Penguin Classics, £50 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Zibaldone, By Giacomo Leopardi, eds. Michael Caesar, Franco D'Intino

This extraordinary 'mish-mash' opens up the creative workshop of Italy's great Romantic poet

Now superseded by blogs, their virtual cousin, commonplace books are so rarely kept these days, let alone published, that it is easy to forget how ubiquitous they once were. As sought-after as Bibles from the Renaissance to the 18th century, they were still in such high demand in the 19th that Mark Twain's sole profitable invention was his "self-pasting scrapbook", whose pages were lined with adhesive strips to avoid any gluey mishaps.

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

Nevertheless, the genre had mostly died by the second half of the 20th century, despite the odd releases by statesmen and poets in their dotages, like the UN leader Dag Hammarskjöld's Markings (1964) or WH Auden's A Certain World (1970). Yet unlike the majority of his predecessors or successors, the Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) compiled his Zibaldone – Italian for mishmash – during his twenties and thirties, not that this was unusual considering his precocious education.

Aged 11, Leopardi had already taught himself Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, French and English. He spent most of his adolescence ensconced in his father's impressive library, from which he emerged crippled by scoliosis, his health wrecked for life. Beginning his Zibaldone at 19, Leopardi had produced roughly 3,000 of its 4,526 pages by 26 – and when he put the finishing touches on it in 1832, five years prior to his death, the book stood at just under a million words.

Coincidentally, Leopardi put the Zibaldone aside just as Goethe finished the second part of his Faust, and the two share a fascination with the notion that humanity had sold its soul to the devil for progress, thereby losing the very instincts that made us human in the first place. As Leopardi puts it: "As man moves away from nature and toward society, the methods that nature hasprovided for attaining those ends are changed or replaced by other methods… as man loses his natural happiness… so, too, he loses his actual power of instinct, and those inborn methods for achieving this happiness."

In these notes, Leopardi attempts to dismantle our naive picture of the world and wrestle with the nihilism that resulted from the collapse of our anthropocentric vision of the universe. He was among the first to contest the concept of eternal space and eternal time: "Nothing in nature actually announces infinity, the existence of anything infinite. Infinity is a product of our imagination, and at the same time of our smallness and our pride."

Although Leopardi is chiefly remembered for the long lyric poems that encapsulated the spirit of the Italian Risorgimento – most recently translated by Jonathan Galassi, whose superb Canti (Penguin) is an essential companion – the Zibaldone can firmly establish his role as one of the 19th-century's greatest thinkers. Even though it's hard to imagine Nietzsche without him, Leopardi has always been too private a voice to claim any strong hold on the public imagination. Thanks to this translation, we now have a window on his workshop and can delight in his readable and thought-provoking reflections on politics, philosophy, literature, philology – even a bit of phrenology – and a wealth of tastefully selected quotes.

Finally available in English thanks to a monumental effort by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino – who shepherded a team of seven principal translators – the Zibaldone marks the end of nearly a decade of work at the University of Birmingham's Leopardi Centre. There is something heroic about such a project; commonplace books have rarely elicited much attention, especially while their authors were still alive. Paul Valéry's Cahiers were published 30 years following his death; Milton's mouldy manuscript was discovered two centuries after his passing.

Congratulations are due to everyone involved in this landmark publication. Leopardi's Zibaldone is quite simply a work of genius – and what better way to end than with his own words: "It is a property of works of genius that, even when they represent vividly the nothingness of things, even when they clearly show and make you feel the inevitable unhappiness of life… such works always bring consolation, and rekindle enthusiasm, and, though they treat and represent nothing but death, they restore, albeit momentarily, the life that it had lost."

André Naffis-Sahely's translation of Laurent Seksik's 'The Last Days' is published next month by Pushkin Press

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas