Home  »  I Promessi Sposi  »  Chapter XII

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter XII

THIS was the second year of the scarcity. In the preceding year, the surplus remaining from former seasons had more or less supplied the deficiency; and the people, neither satiated nor famished, but certainly sufficiently unprovided for, had reached the harvest of 1628, in which our story finds us. Now, this harvest, so long and eagerly looked forward to, proved still less productive than the former, partly on account of the adverse character of the season (and that not only at Milan, but, in great measure, in the surrounding country), and partly by the agency of man. Such were the ravages and havoc of the war—that amiable war to which we have already alluded—that in the parts of the country bordering on its scene, much more land than usual remained uncultivated and deserted by the peasants, who instead of working to provide food for themselves and others, were obliged to wander about as beggars. I have said, more than usual, because the insupportable taxes, levied with unequalled cupidity and folly—the habitual conduct, even in perfect peace, of the stationary troops,—conduct which the mournful documents of the age compare to that of an invading enemy—and other reasons, which this is not the place to enumerate, had for some time been producing this sad effect throughout the whole of the Milanese: the particular circumstances, of which we are now speaking, being but the sudden exacerbation of a chronic disease. No sooner had this deficient harvest been gathered in, than the provisions for the army, and the waste which always accompanies them, made such a fearful void in it, that scarcity quickly made itself felt, and with scarcity its melancholy, but profitable, as well as inevitable, effect, a rise of prices.

But when the price of food reaches a certain point, there always arises (at least, hitherto it has always arisen; and if it is so still, after all that has been written by so many learned men, what must it have been in those days!)—there always arises an opinion among the many that it is not the effect of scarcity. They forget that they had foreseen and predicted such an issue; they suddenly fancy that there is plenty of corn, and that the evil proceeds from there not being as much distributed as is required for consumption; propositions sufficiently preposterous, but which flatter both their anger and their hopes. Corn monopolists, either real or imaginary, large landholders, the bakers who purchased corn, all, in short, who had either little or much, or were thought to have any, were charged with being the causes of the scarcity and dearness of provisions; they were the objects of universal complaint, and of the hatred of the multitude of every rank. The populace could tell with certainty where there were magazines and granaries full and overflowing with corn, and even requiring to be propped up; they indicated most extravagant numbers of sacks; they talked with certainty of the immense quantities of grain secretly despatched to other places, where, probably, it was asserted with equal assurance and equal excitement, that the corn grown there was transported to Milan. They implored from the magistrates those precautions which always appear, or at least, have always hitherto appeared, so equitable, so simple, so capable of drawing forth the corn which they affirm to be secreted, walled up, or buried, and of restoring to them abundance. The magistrates, therefore, busied themselves in fixing the highest price that was to be charged upon every commodity; in threatening punishment to any one who should refuse to sell; and making other regulations of a similar nature. As, however, all human precautions, how vigorous soever, can neither diminish the necessity of food, nor produce crops out of season: and as these individual precautions offered no very inviting terms to other countries where there might be a superabundance, the evil continued and increased. The multitude attributed such an effect to the scarcity and feebleness of the remedies, and loudly solicited some more spirited and decisive measures. Unfortunately, they found a man after their own heart.

In the absence of the governor, Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova, who was encamped over Casale del Monferrato, the High Chancellor Antonio Ferrer, also a Spaniard, supplied his place at Milan. This man saw (and who could help seeing it?) that a moderate price on bread is in itself a most desirable thing; and he thought (here was his mistake) that an order from him would suffice to produce it. He fixed the limit (la meta, by which name the tariff was distinguished in articles of food,) at the price that bread would have had, if the corn had been generally sold at thirty-three lives the bushel, and they sold it as high as eighty. He acted like the old woman who thought to make herself young again by changing her baptismal faith.

Regulations less irrational and less unjust had, on more than one occasion, by the resistance of actual circumstances, remained unexecuted; but that this should be carried into effect was undertaken by the multitude, who, seeing their demands at last converted into a law, would not suffer it to be a mere form. They immediately ran to the bake-houses, to demand bread at the fixed price; and they required it with that air of threatening resolution which passion, force, and law united could impart. It need not be asked if the bakers resisted. With sleeves turned up, they were busied in carrying, putting into the oven, and taking out thence, without intermission; for the people, having a confused idea that it was too violent an attempt to last long, besieged the bake-houses incessantly, to enjoy their temporary good fortune; and every reader can imagine what a pleasure it must have been to drudge like a slave, and expose one’s self more than usually to an attack of pleurisy, to be, after all, a loser in consequence. But with magistrates on one side threatening punishments, and the people on the other importunate, murmuring at every delay that was interposed in serving them, and indefinitely menacing some one or other of their chastisements, which are always the worst that are inflicted in this world—there was no help for it; drudge they must; they were forced to empty and replenish their ovens, and sell. However, to keep them up to such employment, it was of little avail to impose strict orders, and keep them in constant fear: it was a question of absolute practicability; and had the thing lasted a little longer, they could have done no more. They remonstrated incessantly against the iniquitous and insupportable weight of the burden laid upon them, and protested they would willingly throw the shovel into the oven, and take their departure; and yet they continued to persevere as they could, longing, hoping, that some day or other, the High Chancellor would come to his senses. But Antonio Ferrer, who was what would now be called a man of character, replied that the bakers had made enormous profits in past times; that they would equally make great gains in better times to come, that, therefore, it was both reasonable and necessary they should make some compensation to the public, and that, in the mean while, they must get on as they could. Whether he were really convinced of the truth of those reasons he alleged to others, or whether, perceiving, from its effects, the impossibility of maintaining this regulation, he was willing to leave to others the odium of revoking it; for who can now look into Antonio Ferrer’s mind? yet certain it is he did not relax one iota of what he had established. At length, the decurioni (a municipal magistracy composed of nobles, which lasted till the ninety-sixth year of the last century) informed the Governor, by letter, of the state in which matters stood, hoping he might be able to suggest some remedy.

Don Gonzalo, buried over head in the affairs of war, did what the reader will certainly imagine: he nominated a Council, which he endowed with full authority to fix such a price upon bread as could become current, thus doing justice to both parties. The deputies assembled, or it was expressed, after the Spanish fashion, in the jargon of those days, the junta met; and, after a hundred bowings, compliments, preambles, sighs, whisperings, airy propositions, and subterfuges, urged, by a necessity which all felt, to come to some determination, conscious that they were casting an important die, but aware that there was no other course to be taken, they at length agreed to augment the price of bread. The bakers once more breathed, but the people raved.

The evening preceding the day in which Renzo arrived at Milan, the streets and squares swarmed with men, who, transported with indignation, and swayed by a prevailing opinion, assembled—whether acquaintances or strangers—in knots and parties without any previous concert, and almost without being aware of it, like rain-drops on a hillside. Every conversation increased the general belief, and roused the passions of both hearer and speaker. Amongst the many excited ones, there were some few of cooler temperament, who stood quietly watching with great satisfaction the troubling of the water, who busied themselves in troubling it more and more, with such reasonings and stories as rogues know how to invent, and agitated minds are so ready to believe, and who determined not to let it calm down without first catching a little fish. Thousands went to rest that night with an indeterminate feeling that something must and would be done. Crowds assembled before day-break: children, women, men, old people, workmen, beggars, all grouped together at random; here was a confused whispering of many voices; there, one declaimed to a crowd of applauding bystanders; this one asked his nearest fellow the same question that had just been put to himself; that other repeated the exclamation that he heard resounding in his ears; everywhere were disputes, threats, wonderings; and very few words made up the materials of so many conversations.

There only wanted something to lay hold of: some beginning, some kind of impetus to reduce words to deeds, and this was not long wanting. Towards daybreak, little boys issued from the bakers’ shops, carrying baskets of bread to the houses of their usual customers. The first appearance of one of these unlucky boys in a crowd of people, was like the fall of a lighted squib in a gunpowder magazine. ‘Let us see if there’s bread here!’ exclaimed a hundred voices, in an instant. ‘Ay, for the tyrants who roll in abundance, and would let us die of hunger,’ said one, approaching the boy; and, raising his hand to the edge of the basket, he snatched at it, and exclaimed, ‘Let me see!’ The boy coloured, turned pale, trembled, and tried to say, ‘Let me go on;’ but the words died between his lips, and slackening his arms, he endeavoured to disengage them hastily from the straps.

‘Down with the basket!’ was the instantaneous cry. Many hands seized it, and brought it to the ground; they then threw the cloth that covered it into the air. A tepid fragrance was diffused around. ‘We, too, are Christians; we must have bread to eat,’ said the first. He took out a loaf, and, raising it in the view of the crowd, began to eat: in an instant all hands were in the basket, and in less time than one can relate it, all had disappeared. Those who had got none of the spoil, irritated at the sight of what the others had gained, and animated by the facility of the enterprise, moved off by parties in quest of other straying baskets, which were no sooner met with than they were pillaged immediately. Nor was it necessary to attack the bearers: those who unfortunately were on their way, as soon as they saw which way the wind blew, voluntarily laid down their burdens, and took to their heels. Nevertheless, those who remained without a supply were, beyond comparison, the greater part; nor were the victors half satisfied with such insignificant spoil; and some there were mingled in the crowds who had resolved upon a much better regulated attack. ‘To the bake-house, to the bake-house!’ was the cry.

In the street called La Corsia de’ Servi was a bake-house, which is still there, bearing the same name,—a name that, in Tuscan means ‘The Bakery of the Crutches,’ and, in Milanese, is composed of words so extravagant, so whimsical, so out-of-the-way, that the alphabet of the Italian language does not afford letters to express its sound. In this direction the crowd advanced. The people of the shop were busy questioning the poor boy who had returned unladen, and he, pale with terror, and greatly discomposed, was unintelligibly relating his unfortunate adventure, when, suddenly, they heard a noise as of a crowd in motion; it increases and approaches; the forerunners of the crowd are in sight.

‘Shut, lock up; quick, quick:’ one runs to beg assistance from the sheriff; the others hastily shut up the shop, and bolt and bar the doors inside. The multitudes begin to increase without, and the cries redouble of—‘Bread! bread! Open! open!’

At this juncture the sheriff arrived, in the midst of a troop of halberdiers. ‘Make room, make room, my boys; go home, go home: make room for the sheriff!’ cried he. The throng, not too much crowded, gave way a little, so that the halberdiers could advance and get close to the door of the shop, though not in a very orderly manner. ‘But, my friends,’ said the sheriff, addressing the people from thence, ‘what are you doing here? Go home, go home. Where is your fear of God? What will our master the King say? We don’t wish to do you any harm, but go home, like good fellows. What in the world can you do here, in such a crush? There is nothing good to be got here, either for the soul or body. Go home, go home!’ But how were those next the speaker, who saw his face and could hear his words, even had they been willing to obey—how were they to accomplish it, urged forward as they were, and almost trampled upon by those behind; who, in their turn, were trodden upon by others, like wave upon wave, and step upon step, to the very edge of the rapidly increasing throng? The sheriff began to feel a little alarmed. ‘Make them give way, that I may get a little breath,’ said he to his halberdiers; ‘but don’t hurt anybody. Let us try to get into the shop. Knock; make them give way!’

‘Back! back!’ cried the halberdiers, throwing themselves in a body upon their nearest neighbours, and pushing them back with the point of their weapons. The people replied with a grumbling shout, and retreated as they could, dispersing blows on the breast and stomach in profusion, and treading upon the toes of those behind; while such was the general rush, the squeezing and trampling, that those who were in the middle of the throng would have given anything to have been elsewhere. In the mean while, a small space was cleared before the house; the sheriff knocked and kicked against the door, calling to those within to open it: these, seeing from the window how things stood, ran down in haste and admitted the sheriff, followed by the halberdiers, who crept in one after another, the last repulsing the crowd with their weapons. When all were secured, they re-bolted the door, and, running up-stairs, the sheriff displayed himself at the window. We leave the reader to imagine the outcry!

‘My friends!’ cried he: many looked up. ‘My friends! go home. A general pardon to all who go home at once!’

‘Bread! bread! Open! open!’ were the most conspicuous words in the savage vociferations the crowd sent forth in reply.

‘Justice, my friends! take care; you have yet time given you. Come, get away; return to your houses. You shall have bread; but this is not the way to get it. Eh! … eh! what are you doing down there? Eh! at this door? Fie, fie upon you! I see, I see: justice! take care! It is a great crime. I’m coming to you. Eh! eh! away with those irons; down with those hands! Fie! you Milanese, who are talked of all over the world for peaceableness! Listen! listen! you have always been good sub … Ah, you rascals!’

This rapid transition of style was caused by a stone, which, coming from the hands of one of these good subjects, struck the forehead of the sheriff, on the left protuberance of his metaphysical profundities. ‘Rascals! rascals!’ continued he, shutting the window in a rage, and retiring from view. But though he had shouted to the extent of the powers of his throat, his words, both good and bad, had vanished and consumed in thin air, repulsed by the cries which came from below. The objects that now, as he afterwards described, presented themselves to his view, were stones and iron bars, (the first they could lay hold of by the way,) with which they tried to force open the doors and windows; and they already had made considerable progress in their work.

In the mean time, the masters and shop-boys appeared at the upper windows, armed with stones, (they had probably unpaved the yard,) and crying out to those below, with horrible looks and gestures, to let them alone, they showed their weapons, and threatened to left fly among them. Seeing that nothing else would avail, they began to throw at them in reality. Not one fell in vain, since the press was such that even a grain of corn, as the saying was, could not have reached the ground.

‘Ah! y’u great vagabonds! you great villains! Is this the bread you give to poor people? Ah! alas! oh! Now, now, at us?’ was raised from below. More than one was injured, and two boys were killed. Fury increased the strength of the people; the doors and bars gave way; and the crowd poured into the passages in torrents. Those within, perceiving their danger, took refuge in the garrets: the sheriff, the halberdiers, and a few of the household gathered together here in a corner, under the slates; and others, escaping by the sky-lights, wandered about on the roof like cats.

The sight of the spoil made the victors forget their designs of sanguinary vengeance. They flew upon the large chests, and instantly pillaged them. Others, instead, hastened to tear open the counter, seized the tills, took out by handfuls, pocketed and set off with, the money, to return for bread afterwards, if there remained any. The crowd dispersed themselves through the interior magazines. Some laid hold of the sacks and drew them out; others turned them wrong side upwards, and untying the mouth, to reduce them to a weight which they could manage to carry, shook out some of the flour; others crying out, ‘Stay, stay!’ came underneath to prevent this waste, by catching it in their clothes and aprons; others, again, fell upon a kneading-trough, and seized the dough, which ran over their hands and escaped their grasp on every side: here, one who had snatched up a meal-sieve, came brandishing it in the air. Some come, some go, some handle: men, women, children, swarm around; pushes, blows, and cries are bandied about; and a white powder that rises in clouds and deposits itself in every direction, involves the whole proceeding in a thick mist. Outside, is a crowd composed of two reverse processions, which alternately separate and intermingle, some going out with their prey, others entering to share the spoil.

While this bake-house was being thus plundered, none of the others were quiet and free from danger; but at none had the people assembled in such numbers as to be very daring. In some, the masters had collected a few auxiliaries, and stood upon their defence: others, less strong in numbers, or more terrified, came to some kind of agreement; they distributed bread to those who had begun to crowd around their shops, if they would be content with this and go away. Those who did withdraw, did so not so much because they were contented with their acquisitions, as because the halberdiers and police, keeping at a distance from the tremendous scene at the Bake-house of the Crutches, appeared, nevertheless, elsewhere in sufficient force to keep in awe these smaller parties of mutineers. By this means, the confusion and concourse continued to augment at this first unfortunate bake-house; for all those whose fingers itched to be at work, and whose hearts were set upon doing some great deed, repaired thither, where their friends were in greatest numbers, and impunity was secure.

Such was the state of things, when Renzo, finishing, as we have related, his piece of bread, came to the suburb of the Porta Orientale, and set off, without being aware of it, exactly to the central scene of the tumult. He continued his way, now urged forward, now hindered, by the crowd; and as he walked, he watched and listened, to gather from the confused murmurs of voices some more positive information of the state of things. The following are nearly the words he caught on his way.

‘Now,’ said one, ‘the infamous imposture of these villains is discovered, who said there was no more bread, nor flour, nor corn. Now we see things clearly and distinctly, and they can no longer deceive us as they have done. Hurrah for plenty!’

‘I tell you all this just goes for nothing,’ said another; ‘it is only like making a hole in water; so that it will be the worse for us, if we don’t get full justice done us. Bread will be sold at a low price: but they will put poison in it to kill us poor people like flies. They’ve said already that we are too many: they said so in the council; and I know it for certain, because I heard it with these ears from an acquaintance of mine, who is the friend of a relation of a scullion of one of these lords.’

‘They are not things to be laughed at,’ said another poor wretch, who was foaming at the mouth, and holding up to his bleeding head a ragged pocket-handkerchief; some neighbour, by way of consolation, echoing his remark.

‘Make way, gentlemen: pray be good enough to make way for a poor father of a family, who is carrying something to eat to five famished children.’ These were the words of one who came staggering under the weight of a large sack of flour; and everybody instantly drew back to attend to his request.’

‘I,’ said another, almost in an under-tone, to his companion, ‘I shall take my departure. I am a man of the world, and I know how these things go. These clowns who now make so much noise, to-morrow or next day will be shut up in their houses, cowering with fear. I have already noticed some faces, some worthy fellows, who are going about as spies, and taking note of those who are here and not here; and when all is over they will render in an account, and bring punishment on those who deserve it.’

‘He who protects the bakers,’ cried a sonorous voice, which attracted Renzo’s attention, ‘is the superintendent of provisions.’

‘They are all rascals,’ said a by-stander.

‘Yes; but he is at the head of them,’ replied the first.

The superintendent of provisions, elected every year by the gov-ernor, from a list of six nobles, formed by the council of decurioni, was the president of this council, as well as of the court of provisions, which, composed of twelve noblemen, had, together with other duties, that of overlooking the distribution of corn in the city.

The person who occupied this post must, necessarily, in times of scarcity and ignorance, have been regarded as the author of the evil, unless he had acted like Ferrer—a course which was not in his power, even had the idea entered his mind.

‘Rascals!’ exclaimed another: ‘could they do worse? They have actually dared to say that the high chancellor is an old fool, to rob him of his credit, and get the government into their own hands. We ought to make a large hen-coop, and put them in, to live upon vetches and cockle-weed, as they would treat us.’

‘Bread, eh!’ said one who was making as great haste as he could. ‘Bread? Blows with stones of a pound weight-stones falling plump, that came down like hail. And such breaking of ribs! I long to be at my own house.’

Among such sentences as these, by which it is difficult to say whether he were more informed or perplexed, and among numberless knocks and pushes, Renzo at last arrived opposite the bake-house. The crowds here had considerably dispersed, so that he could contemplate the dismal scene of recent confusion—the walls unplastered and defaced with stones and bricks, the windows broken, and the door destroyed.

‘These are no very fine doings,’ thought Renzo to himself: ‘if they treat all the bake-houses in this way, where will they make bread? In the ditches?’

From time to time somebody would issue from the house, carrying part of a bin, of a tub, or of a bolting hutch, the pole of a kneading instrument, a bench, a basket, a journal, a waste-book, or something belonging to this unfortunate bake-house; and shouting ‘Make room, make room,’ would pass on through the crowd. All these, he observed, went in the same direction, and to some fixed place. Renzo, determined to find out the meaning of this procedure, followed behind a man who, having tied together a bundle of broken planks and chips, carried it off on his back, and, like the others, took the road that runs along the northern side of the cathedral, and receives its name from the flight of steps which was then in existence, and has only lately been removed. The wish of observing what happened, did not prevent our mountaineer, on arriving in sight of this noble pile, from stopping to gaze upwards, with open mouth. He then quickened his pace to overtake his self-chosen guide; and, on turning the corner, gave another glance at the front of the building, at that time in a rude and far-from-finished state, keeping all the while close behind his leader, who advanced towards the middle of the square. The crowds became more dense as he went forward, but they made way for the carrier; and while he cleft the waves of people, Renzo, following in his wake, arrived with him in the very centre of the throng. Here was a space, and in the midst a bonfire, a heap of embers, the relics of the implements before mentioned. Around, the people were dancing and clapping their hands, mingling in the uproar a thousand shouts of triumph and imprecation.

The man with the bundle upset it into the embers; others, with a long half-burnt pole, gathered them up and raked them together from the sides and underneath: the smoke increased and thickened, the flame again burst forth, and with it, the redoubled cries of the by-standers: ‘Hurrah for plenty! Death to those who would starve us! Away with the famine! Perish the Court of Provision! Perish the junta! Hurrah for plenty! Hurrah for bread!’

To say the truth, the destruction of sieves and kneading-troughs, the pillaging of bake-houses, and the routing of bakers, are not the most expeditious means of providing a supply of bread; but this is one of those metaphysical subtleties which never enter the mind of the multitude. Renzo, without being of too metaphysical a turn, yet not being in such a state of excitement as the others, could not avoid making this reflection in his mind; he kept it, however, to himself, for this, among other reasons: because, out of so many faces, there was not one that seemed to say, ‘My friend, if I am wrong, correct me, and I shall be indebted to you.’

The flame had again sunk; no one was seen approaching with fresh combustibles, and the crowd was beginning to feel impatient, when a rumour was spread that at the Cordusio (a small square or cross-way not far distant) they had laid siege to a bake-house. In similar circumstances, the announcement of an event very often produces it. Together with this rumour, a general wish to repair thither gained ground among the multitude: ‘I am going; are you going? Let us go, let us go!’ were heard in every direction; the crowd broke up, were set in motion, and moved on. Renzo remained behind, almost stationary, except when dragged forward by the torrent; and in the mean while held counsel with himself, whether he should make his escape from the stir, and return to the convent in search of Father Bonaventura, or go and see this affray too. Curiosity prevailed. He resolved, however, not to mingle in the thickest of the crowd, at the risk of broken bones, or something worse; but to keep at a distance and watch. Having determined on his plans, and finding himself tolerably unobserved, he took out the second roll, and, biting off a mouthful, moved forward in the rear of the tumultuous body.

By the outlet at one corner of the square, the multitude had already entered the short and narrow street Pescheria vecchia and thence, through the crooked archway, into the Piazza de’ Mercanti. Very few were there who, in passing the niche which divides, about the centre, the terrace of the edifice then called the College of Doctors, did not cast a slight glance upwards at the great statue that adorns it—at that serious, surly, frowning, morose countenance of Don Filippo II., which, even in marble, enforces a feeling of respect, and seems ready to say, ‘I am here, you rabble!’

This niche is now empty, by a singular accident. About a hundred and seventy years after the events we are now relating, one morning, the head of the statue that stood there was exchanged, the sceptre was taken out of his hand, and a dagger placed there instead, and on his statue was inscribed the name of Marcus Brutus. Thus adorned, it remained, perhaps, a couple of years; but, one morning, some persons who had no sympathies with Marcus Brutus, and who must even have borne him a secret grudge, threw a rope around the statue, tore it down, and bestowed upon it a hundred injuries; thus mangled, and reduced to a shapeless trunk, they dragged it along, with a profuse accompaniment of epithets, through the streets, and when they were well tired, threw it—no one knows where. Who would have foretold this to Andrea Biffi, when he sculptured it?

From the square of the Mercanti the clamorous multitude turned into the by-street de’ Fustagnai, whence they poured into the Cordusio. Every one, immediately on entering the square, turned their eyes towards the bake-house that had been indicated to them. But, instead of the crowd of friends whom they expected to find already at work, they saw only a few, irresolutely hovering about at some distance from the shop, which was fastened up, and protected by armed men at the windows, who gave tokens of a determination to defend themselves in case of need. They, therefore, turned back and paused, to inform those who were coming up, and see what course the others would wish to take; some returned, or remained behind. There was a general retreat and detention, asking and answering of questions, a kind of stagnation, sighs of irresolution, then a general murmur of consultation. At this moment an ill-omened voice was heard in the midst of the crowd: ‘The house of the superintendent of provisions is close by; let us go and get justice, and lay siege to it.’ It seemed rather the common recollection of an agreement already concluded, than the acceptance of a proposal. ‘To the superintendent’s! to the superintendent’s! was the only cry that could be heard. The crowd moved forward with unanimous fury towards the street where the house, named at such an ill-fated moment, was situated.