Alessandro Manzoni’s 1827 “I Promessi Spori” (The Betrothed) is, apparently, mandatory reading in Italian schools. Having come to it some two decades after many of my Italian colleagues I could see why within two chapters. It possesses the linguistic craft of Victor Hugo and the narrative excitement of Alexandre Dumas, with fleeting nods to the gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the chilling spiritual observations of Charles Maturin. For all its re-working of contemporary literary greatness, the pellucid prose is as simple as its peon characters, yet imbued with an instruction that makes us both wonder in amazement and nod in sage agreement. At its heart it is a casual narrative of good versus evil, of innocence and love combating bitter age and hatred. Yet, it is also a great story and it is this final quality that bestows its longevity.
In a sense the novel is both a historical epic and a journey of philosophy, touched with the bizarre you might find in Voltaire’s Candide, though this be a strangeness born of events rather than fantastical characters. Our protagonists are the most deft and ancient of literary devices – young lovers kept apart by a jealous third party. In this case our village Romeo and Juliet are named Renzo and Lucia. The man who would claim Lucia is Don Rodrigo and our tale is set in and around the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice’s Territory.
The novel opens with Renzo planning to wed Lucia, save for the designs of Don Rodrigo who wants her for his own and forbids Don Abbondio from carrying out the marriage ceremony. What results is an elopement attempt of sorts, resulting in their flight, separation, and subsequent misadventures whilst a fuming Rodrigo sets his foxes in pursuit of his hares. Bringing every machination of both the Church and his standing in the Duchy to bear serves only to demonstrate the caprice of tyranny in pursuit of the destruction of purity.
In and out of the novel flit many other characters and Manzoni gives full effort in explaining to the reader the history of each. His desire to have us understand the nature of each man and woman in order to comfortably watch their actions with the ill-fated lovers means we see how the concept of a journey, both literal and metaphysical, is undertaken within the narrative. We watch as their travails are started by the penitent Capuchin Friar Cristoforo, following both Renzo and Lucia as the former navigates riots in Milan, a river crossing to Bergamo, concealment as Antonia Rivolta, survives the plague, and finally returns to find Lucia.
The other thread, that of Lucia, survives convent incarceration by the bitter Signoria Gertrude; she endures kidnap by the Unnamed before she and her mother, Agnese, take residence with Don Ferrante and Donna Prassede; engages on a long-winded exchange of correspondence with Renzo where she struggles with her oath to the Church adopting a tone of luckless morality, believing her escape from the Unnamed was secured against an Oath to serve only the Madonna, for her love of Renzo to be unrequited.
The novel commences its slow descent to a denouement troped by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Famine gives way to a War between Kings and Popes and Princes, followed swiftly by the Plague in Milan with all its inevitable heaps of Death. The pointed observations on a human response to a disease strikes a swift chord with a twenty-first century response to Ebola. Manzoni’s Milan shows the Plague as a struggle between science and myth, the latter winning the hearts and minds of the fearful mob. He is free with his criticism, with “the behaviour of doctors – even those who had believed it he reality of the pestilence from the first…later extracted from the same events conclusive proof that the poisonings anointings witchcraft were to blame for everything”. Yet, this pestilence also is a literary medium of great fortune as it allows him to kill of characters with ease until he can bring the separated lovers back into the sphere from whence they were cast out.
We follow Renzo as he crosses a Milan with its two-thirds dead, its “sound of shouted orders, feeble laments, the weeping of women, and the sobbing of children.” Eventually he finds Lucia in the lazaretto, finds Father Cristoforo and they reach their fulfilment, one in which “it seemed as is if the plague had assumed responsibility for rectifying all Renzo’s errors.”
The novel is vast in its examination of the human condition. A condition which Manzoni fully explores. Binding his narrative of characters together is a wider intelligence in which the author ably demonstrates his grasp of economics, of politics, of spirituality, of history, of philosophy. There is a self-deprecating, dry wit when he wryly observes, after three pages of listing Don Ferrante’s knowledge of authors, historians, politicians, and philosophers et al.: “we begin to wonder whether we have not already won the title of servile copyist for ourselves, and a half share of the title of long-winded bore.”
Of all the characters I found the pious Cardinal Federigo Borromeo to be the most interesting. His saintly demeanour, manifest as a utopian personification of goodness, is Manzoni’s own ‘Prince’ (in contrast to Machiavelli against whom he swipes a “blackguard” appellation). This is a man who is “convinced that this life is not meant to provide a treadmill for the majority and unending holidays for the few, but rather to furnish every one of us with a task to perform, of which an account must one day be rendered, he began at an early age to consider how to make his own life holy and useful.”
Indeed he is the direct counterpoint, the noble aspiration to which most men must measure themselves. A measurement that is found woefully lacking early in the narrative for we readers all accede that we understand the barbed, adroit, reality that “When an honest man meets a villain, most of us (not all, perhaps) like to picture him to ourselves standing with head held high, chest thrown out, a confident look in the eye, and a fluent command of the subject. In practice, however, many different circumstances must be present, some of which seldom arise in combination, before the honest man can take up his attitude”. We can easily look in a mirror and realise that “we human beings are like that – we rebel in furious indignation against moderate evils, and bow our head in silence beneath extreme ill-treatment. Stunned rather than resigned, we put up with twice the load which we had declared to be unbearable earlier on.”
This is the antithesis of pure pabulum, it reaches out to those readers both clerisy and avid; we turn the final page realising our empathy with the vicissitudes of Renzo and Lucia, becoming sympathetic with their emotions. The sedulous nature of their journey from separation to reunification is neither abstruse nor pellucid, it is laid out like a Pilgrim’s Progress with a hundred side roads for the reader to stray into, watch, muse over, then retreat back to the onward sprightly step of Manzoni’s exquisite narrative.
It may have taken four decades for this reviewer to get to meet Alessandro Manzoni; I only wish it had been sooner for this is deservedly a classic that all should read.