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.
Further Reading on Alessandro Manzoni
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).
Additional Biography Sources
Colquhoun, Archibald, Manzoni and his times: a biography of the author of The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.