Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Betrothed

I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni is one of the earliest historical novels as well as a great love story of Italian literature. According to The Wall Street Journal:
The tale is set in Lombardy in 1628 during the oppressive Spanish occupation and the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). There is simplicity to the story, but that's deceptive. Manzoni's larger theme is the complex triumph of divine justice on earth, for the novel is religious as well as historical. In his study of history, Manzoni always felt himself drawn to the millions whom historical records utterly ignore—in his words the "gente di nessuno," "nobody's people."

The betrothed of Manzoni's title are Lorenzo Tramaligno (known as Renzo) and Lucia Mondella, two young peasants who share an undying love in their desperate attempts to marry against near-insurmountable odds. Renzo and Lucia, who live near Milan, plan to be wed by the local priest, Don Abbondio. But thugs of the local baron, the villainous Don Rodrigo, who himself desires Lucia, threaten Don Abbondio, and the weak, intimidated cleric tells the lovers that the wedding cannot be performed. The story follows the travails of the two lovers amid wars, famine, bread riots and plague. It is a journey that reveals religious hypocrisy, sainthood and such memorable historical characters as the Nun of Monza, a feared criminal known as the Unnamed, and the virtuous Cardinal Federigo Borromeo—a virtual political and social tapestry of 17th-century Italy.

Manzoni's vivid account of the 1630 outbreak of bubonic plague in pestilence-stricken Milan, amid ravages, chaos and hysteria, is superbly drawn. Discussing Manzoni's description of the Milan bread riots, a modern-day writer in a literary blog touched on the author's eye for the larger picture and the timeliness of the novel's content. "Replace," the blogger wrote, "flour with oil and bread with gasoline and Manzoni's chapter is a story for today."

Manzoni's advocacy of a united Italy made him a hero—some called him the saint—of the Risorgimento, the surge for Italian unification. Garibaldi, the leader of the movement, and Cavour paid him homage. His death at age 88 was a cause of general mourning throughout Italy. He received a magnificent state funeral with princes, ministers and nobles in the cortege. Verdi honored this patriarch of Italian literature with his great memorial, the "Manzoni" requiem.

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