The Betrothed

by Alessandro Manzoni

Paperback, 2011




Simon & Brown (2011), 338 pages


Classic Literature. Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:The timeless masterpiece from Alessandro Manzoni, the father of modern Italian literature, in the first new English-language translation in fifty years, hailed as ??a landmark literary occasion? by Jhumpa Lahiri in her preface to the edition The Betrothed is a cornerstone of Italian culture, language, and literature. Published in its final form in 1842, the novel has inspired generations of Italian readers and writers. Giuseppe Verdi composed his majestic Requiem Mass in honor of Manzoni. Italo Calvino called the novel ??a classic that has never ceased shaping reality in Italy? while Umberto Eco praised its author as a ??most subtle critic and analyst of languages.? The Betrothed has been celebrated by Primo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg, and is one of Pope Francis??s favorite books. But, until now, it has remained relatively unknown to English readers. In the fall of 1628, two young lovers are forced to flee their village on the shores of Lake Como after a powerful lord prevents their marriage, plunging them into the maelstrom of history. Manzoni draws on actual people and events to create an unforgettable fresco of Italian life and society. In this greatest of historical novels, he takes the reader on a journey through the Spanish occupation of Milan, the ravages of war, class tensions, social injustice, religious faith, and a plague that devastates northern Italy. But within Manzoni??s epic tale, readers will also hear powerful echoes of our own day. Michael F. Moore??s dynamic new translation brings to life Manzoni??s… (more)

Media reviews

Anyone who planned to compile a plague anthology during the Covid pandemic must have turned to Alessandro Manzoni’s masterly historical novel I promessi sposi (literally “The betrothed couple”), written between 1821 and 1842, in which five chapters recreate the experience of bubonic plague in
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Milan in 1630. Manzoni conjures up the bumbling bureaucracy (the authorities broke their own rules), the claustrophobia, the silence, the little bell of the monatti (corpse carriers), the fear and hysteria, the stench, the looting, the teeming lazzaretto (isolation hospital), the humbling of the mighty and the rampant urban myths. The whole work – Manzoni’s only novel – is informed by deep historical research and a dedication to reality and truth. Appearing a century after Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and today revered as the greatest Italian novel, this was one of Italy’s first: in previous centuries long narratives had normally been in verse. Writing in the 1955 preface to his classic translation (of 1951), Archibald Colquhoun asserted that “for Italy it is all Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray rolled into one volume; though … its spirit is perhaps nearer Tolstoy”. As to its reception, “it has gone into over 500 editions, and been translated into every modern language, including Chinese; two operas, three films, a ballet, and at least seven plays have been based on it” (a tally long since exceeded); moreover, it was “quoted by Cavour in the Turin Parliament”, and nowadays remains familiar at all levels of Italian society. Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), a member of the Milanese landed gentry, began his literary career as a poet; his corpus includes two historical tragedies and philosophical, religious, social, linguistic and literary essays. Lombardy, with its capital Milan, was part of the Austrian empire, but from 1805 to 1810 the young writer lived in Paris, where a religious crisis led to his conversion to Catholicism; there too he encountered Romanticism, never prominent in Italian culture, though Manzoni became its leading representative. The historical novels of Walter Scott were sweeping through the salons of France, Germany and Russia, and Manzoni’s admiration for Scott is usually seen as crucial to the conception of I promessi sposi. It also buttressed his sympathies in the pivotal culture war that exploded in 1816 in Milan (then the heart of progressive politico-literary thinking), pitting the new Romanticism against the Enlightenment and the old classicizing world. This inflammatory journalism was suppressed by the Austrian authorities. Inspired by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the poet Ugo Foscolo had already written his epistolary novelUltime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (Last letters of Jacopo Ortis, Milan, 1802), as an expression of Italian nationalism and protest, while Silvio Pellico, in 1816 a noted figure in Milan’s great polemic, would publish his memoir of political imprisonment, Le mie prigioni (My prisons), in 1832. These exemplify the beginnings of Risorgimento literature, the writings that stimulated the growing movement for Italian independence and unification. I promessi sposi, a literary monument for all time and any place, also promoted Risorgimento thought and emotion. With its political, moral and religious commitment, the novel is almost an allegory. Manzoni’s choice of the Duchy of Milan in the early seventeenth century went beyond the emulation of Scott: the overlords then governing that territory had been Spanish, not Austrian, but their incompetence, venality and brutality prefigured aspects of nineteenth-century experience. The novel was a coded commentary for Manzoni’s own times, but, despite the censorship, he could describe the iniquities of Spanish colonial rule with relative impunity. Life in the late 1620s was conditioned by the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War: times of famine, riots and pandemic. Manzoni’s research prompted the use of a device already employed by Cervantes and Scott: he claimed to have discovered a seventeenth-century manuscript, and “quotes” its archaic language in the novel’s text, where the author is ever-present as the interpreter of his sources. His young protagonists, Renzo and Lucia, embody an influential literary innovation. Of peasant stock, they are silk weavers from Lake Como: not of elite status, they signal the beginnings of modern realism and a new vision of society in which the lives of the poor are valued. The novel is peopled by characters, both secular and religious, in all sectors of a society harshly divided between the ruling, feudal Spanish nobility and the humble Lombard population, with – in between – those burghers and lawyers who accommodated their lives to colonial servility. All shades of morality are evidenced also in the religious figures who help or hinder the young couple in their extremity. Manzoni created some of the most memorable characters in Italian literature. Almost unwaveringly good and sensible, Lucia (from lux, light) is mature beyond her years and secure in her faith in Providence (a recurring theme), whereas fallible Renzo’s good heart is often betrayed by his volatile emotions: this is his Bildungsroman. In a situation analogous to that of Zerlina and Masetto in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787), their marriage is impeded by the local overlord, Don Rodrigo; they flee their native territory and encounter adventures, perils and separation. Their parish priest, Don Abbondio, is known in Italy as the proverbial symbol of comic cowardice. Gertrude, the nun of Monza, based on a historical figure, personifies cruel maleficence – and yet her sins are explained psychoanalytically, avanti lettera, by her own sufferings at the hands of her aristocrat father: the seeds of a feminist argument are couched in her hellish life. Intense fear is associated with the tyrant known only as L’Innominato (the Unnamed or Nameless One): the aura of threat evaporates only after his religious conversion and the climactic release of Lucia from his castle. Despite a guilty past, the Capuchin friar, Cristoforo, is the true Christian, a self-sacrificing humanitarian. One might describe The Betrothed as a tragedy with a happy ending, but from the first page its gravity is alleviated by Manzoni’s witty irony, a sharp weapon in the implied social critique: the town of Lecco had the “benefit” of a garrison of Spanish soldiers, who “never failed to spread out into the vineyards, to thin the grapes and relieve the peasants of the trouble of harvesting them” (Michael F. Moore’s translation). The novel had two early versions, in 1821–3 and 1825–7, before the definitive edition of 1840–2. Originally Manzoni’s style was inflected by his Lombard roots, but in 1827 he visited the literary circles of Florence (since Dante’s day the cultural capital of a notional Italy), expressly to study Florentine parlance; so began the famous process of “rinsing his rags” (the novel) in the waters of the River Arno (“nelle cui acque risciacquai i miei cenci”). Manzoni aimed to unify the Italian language, and indeed the Tuscanized text exerted a transformative influence on the development of modern literary Italian. Moore’s fluent, accessible and sometimes lyrical translation (the first for many years) has numerous felicities. He used the Italian text edited in 2003 by the distinguished scholar Enrico Ghidetti, and Moore’s interesting introduction describes his painstaking method; yet in dialogue he occasionally strays too far into colloquial modernization: “this marriage ain’t gonna happen” smacks of Hollywood, and “buddies” won’t do for a Spanish noble’s cronies in 1630. Elsewhere, “divvy up” is too slangy for “divider le spoglie” (“to share the spoils”), while “his uncle, the Count” should replace “the Count Uncle” and “vinaigrette” is the technical term for “ampolla d’aceto”. This handsome volume, with its useful map and bibliography, its explanatory list of characters and historiography, is marred by some misprints and oddities – “States of the Church” instead of “Papal States”, “Adelchis” for “Adelchi” – and an endnote, not mindful of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, strangely declares that Manzoni “is Italy’s most celebrated writer”. In his later years Manzoni received many honours, including a senatorship from the king of the now united nation. Verdi’s “Requiem” was composed as a profound tribute after the author’s death on May 22, 1873, and Verdi himself conducted the first performance in Milan on the first anniversary. This year Italy will be marking the 150th anniversary of Manzoni’s death in innumerable ways, both scholarly and popular. Plays about Renzo and Lucia will be performed at Lake Como’s primary schools. The writer Pierfranco Bruni will lead celebrations sponsored by parliament. Under the aegis of the Centro Nazionale di Studi Manzoniani, in a project planned by the eminent scholar Dante Isella, a trilogy of critical editions of the novel’s different versions has just been completed. Many other editions and studies will follow, while in Milan’s Duomo the public will enjoy a series of readings from the national masterpiece.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member BillMcGann
I have had friends planning trips to Italy ask me for reading suggestions. “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed) is always at the top of the list. For the reader seeking deeper knowledge of Italy this book serves a couple of purposes.

First of all, like War and Peace, it is an historical novel with
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well-drawn characters inserted into an accurately described place and time. The novel takes place in Lombardy (the area in northern Italy surrounding Milan) between 1628 and 1631. It describes the story of Renzo and Lucia, and the extraordinary difficulties they encountered getting married. The centerpiece of the tale is the Great Plague of Milan, brought to northern Italy by French and German troops engaged in the 30-Years’ War. Manzoni’s description of the horrible conditions that descended upon Milan is riveting. I Promessi Sposi gives the reader great insight into the history and culture of post-renaissance Italy. Because the book is so good, one can absorb an enormous amount of history painlessly.

Secondly, because this is truly the greatest Italian novel, all educated Italians are familiar with it. I can promise the reader who travels to Italy that he will surprise those he meets when he displays familiarity with this beloved and extremely Italian work. I remember discussing the book with several Italians while having dinner in a small village near Milan. I mentioned an episode in the book that I said had taken place near Lake Como.
“Lecco!” I was instantly corrected. They all knew the book and my bonehead error was not allowed to pass.

Intellectually a child of the French Enlightenment, Manzoni became a devout catholic and the book reflects his deeply felt religious beliefs. Don’t let his didacticism put you off. This is a beautiful book. One hundred years ago it was standard reading even in America, but sadly it is largely ignored here. Get a copy and let Manzoni take you back to another place and time. It’s an adventure you will enjoy.
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LibraryThing member DieFledermaus
The Betrothed – the great 19th c. Italian historical novel – is a thoroughly entertaining and wonderfully detailed story. The main plot follows two young lovers, Lucia and Renzo, who are prevented from marrying by the despotic local nobleman, Don Rodrigo. However, the genius of the piece is in
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Manzoni’s lovingly described and lengthy portraits of the side characters, his epic depictions of historical events in the 1620’s and the nicely done background setting of an unjust society. The omniscient narrator presents the story as his modernization of a true tale and this gives rise to some comic bits – like the opening forward, which starts out old-fashioned, pompous and flowery before the narrator cuts it off and says he’ll tell the story in straightforward language. Sometimes the descriptions of political wrangling gets a little dense (and I wished my copy, by Penguin, had more notes) but overall this is a fantastic read.

Lucia and Renzo are simple peasants, happily engaged and living in a small village near the town of Lecco. Renzo has a promising job, Lucia’s mother likes him – everything seems fine until the parish priest, Don Abbondio, is threatened to prevent him from marrying them. Renzo and Lucia stay pretty much the same throughout the book and are simple characters – Lucia is often found crying, fainting and praying and Renzo is frequently hot-headed and naïve. The other characters are more interesting however – one being Don Abbondio. He’s a coward who is mostly concerned with his own self-preservation. In a book full of conversions, with many portraits of benevolent religious figures, he remains a rather unsympathetic one. However, Manzoni spends many pages describing his inner conflicts and fears, with some occasional guilt and shame. He also sets Don Abbondio’s self-interest against the customs of the day, where the rich and powerful could get their way and could punish those who opposed them with impunity. Others counsel death before a failure of duty or courage but Don Abbondio is all-too-human in his fear. I enjoyed reading about him, despite his extreme cowardice and his being a major impediment to the couple’s happiness.

Don Rodrigo seems like he would be a stock evil aristocrat but Manzoni uses his character to explore the oppressive laws and customs of the time. Near the beginning of the book, he notes that the edicts, which were meant to curb extrajudicial violence, only ended up oppressing the poor. The laws never applied to powerful noblemen or the violent bravoes that they would hire to get their way. An example of this occurs when Renzo goes to a lawyer with his complaint that Don Rodrigo blocked his marriage to Lucia. The lawyer, thinking Renzo was the one who broke the law, is sympathetic at first but when he learns that Renzo is speaking of Don Rodrigo, the lawyer kicks him out and refuses to listen to him. Don Rodrigo avidly pursues Lucia but not out of love or lust – he barely even thinks of her as an object. Instead, he’s afraid to lose face in front of his peers by not getting what he wants (he has a bet with his cousin over Lucia) and also has an “eh, why not?” attitude when sending his posse out to harass her. His somewhat uninvolved attitude and the ease with which he ruins Lucia and Renzo’s lives illustrate the plight of the poor. Even when powerful but good people help them, it is still an example of the dependence of the lower classes.

The other characters who Renzo and Lucia meet are interesting as well – the formerly fiery, now repentant Father Cristoforo; the bitter and ambivalent nun Gertrude; the aristocratic criminal who is so powerful and feared that he’s called the Unnamed in the book; the saintly archbishop Federigo Borromeo. The last three are based on actual historical characters and their backstories are involving. They all play a role in Renzo and Lucia’s case but also are actors in the historical events that intrude. Renzo gets involved in the bread riots in Milan and Manzoni has descriptions of the famine that hit the city soon after. Their village also suffers from the passing German army and finally, the plague that decimated Milan and the surrounding countryside affects many of the characters and the outcome of the book. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member jburlinson
Astonishing. Ravishing. A very long book that is all too short.
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
This is a fairly long historical novel set in seventeenth century Northern Italy. It chronicles the adventures of two young peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who are engaged to be married. Things do not go as planned for them, and they go through all sorts of adventures and misadventures before the
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conclusion. The novel is also based around historical events and characters, and is quite detailed in its treatment of political and social concerns, such as inequalities of power, hunger, disease, and poverty. A lot of the book is quite sad, and tragic, and this probably takes up a greater part of it than action, though there are some exciting scenes too. It is also carries a fairly religious message, which is partly to do with the time and place in which it is set, and partly due to the author's interests. The characters go through varied undeserved hardships, but reach a happy ending, with those who have misbehaved ultimately getting punished.
It makes a good read because the story is good, and the characters varied and genuine. It is also interesting to discover what Italy was like at that time, and how things were for people. It makes it easier to appreciate the liberty and relative lack of corruption which we enjoy in modern times, even if we sometimes think things are going to the dogs. Thing's definitely were worse in the past, and many novels don't show this. Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, set in a similar part of Italy, around 70 years after this one, makes all the problems of the time seem exciting, enticing. This novel treats them in the way a normal average man (Renzo) would, and it is revealing to see both sides of reality.
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LibraryThing member Algybama
Scenes of such badass intensity you'll piss your pants: Unknown's fortress, the bravoes, Renzo's escape, descriptions of the pestilence, etc. Some "boring" bits that are made more than readable by the excellent and punchy dialogue. The scale and tone of the narration is very impressive. Generally
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very realistic except for the moralizing. Characterization is good but sometimes inconsistent.
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LibraryThing member sereq_ieh_dashret
I had to read it in high school (i'm italian) and it honestly sucks. It might be historically accurate as much as you want, but: - it is bloody boring,
- Lucia is a wet rag and faints in almost every chapter
- Renzo is a moron.
- The only cool character converts all of a sudden and becomes annoying
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as well.
- The pestilence at the end resolves everything with no showdown(lampshaded by one of the characters)

Can't compete with the other historical novels of the age
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
An epic tale of two Italian commoners, their love for each other, and their battle with powerful forces ruling their country. A classic Italian epic. Recommended.
LibraryThing member keylawk
Under the guise of a revelator, Manzoni presents the use of Religion and Law by a local Lombardian tyrant in suppressing people in general during the period of plague which devastated Milan in 1630, and in particular, two young peasants who were in love.

This is one of the first great novels of
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Italy, but also, uncharacteristically of Italy, wooden in its realist presentation of human experience. Verdi's Requiem is dedicated to Manzoni.

Manzoni writes the story as from the POV of poor people, and of both sexes--often the "Lucia" to the "Renzo" being the one most thoughtful. Manzoni's own moral of the Story drawn through his apology for "wearying" the reader ("we did not do so on purpose"): "...troubles certainly often arise from occasion afforded by ourselves; but that the most cautious and blameless conduct cannot secure us from them; and that, when they come, whether by our own fault or not, confidence in God alleviates them, and makes them conducive to a better life." [643]
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
I don't usually read historical fiction (ever since I went on a binge in 8th grade and got sick of it), but 1) my husband read it in Italian and 2) we were going to the Lake Como area, so I thought I'd try it.

It was fun reading a book that took place where we were, albeit centuries earlier. And
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Manzoni's digressions from the main plot and characters, both of which were compelling, were fascinating - especially the account of the plague in Milan.

I read the public domain edition on my Kindle, so I'm not sure who the translator was, but I think this version suffered in the translation - as I found when comparing notes with my husband.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Sometimes you stumble across a book that you really should have read many years before, but in fact had not even heard of until somebody stuck it under your nose and instructed you to read it. 'The Betrothed' is just such a book, a classic of Italian literature and rightly so, full of historical
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details and incredibly insightful as a result. Manzoni knows the human condition well, and he makes it easy to imagine being in the shoes of the principle characters, although the long departures from their story does tend to grate from time to time.
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LibraryThing member JVioland
I wouldn't have expected this given the story line, but I actually enjoyed it! A very colorful story about two lovers separated by a myriad of unexpected events, keeps them apart. Yet they remain constant to each other, even without knowing whether or not the other is still alive. A novel of hope
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and fortitude. And it acts like a tour guide to Lombardy.
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LibraryThing member judithrs
The Betrothed. Alessandro Manzoni. 1827. This is Pope Francis’ favorite novels and is considered to be one of the greatest Italian novels of all times. I knew nothing about it until Pope Francis mentioned it. Our book club decided to read it. It is a historical novel and love story set in what is
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now northern Italy in the early 1600s. Renzo and Lucia are a devoted devout couple who plan to marry. Don Rodrigo, a local baron, has decided he fancies Lucia and forbids the local priest to marry them. The terrified priest refuses to marry them, and Don Rodrigo’s thugs try to kidnap Lucia. She is aided and saved by Fr. Christopher who puts her in a convent and sends Renzo to another city. Eventually after wars, famine, the plague, and various misadventures the two are united. The novel is filled with unsavory characters and saintly characters. I was impressed with the goodness of the cardinal and the miraculous change of hear of the vile Unknown. The book reminded me of a Dickens novel, and I am glad I read it. I hesitate to recommend it unless you want to lose yourself in a 800 page historical romance.
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LibraryThing member giovannigf
I read this because in an interview Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale, called it "the great plague novel." What Snowden didn't say is that the plague doesn't even get mentioned for more than 500 pages and doesn't really make an appearance until at
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least 100 more!

The plot is trite, the characters simplistic, and the ending preposterous, but Manzoni was much more interesting as a historian than novelist - the chapters about the forms that power took in 17th-century Italy, about the bread riots, and yes, the plague in particular, are fascinating and make the 720-page trudge worthwhile.
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LibraryThing member billt568
A fairly measured and enjoyable star-crossed-lover-pursued-by-an-evil-lord that suddenly decided it was a Greene/Endo devotional novel but then gets bored with that and becomes a municipal history of Milan in a year of plague and war, and oh yeah we better tie together that love story.
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Underwhelming slog except for when its gets super melodramatic, at which time I enjoyed myself.

Apologies to any Italians for disparaging their great national novel.
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LibraryThing member colligan
If you appreciate classic historical fiction, this in an excellent representative of the genre. Great writing, compelling plot, interesting characters, and fascinating history. Not a quick read but definitely worth the time if you enjoy great literature.


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