Alessandro Manzoni 1785-1873
(Full name Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Antonio Manzoni) Italian novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and critic. For additional information on Manzoni's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 29.
Manzoni is remembered as the author of the first great modern Italian novel, I promessi sposi (1827; The Betrothed). A complex historical narrative of seventeenth-century Italian life, I promessi sposi is distinguished by its psychological insight, religious and nationalistic themes, use of common people as protagonists, and introduction of spoken Italian as a medium for literary expression. I promessi sposi was widely imitated by subsequent Italian novelists, influencing the evolution of both Italian language and literature and contributing to the rise of Italian nationalism in the nineteenth century. In addition to the novel, Manzoni produced several collections of verse, two dramas, and numerous critical and historical writings that comprise a notable contribution to the development of Italian Romanticism.
Manzoni was born in Milan, the son of wealthy aristocratic parents who separated while he was still a child. His early years were spent in religious schools where he studied Catholic theology, philosophy, history, and Latin and Italian classics. During the period of his formal education, which ended when he was sixteen, Manzoni also began to write poetry. After he left school, Manzoni lived with his father for several years in Milan, where his interest in literature, history, and politics was stimulated by the cultural life of the city. In 1805 he joined his mother in Paris. There he continued to write, composing poems that were influenced in form and diction by eighteenth-century Neoclassicism. In Paris he also met artists and intellectuals who introduced him to the literary trends of the age, particularly Romanticism. Two years later, Manzoni returned to Italy, and in 1810 he experienced a strengthening and renewal of his Catholic faith that was to form the basis for his major literary works. He moved to an inherited estate in the country, and established the sedate and retiring lifestyle he maintained for the rest of his life. During the next fifteen years, he produced his principal works of poetry, drama, and criticism. In 1827 Manzoni published his only novel, I promessi sposi. Popular and critical response in Italy was almost unanimously favorable, earning Manzoni a respected position in Italian letters and society. During the next few years, prompted by his concern that prose Italian should more closely reflect the language of the common people, Manzoni revised the novel according to the dialect of Tuscany, which he felt was nearer to an ideal Italian idiom. This version appeared in installments from 1840 to 1842. Thereafter, Manzoni primarily wrote essays on various subjects, including linguistics, literature, and politics. His life of quiet study and contemplation was interrupted in 1860, when, as a result of his revered public status, he was made a member of the Italian senate. Manzoni died in 1873.
Set in seventeenth-century Spanish-dominated Lombardy during the Thirty-Years' War, I promessi sposi relates the story of two peasant lovers, Renzo and Lucia, separated before their marriage by the machinations of Don Rodrigo, a local nobleman desirous of Lucia. Fleeing the city to escape Rodrigo, the couple endures many hardships, including famine, war, plague, and the abduction of Lucia, before they are finally wed. Throughout the narrative, Manzoni detailed historical events with meticulous accuracy, presenting realistic descriptions of starving, plague-ridden villages and cities and chronicling the effects of the Thirty Years' War in Italy. The work also demonstrates Manzoni's major themes: the evil of unbridled passions, the necessity of trust in God and in an afterlife, the corruption of religious and political organizations, and the blight of foreign domination. In addition to this well-known novel, Manzoni also produced several notable works of poetry, including his Inni sacri (1806; The Sacred Hymns), verses on religious subjects, and the nationalistic Il cinque maggio (1815; Ode on the Death of Napoleon). In his essay Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica (1819; A Vindication of Catholic Morality) Manzoni offered a defense of the Catholic religion. He also composed two historical verse dramas: Il conte di Carmagnola (1820), featuring a proud count wrongly accused of treason, and Adelchi (1822), which recounts an era of political intrigue and military turmoil among the Longobards, Franks, and Latins in early Medieval Italy. These tragedies also demonstrate in practice Manzoni's disregard for the Aristotelian unities of time and place, which he stated formally in his Lettre à M. Chauvet sur les unités de temps et de lieu dans la tragédie (1823; A Letter on Dramatic Unities and the Essence of Tragedy). Like the Lettre à M. Chauvet, many of Manzoni's significant critical statements were drafted in epistolary form. Among these, his Lettera sul romanticismo (1823), written to the Marchese Cesare D'Azeglio, rejects the subject matter of classical mythology in modern literature.
Late in life Manzoni repudiated the form of the historical novel because he believed that it failed to satisfy the aims of either history or fiction. Nevertheless, most commentary on Manzoni's work has been concentrated on I promessi sposi, which most critics consider his most important work and a masterpiece of world literature. Early critics focused on the relationship of the novel to the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott and on Manzoni's moral and political concerns, while later critics have emphasized the novel's structure and language. The consensus has been that I promessi sposi, in its complex interweaving of plot, characterization, theme, and style, is the culmination of Manzoni's literary career. In addition, critics have observed that Manzoni's characters, both humble and aristocratic, are skillfully portrayed against a finely realized, if revisionist, historical background. Likewise, scholars have noted that Manzoni's integration of spoken and literary Italian aptly delineates his characters and conveys his moral, religious, and patriotic themes. Manzoni's critical, poetic, and dramatic works have also elicited modern scholarly interest as seminal documents of Italian Romanticism. Several contemporary critics have examined the stylistic and thematic significance of Manzoni's historical verse tragedies and have analyzed his political stance, which blends a devout respect for Catholicism with an overriding belief in the importance of liberal revolution.