Gangi in Palermo. Price quite brilliantly follows the events of Lampedusa's life near its end accurately while fully immersing himself in Lampedusa's head. Lampedusa was diagnosed with emphysema, and he expresses two key thoughts in the book: "We are from a world that no longer exists. If I do not write that world, write it down, then what will become of it?" and "And he understood his great regret: after him would come nothing. He had produced neither son nor daughter. He had failed them all." In his review of the book, Joseph Luzzi (author of the wonderful My Two Italies) observes that "Lampedusa's ancestor, the Leopard, strode across history's stage in the long, proud bounds of the majestic beast he resembled. His quieter, gentler scion, a creature of words to the last, was only ever truly at home in books. For him to have ventured forth late in life from his literary safe haven to write "The Leopard" is a story as improbable -- and at times fascinating -- as the historical paradoxes of his masterpiece." ‘In Search of Lampedusa’s Sicily’ also by Steven Price is a wonderful companion piece written for 'Work in Progress,' a Farrar, Straus promotional newsletter. In it, Price wonders if Gioacchino felt he understood Lampedusa differently now, after all these years. “I understand him more now,” Gioacchino replied. He was older, I knew, than Lampedusa had been when he died. He added quietly: “He was much more, I think, than the book.”
The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, David Gilmour (Pantheon, 1991), the definitive volume on Lampedusa's life, and A Biography Through Images, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (Alma Books, 2014) with a foreword by David Gilmour and Nicoletta was responsible for the picture research.
‘The Oldest Money’ by James McAuley, Town & Country (December 2019/January 2020). A particularly good interview with Nicoletta and Gioacchino by McAuley, former Paris correspondent for The Washington Post (the article is accompanied by some wonderful photos of the palazzo's interiors). McAuley holds a PhD in French history and is the author of the excellent The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).
'Sicily, Through the Eyes of The Leopard' by Adam Begley, The New York Times (6 July, 2008). Begley writes, "I believe that if you love the novel (or the movie), you should start planning your trip right away, not because you'll find Lampedusa's Sicily waiting for you when you touch down (you won't, believe me), but because the bitter, resigned romantic nostalgia that pervades "The Leopard is also the sensibility that savors the decaying grandeur of an island burdened with layer upon layer of tragic history -- and blessed also with startling beauty, much of it perpetually waning."
The tomb of Lampedusa and his wife, Alessandra Wolff Stommersee, is at the Cimitero dei Capppuccini in Palermo (piazza Cappucini 1, postal code 90129).
Sicilia Letteraria, a cultural association that develops and supports literary tourism projects, offers Lampedusa-themed walking tours such as 'On the trail of the Leopard: in Palermo between the two houses of the Prince' and 'On the trail of the Leopard: at the Kalsa between Garibaldi memories and the set of Visconti's film.' Excursions to Palma di Montechiaro and Santa Margherita di Belice are also offered.