More Literary Runaway Lovers: Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed and the Birth of the Modern Italian Novel

“Dear readers, all twenty-five of you, imagine the impression the meeting with the two bravi must have made on the poor man!” – The Betrothed, Chapter 1

[Francesco Gonin’s engraving of Lucia for the original edition of The Betrothed, depicting her with the traditional silver guazze hairpins native to Lecco and parts of northern Lombardy]

I’m arguably running a week behind schedule here because last week the other lady of the house and I were in Las Vegas trying to dip our toes back into serious logistical traveling again.

[We had a lovely time—even got to see the Gaslighter in Chief (though this picture is from five years ago when he was still outside). Don’t take his endorsement of the Golden Knights as mine, though. Jack Eichel broke my hometown’s heart and nobody holds a sports grudge like a Buffalonian ⚔️🦬⚔️]

But flying cross country gave me a lot of reading time, which once I finished Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore (not destined to be one of my favorites of his, if I’m being honest), left me with the Modern Library’s new 2022 English translation of The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), widely considered to be the first great modern Italian novel.

[Modern as in post-Renaissance, at least. If we mean “modern” as in post-Roman/Latin-Italian, there’s still only one king of that mountain.]

But bringing up Dante in regard to The Betrothed is apt because its author, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), is credited with helping to complete the language revolution that the medieval poet began with The Divine Comedy. Dante was one of the first serious Italian writers to work primarily in vernacular Italian (in his case, specifically the Florentine dialect), as opposed to Latin, which began the shift away from the Roman language as the primary medium of secular literature in Italy. The enduring fame of his work, along with other writers like Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli who also wrote in Florentine, would help push the dialect out ahead of the other regional dialects on the peninsula as something approaching a common Italian language. But it would take until the modern unification of Italy during the 19th and early 20th centuries for Florentine Italian to cement itself as the cornerstone of what is today Standard Italian.

Born and raised in Milan by a family with deep feudal roots in Lecco and Barzio in the Italian Alps, Manzoni’s personal dialect was Lombard Italian, which is more pronounced in earlier drafts and the first run of The Betrothed, which have far more pronounced Lombard idioms than the definitive version of the novel does. While this makes sense given the book’s setting in this region, Manzoni was committed to unification (Risorgimento in Italian—literally, “resurgence”), and as result he heavily revised the novel after its initial publication (1840) for a second release in 1842 to have its language more reflective of Florentine Italian than the Lombard it was originally written in. This changed even crucially important elements of the story such as the male protagonist’s name, which went from the very Lombard Fermo to the very Florentine Lorenzo (Renzo).


The language of The Betrothed is very political, but ultimately the story itself is extremely personal. Like most intellectuals of the post-Enlightenment and Napoleonic periods, Manzoni was mostly an anti-Catholic secularist in the Voltaire school until his mid-twenties. But in 1810, his wife of two years, Henriette, herself born a Swiss Protestant, converted to Catholicism, and her conversion precipitated a crisis of faith for Manzoni. He would eventually reconnect with his Catholic roots and his reconversion would have a profound effect on all of his writing, but perhaps most of all on his magnum opus, The Betrothed.

Whoever wrote up his Wikipedia page identifies Manzoni’s post-1810 Catholicism as “austere” and conservative (though there is no citation given for this assessment). However, if one takes the views expressed in The Betrothed as those of its author—which I think in this case is fair—that is not to say it is a rigid and pitiless faith as those types of descriptors might invoke to a modern reader. While ultimately a force for good in the story, Manzoni acknowledges that the Church often falls short of its flock and the most exemplary members of the clergy are the quickest to berate their own failings. Even when it manages to speak truth to political power on behalf of the dispossessed, there is an admission that there is only so far it can go and the rest is up to a God who often feels remote from temporal suffering. At the end of the day, relief may only come in the next life, which does little to console the trials of this one. Yet in the author’s Catholicism, forgiveness can be given to even the most wicked if they are truly repentant, and even sworn vows to the Virgin can be circumvented under the right circumstances. This chink of doctrinal flexibility combined with Manzoni’s heartfelt affection for the Italian poor keeps the novel from being merely a sermon.

[Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni, Francesco Hayez (1841)]

Its tone, which is ironical but never sarcastic, also helps a lot. My flavor text for this entry conveys some of the sprightliness of Manzoni’s self-effacing style, which especially comes through in his many asides to his readers. Manzoni enhances his ability to use these types of asides by utilizing the classic framing device of being merely the adapter of an older version of the story that he “discovered” somewhere. While Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819/20) is considered the most prominent literary inspiration for The Betrothed, the modern reader might consider its style more Dickensian than Scottish, with a dash of William Goldman’s Princess Bride thrown in for good measure.

But as a reader in translation, my ability to grasp any of this is all because of Manzoni receiving a transcendent English translator in Michael F. Moore. One thing that’s great about reading a lot of world literature in translation is you can develop an ear for whether you just don’t like a book or you might not like it because the translation isn’t very good. I can’t really describe it, but there’s a certain unnatural flatness in the textual language when the translation is partially to blame. Anyway, I get the sense that your mileage with The Betrothed as an English reader might vary wildly depending on the strength of your translation—with some books it just seems to matter more than others. The Betrothed reminded me of Don Quixote in this, where a lot of the potential humor falls down if the translation is uninspired (Edith Grossman’s version of Quixote is great, btw, as is her own book on the subject of translation, Why Translation Matters).

[Engraving of Lecco and Lake Como, the novel’s setting]

So what is The Betrothed about anyway? In its essentials, it isn’t much different from the Greek novels we’ve looked at, in that it’s the story of two young lovers who have to overcome local obstacles and world events to be together. What separates it from those predecessors, and from the “Italian” Shakespearean dramas, is the importance of the Catholic Church to the plot. I bring up Shakespeare in part because The Betrothed is, like its model Ivanhoe, a historical novel set during the 17th century rather than Manzoni’s own time. Though to pull in yet another historical novel I think this one compares to better than Ivanhoe, The Betrothed was both published (1840s) and about (1620s/30s) the same periods as Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Cardinal Richelieu even gets name dropped a couple of times in The Betrothed. This is because most of the Italian states were under separate foreign rule during the late 1620s, especially by Spain and various junior members of the French royal family. Lombardy, where Manzoni sets his story, is a Spanish possession, hence many of the ruling men are Spaniards, like the main antagonist, Don Rodrigo. These outside interests create political instability at all levels of Italian government and lead to numerous military raids by various mercenary armies, of which the common people bear the brunt of both the physical danger and the monetary cost.

The story begins with two of baron Don Rodrigo’s bravi (hired soldiers/thugs) threatening the local parish priest, Don Abbondio, if he performs the scheduled marriage of two of the lord’s peasants—Renzo and Lucia. Terrified of what the violent Rodrigo will do to him if he defies these threats, Abbondio tries to put off Renzo when he shows up for the ceremony, but without actually telling him why he won’t marry them. Renzo storms off, but not before coaxing the truth out of the priest’s housekeeper, Perpetua. Baffled as to why the baron is trying to stop the wedding, Renzo finds Lucia and her mother, Agnese, where Lucia finally confesses that Rodrigo has been following her about for a while now despite her attempts to avoid him and she appears to be the subject of a bet between him and his equally obnoxious cousin. Manzoni is writing in the mid-19th century and Lucia’s a good girl so it’s never explicitly stated, but it’s pretty clear that Rodrigo plans to exercise his droit de seigneur and r*pe Lucia if he can get a hold of her. Renzo is understandably furious, both at his lord’s presumption, but also with Lucia for hiding this from him. Lucia explains that she was afraid he might do something rash and get himself killed (valid, based on his reaction), and that she had confessed the situation to the Capuchin monk, Fra Christoforo, a moral guardian of sorts for her. After failing to appeal to the aid of the pompous, bootlicking village attorney, Dr. Azzeccagarbugli (which Moore translates as “Argle-Bargle,” and earlier versions translate as “Quibbleweaver”—both meant to convey his ridiculousness as a character), it is Fra Christoforo the titular betrothed turn to for help. The saintly monk, who as a young man took the cowl as penance for killing another man in a fight, goes to Don Rodrigo and tries to appeal to his better nature, but the stubborn baron throws him out of his castle.

[Don Rodrigo and Fra Christoforo]

Out of authorities capable of standing up to Rodrigo, Renzo, with Agnese’s approval, hatches a plan to essentially trick Don Abbondio into marrying him and Lucia by using a ecclesiastical loophole where if a couple declare that they are married in front of a priest along with two witnesses, it was a binding agreement. Despite Lucia’s reservations, Renzo rounds up the witnesses and they force their way into the priest’s bedroom, where he’s been feigning illness since his run-in with the bravi. At the same time, Rodrigo has sent more of his men to kidnap Lucia, but Don Abbondio freaks out so much at Renzo’s ambush that he raises an alarm that sets the whole village off, and in the confusion, the still-unmarried couple and Agnese are forced to flee. Since they aren’t wed, Fra Christoforo consuls that they should head for separate refuges he can provide until the situation blows over. He sends Renzo to the care of a certain monastery in Milan, and the women to a convent in Monza. Unfortunately, the couple’s disappearance only makes Rodrigo more invested in finding them and he vows to get Lucia one way or another.

Here, the story splits for a while into Renzo and Lucia’s separate adventures. Renzo is caught up in the Milan bread riots caused by a worsening regional famine before he reaches the monastery and is eventually accused of inciting the insurrection until he flees into the countryside with a price on his head. He only makes it to safety by reaching a cousin in Bergamo and working there under an assumed name, unsure if he can ever return to Lecco. Lucia is put in the care of the Monza convent’s “Signora,” a young nun whose position as the daughter of the local prince gives her unusual power in the community. Still beautiful and respected, the so-called Nun of Monza was forced to become a nun against her will by her father and is bitter about her lot, which she displays by acting out emotionally and by carrying on a secret relationship with a dastardly bravo living next door to the convent. Although initially well-disposed toward Lucia because helping her appeals to the nun’s vanity, her bravo lover is in the employ of a baron so notorious for his cruelty that he is simply referred to in the story as L’Innominato (literally, “The Nameless One”), and that lord has been hired by Rodrigo to find Lucia and bring her in. The bravo convinces the nun to help him get Lucia out of the convent, and she sends Lucia on a spurious errand on which she is kidnapped by the Nameless One’s men. But in a strange twist, Lucia’s pious innocence and understandable terror causes her captor to begin to question everything about his life until he ends up letting her go and committing to a life of peace. Renzo’s journey is a variation on the Prodigal Son tale of falling into temptation (his troubles stem from getting drunk for the first time and then shooting his mouth off) and finding one’s way back to the light; while Lucia’s is a demonstration of the transformative power of faith in the face of evil.

[Gertrude, the Nun of Monza]

But Lucia’s problems aren’t totally solved, because she still isn’t exactly sure what’s befallen Renzo, and even when she finally knows he’s at least not in prison, she doesn’t know how they’ll be together. Because in her fear at her kidnapping, she secretly made a vow to the Virgin Mary that if she was saved from the situation, she’d renounce the world and enter a convent. As she frets about this, German mercenaries descend on northern Italy in the service of France and the Holy Roman Empire, hoping to gain control of the region. The villagers of Lecco flee before the pillaging armies, with Lucia ending up in Milan in the care of a well-meaning, but nosy noblewoman who tries to get her to forget her “criminal” fiancé. But worse than the war and the ongoing famine is the appearance at this juncture of the plague. This is the historical Milan plague of 1630 and Manzoni devotes detailed chapters to the horrors experienced by the besieged city and the surrounding countryside. Renzo catches the disease, but manages to recover and goes in search of Lucia still at the epicenter in Milan.

Once there, he goes to the city’s overwhelmed lazaretto (part poorhouse, part hospital—named for the older medieval Lazar houses that tended those struck with leprosy), where he finds an already ill Fra Christoforo using the last of his strength to help other sufferers. He tells Renzo that Don Rodrigo is also there and dying of plague, and at first Renzo still wants revenge on the baron for all the misery he’s caused him and Lucia. But the monk uses his own regretted past to convince him to forgive his former lord and he finally does. Renzo finds Lucia, recovered from the plague and helping others, and she tearfully admits her vow, begging him to leave her. But Fra Christoforo tells her that God will forgive her for making such an unwilling vow under such duress and absolves her of her commitment before dying. The couple return to Lecco, where, in light of Rodrigo’s death, Don Abbondio agrees to marry them at last.

[Melchiorre Gherardini’s engraving of the Piazza Saint Babila in Milan during the plague of 1630]

As you can see from this brief (but probably not brief enough) plot sketch, The Betrothed is ultimately a pro-Catholic novel, but as I alluded to earlier, one that acknowledges the failings and limitations of the Church in this world. There are pious, brave clergy like Fra Christoforo and the archbishop of Milan (the historical Federico Borromeo), but there are also weak, cowardly clergy like Don Abbondio and the Nun of Monza (the latter based on a historical nun, Marianna de Leyva y Marino, who killed a fellow nun with the help of her lover to prevent the discovery of their relationship). However, there is a lot of grace in the text for even the characters that fall short of the perfectly pious (and bland) Lucia. Renzo makes some really dumb decisions early on in the story, but we watch him grow from an impetuous and somewhat naive young man into one you can believe will be the husband Lucia deserves in the end. A whole chapter is devoted to Fra Christoforo’s past, which shows that his saintly present was the result of many serious mistakes and outright crimes for which he had to learn from and atone for. The Nameless One, based on the historical Francesco Bernardino Visconti, is shown in believable spiritual doubt and his re-conversion to a life of faith and peace is greeted with genuine joy in the text. And multiple chapters are given over to the Nun of Monza’s story, showing how her father’s greed (he forces her to accept going to a convent to avoid having to divide his estate between multiple heirs) led to her unhappiness and descent into violence and treachery. Manzoni clearly believes her father’s sins to be worse than her flaws of character. Even the horrible Rodrigo is allowed forgiveness before he dies, even if he might be too delirious to hear it.

But most of all, Manzoni reserves a great deal of authorial love for the man whose overweening cowardice sets the plot in motion—the bumbling, grumbling Don Abbondio. In less skillful hands, the priest of Lecco could have devolved into a simple stock version of the mediocre clergyman, but there’s real humanity in Manzoni’s portrayal of him. He’s still most often the story’s comic relief, but he’s also one of the few characters granted an internal monologue, so the reader naturally grows close to him as the novel progresses, even if he’s hardly an aspirational companion. Like the villagers of Bergamo, who when finally meeting the famous Lucia after her wedding are a little let down by her ordinariness, it’s often far easier to love fallibility in literature than it is to love perfection.

[Frontspiece of the 1842 edition of The Betrothed]
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