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Scala or Piolo? The Painstaking Brilliance of Alessandro Manzoni

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AlessandroManzoniFrancescoHayezIn January 1873, poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, nearly 88 years old and author of the great Italian novel I Promessi Sposi, fell on the steps of the Church of San Fedele in Milan and banged his head.

The head injury confined him to bed, and his health started declining rapidly. According to some witnesses, he suffered intermittently from loss of memory and exhibited obsessive fear of a divine judgment after death. On April 27, in a moment of lucidity he commented: “I moved from a green old age to a rapid state of decrepitude.” A little less than a month later, he died, and a week later, his funeral was attended by an array of royalty (including the Savoy Crown Prince Umberto), and the Cardinal Archbishop conducted the following services, and the writer’s long-time friend Giuseppe Verdi composed a requiem mass.

Thus the child born from his mother’s out-of wedlock affair, the youth who had been rejected by his mother and by his legal father, the agnostic poet who had become a fervent Catholic, the man who had written stirring patriotic poetry and the unquestioned “great Italian novel,” the individual whom the first Italian king had honored and appointed senator, the friend of Garibaldi and of Verdi, was put to rest amidst enormous splendor and national mourning. But who was this man?

Alessandro Manzoni was the first Italian great literary figure of the 19th century. Although not well known to the general English-speaking world, he is considered one of the pillars of Italian literature, just below the level of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Leopardi. He is certainly the father of modern Italian language. The ubiquity of his fame – there are streets, squares, schools, halls, and bridges named after him – has so impressed the cultural psyche that, as Umberto Eco put it, “Almost all Italians hate [the book] because they were forced to read it in school.” (“My father, however, encouraged me to read I Promessi Sposi before my teachers forced me to,” he adds, “and I love it”).

Yet during his creative period, 1810 to 1825, when he was at the height of his powers, Manzoni was famous as a groundbreaking poet and novelist all over Europe. Wolfgang von Goethe, considered the foremost European intellectual of the time, translated Manzoni’s poetry and plays into German and read the original 1827 edition of I Promessi Sposi, which Manzoni had sent him. In June 1827, Goethe in return sent Manzoni a dedicated copy of the published German translations of the poems. He also loved I Promessi Sposi and told Johann-Peter Eckermann, who later reported in his book Talks with Goethe: “I must tell you that Manzoni’s novel surpassed all other works of its kind…Everything that is of the soul, everything that is of the poet’s heart is perfect, and in everything that is external, such as descriptions and so on, is no less…”

Alessandro Manzoni was born in Milan in 1785. His mother, Giulia Beccaria Manzoni, was only 20 when she married his father, the much-older widower Count Pietro Manzoni.

The two had married for financial reasons in October 1782, and Alessandro was born in 1785. When his parents became estranged, Alessandro was sent to a series of religious boarding schools, and as a young teenager his formidable intellect blossomed. By the age of 18, he was a poet and a well-known figure in Lombardy’s intellectual circles, alongside such figures as Giuseppe Parini, Vincenzo Monti, and Vincenzo Cuoco. In 1805 Alessandro consented to join his mother in her self-imposed exile in Paris, where he remained on and off until 1810, learning to love the mother who’d abandoned him, just as she came to adore him in return.

Her adoration took the standard Italian-mother form: she immediately started matchmaking. She set her sights on 16-year-old Enrichetta Blondel, a girl of French-Swiss Calvinist extraction converted to Catholicism, whose father was an industrialist in Lombardy. The two fell in love, married in February 1808 in Milan, took up permanent residence in Milan in 1810, and had 10 children together.

In 1806, while living in Paris, Manzoni also became friends with Claude Charles Fauriel, a French historian, literary critic, and philologist. Fauriel was prominent in the Paris intellectual circles and a friend of Madame de Stael, Auguste Thierry, and others. The Manzoni-Fauriel relationship remained close even after Manzoni’s return to Italy and the elder Fauriel became for the younger literary genius an advisor, proofreader, translator, and sounding board – in many ways, the trusted older brother Manzoni had never had.

Manzoni also converted to Catholicism after he returned to Milan in June 1810. Legend has it that the beginning of his religious conversion started in Paris on April 2, 1810. When he was participating in the festivities taking place for the marriage of Napoleon to Marie Louise of Austria, he became separated from his wife and, in a panic, entered the Church of Saint Roch to pray – for the first time in his adult life – to find her. On leaving the church he found her, and from then on he studied Christian theology, particularly that of Jansenist philosophers Pierre Nicole and Blaise Pascal. He defended his new religious views well, although perhaps not always convincingly; as historian Jean Charles de Sismondi had argued, that there were no people in Europe more preoccupied with religious practices as the Italians – or less observant of the Christian virtues underneath those practices.

Manzoni replied to Sismondi’s argument stating: “…the intellect can move from one truth to another…all can be explained in the Gospel…” There are errors and abuses more or less grave, but “we must ask of a doctrine the legitimate consequences that derive from it, not of those which passions can deduce from them.” Sismondi years later admitted: “Your Manzoni argues well, but your priests work badly; even if we admit that the correct rules are not perverted, the Curia adapt them to necessity and accustoms the people to distort such rules themselves.”

According to literary critic Attilio Momigliano:

Aside from the certainty in his (religious) faith, which provided for him answers to the most important problems of life, doubts remained in his thought about the secondary concerns of our existence; faith itself, inspiring him to consider the limits of the human mind, fed these doubts. Faith provided unity to his life, to his writings, to his preoccupations; but it did not prevent that under this large and limpid unity, a vast and uncertain complexity would rear its head. This factor denied this man of the 19th century the sure rapidity of judgment that was given to a man of the 14th century, Dante.

Manzoni had a great, acute, varied wisdom in observing the intricate spectacle of history and of the world, in seeing the ties that bind an unimportant fact, a humble person to an historical era and to all of a society, in noticing the smallest reasons for an action, the mitigating and aggravating factors of every fault, in putting them in order and connecting them. He had both a complex and lucid mind, one which in the multiplicity of considerations taken into account, did not lose its unifying criterion.

(Momigliano: Alessandro Manzoni, 1929; translated by author)

The period 1833-1845 was a grotesquely difficult one for Manzoni: his first wife Enrichetta died in 1833, his first daughter Giulietta died in 1834, his mother Giulia and daughter Cristina passed away in 1844, his best friend Fauriel in 1844, and his daughter Sofia in 1845. These recurring losses led Manzoni to a spiritual and psychological crisis, and he became more of a recluse, going out but little and, after 1842, abandoning creative literature totally. His temperament, never easy on himself and on others, changed and gave rise to the popularly but mostly false view that he was a hard man, cold, easily upset, pedantic, exact.

Three years after Enrichetta Blondel died in December 1833, in January 1837, Manzoni married Teresa Borri, a wealthy widow. Although she loved him and felt honored to be the wife of a famous writer, she did not get along with the grown children of his first marriage, and one by one they moved out of the patriarchal home. Teresa had an egocentric personality, unwilling to share her husband with anyone. She was also a hypochondriac and imagined many maladies and infirmities. She died in 1861.

Tranquillo_Cremona_-_Vittorio_Emanuele_IIIn August 1859 King Vittorio Emanuele II granted Manzoni an annual pension of 12,000 lire, a considerable sum, in recognition of his contribution to Italian culture. The king’s generosity also had political implications since Manzoni, in his quiet behind-the-scenes way, continued to support Italian unity under a Savoy king, ultimately with Rome as capital. The following year the King appointed him to the Senate, but Manzoni continued to display little interest in public life, attending session rarely to vote only on important national issues.

Manzoni ‘s influence was purely symbolic of national unity and patriotism, but otherwise of little import. The conservative clergy opposed him as a traitor to Catholicism, particularly after he advocated that Rome be taken from the pope and made Italy’s capital.

The most fitting comment on Manzoni’s place in the public life of his times was likely that of patriot and man of letters Carlo Tenca to his friend Countess Clara Maffei: “What a great thing is death! How larger looms Manzoni’s figure now that the man has disappeared!”

1810, the year of Manzoni’s return to Italy and entrance to the Catholic fold, marked the starting point for his drift away from the Neo-Classicism of the Italian intellectual elite (figures such as Vittorio Alfieri, Vincenzo Monti, and Ugo Foscolo) and his move toward a modified form of Romanticism rooted in history. His first major artistic project, begun in this year and written from 1812 to 1822, was a collection to which he gave the title Inni Sacri (Sacred Hymns) and which had as its subject the principal liturgical celebrations of the Catholic Church. Of the projected twelve poems, only five were written (with a sixth left incomplete).

He followed the Inni Sacri with two historical plays, Il Conte Di Carmagnola (1820) and Adelchi (1822); in these efforts, he was guided by his admiration for Shakespeare (read in the French translations of Pierre Le Tournier), whom he considered “a great and almost unique poet, a superhuman genius.”

As his lifelong French friend Claude Fauriel wrote, Manzoni felt that “imagination in relation with ideas of morality are strengthened by time rather than dissipated…”He continued: “After having read Shakespeare and having thought about it,” Manzoni re-read Goethe, Schiller, and Schlegel, and started to work on his plays. Manzoni distanced himself from the classical schemes of Racine, Moliere, Corneille, and Alfieri, and in the two plays did away with the classical unities of time and place in dealing with historical subjects, and in a very modern way switched both the place and the time of action frequently.

The Count of Carmagnola was begun in January 1815 and completed in 1820. The play takes as its subject 15th century warfare between Venice and Milan and the fate of soldier of fortune Carmagnola, who, while leading Venetian troops to victory, was believed to be planning to go back to the employ of Venice’s enemy, Milan. On such suspicion, he’s arrested, tried, and executed by the authorities in Venice. In the play, as in ancient Greek tragedies, Manzoni used a chorus to express his ideas about the senseless futility of Italians killing Italians. During the Battle of Maclodio (1427), two armies led by Italian condottieri butchered each other fighting for Duke of Milan and the Republic of Venice:

On the right hand a trumpet is sounding,
On the left hand a trumpet replying,
The field upon all sides resounding
With the trampling of foot and of horse.
Yonder flashes a flag; yonder flying
Through the still air a bannerol glances;
Here a squadron embattled advances,
There another that threatens its course…
Who are these? To our fair fields what bringeth
To make war upon us, this stranger?
Which is he that hath sworn to avenge her,
The land of his birth, on her foes?
They are all of one land and one nation,
One speech; and the foreigner names them
All brothers, of one generation;
In each visage their kindred is seen;
This land is the mother that claims them,
This land that their life blood is steeping,
That God, from all other lands keeping,
Set the seas and the mountains between…

(Translation by William Dean Howells)

Adelchi went even further back in history, to the overthrow of the Lombard Kingdom by Charlemagne in the 8th century. Manzoni’s aim was to show Italians that one cannot rely on foreigners to obtain national unity and freedom, and that internecine warfare, weakening both sides in a fraternal contest, leads to loss of independence and serfdom.

In many instances, Manzoni’s lyricism soars to great heights and while not in the same league as his beloved Shakespeare’s sustained poetry, it is still thought-provoking and beautiful. For example, in Adelchi, which was also praised by Goethe, Manzoni makes it clear that when one foreign ruler replaces another, the only losers are those ruled:

Tornate alle vostre superbe ruine,
All’opere imbelli dell’arse officine,
Ai solchi bagnati di servo sudor.
Il forte si mesce col vinto nemico,
Col novo signore rimane l’antico;
L’un popolo e l’altro sul collo vi sta.
Dividono i servi, dividon gli armenti;
Si posano insieme sui campi cruenti
D’un volgo disperso che nome non ha.
Return to your superb ruins,
To the useless labors of your burned workshops,
To the furrows wet by slavish sweat.
The strong mixes with the vanquished enemy,
The new ruler remains with the ancient;
One and the other are still on your neck.

(First choir of Adelchi – translation by author)

inni sacriThe two plays were not successful on the stage since they were not acting plays in the Shakespearian sense, but their worth, as poetry, is undeniable.

In 1821, Manzoni also authored two other lyrical masterpieces. The first, Marzo 1821 (“March 1821”) took as its subject the failed revolution in which the Piedmontese, led by Regent Charles Albert, planned to liberate Lombardy from Austrian rule and unite it to the Kingdom of Sardinia. Manzoni wrote the original poem between March 15 and March 17, but as the uprising was put down by Austrian troops and his friends were arrested, he deemed it prudent to destroy the manuscript, squirreling the text in his memory.

The poem, with the addition of a new stanza, was published in June 1948, when Milan between March and August of that year had freed itself from the Austrian rulers.

In the poem, the small voluntary army of revolutionaries, poised on the banks of the Ticino River, swears:

We pledge that these waters will no longer flow
Between two alien riverbanks.
We pledge that there will not be a dividing
Barrier between Italy and Italy, no more…

A whole people free
Or all subject from the Alps to the sea;
One of arms, language, religion
Of memories, of blood, of heart…

(Translation by the author)

The other lyric poem was written in two days in mid-June, 1821, when news reached Europe that Napoleon had died at St. Helena on May 5, 1821. Manzoni was with his mother when they learned of Napoleon’s death, and he started declaiming some verses that poet Vincenzo Monti had previously written about the French emperor. His mother then told him: “Why don’t you write something on Napoleon?” As soon as he returned home, he got to work and later told a friend that it had taken him twenty-four hours to write The Fifth of May and twenty-four hours to revise it to its final form. While he wrote, his wife, who was likely pregnant at the time with one of his ten children, played epic music on the piano to inspire him.

The issue then was on how to get permission from the Austrian censors to print and circulate the poem. Manzoni, certain that permission would be denied, made two additional hand-written copies and dutifully trotted to the police censor office to present them for approval. He knew his censors well; while the censors counseled him not to publish the poem, the extra copy he had given them somehow disappeared from the censor’s office and within days the poem was circulating in samizdat form without the author’s name. A version in Latin was also printed in Lugano, Switzerland, and Goethe, who got hold of an Italian copy, translated and published it, and sent the German version to Manzoni, complimenting him on the fine work.

The poem’s subject is Napoleon, his death, victories and defeats, his influence on history, and a wish that God, in his wisdom, will give him peace:

He passed; and as immovable
As, with the last sigh given,
Lay his own clay, oblivious,
From that great spirit riven,
So the world stricken and wondering
Stands at the tidings dread:
Mutely pondering the ultimate
Hour of that fateful being,
And in the vast futurity
No peer of his foreseeing
Among the countless myriads
Her blood-stained dust that tread…

(Translation by William Dean Howells)

promessiThe poem, running 108 lines, became popular all over Europe and is still considered one of the greatest Italian lyrical poems.

In 1821, Manzoni, following the example of Sir Walter Scott in England, turned to historical fiction, beginning a novel set in the Lombardy of the early 17th century after the Spanish had vanquished and ejected the French. The novel, first titled Fermo e Lucia, occupied him from April 1821 and September 1823. He then set it aside but started revising it in the spring of 1824, finishing in August 1825; after two further years of labor, corrections, rewriting, and proof checking, Manzoni’s prose masterpiece was published on 15 June 1827 as I Promessi Sposi – The Betrothed.

His aim was nothing less than to introduce to Italy a new kind of historical novel – a Romantic concept, certainly, but a romanticism moderated by historical and human character reality, a precursor of Verismo. As he opined on the role of literature in a famous page of the first version, Fermo e Lucia, the ultimate aim should be “to entertain that class of men that lives only to have a good time, it would be the most frivolous, the most servile, the least of the professions.”

His aim was not to describe the activities of the great and powerful engaging in world-shaking events but to narrate in plain, non-academic, realistic language how human foibles and historical events affect the life of two working people in love who wish to marry. He also wanted to contrast on different levels the human with the divine, men led astray by errors, resulting in suffering, tears, blood, and unnecessary deaths, and Christian beliefs that give hopes to the lowly, the losers, the oppressed, the unhappy, a Divine Providence that in the end equalizes life’s playing field for all, the mighty as well as the meek.

The novel, while it espouses a philosophy of life, is not didactic, and its theme is stated plainly in the book’s closing lines:

…Trouble certainly often rises from events caused by ourselves; but even the most cautious and upright behavior cannot prevent problems from hitting us, and when they come, either through our fault or not, trust in God’s providence make them lighter to bear and make them the instrument of a better life.

(Author’s translation)

The plot of the novel I Promessi Sposi is deceptively simple. Renzo, a weaver, is about to marry a peasant girl, Lucia, when a local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, prevails on the parish priest, Don Abbondio, not to perform the marriage since Don Rodrigo has designs to seduce the beautiful Lucia himself. The two young people are counseled by a monk, Fra` Cristoforo, to flee from home, and after many adventures (and the death of Don Rodrigo during the Milanese plague of 1630) are finally able to marry.

ilcontedicarmagnolaThe novel was an immediate critical and popular success. Its straightforward style, deft use of dialogue, and historical accuracy brought it praise from Goethe, Scott, and Edgar Allen Poe. Bookshops couldn’t keep it in stock.

Despite the novel’s success, however, Manzoni was unhappy with the results. He came to see his use of the Lombard dialect as limiting both his potential audience and the book’s contribution to his cherished cause of national identity. He considered the language he had used a “composto indigesto di frasi un po’ lombarde, un po’ toscane, un po’ francesi, un po’ anche latine, “ (an indigestible mixture of sentences, a little Lombard, a bit Tuscan, a little French, and even a bit Latin.) He also considered his efforts to reconcile high-minded literary language with a living and understandable common-use language a failure. He stated his problem as that of “a non-Tuscan writer who had started to write a work that was half-historical and half-invented, with the firm idea of composing it if possible in a language that was actually spoken, but whose mind was automatically assailed by his own expressions which, however well-suited to the concept, were nonetheless from his own vernacular, or a foreign language, or even from Latin, and of course he chased them away as with temptations.”

Manzoni also saw the language problem as an element that contributed to keep Italians divided, not only politically but also culturally. Even the King of Sardinia, who would eventually unite Italy under his banner, spoke passable French, the Piedmontese dialect well, but Italian only little. Manzoni also recognized that the Florentine Tuscan dialect, the language used by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, was the richest in variety, the most expressive, and could be adapted as a national language.

While writing I Promessi Sposi he had used the Vocabolario della Crusca, the one authoritative Italian/Tuscan vocabulary in print issued by the Accademia della Crusca, a Florentine scholarly society of linguists and philologists founded in 1583. The issue for Manzoni was that even this vocabulary, the motherlode of the Florentine dialect, was dated – most words listed in it had been culled from sources from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Thus while entirely adequate to write flowery poetry of love or chivalrous epics, it was of limited practical use for a realistic novel in which people spoke as they did daily and in which erudite nonsense was replaced by commonly understood words.

Still another difficult issue was the divergence between written and spoken language as it was practiced in the early decades of the 19th century. It was a problem Manzoni had been pondering for many years: in a letter of February 1806 to his French friend Fauriel he had written: “…to our misfortune, Italy divided in fragments, almost general indolence and ignorance have put so much distance between spoken and written language that this last, it can be said, is almost dead…”

Thus, to be true both to his grander purposes and attempt to acquire a larger audience, Manzoni had to convert the language used in the first edition of the novel to one understood by most literate Italians, a popular, conversational form of Italian, the Florentine spoken by literate people, with its harmony and musicality, its ironic nuances, and its breeziness. Only by doing this, he believed, would he be able to fill the void between written and spoken language and bring literary dignity to the language used daily while reaching a reading but not culturally sophisticated public.

Hence, in early July 1827 the author decided to move with his family to Florence to perfect his current knowledge of the language of Dante in all its subtleties.

The family finally arrived in Florence on August 29 and left to return to Milan on October 7. In Florence, Manzoni frequented the group of intellectuals that met in the upstairs residence of Gian Piero Vieusseux, the owner of a bookstore carrying foreign books and magazines and the co-editor of an influential cultural journal. In Vieusseux’s living room, Manzoni rubbed shoulders with such people as Giacomo Leopardi, Pietro Giordani, Giovanni Borghi, and Gaetano Cioni, who remained Manzoni’s assiduous counselor in the linguistic revision of the novel for more than ten years.

In Florence, Manzoni also engaged the services of Florentine Emilia Luti as a governess for his younger children. She followed the family to Milan working as a governess. During the following thirteen years Luti would be of immense help to Manzoni in revising the vocabulary in his novel. Most of the Manzoni-Luti correspondence has survived and shows Manzoni’s minuted wording-concerns in his work. In one instance Manzoni asked her which word for ladder he should use in a sentence: scala or piolo? In another instance, he wrote to her that he was working in revising a sentence that read “prese sdegno di questa andata, come d’oltraggio.” (He took offense at this turn of phrase, as if an outrage had been committed.) Blaming himself for the awkwardness of the locution, he continued “What language, for love of God! I substituted: ‘He was stung where it hurts’ Is it correct?”

He recognized Luti’s contributions and in a letter to a friend said that she “had the saintly patience to review with me the work from top to bottom, step by step… I had the lively pleasure to see my “abortion” acquire, from day to day, more natural and frank features.” When the revised, illustrated final edition finally was printed in 1840-42, Manzoni gave a complete copy to Luti, inscribing it: “Miss Emilia Luti accept these ‘rags’ you rinsed in the waters of the Arno, offered to you, with affectionate gratitude, by the author.”

The original 1827 edition of I Promessi Sposi had been printed in an edition of 2,000 copies. Despite the fact that Manzoni had not been happy with it, the book was popular, and without the protection of copyright laws, about 40 “pirate” editions, some 60,000 copies, had been printed and sold in a few years. In 1840, for the definitive revised edition, Manzoni, counseled by his second wife, planned to organize a subscription for the book and print it with the funds collected through these advance sales. This plan proved to be financially unsound and was abandoned; instead Manzoni then planned to issue the novel as a serial of 108 numbers of about eight pages each, with four hand drawn illustrations per issue, to come out during the course of three years. To make it harder to pirate, the illustrations were done and engraved by painter Luigi Sacchi and printed in lithography by expert lithographer and engraver Francesco Gonin. Despite these precautions, this edition was also reproduced without permission and Manzoni, who had financed the publication of what turned out a mammoth 864 pages novel, lost a lot of money on the project.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, the “re-rinsing in the Arno” had been worth the many years of labor, as I Promessi Sposi has become the gold standard of modern Italian usage and is de rigeur study in Italian schools, a fact that has rendered it unpopular to the young in Italy, at least until in their maturity they are able to re-read it and enjoy the great tale, vivid characters, historical accuracy and Manzoni skillfully superb use of language without worrying about the next exam.

ivanhoeSir Walter Scott, the doyenne of the historical novel, met Alessandro Manzoni and warmly praised I Promessi Sposi. Manzoni, who had been influenced by Scott’s novels, particularly Ivanhoe (1819), replied modestly that the novel owed all to Scott. “In that case,” Sir Walter replied, “this is my finest work.”

I Promessi Sposi is indeed a great work, of which Manzoni’s good friend Giuseppe Verdi, with evident hyperbole, said: “This is not just a book; it offers consolation to the whole of humanity.”

One definition of a masterpiece is a work of art that has stood the test of time and criticism. Manzoni’s novel is one of these books, dealing with sensitivity and psychological depth with universal emotions, feelings, and values that were as true then as they are now. For example, in Chapter VIII, Renzo and Lucia are advised by the good monk Fra` Cristoforo to leave their native village so that Lucia can escape from the crutches of the lecherous Don Rodrigo. In a passage reading more like poetry than prose, they board a rowboat on Lake Como to get away, and their thoughts turn with the desolate sadness known on departure to every immigrant or traveler, who does not know if he will ever return.

Addio, monti sorgenti dall’acque, ed elevati al cielo;cime inuguali, note a chi è cresciuto tra voi, e impresse nella sua mente, non meno che lo sia l’aspetto de’ suoipiù familiari; torrenti, de’ quali distingue lo scroscio, co-me il suono delle voci domestiche; ville sparse e bian-cheggianti sul pendìo,come branchi di pecore pascenti;addio! Quanto è tristo il passo di chi, cresciuto tra voi, se ne allontana!

Good bye, mountains springing from the waters and rising to the sky; unequal peaks, known to any person who has grown up in your midst, and impressed upon the mind as clearly as the features of the dearest family relatives; torrents whose sounds of varying flow the person can distinguish as easily as the voices of his family members; white villas scattered over the slopes, like herds of grazing sheep; goodbye! How sorrowful is the step of the person, who having grown up in your midst, edges slowly away!
(Translation by author)

adelchiDespite its majesty, the book drew its share of criticism. Benedetto Croce, for instance, complained that Manzoni’s characters are not flesh and blood, but noted that this is not because he did not know how to do it, but because he was surveying the whole panorama from above with a serene eye, and in doing so saw the forest better than the individual trees. Sergio Pacifici, while praising the novel, objected that the conclusions are too pat: the good are rewarded while the wicked are invariably punished (life, Pacifici pointed out, seldom works that way). Leonardo Sciascia came up with a revolutionary interpretation, holding that the principal character of the novel are not Renzo and Lucia, the embattled prospective marriage partners, nor Don Rodrigo, the bad guy in the tale, but Don Abbondio, the town priest that delays marrying the protagonist for fear of Don Rodrigo. At the end of the novel Renzo and Lucia are married, Don Rodrigo is gone, but they still leave their town to make their life together elsewhere, since their native soil had been the source of most of their mishaps. On the contrary, Don Abbondio stays put and Sciascia says: “Don Abbondio is strong… he is the one who effectively wins … the man of Guicciardini, the man of “my particular interest … Manzoni delineates a desperate portrait of things in Italy: the Italy of loud complains, the Italy of provincial priests and of the count-uncle… of double talk, of absurd complications, of the police that helps those with power of consciences that easily become silent…” Don Abbondio, in Sciascia’s view, is the typical Italian, complaining about his fate but accommodating to circumstances and the powerful, finding ways to survive and sometime even prosper in adversity. If Sciascia is correct, and his analysis is plausible, the surprising modernity of I Promessi Sposi is rendered all the sharper.

The “Great Italian Novel” has been translated into many languages, including Chinese. Even in its debut year, there were two French editions, and an English translation by Rev. Charles Swann was published in 1828 and W. Featherstonehaugh’s English version followed in 1834. It was Poe, reading the Swann translation in 1835, who wrote in the Southern Literary Messenger that the novel was “a work which promises to be the commencement of a new style in novel-writing.”

Still the novel did not become very popular in the English reading world for various reasons. For one, the English publishing and reading world was very competitive, and the English-reading public, given Manzoni’s emphasis on the Catholic religion and Divine Providence, approached the book with a wary sense of distrust that this may be a “papist” subterfuge, a way of disseminating religious propaganda. The setting, the Lombardy of the 17th century, also did not convey the stereotypical picture of sunny Italy foreign readers had in their mind, and the English translations were rather poor, given the impression that Manzoni was a second-rate Walter Scott, when in fact the novel, if translated with sensitivity to Manzoni’s aims and language and cultural fluency according to literary critic Alessandro Vescovi is “more akin to Milton’s Paradise Lost than any English novel.”

The best complete English translation, that of Archibald Colquhoun, was published only in 1951, with an abridged version available in 1962, and even Colquhoun admitted that it is nearly impossible to translate accurately its beautiful, precise, delightful language; a more recent translation by Bruce Penman (1972) is very good but its effort to modernize Manzoni’s novel had resulted in long sentences being cut down and in a chatty, conversational style, detracting from the original flavor.

The English-speaking world thus still awaits its truly definitive rendering of I Promessi Sposi, but serviceable translations are better than none at all, and in the meantime, the deceptive brilliance of the Great Italian Novel abides, like the snow-capped Piedmont peaks, ready for the adventurous.

Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.