Alessandro Manzoni Manzoni, Alessandro - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

In morte di Carlo Imbonati (poetry) 1806

Urania (poetry) 1809

Inni sacri [The Sacred Hymns] (poetry) 1815

Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica [A Vindication of Catholic Morality] (essay) 1819

Il Conte di Carmagnola (verse drama) 1820

Il cinque maggio [Ode on the Death of Napoleon; also published as The Napoleonic Ode and The Fifth of May] (poetry) 1821

Adelchi (verse drama) 1822

Discorse sopra alcuni punti della storia longobardica in Italia (history) 1822

Lettera sul romanticismo (criticism) 1823

Lettre à M. Chauvet sur les unités de temps et de lieu dans la tragédie [A Letter on Dramatic Unities and the Essence of Tragedy] (criticism) 1823

*I promessi sposi [The Betrothed] (novel) 1827

Storia della colonna infame [The Column of Infamy] (historical narrative) 1840-42

Dell'invenzione [A Dialogue of the Artist's Idea] (dialogue) 1850

Del romanzo storico [On the Historical Novel] (essay) 1850

Del trionfo della libertá (poetry) 1878

Tutte le opere. 11 vols. (poetry, verse dramas, novel, historical narrative, letters, criticism, and essays) 1957-70

*Originally titled Fermo e Lucia, but never published. The revised version of this novel was published between 1840 and 1842.

Henry T. Tuckerman (essay date 1851)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Novelist: Manzoni,” in Characteristics of Literature Illustrated by the Genius of Distinguished Writers, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1851, pp. 2-37.

[In the following excerpt, Tuckerman discusses Manzoni as he represents the nineteenth-century novelist, and comments on the “fidelity to nature” of his I promessi sposi.]

As I stood by the taffrail of the little steamer that plies up and down Lake Como, a good-natured fellow-passenger, whose costume and bearing denoted the experienced gentleman, indicated the various points of interest along the beautiful shores. It was a clear, warm day of that enchanting season, in those climates, when spring is just...

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W. D. Howells (essay date 1887)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alessandro Manzoni,” in Modern Italian Poets: Essays and Versions, Books for Libraries Press, 1972, pp. 126-74.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1887, Howells provides an introduction to European Romanticism, briefly surveys Manzoni's life, and evaluates his verse dramas and poetry—quoting extensively from selected works.]


It was not till the turbulent days of the Napoleonic age were past, that the theories and thoughts of Romance were introduced into Italy. When these days came to an end, the whole political character of the peninsula reverted, as nearly as possible, to that of the times preceding the...

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S. B. Chandler (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Literary Criticism: History and Literature,” in Alessandro Manzoni: The Story of a Spiritual Quest, Edinburgh University Press, 1974, pp. 69-85.

[In the following excerpt, Chandler surveys Manzoni's critical writings and his Fermo e Lucia, the precursor to I promessi sposi.]

The early 1820s were the period of Manzoni's intensest creative activity as he moved towards the climax and resolution of his spiritual and artistic quest. The Lettre à M. Chauvet sur l'unité de temps et de lieu dans la tragédie belongs to early 1820 and the Discorso sopra alcuni punti della storia longobardica in Italia was begun in autumn 1820 and published in...

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Gian Piero Barricelli (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Provident Ill-Fortune,” in Alessandro Manzoni, Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp. 55-83.

[In the following excerpt, Barricelli offers a thematic and stylistic study of Manzoni's dramas Il conte di Carmagnola and Adelchi.]

“The idea of a performance of my things gives me apprehension together with an insurmountable aversion; if, in my two poor tragedies which you deign to look upon so indulgently, I went contrary to the general taste and experienced the displeasure of hearing myself screamed at [by those who read them], I would at least find comfort in the thought that, given their strangeness, they would never appear on the stage. Indeed, you see for...

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Robert S. Dombroski (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Manzoni on the Italian Left,” in Annali d'Italianistica, Vol. 3, 1985, pp. 97-110.

[In the following essay, Dombroski considers the ideological character of Manzoni's I promessi sposi, particularly as the novel's concerns with social class have been perceived by Marxist critics.]

A number of themes emerge in the history of Manzoni criticism which enable us to define a nucleus of problems that have a special relevance for the practical concerns of the political Left. By far the most important of these problems, historically speaking, regards Manzoni's attitude toward the popular masses. Much of the work of Italian Marxists on Manzoni consists of...

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Douglas Radcliff-Umstead (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beyond Time and Space in Manzoni's Tragedies,” in Rivista di Studi Italiani, Vol. 3, No. 2, December, 1985, pp. 68-87.

[In the following essay, Radcliff-Umstead describes Manzoni's tragedies Il conte di Carmagnola and Adelchi as dramas of Christian salvation and transcendence.]

Alessandro Manzoni structured his tragedies Il Conte di Carmagnola and Adelchi on a dialectic between history and eternity, excessive evaluation of time and transcendence of territorial ambitions. This author aimed at creating Christian tragedies that would represent man's earthly battle for sovereign might and the final realization of the vanity involved...

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Gregory L. Lucente (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Uses and Ends of Discourse in I promessi sposi: Manzoni's Narrator, His Characters, and Their Author,” in MLN, Vol. 101, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 51-77.

[In the following essay, Lucente asserts that Manzoni's use of language in I promessi sposi is central to an understanding of the novel's theme and structure.]

Questions of language, particularly of its worldly use and abuse, are of major concern in I promessi sposi.1 These questions begin with the book's introduction and continue, though in constantly varying forms and contexts, throughout the novel. In the introduction the narrator states his reasons for reworking the...

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Verina R. Jones (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Manzoni's Dark Ladies,” in Romance Studies, Vol. 19, Winter, 1991, pp. 37-52.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses Manzoni's use of only dark-haired women in I promessi sposi as it departs from the canon's tradition of differentiating between virtuous blond-haired and treacherous dark-haired women.]

‘“I didn't finish the book,” said Maggie. “… I'm determined to read no more books where the blonde-haired women carry away all the happiness … If you could give me some story, now, where the dark woman triumphs, it would restore the balance. I want to avenge Rebecca and Flora MacIvor, and Minna and all the rest of the...

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Mirto Golo Stone (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘He Was Tall, Dark and Bald’: Aristocratic Desire and Fantasies of Authority in I promessi sposi,” in Forum Italicum, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 3-16.

[In the following essay, Stone probes the pro-aristocratic element in Manzoni's otherwise republican novel I promessi sposi.]

Like every title, mine too aims at arousing the reader's curiosity: as carefully as it is required by the difficult art of wrapping presents—example or metaphor perhaps not entirely out of place—, what is sought after is a combination of terms able to promise the surprising, the unthought, or at least a modest infringement on the routine of scholarly...

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Mark Davie (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Manzoni After 1848: An ‘Irresolute Utopian’?” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, October, 1992, pp. 847-57.

[In the following essay, Davie explores Manzoni's relationship to Italian nationalism in the nineteenth century.]

When Manzoni was asked in 1848 to stand as a candidate for the Piedmontese parliament, he wrote to his proposer declining the invitation, and explaining why he considered himself unsuitable for the task:

Un utopista e un irresoluto sono due soggetti inutili per lo meno in una riunione dove si parli per concludere; io sarei l'uno e l'altro nello stesso tempo. Il fattibile le più...

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Susanna Ferlito (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fear of the Mother's Tongue: Secrecy and Gossip in Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi,” in MLN, Vol. 113, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 30-51.

[In the following essay, Ferlito examines the mother-daughter relationship in Manzoni's I promessi sposi and the ways in which gossip both defines and undermines female relationships.]

Victoria Goddard, in her study of women's sexuality and group identity in Naples, rethinks the question of how codes of honor and shame are constructed and defended by examining the importance of women's role as “bearers,” perhaps, as “the bearers of group identity.”1 Following in the wake of Mary Douglas's...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Kennard, Joseph Spencer. “Alexander Manzoni.” In Italian Romance Writers, pp. 81-115. New York: Brentano's, 1906.

Biographical sketch of Manzoni that focuses particularly on the sources for and composition of I promessi sposi.


Biasin, Gian-Paolo. “The Juice of the Story: Alessandro Manzoni, I promessi sposi.” In The Flavors of Modernity: Food and the Novel, pp. 29-42. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Considers alimentary metaphors and other concerns with hunger, food, and eating in I promessi sposi.

Chandler, S....

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