The Betrothed

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The Betrothed

by Alessandro Manzoni


A novel set in Lombardy, northern Italy, in 1628-30; definitive version published in Italian (as I promessi sposi) in 1840, in English in 1844.


An evil nobleman interferes with a couple’s wedding plans; to escape his reach, the two part and go on adventures that intersect with some of the most harrowing events to occur in early-seventeenth-century Lombardy.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) was born in Milan to Giulia Beccaria, the free-spirited daughter of the famous criminologist, Cesare Beccaria (see On Crimes and Punishments , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Officially Manzoni’s father was Pietro Manzoni, Giulia’s husband and a conservative who was 17 years her senior. There is much speculation that Beccaria’s actual father was Giovanni Verri, a prominent liberal intellectual. In any case, Giulia eventually eloped with the well-known Milanese banker Carlo Imbonati. Alessandro experienced a rather unstable childhood of wet nurses, boarding schools, and traveling back and forth between Paris and Milan, but he adored his new father figure, Imbonati. His time in Paris, as well as the French occupation of Milan (under Napoleon Bonaparte), greatly influenced young Manzoni, providing him the opportunity to meet and study many great European cultural figures of the day. The time he spent at his paternal family’s property near Lake Como also left a strong impression, as reflected in his description of the region in The Betrothed. In 1808 Manzoni married Enrichetta Blondel—the daughter of a Swiss banker and a devout, puritanical Protestant. Manzoni himself was raised with atheistic beliefs. Soon after the marriage, he and his wife converted to Catholicism. Of their ten children, eight died during Manzoni’s lifetime.

Manzoni wrote poetry, fiction, plays, and treatises on language, literature, and religion. Already famous in Europe as a poet (for “March 1821” and “The Fifth of May”), he began to write his only novel, The Betrothed, in 1821. The first version appeared in 1828. Dissatisfied with the novel’s language, which Manzoni thought was too reliant on Milanese dialect and French influences, he spent most of the next decade rewriting it in the Tuscan vernacular, and the definitive version appeared in 1840. It enjoyed such widespread popularity that the novel helped establish the Tuscan dialect as the national language that Italy so desperately needed to become a unified culture and country. When Manzoni died, he was celebrated with a state funeral honoring him as the father of the modern Italian language. Giuseppe Verdi composed a requiem for the occasion. Manzoni’s masterpiece, The Betrothed, is hailed as Italy’s first modern novel. A work that portrays the impact of large historical events on ordinary people, it also promotes a view of Christianity based on justice and brotherhood with the aim of influencing society at large. The novelist furthermore set out to create a sense of national sentiment that would unite Italians against their foreign rulers.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Spanish occupation of Milan: the political side

The French and the Spanish battled for control of the Italian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century. Ludivico Sforza triggered the wars by inviting the French into Italy in 1494, then lost control of the duchy of Milan to the French and ended up a prisoner in France. The struggle continued. In 1525 the Spanish rule Charles V (part of the Habsburg dynasty) conquered Milan. Charles left the last Sforza duke (Francesco II) as nominal ruler of Milan until the duke’s death in 1535, at which point the government reverted to Charles V as its overlord. Along with Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia, the duchy of Milan was incorporated into the Spanish Empire in Italy until the demise of this empire in 1707. In sum, the Spanish governed the duchy for most of two centuries (1535-1706). Many historians consider this period the nadir in social and political life in the region of Lombardy.

After the Spanish victory, relative peace descended on Milan for much of the remaining sixteenth century. However, in the early years of the seventeenth century, disputes began to erupt again, and the region was plunged into 60 years of intermittent battle. Wars over small strategic territories broke out in northern Italy as old rivals saw a chance to take revenge on enemies or annex new land by siding with France, Spain, or Austria. When in 1628 Spain and Austria learned that there was a French-friendly duke being groomed to take over the duchy of Mantua—a territory that bordered the duchy of Milan to the southeast—the Spanish and Austrians banded together to install a duke more friendly to Spain. The partnership soon foundered, though. Austria upset the alliance when it claimed the right to choose the successor to the dukedom and then sent in 36,000 troops to seize Mantua. The problem was eventually settled in 1630 when a French duke (the duke of Nevers) was allowed to rule on the condition that he swore allegiance as a vassal of the Austrian Empire.

In 1700 Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died. His death, along with the fact that Spain for various reasons found it difficult to stand up militarily to other European powers, especially France, provoked a continent-wide conflict: The War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13), involving France, Austria, Spain, and England. The regions of Italy, contested territories, were parceled out to the victors. In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Austria acquired Lombardy and the Kingdom of Naples as part of its spoils.

Spanish occupation of Milan: the social side

With respect to the area’s growth, the seventeenth century was unremarkable in contrast to the previous 50 years, during which the population had risen so precipitously (from 40,000 in 1530 to 100,000 in 1580) that Milan became Italy’s second largest city after Rome. In order to both protect and sustain itself in such an environment, the Spanish government began to levy heavy taxes on its subjects, which kept the economy depressed and aggravated the divide between rich and poor. A world recession in the 1620s compounded the difficulties, destroying Italian industry. In Milan the number of silk looms—a mainstay of the Lombard economy—fell from 3,000 in 1606 to 600 in 1635 (Duggan, p. 71). Unemployment increased rapidly. There was what some historians call a “refeudalization” of society, especially in the countryside: “the reappearance of a whole array of privileges, prerogatives, abuses, and shackles … at the hands of the landed nobility with the result that peasant conditions experienced a slow, but continuous deterioration” (Sella, p. 63). This “refeudalization”—a term used by historians to describe this particular moment in Milanese history—had less to do with the economic system than with reinstating a rigid social hierarchy that emphasized “noble” behavior—manners, dress, titles, etiquette, and language. Milan under the Sforza family’s—the rulers before the Spanish—had seen a sharp distinction between the nobility and the lower classes, and this only intensified under the Spanish. With the Spanish came a sense and show of privilege as well as far heavier taxes on farmers and merchants that resulted in an even more highly stratified society. At the top were the Spanish governors and the native Milanese nobles, whom the Spanish allowed to stay in their privileged positions. The local nobility, behaving as in past centuries, in effect betrayed the poorer Milanese, treating them just as badly as the Spanish. While many lowly urbanites and farmers staved off starvation, thievery, and other hard-ships as best they could, the rich lived decadent lives throwing lavish parties and balls. Manzoni sought to portray this gaping inequity, which was even more pronounced in the seventeenth century than in his own nineteenth century.

Aggravating conditions in the sixteenth century was the fact that the concepts of brotherhood and equality were rarely acted upon at the time, especially in the corrupt Church, where the behavior of the clergy was oftentimes as appalling as that of crooked politicians and selfish aristocrats. In The Betrothed, Manzoni portrays both sides of the clergy. Brother Cristoforo, a monk, is the epitome of self-sacrifice and service to the helpless and poor while the actions of the Don Abbondio, a weak-minded local priest, show him to be a virtual accomplice of oppressive power.

A string of disasters—famine, riots and plague

Famines struck frequently in Lombardy in the first half of the seventeenth century. While hunger was the norm for commoners and life expectancy was generally low—there was a one-third infant mortality rate and only half of the population survived past the age of 20—some years were worse than others (Cavalazzi and Falchi, p. 85). A famine led to major grain riots in 1628, and then another fandne a year later resulted in a 97 percent increase in the prices of bread, rice, and wine, among other perishables. There followed a devastating outbreak of the plague, carried into the region by the imperial soldiers of Austria, who passed through Lombardy on the way to fight against the duchy of Mantua. In Milan, the plague, which is the backdrop to so many of The Betrothed’s chapters, killed much of the population. According to Manzoni’s sources, the disease claimed more than half the inhabitants; later sources contend that it claimed less than half (under 60,000 of a total 130,000), but the loss in any case was devastatingly high. And the epidemic spread through northern Italy, striking thousands more (1629–33). In Milan, as elsewhere, the lazzaretto, the hospital for those with contagious diseases, was stuffed to capacity with victims.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel tells an essentially simple story of Renzo Tramalgino, a weaver, and Lucia Mondello, two young peasants whose marriage plans are disrupted by the feudal lord, a Spaniard named Don Rodrigo. Intertwined with the main storyline of their adventures are the tales of many other characters and a sweeping historical view of life in seventeenth-century Lombardy.

The first part of the novel takes place over four days (November 7–10, 1628) in the town where Renzo and Lucia live. Don Abbondio, a small-time parish priest, is walking through the idyllic countryside when he finds himself confronted by two thugs, called bravi, who work for the local feudal lord, Don Rodrigo. Don Rodrigo has been eyeing Lucia for himself. He wants to prevent her marriage and abduct her for his own pleasure—which he sees as his right since he is the local feudal lord. So, with the help of his bravi, he warns the priest not to marry the couple. The bravi manage to intimidate Don Abbondio into putting off the wedding, even though this goes against Catholic law. When Renzo realizes he is being stalled, he schemes with Lucia’s mother to force the priest’s hand by appealing to a clever lawyer, only to learn that the law is not set up to help poor, honest people and is as corrupt as the Spanish nobility. At this point Lucia’s mother asks for help from Brother Cristoforo, a Capuchin monk. Armed with little more than his religious beliefs and sense of moral justice, the monk will turn into an effective family’s protector. The novel segues into a flashback on the background of the monk, who was once a wealthy merchant’s son, then returns to the present to follow him as he makes plans to help Renzo and Lucia flee. In the meantime, Lucia’s mother has another plan: if Renzo and Lucia can get into the house of the priest, Don Abbondio, and declare themselves husband and wife before him and two witnesses, they will in effect be married according to the laws of the Catholic Church established at the Council of Trent (before which, clandestine marriages were permitted and recognized). They accomplish half the plan, but just as the two are about to say the important words, Don Abbondio runs off through the village screaming about the dirty trick that has been played on him. At this point, it is decided that Renzo and Lucia must flee the village to escape Don Rodrigo’s vengeance. Renzo goes to Milan, and Lucia takes refuge in a convent in Monza, a city about 10 miles outside Milan.

The novel’s second and third sections, which unfold over a few months, treat the separate hardships of Renzo and Lucia while the two are apart. Just after Lucia and her mother arrive at the convent, the narrative shifts into a flashback about a nun at the convent whose aristocratic parents forced her to take the veil. They no longer wanted to support her financially, opting to invest their money in their eldest son’s future instead. Since entering the convent, the nun, Gertrude, has received special privileges because of her noble blood. She is held in awe by the others, not just because of her nobility but also because of her beauty and her cruelty. Gertrude harbors a dark secret. While in the convent, she took a lover named Egidio, whom she would meet secretly until one day a lay sister, a young woman who did domestic work at the convent but was not a nun, threatened to expose her. Suddenly that lay sister stopped showing up for work at the convent, the implication being that Gertrude has had her killed.

Eventually Lucia meets Gertrude. In fact, the nun feels compassion for the pure and innocent Lucia, so different from herself, but Gertrude is forced to push her compassion aside. Don Rodrigo, determined to get Lucia at any cost, asks for help from another villain, the most powerful man in the area, identified only as The Unnamed. He is a mysterious figure, feared throughout the region for his tyrannical acts. The Unnamed sets a plan in motion. He sends a message to one of his local thugs, who happens to be Gertrude’s exlover, Egidio. Because Egidio can blackmail her by threatening to expose their love affair and the dead girl, Gertrude has to play a role in The Unnamed’s plan to kidnap Lucia. Gertrude informs Lucia that she must be moved from the convent to another safe place, and as soon as the trusting Lucia steps into the street, she is snatched by some of The Unnamed’s bravi. The kidnappers lock her in a room in The Unnamed’s castle, where she anxiously awaits her doom. She is spared, however. Lucia’s religious faith and inner strength help effect a profound change in The Unnamed. He dwells on her words: “God will forgive so many things, for an act of mercy!” and decides to abandon his wicked ways (Manzoni, The Betrothed, p. 395). Fortunately, at the moment of his conversion, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, a real historical figure, steps into the story. The cardinal, an intellectual who believes that “no man can rightly claim superiority over his fellows, except in their service,” embodies, in the novel’s view, the most elevated of human qualities: compassion for all (The Betrothed, p. 403). The Unnamed seeks and wins an audience with the cardinal, who welcomes the wayward sheep and assures him that he still has time to right some of his wrongs. The two set out immediately to free Lucia. After The Unnamed begs her forgiveness, she starts downhill to the nearest town. A tailor and his wife take her in, and Cardinal Borromeo visits Lucia. The cardinal promises to find out about the fate of poor Renzo, who has been caught up in all the turmoil to recently hit Milan. Lucia’s mother visits too, and Lucia finds a job as a maid at a nearby estate. On the surface, life improves, but Lucia made a vow while trapped in The Unnamed’s castle, and it is torturing her now. She promised the Madonna to give up the relationship with Renzo if the Madonna would just let her survive and see her mother once more.

During all these tribulations, Renzo endures troubles of his own. He arrives in Milan during the bread riots, which resulted from poor harvests, brought on by a mix of bad weather, wartime destruction of the countryside, and the abandonment of fields by farmers faced with high taxes. The hungry residents, convinced that certain establishments are hoarding grain and flour, begin to riot and steal bread, then turn toward the commissioner’s house. The terrified commissioner, who cares nothing for the masses, is rescued by Spanish troops. Renzo observes all this unrest with the earnestness of an innocent who knows nothing of the big city. He gets caught up in the crowd mentality, a reaction the narration disparages. After the disturbance, Renzo spends the night at an inn, where he not only has dinner but also gets drunk. His guard down, he rants about the government and the riots to a police spy and ends up incriminating himself as a provocateur. The innkeeper denounces him to the police, and the following morning Renzo is arrested. But on his way to the station, he gains the sympathy of a growing crowd and manages to escape. He heads for Bergamo, a city beyond the border of the duchy of Milan in the republic of Venice, and learns on the way that the authorities have branded him a troublemaker and fugitive. Crossing the border, he makes his way to the home of his cousin, a silk weaver like himself, then moves on because the Milanese authorities are on the chase. This makes it difficult for Cardinal Borromeo’s messengers to track Renzo down.

The novel’s third and fourth sections turn to larger historical developments: the economic crisis, famine, plague in Milan, and the war for control of the dukedom of Mantua—the Italian manifestation of the European-wide Thirty Years War. The Holy Roman Emperor sends in his army, mercenaries who carry plague into the region and behave savagely as they proceed through the countryside, frightening Renzo and Lucia’s village: “News that the army had marched, that it was near at hand, and of its behavior all arrived together” (The Betrothed, p. 534). Lucia’s mother, among others, must quit the village until the soldiers pass. She and others return to find their houses plundered, an ominous foreshadowing of things to come.

The story moves to the horrors of the plague in Milan, which falls into near anarchy under incompetent government officials. The novel discusses at length the phenomenon of the untori, or “anointers,” a notion that arises out of superstition and terror. Because people do not understand how the plague spreads from one body to another, a theory develops that evildoers are purposefully passing on the disease by “anointing” benches, walls, and church columns with some contaminated oil. Many are arrested and even executed for the offense, which has no basis in reality.

In the meantime, the plague spreads to some of the novel’s characters. The villain Don Rodrigo is stricken in Milan, and a servant takes him to the dreaded lazzaretto, the hospital for people with contagious diseases. The epidemic reaches Renzo in the Venetian Republic too. Strong and lucky, he survives and resolves to find Lucia. He returns to their home village to find his modest property looted and destroyed and to learn that Lucia has moved to Milan. He arrives there, only to be confronted by visions of hell-on-earth: heartbreaking scenes of children suffering, dead and dying people in the streets, corpses ignominiously carted away, people committing desperate crimes. All the while, others locked up in their own homes, perish of hunger, filth, and hysteria. Renzo discovers that Lucia has been taken to the lazzaretto. He approaches it, convinced that he cannot bear the sight of more misery, only to realize that he has not seen the worst yet. Inside Renzo finds Brother Cristoforo who has been working there for the past three months. Anxiety-ridden about the possibility of not finding her, Renzo begins to rant about taking revenge on Don Rodrigo. This earns him a harsh scolding from Father Cristoforo, who teaches Renzo a lesson in forgiveness by taking him to the bedside of the wretchedly ailing Don Rodrigo. Renzo forgives Don Rodrigo, then locates Lucia who, like her betrothed, contracted but survived the plague. Presently she is comforting the sick. Lucia reprimands Renzo for coming, since by now he knows about the vow she made. An argument ensues about the nature of the vow and God’s wishes, and she sends Renzo away. Refusing to give her up, Renzo appeals to Father Cristoforo for aid and he convinces the steadfast young woman that the vow was improper. She promised to forfeit something she had no right to give up, since she was already engaged to Renzo at the time. Thereafter, Renzo and Lucia marry and move to another village where he earns a good living as a silk weaver, and the couple lead happy, normal lives, complete with many children. Looking back at what their experiences taught them, they reach a philosophical conclusion (which expresses Manzoni’s own conception of Divine Providence):

That troubles very often come because we have asked for them; but that the most prudent and innocent of conduct is not necessarily enough to keep them away; also that when they come … trust in God goes far to take away their sting, and makes them a useful preparation for a better life.

(The Betrothed, p. 720)

The puntiglio, or “point of honor.”

The villain Don Rodrigo embodies what Manzoni sees as the worst qualities of seventeenth-century Milanese Spanish culture, which are tied to the male aristocrat’s obsession with honor. Honor, to people of Don Rodrigo’s class, meant social reputation and privilege and the right not to be insulted, denied, or humiliated in any way by anyone, including


The tragic story of Gertrude, the “Nun of Monza,” is based on an actual person. The real Gertrude was named Marianna and she lived from 1575 to 1650. Marianna had noble parents. The daughter of Prince Don Martino De Leyva and of Lady Virginia Marino, she was a novice at the Convent of the Benedicines of Santa Margherita in Monza. Beginning in 1597, she had an affair with Giovanni Paolo Osio, and in 1607 the authorities arrested her for a murder committed in the attempt to preserve her reputation by covering up this affair. She was condemned and imprisoned until 1622 when she was liberated by Federigo Borromeo. in the novel’s original manuscript, Manzoni dedicated many chapters to the plight of Gertrude but he cut much of them out in the final version because he was concerned about creating too much sympathy for such an immoral and dark person, no matter what the psychological reasons, for her misdeeds. However, she is still considered by many the book’s most intriguing figure.

people of all social strata. Honor had always played—and would continue to play—a role in European culture. It played a prominent role in Manzoni’s day and manifested itself in ways diametrically opposed to the very values Manzoni was espousing in the novel. Because Don Rodrigo feels entitled to claim ownership of Lucia by virtue of his higher social status and noble blood, a sense of shame and dishonor overtakes him when she rejects him in front of his cousin, and he reacts in a way that forces Renzo and Lucia to flee. His sense of honor leads to their separation from each other and their families, and touches off all the subsequent misadventures.

For the aristocracy of seventeenth-century Milan, one’s sense of honor was intimately tied to the concept of masculinity and masculine modes of defense or retribution. In fact, dueling over points of honor became so widespread in Italy, especially in Spanish-ruled Italy, that the colonial government tried to impose laws to ban it. But since the nobles considered themselves above the law, such policies were largely ineffectual.

When Brother Cristoforo reproaches Don Rodrigo for his interference in Renzo and Lucia’s marriage, Don Rodrigo suffers another insult to his pride. He is indignant, first at being denied Lucia, then at being scolded for demanding from her what he sees as rightfully his. Ironically, those whom he takes to be offenders to his honor are portrayed as far worthier than he. The novel ridicules the absurdity of such a “noble” sense of honor, intensifying the scathing depiction by drawing on historical disputes from treatises on chivalry. The Spaniards were especially famous for their ferocious allegiance to personal and family’s honor, and many treatises on the subject were published in Milan during the Spanish rule there. Particularly inspirational for Manzoni were two treatises on honor he goes so far as to mention in his novel. The treatises were written by two seventeenth-century Milanese aristocrats: G. B. Olevano’s Trattato nel quale co’l mezzo di cinquanta casi vien posto in atto prattico il modo di ridurre a pace ogni sorte di privata inimicitia nata per cagion d’onore [1620; Treatise in which, through 50 examples, it will be shown how to make peace out of any type of private hostility brought on by an offense to one’s honor] and Francesco Birago’s Li discorsi cavallereschi [1628; Discourses on chivalry].

A component of puntiglio in these treatises is outside opinion—the gentleman, in order to retain his honor, cannot allow someone else to threaten or dishonor him, publicly or privately. Obviously, a public offense must be avenged. But the thinking was that even if the offense is committed in private, the dishonored man should not have to live with the fact that the offender carries within him the memory of the insult he delivered. Don Rodrigo conceives of what he sees as his tongue lashing from Brother Cristoforo in this way.

So obsessed is Don Rodrigo with his own honor that he does not even take into account that Cristoforo is a monk with a commitment to protect his flock, particularly the poor, who have no other defender. Brother Cristoforo, on the other hand, is a genuine man of honor, for he shows compassion even for the disease-racked Don Rodrigo. Through the two figures, the novel sets up a fundamental contrast—between the immoral, irrational behavior that pervaded much of seventeenth-century Italy and the reasoned, fraternal, honest Christian behavior of the novel’s lowly heroes. While this contrast may impress the modern day reader as one that promotes stereotypes, in Italian literature Manzoni’s harsh criticism and ridicule of aristocratic modes of behavior was groundbreaking.

Sources and literary context

In a foreword to the novel, Manzoni explains how the idea came to him while transcribing a seventeenth-century historical manuscript, which he decided to rewrite in modern language and turn into a novel (whose facts he would corroborate with other sources). Thus, the work introduces itself as a historical novel about characters that did exist or could have existed. Indeed, some of the most memorable characters are based on historical figures—namely, the aristocratic nun Gertrude and Cardinal Borromeo.

Not just a historical novel, The Betrothed is a religious work based on Manzoni’s beliefs about the past, present, and ideal future state of the Catholic Church. His conception of Catholicism is often at odds with official Church positions because of his emphasis on equality and democracy. Manzoni wanted to concentrate on the original message of the Gospel in connection with social relations, particularly with respect to the poor and oppressed. This explains much of the novel’s human interaction. Another influential dimension is his belief in Divine Providence—the idea that people need to entrust their lives to God rather than to humans for the eventual triumph of good over evil. A convert who was raised to place his faith not in religion but in the ability of people to reason, Manzoni embraced Catholicism in 1810. He was 25 years old at the time and became an ardent follower of the faith. While he continued to believe passionately in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and rational thought, he now wanted to reconcile them with the practice and hierarchy of Catholicism. What resulted was a sort of Christian democracy, a message from Manzoni that the Gospel was not just for a privileged few (priests, Church leaders, people of noble blood) but everyone, even the most humble.

The Betrothed is also a historical novel written with patriotic objectives in mind. Nineteenth-century thought attached great importance to history as a discipline. Historiography was seen as central to establishing a national identity. One of the primary exponents of the historical novel was Sir Walter Scott, whose novels circulated widely in the regions of Italy. Two of his landmark novels—Waverly (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819)—were published in Italian translation in 1821. Manzoni, who met Scott, speaks of his debt to the Scottish novelist: “If Walter Scott had not existed then I would not have had the idea to write a novel” (Ghidetti, p. 69; trans. A. Boylan).

In addition to Scott, Manzoni studied actual histories to make his details as faithful to fact as


Born in 1564 into the illustrious, aristocratic Borromeo family’s of Milan, Federigo (Federico) Borromeo became the cardinal and archbishop of the city. In The Betrothed, during the height of the plague, not knowing how the disease spreads, he gets the people of Milan to hold a religious procession to appease Cod’s wrath, which aggravates the contagion. In fact Borromeo was a loyal friend to the people and extremely dedicated to education. He founded the Ambrosiana, at once a seminary, a college of fine arts, and the second public library in Europe.

possible. He consulted the work of Giuseppe Ripamonti (1573–1643), a canon of the Santa Maria della Scala church in Milan. Under the guidance of Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, Ripamonti wrote Storia della chiesa milanese (The History of the Milanese Church) before serving as Milan’s official chronicler and then the historiographer of the Spanish kingdom in Italy. For other details he referred to the already named Spanish treatises on honor and to a historical work on the food business: Sul commercio de’ commestibili e caro prezzo del vitto. Opera storico-teorico-popolare (1802; On the commerce of foodstuffs and the high price of food) by the economist Melchiorre Gioia.

It was theorized that if the historical novel could be written to communicate with the general population, it would fulfill a need to teach a people about their common roots. With this in mind, Manzoni breaks new ground by featuring “unimportant” people swept up in monumental events that were usually only connected to famous people, showing how even the most humble participate in history. He furthermore champions their middle-class aspirations and portrays former peasants like Renzo, who becomes a silk weaver and an entrepreneur, as the future of the nation. The story of peasants in a small Lombard town builds to a larger view of early-seventeenth-century Lombardy and in the process slyly criticizes politics and society in nineteenth-century Italy without the risk of directly attacking


Between 1821 and the novel’s first publication in 1827, Manzoni revised his work many times, trying to strike a balance between historical information, fictional narrative, authorial intervention in the work, and character development. After the 1827 edition, however, he became dissatisfied with the novel’s linguistic condition and felt that he wanted to contribute to the long-standing “questkme della lingua”—the controversy over what the standard, modern literary Italian should be. The question arose because Italians, since their country was not a unified political entity, generally spoke either the dialect of their own region or the language that foreign rulers imposed on them. As a native of Milan, Manzoni at first wrote in the city’s dialect mixed with many French influences. But Manzoni came to believe that the Tuscan dialect, the language of hallowed national figures such as Dante and Machiavelli, should be used in literature, in part to inspire a feeling of communal national sentiment. He therefore traveled to Florence to imbibe the dialect and set about rewriting his novel in it, or, as his famous metaphor goes, he went to “rinse his clothes in the Arno [the river that runs through the middle of Florence].” This led to a publication of the definitive edition in 1840.

the foreign rulers. The Austrian rulers of Manzoni’s day, his novel implies, functioned much like their Spanish predecessors, especially in enlisting the allegiance of the Milanese nobility, who in effect betrayed their poorer compatriots.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Napoleonic rule

After the Austrians won control of Milan in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, they ruled the city for nearly a century. The eruption in 1789 of the French Revolution terrified absolute monarchist governments all over Europe and served to embolden those who championed democracy. Republican France went on to fight a war against Austria, from which France emerged victorious. A French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte entered Milan as its liberator in May 1796, and under the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 17, 1797) Napoleon forced Austria to recognize the formation of a new Cisalpine Republic with Milan as its capital. The Cisalpine Republic was effectively under the control of Napoleon and the French. They proceeded to make some democratic changes, such as prohibiting factory owners to fire workers and changing the old monarchic street signs like “Via deinobili” (Street of the Nobles) to more egalitarian signs like “Via dell’Uguaglianza” (Street of Equality). But the French also raised taxes, imposed obligatory military service, suppressed opposition, and did little to institute independent democratic rule. In 1799 war broke out again between France and Austria, and Austria and their Russian allies occupied Lombardy. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon led a coup that put him in control of the French state. In 1800, he led the army into Italy and defeated the Austrians and Russians, thereby securing his control over Lombardy for the remainder of his rule. In 1802 the Cisalpine Republic was enlarged and renamed the Italian Republic, but this arrangement did not last long. In 1805 Napoleon declared himself French Emperor and King of Italy, consolidating all power in his own hands. The atmosphere in Milan became ever more oppressive, censorship grew, and spies infiltrated the city streets. An era that had begun with great hope and democratic ideals deteriorated into tyranny. When Napoleon’s empire finally fell in 1814, the city was relieved.


Eight days later the Austrians returned and repossessed the city, making Milan, as well as the newly acquired Venetian Republic, part of their empire. Austrian troops, until they had their own barracks, even stayed in Manzoni’s city and country houses. The period was called the Restoration, although the Austrians showed no interest in restoring the type of semi-enlightened and tolerant government they had practiced earlier. In the interim, however, Napoleon had accelerated the desire for geographical self-rule, though at this point it was still a desire for regional self-rule and the concept of national unity had not yet taken hold. Still, this era is filled with the revolutionary impulse. The Milanese, particularly the intellectuals, after having had a taste of the possibility of self-rule, kept conspiring to overthrow their oppressive rulers. Manzoni himself frequented salons where rebellion was fomented. The discovery in 1820 of one particular conspiracy sent many of Manzoni’s circle into exile, silence, or prison. Manzoni was spared, however, since, though he shared many of the revolutionary sentiments, he did not directly participate in any of these clandestine affairs.

The Lombard Romantics and Unification

The idea of “cultural nationalism” surfaced among a group of intellectuals in early-nineteenth-century Milan. The writers in this loosely affiliated group, whose members shared a commitment to creating a sense of nationality among Italians through literature and art, were called the Lombard Romantics, and included Manzoni and Silvio Pellico. The group published the subversive, anti-Austrian political and literary journal II Conciliatore [The Peacemaker] between 1818 and 1819. During this time, in addition to Manzoni’s The Betrothed, which indirectly criticized Milan’s current foreign rulers—the Austrians—a few other subversive works were published (e.g., Tommaso Grossi’s scathing political satire the Prineide [1816] and Carlo Porta’s series of works in dialect about the city’s poor and outcast population [1812–16]). Manzoni’s novel went a step further than these other works, striving to create a national modern literary language that all inhabitants of the Italian peninsula could understand and relate to, one that was not “tainted” by the localisms of his own regional dialect or by foreign (French) influences. Ideals of nationality and shared cultural heritage were diffused by this type of literature and, along with military and political action, would eventually excite enough enthusiasm, at least among the upper classes and intellectuals, to unify the country. By 1848 the Milanese had had enough of Austrian rule, so when the Austrians were concentrating on uprisings in Vienna, the people of Milan took to the streets and wrested the city free from Austrian rule. After several days of fighting, in which 350 died, the Milanese voted to be annexed to nearby Piedmont under the King of Savoy (future king of united Italy). A few months later the Austrians managed to retake Milan, and a decade of terrible repression followed. Finally, in 1859, another war broke out between the Austrians and the Savoy kingdom (Piedmont) and this time the rebels emerged victorious (in the battle of Magenta in June 1859). Afterwards, Lombardy was permanently annexed to the Savoy kingdom, which in 1861 became the Kingdom of Italy.


When the first version of The Betrothed was published in 1827, it was warmly welcomed by the reading public, although it met with some resistance from critics and members of the intellectual elite. They complained that a) the novel form was not a legitimate literary genre, particularly not the realist novel because it did not express lofty, abstract ideals in the style of neo-classicism, b) the language was too accessible and banal, c) Manzoni’s protagonists, being humble peasants, were not dignified enough to merit readers’ attention. This last factor was one of Manzoni’s great innovations, and it shocked those used to caring only about the stories of people from the upper classes. However, such international writers as Goethe, Edgar Allan Poe and Stendhal, and the influential Italian critics Niccoló Tommaseo, Silvio Pellico, and De Sanctis praised the work. About Manzoni Pietro Giordani, literary critic and ardent anti-Austrian patriot, declared: “How this helps the minds of the people —The oppressors will realize—what a profound intellect, what a powerful incentive he is who has taken so much care to appear simple, almost as if a fool…. Oh, why doesn’t Italy have 20 books just like it!” (Viti, p. 152; trans. A. Boylan).

—Amy Boylan

For More Information

Cavalazzi, Giovanna, and Gau Falchi. La storia di Milano. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1989.

Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Ghidetti, Enrico. Manzoni. Florence: Giunti Lisciani Editori, 1995.

Manzoni, Alessandro. The Betrothed. London: Penguin Books, 1972.

Sella, Domenico. Italy in the Seventeenth Century. London: Longman, 1997.

Viti, Gorizio. Guida ai Promessi sposi. Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1970.