Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994
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 conversion were the Inni sacri (1812-1815; The Sacred Hymns, 1904), followed by an essay defending Catholicism, Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica (1819; A Vindication of Catholic Morality, 1836). Then, however, Manzoni turned to history for inspiration in writing two verse tragedies, Il conte di Carmagnola (1820; the count of Carmagnola) and Adelchi (1822), which, like most Romantic dramas, are hardly suited for the stage, although Adelchi was performed. He also wrote an ode on the death of Napoleon, “Il cinque maggio” (1821; “The Napoleonic Ode,” 1904), and Lettre à M. *** sur l’unité de temps et de lieu dans la tragédie (1823) defending Romantic drama. His next work was the first version of his masterpiece, the long historical novel I promessi sposi (1827, 1840-1842; The Betrothed, 1828, 1951). Manzoni then spent the next fifteen years rewriting, revising, and polishing The Betrothed.
Aside from his literary publication, Manzoni led a retiring and tranquil life on his farm among his family. He needed such a placid life, since he still suffered from phobias (for example, he reputedly weighed his clothes several times a day) and nervous disorders that occasionally left him incapacitated. The various portraits of Manzoni suggest his nervous disposition through his slimness and his long, thin nose that seemed to grow sharper with age. Otherwise, the portraits show a man with regular, almost handsome features whose dark hair and sideburns gradually turned white over the years.
Manzoni’s tranquillity was disturbed only by a series of deaths in his family. One child died in 1811, another in 1823, and in 1833 the most shattering blow of all occurred, his beloved wife died. Before Manzoni could recover from her death, their eldest child, Giulia, died in 1834. Needing the supportive companionship of a wife, Manzoni in 1837 married a widow, Teresa Borri Stampa, who brought along stepchildren. The intermittent deaths of his many children continued, and Manzoni outlived all except two. These somber events may help account for Manzoni’s turning away from poetry and fiction in his later life to take up the study of history, literary theory, and language. Manzoni published an account of the seventeenth century Milan plague, Storia della colonna infame (1842; The Column of Infamy, 1845), appended to the final version of The Betrothed. Later writings included Del romanzo storico (1845), which theorized about historical novels; Dell’invenzione (1850), a theoretical work concerning creativity; and Dell’unita della lingua e dei mezzi di diffonderla (1868), a report on the Italian language commissioned by the government.
As this last work indicates, Manzoni received much official recognition during his later years. In 1860, the newly unified Italy granted him a pension and made him a senator; he was visited by foreign government dignitaries and by other writers. Most satisfying, however, was the unofficial veneration heaped upon him by the Italian people. Few writers have lived to see such adoration. His death on May 22, 1873, was considered a national tragedy. Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da requiem (Requiem Mass) was composed and performed in Manzoni’s honor the following year.
The writing of The Betrothed presented Alessandro Manzoni with a unique problem that most modern writers face only in translation. That is, at the time Manzoni wrote, not only was Italy divided into different states ruled by various rulers, but also Italians spoke provincial dialects. There was no unified or standard Italian language. Like other Italian writers at the time, Manzoni briefly considered writing his novel in French, but patriotic sentiments prevailed: How could the great Italian novel be written other than in Italian? Manzoni wrote the first version of The Betrothed in his native Lombardy dialect, sometimes called Milanese, but he was dissatisfied with the first version as soon as it appeared. He decided to rewrite the whole novel in the Tuscan dialect, which Dante had used for his La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy), and which Manzoni considered the purest and most graceful Italian dialect. For purposes of learning the Tuscan dialect, Manzoni made several visits to Florence and grilled any Florentine visitors. Experts in the Italian language still find Lombardisms in The Betrothed, but the novel gained such immense popularity that, together with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, it is credited with establishing the Tuscan dialect as standard Italian.
The unification of the Italian language only begins to account for Manzoni’s achievements in The Betrothed. By balancing the good-hearted but shrewd Italian peasant against the disorder and tyranny of Spanish rule in seventeenth century Lombardy, The Betrothed fueled the nineteenth century Risorgimento movement which was still trying to throw off foreign rule and unify Italy. It is no wonder that when unification came about Manzoni was hailed as both poet and patriot. Religious readers also found cause for praise in Manzoni’s theme of divine Providence working through history. Finally, a reader looking for a good story was bound to be enthralled by the novel’s long, suspenseful plot, its memorable characters, and its climax during the Milan plague. When Manzoni gratefully acknowledged the influence of Sir Walter Scott on The Betrothed, Scott generously replied that it was by far the best novel Manzoni had ever written.
Barricelli, Gian Piero. Alessandro Manzoni. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A competent and useful source containing a brief biography followed by a critical survey of Manzoni’s writings, concentrating on The Betrothed. Includes an annotated bibliography.
Caserta, Ernesto G. Manzoni’s Christian Realism. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1977. Focuses on Manzoni as a Christian writer. Begins with an examination of his aesthetic theory, then traces his development as a Christian writer from the Inni sacri through The Betrothed.
Chandler, S. B. Alessandro Manzoni: The Story of a Spiritual Quest. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974. Another competent critical survey of Manzoni’s writings, concentrating on The Betrothed. Includes a fairly extensive bibliography.
Colquhoun, Archibald. Manzoni and His Times. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954. The best biography of Manzoni in English, written by the translator of the definitive English version of The Betrothed. Provides a context of extensive social and family background and includes sixteen pages of photographs.
De Simone, Joseph Francis. Alessandro Manzoni: Esthetics and Literary Criticism. New York: S. F. Vanni, 1946. A dull but informative source, originally a Columbia University Ph.D. thesis. The first part traces Manzoni’s aesthetics through three phases—classicism, Romanticism, and “negation of his poetic work”—while the second part surveys Manzoni’s critical opinions of other writers, primarily French and Italian.
Ginzburg, Natalia. The Manzoni Family. Translated by Marie Evans. New York: Seaver Books, 1987. A translation of La famiglia Manzoni (1983). Using letters and other old documents, the author constructs a loose account of Manzoni’s family from 1762 to 1907, concentrating on his mother, his two wives, his friend Claude Fauriel, and his children.
Matteo, Sante, and Larry H. Peer, eds. The Reasonable Romantic: Essays on Alessandro Manzoni. New York: Peter Lang, 1986. An anthology of seventeen original essays (a few using deconstruction techniques) written by new and established Manzoni scholars to introduce Manzoni. The first section is a general introduction, followed by sections on Manzoni and Romanticism, language, history, and religion.
Reynolds, Barbara. The Linguistic Writings of Alessandro Manzoni: A Textual and Chronological Reconstruction. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons, 1950. Originally a University of London Ph.D. thesis. A bit of scholarly detective work that uses Manzoni’s published and unpublished writings to reconstruct his changing theories on language, particularly on how to achieve a standard Italian language.
Wall, Bernard. Alessandro Manzoni. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. A short introduction to Manzoni’s life and works, marred by its brevity and stereotypical thinking, but still useful.