If the greatest masterpiece of Italian literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy, could realistically be acclaimed as the greatest poem ever written, the other great masterpiece of Italian literature, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni, could be acclaimed as the greatest ever novel. This latter claim will come as a surprise to those who might not even have heard of Manzoni’s classic work. And yet, in spite of the relative neglect it has suffered, it rivals Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, and any other claimants to literary preeminence.
Such an appraisal of its merit would certainly accord with the view of most Italians who are baffled by the relative lack of recognition that Manzoni’s magnum opus has received globally. It forms an indispensable part of the curriculum in Italian high schools and Manzoni’s embrace of the Florentine dialect in his writing of The Betrothed helped to establish and formalize the modern Italian language. Furthermore, as a work that is more accessible than The Divine Comedy, it is the most widely read of all works of Italian literature and, with the exception of Dante’s Commedia, the most widely critiqued and scrutinized by scholars.
Alessandro Manzoni was a revert to the practice of the Catholic faith, having wandered off as a young man in pursuit of the fashionable and anti-Catholic secularism espoused by the followers of Voltaire. Having returned to the Catholic faith with a renewed vigor and fervor, he began writing religious poetry and authored a scholarly treatise on Catholic morality. It was, therefore, as a devout Catholic that Manzoni set to work on The Betrothed, his own muse being betrothed to the essential truths that the novel shines forth.
First published in 1827 in three volumes and later, in 1842, in a revised definitive version, The Betrothed is a historical novel recounting events from two centuries earlier. At the heart of the story is the agonizing relationship of Renzo and Lucia, the betrothed couple, who are swept apart by political intrigue and circumstance. It follows the hapless pair in their seemingly hopeless quest to be reunited, a storyline which will remind American readers of Longfellow’s Evangeline.
Against the backdrop of petty tyranny and political turmoil, and amidst the mayhem of revolutionary mobs and the miasma of plague-ridden streets, the story of the lovers is interwoven with the stories of great sinners and even greater saints. Its greatest strength, however, is the menagerie of multifarious characters that Manzoni presents to the reader, a motley medley of all that is best and worst in humanity, much as Chaucer presents to the reader in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. A brief depiction of the most important of these will provide a picture, a character portrait, of the novel itself.
Lucia is a worthy heroine in the tradition of great literary heroines. She reminds us of Homer’s Penelope in her faithful fortitude in the midst of great trials and tribulations, exhibiting saintly spiritual strength in the very heart of the darkness in which she all too often finds herself. Like Penelope, she is besieged by the unwelcome advances of wicked men and beset by troubles that are not of her own making. She exhibits the powerful silence of Shakespeare’s Cordelia in her resolve to refrain from the path of least resistance, retaining her virtue in the midst of viciousness. In so doing, she also reminds us of Dante’s Beatrice insofar as she represents a very icon of idealized femininity, worthy of anyone’s love and warranting great sacrifice on the part of the lover in the quest to win her hand.
Renzo is as utterly unworthy of her as Dante is of Beatrice. He is hotheaded, rash in his judgments and rushed in his actions. His lack of prudence and temperance all too often makes matters worse. And yet, in spite of his weaknesses, he is good and stouthearted and is lacking in neither courage nor cunning. For this reason, the reader can’t help liking him, in spite of his infuriating lack of judgment. We wish him well, and we wish him success in being reunited with the woman of whom he is so evidently the inferior.
In Don Abbondio and Fra Cristoforo we are shown the worst and the best in the priesthood and the religious life, much as Chaucer shows us the worst and the best in presenting us with the Friar and the Parson. Don Abbondio is craven in his abandonment of Renzo and Lucia to the wickedness of Don Rodrigo, placing his own self-interest and material comfort over the good of his flock. In contrast, Fra Cristoforo is fearless in his pursuit of justice for the betrothed couple, striding into the very lion’s den in order to confront Don Rodrigo.
In Don Rodrigo and the Unnamed (L’Innominato), Manzoni presents us with two fearsome tyrants, each of whom has tyrannized the weak in the wielding of power for their own self-serving purposes. In the latter, he also shows us one of the most powerful and palpable examples of spiritual conversion in all of literature, a conversion which was based on the real-life conversion of Francesco Bernardino Visconti.
Two other characters based upon real-life historical figures are Federico Borromeo and the Nun of Monza. The former, a cousin of St. Charles Borromeo, followed his kinsman as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, as well as following in his kinsman’s saintly footsteps as a holy servant of the Church, tireless and courageous in his zeal for souls. Manzoni is dexterous in his portrayal of Borromeo’s sanctity, relating it with masculine matter-of-factness without ever stooping to the saccharine level of the hagiographic.
The Nun of Monza, on the other hand, is based upon a real-life noblewoman who, having been coerced into religious orders by her family, lives an embittered life, succumbing to the sin of fornication and its sordid ramifications. The fact that the pure and chaste Lucia is entrusted to the care of such a woman adds one more agonizing twist and turn to this most anguished of tales.
Apart from these leading players, a number of minor characters add their own inimitable je ne sais quoi to the story. The most memorable of these is Dr. Azzeccagarbugli, whose surname is rendered by the novel’s translator as Dr. Quibbleweaver, which, aside from being quintessentially and delightfully Dickensian, is an apt appendage for a corrupt lawyer who weaves quibbles into hard cash for himself and his rich and equally corrupt clients.
One final aspect of Manzoni’s novel needs to be mentioned. The whole work is imbued with good humor, itself an expression of the author’s goodness, which alleviates the grimness of the novel’s gravitas with the levitas of Christian hope. The narrative voice of the author, when it interjects itself into the story, is one which lightens and leavens the whole work with whimsy. It is the presence of the author’s overarching and overriding Christian vision which trumps a note of triumph and even triumphalism into the darkest corners of the narrative.
Irrespective of each ensuing catastrophic turn in events, one always senses in the gentle intrusion of the authorial voice that all will be well in the end. It doesn’t matter how bad things are or how worse they become. Even in the midst of the madness of the Machiavel or the massacre of the innocents, there is always the promise of final victory. It is the very essence of great Christian literature, which always sees the silver lining to every cloud, and the unseen sun that it signifies, knowing that the darkest of tragedies is always and ultimately subject to the divinest of comedies.
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-eighth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”