Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) wrote I promessi sposi, or The Betrothed, Italy's most widely read novel. His works signaled the unique direction of Italian romanticism.
Alessandro Manzoni was born in Milan on March 7, 1785. His parents, elderly Count Pietro and young Giulia, separated shortly after his birth. Educated at religious schools, Manzoni subsequently joined his mother in Paris, where she was living. In that cosmopolitan atmosphere, imbued with the ideas of the Enlightenment, Manzoni came in contact with many of the great minds of Europe. His poems from this period include "On the Death of Carlo Imbonati" (1806), a contemplative elegy reflecting genuine fondness for his mother's Parisian lover.
Manzoni's Protestant marriage to Enrichetta Blondel in 1808 was reconsecrated according to Roman Catholic rites in 1810. Although many have spoken of his "conversion," it would be more appropriate to state that Manzoni outgrew his early anticlericalism and matured intellectually during the gradual return to his traditional faith. His Inni sacri (Sacred Hymns) constitutes the artistic representation of this rekindled spirit. These hymns, intended to commemorate Christian holidays, indicate Manzoni's desire to "bring those great, noble, human sentiments back to the fold of religion from which they stem." Although he had planned 12 hymns, only 5 were completed: "The Resurrection" (1812), "The Name of Mary" (1812-1813), "Christmas" (1813), "The Passion" (1814-1815), and "Pentecost" (1817), of which the last is considered artistically most successful. In all these are found Manzoni's Enlightenment views on human equality and the brotherhood of nations fused with the belief that religion and the Church have benefited mankind.
Manzoni's study of theater history, especially the works of Shakespeare in French translation, awoke in him the possibility of pursuing truth through dramatic works based on psychological realism. He sought plausible tragedies with protagonists whose sufferings would cause the viewer to meditate on life and the transcendent forces at work upon man. Insisting that such works must stem from reality and history—not from farfetched plots or actions—Manzoni wrote two important verse plays. The Count of Carmagnola (1820) treats the Renaissance Italian warrior who, unfairly accused of betrayal, was condemned to death. However, in presenting this instance of extreme injustice that would emotionally move the spectator, he neglected character development in the count. Manzoni's preface to this play offered historical background and distinguished between invented and real characters in the belief that the essence of poetry lay in the reconstruction of the moral truths of history, not in the invention of detail or character.
Faulted for disregarding the traditional dramatic unities, Manzoni wrote a lengthy defense, "Letter to M. Chauvet on the Unities of Time and Place within the Tragedy" (1820), in which he held that all obstacles to the plausibility of a play (for example, obedience to classical rules) must be discarded. His next play, Adelchi (1822), omitted the prefatory historical clarifications, but Manzoni appended a commentary that provided the factual basis for this play on Adelchi, a Lombard prince compelled to wage war against Charlemagne. The essence of the drama concerns the inner conflict of the protagonist, torn between desires for revenge and Christian reconciliation, a dilemma posed by Charlemagne's repudiation of Princess Ermengarda, Adelchi's sister. Set in 722-774, this tragedy, lamenting political factionalism, stirred 19th-century Italians beset by similar civil strife.
Manzoni's quest for artistic truth was evidenced in numerous theoretical works, especially his letter of Sept. 23, 1823, to Cesare d'Azeglio, which clarifies Manzoni's views on what romanticism should be. Rejecting several literary clichés (among them the presence of witches and ghosts, the idolatrous use of mythology, and the servile imitation of foreign writers), Manzoni developed a romanticism that was fundamentally religious in feeling and held that a study of real things could lead to the discovery of historical and moral truths. This conception, differing greatly from that of other European romantics, brought Manzoni much closer to the realists of the following generation.
I promessi sposi
Manzoni began his masterpiece in 1823; it appeared after several revisions and title changes as I promessi sposi (1827). Aware of linguistic and other shortcomings, he dedicated the next 13 years almost exclusively to recasting this long novel, which achieved definitive form in 1840. This work, in which Manzoni assumes the role of editor of a discovered manuscript, affords him ample opportunity to reconstruct historically the events and circumstances of early-17th-century Italy and to give literary expression to his view of history and man.
The plot consists of the persistent attempts of Lucia and Renzo to marry despite the obstacles posed by the lustful, corrupt nobleman Don Rodrigo, whose machinations separate the young lovers and expose them to frequently melodramatic travails. Only at the end, when Manzoni has demonstrated that a firm faith in God can alleviate man's sufferings, does he eliminate the evil Rodrigo via the plague and permit Renzo and Lucia to marry in their native village, where they resume their interrupted lives 2 years later.
This mere summary cannot pay adequate tribute to Manzoni's subtle irony, satirical wit, historical knowledge, and extraordinary ability to create both major and minor characters to populate the universe that he so credibly brings to life.
Manzoni's important role in Italian letters stems from his discovery of a national prose language, his creation of the first modern Italian novel, and his giving literary expression to nascent nationalistic ideals. These triumphs overshadow the polemics surrounding the interpretations of religion and society in this work, in which Manzoni truly succeeded in capturing the spiritual essence of his nation.
The recommended translation of Manzoni's masterpiece, The Betrothed, is by Archibald Colquhoun (1951); it is complete and very readable and has the advantage of being based on Manzoni's last revised text. Joseph Francis de Simone, Alessandro Manzoni: Esthetics and Literary Criticism (1946), gives the most comprehensive English review of Manzoni scholarship and attempts to situate the artist in the literary environment of his time. Other studies are Archibald Colquhoun, Manzoni and His Times (1954), and Bernard Wall, Alessandro Manzoni (1954).
Colquhoun, Archibald, Manzoni and his times: a biography of the author of The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979. □
MANZONI, ALESSANDRO (1785–1873), Italian novelist and poet.
Alessandro Manzoni was the author of the most important historical novel of nineteenth-century Italy. He was the son of Giulia Beccaria (daughter of Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Beccaria, the Enlightenment legal reformer) and Pietro Manzoni, a member of the lesser Lombard nobility (at least nominally; Alessandro's father was probably another man). When his mother legally separated from Pietro after seven years of marriage, Alessandro was sent to Catholic boarding schools, an experience that contributed to his anticlericalism. In 1805 he joined his mother in Paris, where he lived until 1810 and met important intellectuals in the circle of the idéologues. In 1808 he married sixteen-year-old Henriette Blondel, who died in 1833. They had ten children, eight of whom died before their father. He returned to Catholicism in 1816 after his Calvinist wife converted under the spiritual direction of a priest close to Jansenism. As a result, his own brand of Catholicism remained imbued with an austere morality. An ardent supporter of Italian unification, he was appointed senator of the kingdom in the first parliament of 1860 and was named an honorary citizen of Rome in 1872. Prince Umberto of Savoy (who would become king of Italy) was present at his funeral in 1873.
With close links to Romantic circles in Milan, in his early literary career Manzoni composed poems inspired by religious themes, such as Inni sacri (1815; The sacred hymns), tragedies based on historical figures and situations (Adelchi  and Il conte di Carmagnola ), patriotic verses (Marzo 1821), and a famous ode on the death of Napoleon, "Il Cinque Maggio" (1822; The fifth of May). His interest in history, kindled by the influence of French Restoration culture (and especially the work of historian Augustin Thierry) and already visible in early writings such as Discorso sopra alcuni punti della storia longobardica in Italia (1822; Discourse on some aspects of Lombard history in Italy), was fully deployed in the work that gave him a place in the Italian literary canon: I promessi sposi (1825–1827; The betrothed). Following in the path of Sir Walter Scott, Manzoni's I promessi sposi is set in Spanish Lombardy around 1630 and features the vicissitudes of two peasants whose wedding plans are disrupted by the arrogance of an abusive provincial nobleman. In contrast to the tradition of the historical novel, however, lengthy digressions on events and figures of the period are included to paint a broad picture of seventeenth-century Italian society.
Manzoni intended I promessi sposi to be a serious work approaching "historical truth" and carrying a moral message. It dealt with themes that were implicitly patriotic (the moral decadence of Italian society under the rule of corrupt foreign rulers), condemned the abuses of power (both civil and clerical), and emphasized the role of divine providence, which alone is able to provide solace to the victims of human injustice. Although, as critics have observed, ordinary men and women became the protagonists of a major work of Italian literature for the first time, the author had no interest in making these people speak for themselves, nor was he prey to romantic populism.
Translations into French and English appeared very soon. Critics' reactions varied, ranging from praise for its moral lesson (an "elementary catechism" according to one Italian admirer) to questions about the choice of protagonists and the length of the historical digressions. I promessi sposi went through a linguistic revision in the following years as the author tried to make it conform to his idea of what the Italian language should be like: the Tuscan dialect spoken by the Florentine upper classes. To this end Manzoni went to the Tuscan capital to enlist the collaboration of some friends for a second edition, eventually published in 1840–1842. More than a hundred editions had appeared by 1875 as the book was canonized in the new state as a masterpiece of Italian literature.
Having developed profound doubts about the possibility of being truly faithful to history while writing fiction, doubts which he explained in an essay published in 1850, Del romanzo storico, e in genere, de' componimenti misti di storia e d'invenzione (On the historical novel and in general on writings mixing history and invention), Manzoni never wrote another novel, and he soon also exhausted his poetic inspiration. In his later years he devoted his time to essays on philosophical, aesthetic, and historical issues. Although as a liberal Catholic he was a critic of the church's temporal power, in his works he offered a defense of the role of the church in Italian history that provided the bases for the Neo-Guelf school of historiography. Until his death, he also continued to contribute to the important questione della lingua, the discussion on how to shape a viable language for the new Italian nation.
Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. New York, 1999.
Dionisotti, Carlo. Appunti su moderni: Foscolo, Leopardi, Manzoni, e altri. Bologna, 1988.
Ghidetti, Enrico. Alessandro Manzoni. Florence, 1995.
Manzoni, Alessandro. Tutte le opere di Alessandro Manzoni. Edited by Alberto Chiari and Fausto Ghisalberti. 7 vols. Milan, 1957–1991.
——. The Betrothed. Edited by David Forgacs and Matthew Reynolds. London, 1997.