Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ revisited

Detail of a pietra dura table-top including a leopard and a lion, at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire. ©NTPL/Geoffrey Shakerley

Courtney Barnes and I have found ourselves chatting to journalist Steven Kurutz about the enduring influence of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard. I told Steven that I was first introduced to the film at a suitably glamorous Manolo Blahnik exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2003, where scenes from The Leopard played on a video loop (a trailer can be seen here, and Kurutz’s piece in the New York Times can be read here).

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

You can easily see why Blahnik would admire The Leopard: almost every scene contains a wealth of visual detail about aristocratic life in Sicily in the 1860s, including sumptuous costumes, lavish (and tellingly fading) interiors and dramatic landscapes.

Detail of a pietra dura casket at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

But with Visconti beauty is never an end in itself. The settings and furnishings speak eloquently about a certain way of life at a certain historical moment, and about how that way of life is changing. In one particularly poignant scene, for instance, Don Tancredi (played by Alain Delon) rushes through his uncle’s country house to say his goodbyes before going off to join Garibaldi’s revolution. The huge dog scampering alongside him, the billowing curtains and Tancredi’s own irresistable, dance-like progress all seem to suggest that the winds of change are blowing through this old, static society.

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

Even the stark Sicilian landscape, apparently so timeless, hints at the social and political changes that are taking place: traditionally these fields and hills had belonged to the Prince of Salina, the film’s protagonist (played by Burt Lancaster), but now they are changing hands as a politically astute nouveau riche class comes to the fore.

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at The Argory, Co. Armagh. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

The Prince is history, both in the sense that he is yesterday’s man and in the sense that we see the changes happening through his eyes. Socially prominent and yet powerless, charismatically virile (he is ‘the leopard’ of the title) but also philosophically resigned, he is the pivot around which the whole epic spectacle turns.

Detail of a pietra dura casket at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

And yet the film never feels weighed down by its underlying ideas. Visconti’s love of visual richness and attention to detail ensure that the story is told directly through the senses and the emotions rather than through the mind.

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at Powis Castle, Powys. ©NTPL/John Hammond

In this way Visconti is a fantastic inspiration for anyone involved in the heritage business: if we can make the experience of visiting historic houses and gardens feel like watching The Leopard then our job is done. Which is rather a tall order, of course.

19 Responses to “Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ revisited”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    I never saw the movie, but I seem to recall that the novel was more about decay than about exquisite beauty. Never mind, this pietra dura work is stunning. Check out the Lockwood-Mathews house in Norwalk, Connecticut for some excellent 19th-century stone inlay work in the floors and fireplace surrounds.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, yes but in this film beauty is always tinged with a sense of decay, or instability or change. ‘Beauty’ is the medium here, and ‘change’ the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan 🙂

    Interesting to learn that the Lockwood-Mathews mansion ( is of more or less the same period – early 1860s – as the story of The Leopard.

  3. Barbara Says:

    Beautiful post. Exceedingly high goal to achive. I would not expect less.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    We’ll do our best 🙂 The playing of pianos in our historical houses is now being actively encouraged, and that can sometimes achieve a bit of the sense of drama that one encounters in The Leopard, with its stirring soundtrack.

  5. pigtown*design Says:

    i think i just read that the movie will be shown on tv for the first time on turner movie classics in the us of a.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed – if you manage to see it, you must let me know what you think of it, and if you liked it what your favourite scene is.

  7. little augury Says:

    Emile-it is one to study time and again for sheer beauty-the sets and costumes are equal to the performances-Burt Lancaster is superb, Cardinale at her gold digger best. A must watch!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes Burt Lancaster is amazing in his portrayal of the Prince of Salina as manly and dominant but at the same time introspective and world-weary. Apparently he spent a huge amount of effort getting his Italian pronunciation right, and he was devastated when it was finally decided to dub him.

  9. style court Says:

    Emile —

    So true. I think the billowing textiles — in nearly every scene — must in fact be symbolic of the winds of change. And interesting that you mention weight — it seems like the breeziness (open doors and windows, flowing curtains) is a counterpoint to the heaviness of other elements.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, I hadn’t seen it in quite that way but I think you are right. In the ball scenes, too, the lightness – the movement, the music, the gaiety – is set against the Prince’s sadness and resignation.

  11. Rosemary Says:

    For once, a film that lives up to the excellence of the book. It is interesting to have background information on the making of the film, provided by rental through lovefilm. Locations are identified and small details pointed out.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Rosemary, yes it is one of those rare cases where both book (the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published 1958) and film are masterpieces.

    Are you referring to the restored version of the film brought out on DVD by the British Film Institute? I enjoyed the commentary provided with that, which is very academic in tone but does add insight, as you say.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    And as a mini contribution to the ‘reception history’ of The Leopard in Britain I have just checked the National Trust libraries catalogue (consultable via It appears that editions of The Leopard are at Anglesey Abbey, Felbrigg Hall and Sissinghurst Castle (Harold Nicolson’s copy). A copy of another Lampedusa book, Two Stories and a Memory, is at Scotney Castle (then the home of the architectural historian Christopher Hussey and his wife Betty). Not in any way a representative survey, of course, but interesting.

  14. Toby Worthington Says:

    Quite by chance I happened to see The Leopard broadcast on Turner Classic Movies last night, so this blog post was perfectly, if inadvertently, timed.
    Talk about atmosphere! Courtney nailed it when she mentioned the billowing
    curtains in a room of monumental appointments. The contrasts were mesmerizing. Is it true that the great Renzo di Mongiardino had a hand in
    creating the decors? They certainly bore the stamp of his nostalgic style.
    Of course as you point out, the scenic design was in service of the story.
    Yet there were scenes where it was impossible not to be distracted by the architecture, the faded frescoes, the costumes…

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I have checked the credits but the art director for The Leopard was Mario Garbuglia. You may have been thinking of Franco Zeffirelli, who apparently employed Mongiardino to assist with the production of several of his films. But I agree with you that The Leopard looks rather Mongiardinesque.

  16. Michele from Boston Says:

    I actually caught some of it myself last night even though I own the two dvds. They chose to run, for purity’s sake, the subtitled Italian version, BUT you miss Burt Lancaster’s magnificent voice. The dvd set has both the dubbed English version and last night’s version. I often hope that someone will think how to combine the two somehow to get the benefit of both. I have to say that Sicily to me has always meant “The Leopard” in some form or another. I remember reading how Visconti nearly bankrupted the budget by spending so much on flowers in every scene. It’s also a movie which showcases both Alaine Delon and Claudia Cardinale in their mesmerizing prime; a movie that hangs on the strength of Lancaster’s performance within the opulent (and hot!) 19th c. world created by Visconti. My favorite scene has always been the dance at the ball between Lancaster and Cardinale where things begin to slip away and you know the Prince is dying along with his way of life.

  17. shin Says:

    What a coincidence I just finished reading the book last month. Living in Italy it is a must to read, being one of the Italian classics. 🙂

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Michele, thanks for your insights. You, like Courtney, notice the flowers, which I completely missed! I suppose I was obsessively checking out the furniture and the wallcoverings…

    Yes the dance with Angelica is another wonderful key scene of course. As you say, it is like a beautiful mesmerising dance of death. I don’t think the Prince is actually dying just yet, to me it seems to be more a kind of mid-life crisis that he is going through, although of course his malaise points to the ‘death’ of a certain class and a certain way of life and a certain historical period.

    Another bit of trivia from the DVD commentary: apparently Angelica/Claudia Cardinale’s ball-gown was given added layers of bouffant petticoats so that it would bounce and float and light up more than all the other dresses in these scenes.

    Shin, what did you think of the book, and of Lampedusa’s ideas about history? Do watch the film as well – very similar in some ways, very different in others. And, as you have seen from the comments above, just a great film.

  19. shin Says:

    I loved reading the book. Lampedusa gives, I think, a very nice portrayal of how things were in that era. I’ll certainly will try to track down the movie on your recommendation. Even the best movies are always different from the book. I suppose it is inevitable, as you cannot always describe in film what you can say with words, as goes vica versa. Ciao 🙂

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