The Betrothed

I Promessi Sposi
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Penguin Classics
1840
eBook
720
Italian
Bruce Penman
July 31, 2021 August 9, 2021
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Set in Lombardy during the Spanish occupation of the late 1620s, The Betrothed tells the story of two young lovers, Renzo and Lucia, prevented from marrying by the petty tyrant Don Rodrigo, who desires Lucia for himself. Forced to flee, they are then cruelly separated, and must face many dangers including plague, famine and imprisonment, and confront a variety of strange characters—the mysterious Nun of Monza, the fiery Father Cristoforo and the sinister “Unnamed”—in their struggle to be reunited. A vigorous portrayal of enduring passion, The Betrothed‘s exploration of love, power, and faith presents a whirling panorama of seventeenth-century Italian life and is one of the greatest European historical novels.

“The 19th-century Italian literary classic renowned for its vivid descriptions of the 1630 pestilence that gutted Milan.” —The New York Times

“Compulsory reading for Italian high school students, The Betrothed gives a historically accurate account of the bubonic plague that wiped out a quarter of Milan’s population in 1629-1631.” —Politico

“This is not just a book; it offers consolation to the whole of humanity.” —Giuseppe Verdi

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About the book

The Betrothed is the first novel written by an Italian author and is a milestone in our literature. Everyone, or almost everyone, studied this book in high school, especially those who attended a “liceo” (I’m not going to explain the difference among all the high schools we have) or an advanced technical institute (usually in the second grade which is 10th grade for non-Italians).

With Manzoni, Italian fiction adapts to the modern reality already present in France and England for more than a century, thus guaranteeing the return of our literature in Europe after a crisis that lasted more than two centuries.

Two cultural strands converge in The Betrothed: the Lombard Enlightenment which aims to bring the intellectual closer to society and the Romanticism with its attention to national history. Without Manzoni there would have been no history of the novel in Italy.

But what is the book about? It’s about Renzo and Lucia, an engaged couple who should get married in a few days. “They should” because the local squire uses his henchmen to intimidate the curate who should celebrate the function. In fact, the “gentleman”, Don Rodrigo has set his eyes on Lucia and believes he can have her against not only her will, but intimidating everyone involved without being punished. The novel tells their story, the past year away from each other, of promises made, of corruption and plague that like a black wave arrives together with the Lanzichenecchi to invade the Lombard territory.

What I think

The story is long. But that’s not what makes many hate this book. Yes, it is long, but no longer than some fantasy tomes that exist on the market (and some are even longer), the problem is the historical descriptions, the descriptions of the environments that are endless. I am not one of those people who hate The Betrothed, but I still find it a bit boring. I read and listened to it together (first time I use this method), as well as borrowed from the library despite having a physical copy at home (but illegible due to the tiny font) and I don’t think I would have been able to finish it if I hadn’t listened to it, too. I also think that schools make us hate it since they force us to read it and study it minutely (not that I remember anything of what I studied).

It is however a milestone of our literature and therefore must be read if you are Italian. Maybe not all in one sitting.

Style

The novel you read is not the only version that exists. The initial title was Fermo and Lucia, then Fermo will become Renzo. From the first to the last version, the drafts have changed, mainly the language used. At first the novel was divided into 4 volumes, the first sees the two betrothed as protagonists struggling with Don Rodrigo, the second dedicated to the adventures of Lucia, the third starring Fermo (Renzo) engaged in the riots in Milan and then in Bergamo, and the last dedicated to the war and the plague where in the end the two are reunited as a narrative. Yes it can be said that more or less the Betrothed are like this too, but the chapters are intertwined a little more than in the very first version. Furthermore, many parts have been removed, such as the story of The Nun of Monza (which I must say is my favorite story and which is not in the latest version) or added as the trial to the “untori”, which is then removed and put in a another novel called Storia della colonna infame (The column of infamy).

The Betrothed is an important book because it speaks of a historical period between 1628 and 1630 with events that really existed in Milan: the famine, the riots of San Martino, the descent of the Landsknecht and the plague. The setting in Lombardy is not only due to the fact that the author knows these places but also to the fact that Lombardy in the 1600s was under Spanish rule and presents aspects of similarity with the period lived directly by the author at the beginning of the ‘800 under Austrian rule.

The language then, as mentioned, is very different from the first draft because in Manzoni the need for a common national language was increasingly present and the Tuscan was understood by everyone and therefore he uses this language for his work. And he was right. The Tuscan then became Italian and a language spoken by all.

Furthermore it must be said that the first seven days of the story are narrated in seventeen chapters, which makes you understand why the book seems so slow. Then a year is skipped by saying only a summary of what happened to the two protagonists and then quickly conclude.

Characters

The novel is presented as a story of marriage prevented at the beginning and the protagonists are the two betrothed Renzo and Lucia, who to achieve the goal of reuniting rely on secondary characters such as Father Cristoforo and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo (who among other things is a historic figure who really existed), who are therefore the “good guys”. They are first opposed by Don Rodrigo, the villain of the story, and then by the Innominato (the one who can’t be named), who represent the social injustice of the time. These two use other characters to do harm, which are Don Abbondio and the Nun of Monza, Gertrude. The turning point is when one of the oppressors passes to the side of the good ones with his conversion.

The novel then plays on pairs of balances: four characters come from the popular world, four from the nobility; half of the eight protagonists represent the secular world and the other half the ecclesiastical world; four are the good guys and four are the opponents, so the book is based on a game of balance in which there is no loser or winner until one of them moves to the opposite side.

The characters then represent real people: Renzo and Lucia the victims of an overbearing society represented by Don Rodrigo who uses the corrupt church represented by Don Abbondio. The victims are then protected by the authentic church of Father Cristoforo. In the second part these “games” are represented by the Innominato (overbearing society), Gertrude (corrupt church) and Cardinal Borromeo (authentic church). Also there is another character who is not really a person of flesh and blood, namely the plague which is seen a bit like divine justice.

Lucia is described as the typical woman of the 17th century and is always represented indoors (the house, the convent, and then at Donna Prassede’s house at the end) who sews or thinks. Lucia always relies on someone, but this does not mean that she should be thought as a weak character, on the contrary. It is her who gives so many nuts to Fra Galdino so that he immediately thrones himself at the convent and tells Father Cristoforo her message. It is her who understands the existential crisis of the Innominato and who, with her words, makes it increase. But she is still the woman of the time, God-fearing and with an ideology to follow.

Renzo, on the other hand, is seen as the public figure, always on the street communicating with people. He is seen a bit like the wanderer hero who has to travel a bumpy path to fulfil himself, but who in the end will have his happiness. But he does not just make a physical journey, he must also make a spiritual journey and it can be seen from the fact that his stormy temperament always leads him to want to “kill” Don Rodrigo for the wrong he suffered. But this is not the right path that he must take and when he arrives at the lazzaretto (where the plagued are) he understands what his ultimate purpose is.

Don Abbondio is the classic character who thinks first of his skin rather than the others and being a parish priest it is not exactly what his vocation requires (but we know that his vocation was an escape route because it was the simplest way he could take). His motto is “Oh poor me”. He says it all the time and already in this sentence we see that he thinks more of himself than of the other.

In contrast are Father Cristoforo and Cardinal Borromeo. The first became a friar for killing a man and therefore a vocation not by will, but to escape justice (but there is no escape from divine justice). The second was a man who had everything, a nobleman, but who felt the true calling and tries to give as much as possible to the less fortunate. Despite Father Cristoforo’s vocation is not “true”, he immediately tried to remedy his sins and until the end he tried to do real good.

Gertrude is my favorite character or rather her story, only hinted here in the novel, but since I am Italian, I know her story because she, too, is a historical character. She is the daughter of a noble prince and she is forced, together with all her cadet brothers, to become a nun (or priest for her brothers) so as not to damage the heritage of the firstborn. Here Manzoni denounces a situation that was legitimate in the past, but which, given the times, can no longer be such. What she does against Lucia is not excusable, so my “favorite” does not derive from her actions, but from her story.

Don Rodrigo is the one who unleashes everything, but honestly I don’t find him one of the relevant characters in the story. I know it is a bit of a contradiction but his presence is very small compared to the Innominato or Don Abbondio, for example. However, he too has a path to follow to find divine forgiveness.

Conclusion

Before concluding I would like to talk about the plague: reading about a plague in the current period makes us understand many things. First, I would like to say that we haven’t learned anything from history so much that I don’t know why we still teach it in school. If in 1600 the plague caused so many deaths and above all it says in the book “the contagion recognised so late” why also in 2020 the COVID-19 contagion is recognised so late and precautions are not taken as soon as it is detected? Those who govern us should review history and prevent the same mistakes, but reading this novel (with historical citations of the seventeenth-century plague) I see our days without the monatti and untori (even if the no-vax and no-mask should be considered responsible as the untori, but alas there will be no trials to the untori after the pandemic).

There is still more to say about this novel but I am not a literary critic so I do not feel like touching all the points of denunciation of this work.

Do I recommend the book? “Nes” (I mean yes and no). It’s not an easy reading, not because of what happens, but because of the story behind it. The digressions are many, the descriptions endless, but they serve to make people understand the historical setting and the social impact that the novel has had.

One thing that made me laugh is that Manzoni almost at the beginning says “Let my twenty-five readers think now” not knowing that his novel would be read by millions of students in the future (and will still be read).

By the way translating this review in English wasn’t as difficult as translating the other reviews prior to this even though it’s twice or three times as long.

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