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18 january 2017
I did one of my periodic life-list inventories recently and discovered that the most famous 19th-century novel I'd never read was I promessi sposi by Alessandro Manzoni. Nowadays we have iBooks to bring any public-domain text before our eyes in the time it takes the %&^#ing WiFi to connect, so I started reading it right away.
The Betrothed, as it's called in English, was a wild reading experience for me, on both the direct and the meta levels. I had an old paperback of I promessi sposi that I'd picked up at a used bookstore in Texas for a couple of bucks, original price 16,000 lire. I downloaded I promessi sposi free on iBooks. But Manzoni's Italian can be prolix and digressive, and I like to read iBooks when I'm tired, so I felt the need of a translation I could read when I was falling asleep, too. For free on iBooks, the going version is an unattributed 1834 translation of considerable energy and much less accuracy. I started moving through all three texts depending on which one I felt like using, shifting three bookmarks as I went.
As a result, I'm not quite sure whether I've read The Betrothed, but I've certainly spent some quality time with a unique patchwork of what Manzoni wrote and an anonymous Englishman paraphrased, going on 200 years ago. For an immense baggy 19th-century novel, The Betrothed has an extremely focused plot. The "promessi sposi," the engaged couple, are Lucy and Renzo, and the book starts with some thugs telling a priest not to marry them. Despite numerous digressions, we never get far from the marriage plot all the rest of the very long way. "Did they ever get married" is one of the most banal hooks for a novel imaginable, but you have to admit that it has a way of propelling a story.
It's a historical novel, set in the 1620s, two centuries before Manzoni wrote. Lucy and Renzo are blocked by Don Roderick, a local strongman who has taken a fancy to Lucy. Don Roderick leans on the fretful Don Abbondio, who keeps weaseling out of performing the wedding. Don Abbondio is no hero, but all the same, they're going to flat out kill him if he defies them. Later in the novel his bishop will rebuke him for not choosing martyrdom, but even the bishop has to admit that the flesh is not always that strong.
There's quite a bit of running around, a little swordplay, and eventual separation of our hero and heroine, she to undergo a Gothic interlude in the castle of somebody called simply "The Unknown," he to participate in some bread riots in Milan and then flee cross-country under assumed names. War breaks out, and people scatter and suffer. The big climax of the novel comes in chapters set in the midst of a virulent plague. At one point things are going so badly for Lucy that she takes a vow to the Virgin: if she gets out of this alive, she'll give up the idea of marrying Renzo. It seems impossible that our heroes should ever become the sposi of the title.
Spoil I will: of course they eventually get married, with just a few pages to spare. For all its horrors and dark corners, The Betrothed is an essentially comic novel, full of good humor and gioia de vivere. It's hard to define just when you become sure that everything will turn out OK – possibly when Don Abbondio is first terrified into deferring the wedding, just pages after the novel begins. With that inevitable outcome in mind you can enjoy the ingenuity of the situations and the broad canvas of early-modern life that Manzoni invokes.
The Betrothed is one of those novels that Henry James called "large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary." Among the elements that Manzoni throws into his mix are organized crime, ecclesiastical pettifogging, war, famine, plague, Italian regionalism, Italian disunity, the status of religious orders, and the abuses perpetrated by an irresponsible aristocracy. Half the time a reader doesn't know whether the main thrust of his critique is 1620s Italy or 1820s Italy, and some of those concerns were still alive in the Italy of the 1920s and probably will remain so in the 2020s. Manzoni uses the basically skeletal plot of The Betrothed to hang all sorts of thematics on.
The most notable them in The Betrothed, for my money, is the ordinariness of Lucy and Renzo. Renzo is a weaver by trade, doing OK for himself, but of no particular wealth or birth. Lucy is just a pretty village girl, of Renzo's class. Their romance and their adventures recall stories of genteel love that go back to Romeo and Juliet and Boccaccio, but they're not genteel. Their persecutors are high-born; their eventual saviors are, too; but Lucy and Renzo are just a couple of plain folks trying to live a plain life. (Neither of them knows how to read, a realistic detail that also isolates them from modeling their romantic adventures on anyone else's; they're the reverse of Don Quixote or Emma Bovary.) I'm sure this is a profound theme in criticism of Manzoni that has been endlessly discussed by people with far more insight into its meanings for both the 17th and 19th centuries than I have. It just strikes me as a significant development in the "rise of the novel" and its adoption of the concerns of the lower middle class and of workers.
In the process, The Betrothed recalls all sorts of other novels, some of which it draws on, some of which it influenced, others that it just happens to run in parallel courses to. Its imperious noblemen recall the violent world of Prevost's Manon Lescaut. Its picture of war, famine, and populations on the move look far ahead to Moravia's La Ciociara. The character of the archbishop Frederick Borromeo anticipates the saintly Bishop of Digne in Hugo's Les Misérables. An impulsive young man wandering the Italian countryside as great events transpire around him reminds me of La Chartreuse de Parme.
But above all Manzoni's ironic tone reminds me of other novelists with wry senses of humor: Austen at times, Trollope, Balzac, Proust, Joyce, Nabokov. That's not a grouping that immediately comes to mind as a natural one, and Manzoni is wildly different from each in many ways, of course. He is not an egregious satirist like Thackeray or Dickens; there's little exaggeration for humorous effect in The Betrothed. But there's a sharp sense of the artificiality of storytelling, and there are moments when the basic absurdity of human responses to life breaks through (without resorting to absurd plot contrivances or wacky details).
My favorite example comes when a father waxes hagiographic to his family about the goodness of Cardinal Borromeo:
"To see him before the altar," said he, "a lord like him, to see him before the altar, as a simple curate—"No little girl would speak up like that during Victor Hugo's celebration of the Bishop of Digne.
"And that golden thing he had on his head," said one of the little girls. (Chapter 24)
Manzoni, Alessandro. I promessi sposi. 1827. Milano: Garzanti, 1966, 1981. Reprinted 1992.
Manzoni, Alessandro. I promessi sposi. 1827. Edizioni Scientifiche e Artistiche, 2013. iBooks.
Manzoni, Alessandro. The Betrothed. London: Richard Bentley, 1834. iBooks.
UPDATE 1.07.2021: I promessi sposi is also an opera! Or rather, a couple of operas, at least. One is by Errico Petrella, from 1869, and is pretty obscure; the other is by a better-known composer (Amilcare Ponchielli) but is almost equally obscure; Ponchielli's version premiered in 1856 and was significantly revised in 1872.
I was able to watch Ponchielli's Promessi sposi in a 2015 production at the Milan Conservatory, available on the YouTube channel of its conductor, Marco Pace. This is a brisk and engaging production of a fairly long (160-minute) opera, very well-done by all concerned.
If the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Giordano, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo suddenly vanished from existence, Ponchielli could take up the slack commendably, and not just with his famous La Gioconda. I promessi sposi has all the elements of an Italian opera: lovely tunes, a drinking song, foreboding harmonies, choruses of the plaguestricken, an evil baritone, young lovers who sing a couple of love duets, a trustworthy bass to sing them home to a happy ending.
If I promessi sposi is still outside the canonical repertoire – there may be musical subtleties that escape me, or it may just be the inertia of the opera business: nobody sings I promessi sposi because nobody sings I promessi sposi. And I'll admit that the story is somewhat flat, in operatic terms. There is no deep misunderstanding between Lucy and Renzo, no love triangle, despite the threats that various possessive men cast over the central relationship; no doom, thanks to that happy ending. Don Rodrigo is despatched, but not by a rival or by his own hubris; he just gets sick and dies. The drollness and verbal energy of the novel are lost i – partly from necessity, because operatic singing is rarely as subtle as Manzoni's text; but partly too because six different writers (including Ponchielli himself) worked and reworked the libretto over the years. The resulting script is an oddly static rendition of a novel that seems constantly in motion.
But operas with worse librettos flourish. I promessi sposi is a very nice piece of music, and I wish there were more recordings of it.