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The sister of Giacomo

· The unknown Story of Paolina Leopardi ·

The story of Shakespeare's sister – as brilliant and talented as her brother but lacking education because she was a woman - was invented by Virginia Woolf to highlight the secular exclusion of females from writing and creativity ( A Room  All of One's Own , 1929). This story comes to mind whenever you think of the sister (or daughter, wife, partner) of a great writer.

The story of Paolina (1800-1869), the third  born child of Monaldo Leopardi and Adelaide Antici, even if different in its premises from Virginia Woolf’s  successful invention, is however similar in its substance. Paolina, passionate student and tireless reader was lucky enough to have a father who, for a singular and perhaps unique momentum of modernity, wanted his only daughter to have the same education as his male children. The girl had, in short, "a room all of her own” rather she even had the many rooms of her father's library where she loved to spend most of her days.

She translated from French, and collaborated in various periodicals, she wrote the Life of Mozart , cultivated letter writing, all with a fresh style, and a breezy and seductive literariness. Yet Paolina is only remembered as being the sister of Giacomo.

A mutual admiration and "an infinite love" were the presuppositions of the intense bond between the two siblings who shared everything, starting with the unhappiness of living in Recanati, in the sleepy suburbs of the Papal States, and in a large house that a domineering and austere mother had turned into something similar to a prison. A mother whose inquiring eyes took the place of caresses, as Charles, one of her five children wrote. When Giacomo, in 1822 left the "wild native hamlet," for Pilla, as he called it, the desert was opened up in front of him. She dreamed of freedom and independence, even though her brother wrote to her to console her, “the world is not beautiful, if it is not seen as you see it, that is from a distance."

Giacomo was able to leave, Paolina tried in vain to have herself taken away. She knew of only one love, while there were varying offers of marriage, all were destined to fail. Over time, more than a husband  she resigned himself to look for a marriage, but the lack of dowry, the expectations of her parents, her lack of attractiveness were stronger reasons than her intelligence, her refined culture, and the grace of her heart. To achieve the otherwise unattainable she only had letters, love letter messages which didn’t escape a stultifying and mortifying control. Paolina was even forced to defend her correspondence with two female friends who were not considered acceptable to her mother,  forced to seek the help of a priest, her former tutor, who made himself  available to receive those letters indicating their arrival with a vase of flowers in the window.

Only after the death of her mother were many doors opened for her. She was now fifty-seven years old and was carrying a heavy load made up of the past and of too much pain, but she was strong enough to live the fullness of her life in the time she had left. She embellished her large house, enriched the library with her favourite novels and travel books, she wore brightly coloured clothing abandoning forever the black that her mother had imposed on her since childhood and above all she travelled, visiting many of the places where her brother had lived.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Paolina died in Pisa, the city that Giacomo had loved and where he had begun to compose the verse "with my heart as it used to be." Paolina closed her eyes after having seen at least a little of the world, even with the eyes of Giacomo.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 18, 2020