Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Among his writings in various genres, Manzoni authored the great Romantic historical novel The Betrothed, an acknowledged world masterpiece and much-beloved expression of Italian culture that contributed to the unification of Italy and to the Italian language.
Alessandro Manzoni was born into the aristocratic liberal circles of late eighteenth century Milan, which, influenced by the Enlightenment, was the leading political and intellectual center of preunification Italy. His maternal grandfather was Cesare Beccaria, an economist and jurist whose lectures anticipated the theories of Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus and whose influential work Dei delitti e delle pene (1764; An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, 1767) reformed thinking on penology. Beccaria introduced the modern view that punishments should be for the purpose of protecting society, not for taking vengeance on criminals. Among Beccaria’s close friends were such writers as Giuseppe Parini and the brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri. The young Manzoni idolized his grandfather and his grandfather’s friends, who provided him with role models and a liberal outlook.
Young Manzoni seriously needed such role models, since his parents took little interest in his upbringing. His mother, Giulia Beccaria Manzoni, unfortunately resembled her mother, Teresa de’ Blasco Beccaria, a lovely but scandalous lady who caused discord between Cesare Beccaria and his family and friends and who finally died of venereal disease. Young Giulia became involved in an affair with Giovanni Verri, the pleasure-seeking younger brother of Pietro and Alessandro Verri. In an attempt to end the affair, Pietro Verri arranged her marriage to Pietro Manzoni, a stolid middle-aged member of the Lecco landed gentry. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning, but then young Manzoni was born (no one is sure whether Pietro Manzoni or Giovanni Verri was his actual father). With no talent or taste for motherhood, Giulia farmed him out to a wet nurse, a peasant woman who cared for him in her home. Eventually, Giulia and Pietro Manzoni separated, and Giulia fled to London and then Paris with a rich Milanese banker, Carlo Imbonati.
Manzoni spent his childhood and youth in a series of boarding schools. From 1791 to 1798, he attended schools in Merate and Lugano run by the Somaschi friars, and from 1798 to 1801 he was at schools in Magenta and Milan run by the Barnabite fathers. A sensitive child, he longed for his mother (he and Pietro Manzoni never cared for each other), endured the bullying of headmasters and other students, and led a miserable existence. Besides reducing him to a shy, withdrawn individual prone to assorted lifelong paranoias, one notable result of his religious schooling was to turn him into a youthful atheist. When he was sixteen, Manzoni’s formal education ended, and he moved into a Milan townhouse with an aunt (a former nun), who introduced him to a life of dissipation, which included gambling and women. At the age of sixteen, Manzoni also wrote his first surviving verse, including the unpublished four-quarto poem “Il trionfo della Libertà” (“The Triumph of Liberty”).
In 1805, his mother and Carlo Imbonati invited him to join them in Paris, but before Manzoni arrived, Imbonati died, leaving Manzoni’s mother a fortune. While Manzoni consoled her, she introduced him to the literary salons of Paris. There Manzoni absorbed the brilliant conversations of writers, philosophers, and politicians that, combined with his avid reading of French literature, made him extremely fluent in French. He became friends with a number of French intellectuals, particularly the literary and historical scholar Claude-Charles Fauriel, who remained a lifetime friend and correspondent. Gradually, however, events began to occur that would draw Manzoni away from Paris. In 1807, Pietro Manzoni died, leaving Manzoni the family estate in Lecco. Then in 1808 Manzoni married Henriette Blondel (who changed her name to Enrichetta), a sixteen-year-old Swiss Calvinist, and in 1810 Enrichetta, Manzoni, and his mother all converted to Catholicism and returned to Italy.
Most commentators cite Manzoni’s conversion as the turning point in his life, but a more propitious event might have been his marriage to Blondel, who probably influenced his conversion. Gentle, loving, and strong, she provided Manzoni with the family life and stability that he had never had before. With Manzoni’s mother, they settled near Milan on the Brusuglio estate that his mother had inherited from Carlo Imbonati (in 1813 Manzoni also purchased a home in Milan and in 1818 sold the Lecco estate). They proceeded to have a houseful of children while Manzoni practiced agronomy and wrote.
Among the first fruits of his...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Antonio Manzoni belongs to Lombardy, in whose capital he was born on March 7, 1785. His putative father, Count Pietro, and his mother, Giulia—the daughter of the distinguished jurist and political economist Cesare Beccaria—were incompatible and were legally separated only seven years after Manzoni’s birth. Though as a child he studied in various religious schools in and around his native region, and though as a youth he suffered from excessive shyness, he developed strong sympathies with the libertarian ideas of the French Revolution, as the Jacobin flavor of his 1801 poem, “Il trionfo della libertà,” clearly indicates. His mother had run off to Paris in 1795 with her new lover, Carlo Imbonati, and the young Manzoni accepted an invitation, ten years later, to join them there. He had traveled in the meantime, but Paris seemed like a shiny goal. While there, he came in contact with many liberal philosophers and politicians, a number of whom (including the historian Claude Fauriel, with whom he formed a lifetime friendship) contributed significantly to his intellectual development and to his experience of the world. He wrote some poetry during these years—“L’Adda,” Sermoni, and “Urania” (on the civilizing virtues of the arts)—which revealed his lingering classical leanings; he also wrote an elegy in which he began to come into his own as a poet, “In morte di Carlo Imbonati,” for his mother’s lover, who had died when Manzoni arrived in Paris, and had left him a goodly inheritance.
In 1808, Manzoni married Henriette Blondel, the lovely sixteen-year-old daughter of a Genevese banker, Calvinist by faith. Always attracted to matters of the spirit, Manzoni found Henriette’s strong sense of religious devotion a stimulus to regain acquaintance with his original Catholic faith, and it was not long before he underwent a conversion in which several Jansenist clerics played an important role. His wife switched to Catholicism as well, and his mother returned to it after many years. From this point on, back in Lombardy, Manzoni led a long life of...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Antonio Manzoni’s putative father was Count Pietro Manzoni, and his mother, Giulia Beccaria, the daughter of the famous author of Dei delitti e delle pene (1764; An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, 1767). His early schooling took place in Lugano and Merate (under the Somaschi brothers) and in Milan (under the Barnabites), where he was born on March 7, 1785. Reacting against religion and sympathetic to the libertarianism of the French Revolution, at sixteen years old he wrote a Jacobin poem, “Il trionfo della libertà” (1801). Such liberal ideas attracted him to Paris, where his mother, legally separated from her husband since 1792, went to live with Carlo Imbonati in 1795. Manzoni returned to Paris in 1805 after traveling to Switzerland, Piedmont, Lombardy, and Venetia; Imbonati died, leaving Manzoni a goodly inheritance, to which Manzoni added the estate left him by his father, who died two years later.
During this period, still under the dictates of a classical aesthetic, Manzoni wrote a number of poems, including “In morte di Carlo Imbonati” (1805-1806). The Imbonati piece does not suggest that he was troubled by his mother’s questionable morality (as he was to be later); his close—and what was to become lifetime—friendship with the French historian Claude Fauriel, who lived with Sophie de Condorcet, may have had something to do with his acceptance of the situation. In fact, in “divine Paris,” he met many ideologues, freethinking philosophers and politicians such as Constantin-François de Volney, Marie-François Maine de Biran, Antoine-Louis Destutt de Tracy, Benjamin Constant, Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, and François Guizot, who filled his head with theories of skepticism, atheism, materialism, and other notions then in vogue.
How much this intellectual ferment actually shaped Manzoni’s mind is hard to say. A heightened awareness of history and historical studies, thanks to Vincenzo Cuoco in Milan and Fauriel in Paris, remained with him to a degree significant enough to guide his research interests, but the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment were already in decline, and Manzoni always found more attraction in matters of the spirit. He frequented Jansenist circles and, his conscience in turmoil, underwent a spiritual crisis—his so-called conversion—after which he settled on a more serene, almost devotional view of life. Supposedly, the process began in the Church of Saint Roche, to which he had repaired in a state of confusion one day. Still in Paris, he met a “very sweet, very proper” young woman, “an angelic creature” of Calvinist background, Henriette Blondel, whom he married in Milan in 1808. Enrichetta, as he then called her, and to whom he remained devoted all of her life, was only sixteen when they married. Two years later, the marriage rite, originally evangelical, was celebrated in Roman Catholic fashion. About the conversion, Attilio Momigliano says, Manzoni’s religious conversion is the definitive settlement of his moral conscience, the moment in which his scrupulous honesty finds an unwavering basis.The deist becomes theist, and his humanitarian morality becomes Catholic morality.Hence, in life: modesty, love of meditative solitude, charity, a reluctance to speak ill of his neighbor, and an acute and indulgent penetration into the motivations for human actions; in art: the portrayal of these and similar...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Antonio Manzoni (mahn-ZOH-nee), widely rated as one of Italy’s outstanding novelists on the basis of a single book, The Betrothed, was born in Milan in 1785, presumably the son of Pietro Manzoni and his wife, Giulia Beccaria, although there is some evidence to show that he was in fact the son of Giovanni Verri, one of his mother’s lovers. Manzoni’s grandfather was Cesare Beccaria, the famous Italian criminologist. Manzoni’s mother, legally separated from Pietro Manzoni, went to Paris with a wealthy Milanese banker, Count Carlo Imbonati, in 1796. Her son was sent to various religious schools in Merate, Lugano, and Milan. His grandfather had died of a stroke in 1794, and his father took...
(The entire section is 526 words.)