Home  »  I Promessi Sposi  »  Chapter XXII

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

Chapter XXII

SHORTLY afterwards the bravo returned with the information, that Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, had arrived the day before at …, with the purpose of spending there that which was now just dawning; that the news of his arrival, which had been spread around for a considerable distance the preceding evening, had excited a desire in the people to go and see this great man; and that the bells were ringing, both to express their joy, and more widely to diffuse the glad intelligence. When again alone, the Signor continued to look down into the valley, still more absorbed in thought.—For a man! Everybody eager, everybody joyful, at the sight of a man! And yet, doubtless, each has his own demon that torments him. But none, none will have one like mine! None will have passed such a night as I have! What has this man about him to make so many people merry? Some pence, perhaps, that he will distribute at random among them … But all these cannot be going for alms. Well then, a few acknowledgments and salutations—a word or two … Oh! if he had any words for me that could impart peace! if! … Why shouldn’t I go too? Why not? … I will go! what else can I do? I will go; and I will talk with him: face to face I’ll have some talk with him. What shall I say, though? Well, whatever, whatever … I’ll hear first what the man has to say for himself!—

Having come to this vague determination, he hastily finished dressing himself, and put on, over all, a great coat, which had something of a military cut about it; he then took up the pistol which lay upon the bed, and secured it on one side of his belt, fastening at the other its fellow, which hung upon a nail in the wall; stuck a dagger into this same girdle; and taking a carabine from the wall, which was almost as famous as himself, swung it across his shoulders: then he put on his hat, quitted the apartment, and repaired at once to that in which he had left Lucia. Setting down his carabine in a corner near the door, he knocked, at the same time letting them know, by his voice, who he was. The old woman sprang out of bed, threw some article of clothing around her, and flew to open the door. The Signor entered, and, casting a glance around the room, saw Lucia lying in her little corner, and perfectly quiet.

‘Does she sleep?’ asked he, in an under-tone, of the old woman: ‘But is she sleeping there? were these my orders, you old hag?’

‘I did all I could,’ replied the woman; ‘but she wouldn’t eat, and she wouldn’t come…’

‘Let her sleep quietly; take care you don’t disturb her; and when she awakes … Martha shall wait in the next room; and you must send her to fetch anything that she may ask for. When she awakes … tell her that I … that the master has gone out for a little while, that he will be back soon, and that … he will do all that she wishes.’

The old woman stood perfectly astonished, thinking to herself:—This girl must surely be some princess!—

The Signor then left the room, took up his carabine, sent Martha to wait in the adjoining apartment, and the first bravo whom he met to keep guard, that no one but this woman might presume to approach Lucia; and then, leaving the castle, took the descent with a rapid step.

The manuscript here fails to mention the distance from the castle to the village where the Cardinal was staying: it cannot, however, have been more than a moderate walk. We do not infer the proximity merely from the flocking thither of the inhabitants of the valley; since we find, in the histories of these times, that people came for twenty miles, or more, to get but one sight of Cardinal Federigo. From the circumstances that we are about to relate, as happening on this day, we may, however, easily conjecture that the distance cannot have been very great. The bravoes whom he met ascending, stopped respectfully as their lord passed, waiting to see if he had any orders to give, or if he wished of them to accompany him on some expedition, and seemed perfectly astonished at his countenance and the glances he returned in answer to their salutations.

When, however, he reached the base, and entered the public road, it was a very different matter. There was a general whispering among the first passengers who observed him, an exchange of suspicious looks, and an endeavour on each side to get out of his reach. For the whole length of the way he could not take two steps by the side of another passenger; for every one who found him quickly gaining upon him, cast an uneasy look around, made him a low bow, and slackened his pace so as to remain behind. On reaching the village, he found a large crowd assembled; his name spread rapidly from mouth to mouth, the moment he made his appearance, and the throng fell back to make way for him. He accosted one of these prudent gentry, and asked where the Cardinal was. ‘In the Curate’s house,’ replied the addressed party, reverently, at the same time pointing out the mansion. The Signor went forward, entered a little court, where many priests were assembled, all of whom regarded him with surprised and doubtful looks, and saw before him an open door, which gave admission into a small hall, where there was also collected a considerable number of priests. Taking his carabine from his shoulders, he deposited it in one corner of the little court, and then entered the hall, where he was received with significant glances, murmurs, and his oft-repeated name; then all was silent. Turning to one of those who surrounded him, he asked where the Cardinal was, and said that he wished to speak to him.

‘I am a stranger,’ replied the priest; but hastily glancing around, he called the chaplain and cross-bearer, who, seated in a corner of the hall, was saying, in an under-tone, to his companion. ‘This man? this notorious character? what can he have to do here? Make way!’ However, at this call, which resounded in the general silence, he was obliged to come forward; he made a lowly reverence to the Unnamed, listened to his inquiry, raised his eyes with uneasy curiosity towards his face, and instantly bending them on the ground, stood hesitating for a moment, and then said, or rather stammered out: ‘I don’t know whether his illustrious Lordship … just now … is to be … can … may … But I will go and see’. And he very unwillingly carried the message into the adjoining room, where the Cardinal was by himself.

At this point in our story, we cannot do less than pause for a little while; as the traveller, wearied and worn out with a lengthened journey, through a wild and sterile country, retards his pace, and halts for a little time under the shade of a noble tree, reclining on the grassy bank of a stream of running water. We have now fallen upon a person, whose name and memory, occurring when they will to the mind, refresh it with a calm emotion of reverence, and a pleasurable feeling of sympathy; how much more, then, after so many mournful pictures—after the contemplation of such fearful and hateful depravity! On the history of this personage, we must absolutely expend a few words: he who cares not about hearing them, and is anxious to proceed with the story, may pass on at once to the succeeding chapter.

Federigo Borromeo, born in 1564, was among those characters, rare in whatever age, who have employed singular talents, all the resources of great wealth, all the advantages of privileged rank, and an unwearying diligence in the search and exercise of the highest objects and principles. His life resembles a rivulet, which, issuing limpid from the rock, flows in a ceaseless and unruffled, though lengthened course, through various lands, and, clear and limpid still, falls at last into the ocean. Amidst comforts and luxuries, he attended, even from childhood, to those lessons of self-denial and humility, and those maxims on the vanity of worldly pleasures, and the sinfulness of pride, on true dignity and true riches, which, whether acknowledged or not in the heart, have been transmitted from one generation to another in the most elementary instruction in religion. He attended, I say, to these lessons and maxims; he received them in real earnest; he tried them, and found them true; he saw, therefore, that other and contrary lessons and maxims could not possibly be true, which yet were transmitted from age to age, with the same asseveration, and sometimes by the same lips; and he resolved to take, as the rule of his thoughts and actions, those which were indeed right. By these he understood that life was not designed to be a burden to many, and a pleasure to only a few; but was intended as a time of employment for all, of which every one would have to give an account; and he began from a child to consider how he could render his useful and holy.

In 1580 he declared his resolution of dedicating himself to the ministry of the Church, and received ordination form the hands of his cousin Carlo, whom long and universal suffrage had already signalized as a saint. Shortly afterwards, he entered the college founded by this relative in Pavia, which still bears the name of their house; and here, while applying himself with assiduity to the occupations which were prescribed, he added to them two others of his own free will; and these were, to give instruction to the most ignorant and neglected among the population, in the doctrines of the Christian religion; and to visit, assist, comfort, and relieve the sick and needy. He employed the authority conceded to him by all around, in including his companions to second him in such works of charity; and set a noble example of spending, in every honest and beneficial employment, a pre-eminence which, considering his superior mind and talents, he would, perhaps, equally have attained had he been the lowest in rank and fortune. The advantages of a different nature, which the circumstances of fortune could have procured for him, he not only sought not after, but studiously neglected. He kept a table rather meagre than frugal, and wore a dress rather mean than decent; while the whole tenor of his life and behaviour was in conformity with these particulars. Nor did he think it necessary to alter it, because some of his relatives exclaimed loudly against such a practice, and complained that by this means he would degrade the dignity of the house. He had also another warfare to maintain against his instructors, who stealthily, and as it were by surprise, endeavoured to place before, behind, and around him, more noble appendages, something which might distinguish him from others, and make him appear the first in the place: either thinking, by this means, to ingratiate themselves with him in the long run; or influenced by that servile attachment which prides itself in, and rejoices at, the splendour of others; or being among the number of those prudent persons who shrink back with alarm from the extreme of virtue as well as vice, are for ever proclaiming that perfection lies in a medium between the two, and fix that medium exactly at the point which they have reached, and where they find themselves very much at their ease. Federigo not only refused these kindly offices, but rebuked the officious instruments: and that between the ages of childhood and youth.

That, during the life of the Cardinal Carlo, his senior by twenty-six years, in his authoritative and, so to say, solemn presence, surrounded by homage and respectful silence, incited by the fame and impressed with the tokens of sanctity, Federigo, as a boy and a youth, should have endeavoured to conform himself to the behaviour and talents of such a cousin, is certainly not to be wondered at; but it is, indeed, much to be able to say, that, after his death, no one could perceive that Federigo, then twenty years of age, had lost a guide and censor. The increasing fame of his talents, erudition, and piety; the relationship and connection of more than one powerful Cardinal; the credit of his family; his very name, to which Carlo had almost annexed in people’s minds an idea of sanctity and sacerdotal preeminence; all that should, and all that could, lead men to ecclesiastical dignities, concurred to predict them for him. But he, persuaded in heart of what no one who professes Christianity can deny with the lips, that there is no real superiority of a man over his fellowmen, excepting in so far as he devotes himself to their service, both dreaded exaltation, and sought to avoid it; not indeed that he might shrink from serving others—for few lives have been more devoted to this object than his own—but because he considered himself neither worthy enough of so high and perilous a service, nor sufficiently competent for it. For these reasons, the Archbishopric of Milan being offered to him in 1595, by Clement VIII., he seemed much disturbed and refused the charge without hesitation He yielded afterwards, however, to the express command of the Pope.

Such demonstrations (who knows it not?) are neither difficult nor uncommon; and it requires no greater effort of subtlety for hypocrisy to make them, than for raillery to deride them, and hold them cheap on every occasion. But do they, therefore, cease to be the natural expression of a wise and virtuous principle? One’s life is the touchstone of profession; and the profession of this sentiment, though it may have been on the tongue of all the impostors and all the scoffers in the world, will ever be worthy of admiration, when preceded and followed by a life of disinterested self-sacrifice.

In Federigo, as Archbishop, was apparent a remarkable and constant carefulness to devote to himself no more of his wealth, his time, his care—in short, of his whole self, than was absolutely necessary. He said, as everybody says, that ecclesiastical revenues are the patrimony of the poor; how he showed he understood such a maxim in reality, will be evident from this fact. He caused an estimate to be taken of the sum required for his own expenditure, and that of those in his personal service; and being told that six hundred scudi would be sufficient, (scudo was at that time the name of a golden coin which, retaining the same weight and value, was afterwards called a zecchino,) he gave orders that this sum should annually be set apart out of his patrimonial estate, for the expenses of the table. So sparing and scrupulous was he in his personal outlay, that he was careful never to leave off a dress which was not completely worn out; uniting, however, as was recorded by contemporary writers, to this habit of simplicity, that of singular neatness; two remarkable qualities, in fact, in this age of ostentation and uncleanliness. That nothing, again, might be wasted of the remnants of his frugal table, he assigned them to a hospital for the poor; one of whom came daily, by his orders, to the dining apartment, to gather up all that remained. Such instances of economy might, perhaps, suggest the idea of a close, parsimonious, over-careful virtue, of a mind wrapt up in attention to minutiæ, and incapable of elevated designs, were it not for the Ambrosian Library, still standing, which Federigo projected with such noble magnificence, and executed, from the foundations upwards, with such munificent liberality; to supply which with books and manuscripts, besides the presentation of those he had already collected with great labour and expense, he sent eight of the most learned and experienced men he could find, to make purchases throughout Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Flanders, Greece, Lebanon, and Jerusalem. By this means, he succeeded in gathering together about thirty thousand printed volumes, and fourteen thousand manuscripts. To this library he united a college of doctors (nine in number at first, and maintained at his charge while he lived; afterwards, the ordinary income not sufficing for this expense, they were reduced to two). Their office was to cultivate various branches of study, theology, history, polite, literature, and the Oriental languages, obliging each one to publish some work on the subject assigned to him. To this he also added a college, which he called Trilingue, for the study of the Greek, Latin, and Italian languages; a college of pupils, for instruction in these several faculties and languages, that they might become professors in their turn; a printing-office for the Oriental languages, for Hebrew, that is to say, Chaldaic, Arabic, Persian, and Armenian; a gallery of paintings, another of statues, and a school for the three principal arts of design. For these last he could find professors already existing; but as to the rest, we have seen the trouble it cost him to collect books and manuscripts. Undoubtedly, it would be more difficult to meet with types in those languages, then much less cultivated in Europe than they are at present; and still more difficult than types, would be men who understood them. Suffice it to say, that, out of nine professors, eight were taken from among the young pupils of the seminary; from which circumstance we may infer what was his opinion of the schools then established, and the celebrity gained in those days; an opinion agreeing with that which posterity seems to have formed of them, by suffering both one and the other to sink into oblivion. In the regulations which he left for the use and government of the library, a provision for perpetual utility is conspicuous, not only admirable in itself, but, in many particulars, judicious and elegant, far beyond the general ideas and habits of the age. He required the librarian to keep up a correspondence with the most learned men in Europe, that he might have information of the state of science, and intelligence of the best works on any subject that should be published, and immediately purchase them. He gave him in charge to point out to the students those works which might assist them in their designs; and ordered that the advantages of consulting the works here preserved should be open to all, whether citizens or strangers. Such a regulation will now appear quite natural—one and the same thing with the founding of a library; but in those days it was not so. In a history of the Ambrosian Library, written (with the precision and elegance usual in that age) by one Pier-paolo Bosca, a librarian, after the death of Federigo, it is expressly noted as a remarkable fact, that, in this library, built by a private individual almost entirely at his own expense, the books were accessible to the view of all, and brought to any one who should demand them, with liberty to sit down and study them, and the provision of pen, ink, and paper, to take notes; while, in some other celebrated public libraries in Italy, the volumes were not only not visible, but concealed in closets, where they were never disturbed, except when the humanity, as he says, of the presidents prompted them sometimes to display them for a moment. As to accommodation and conveniences for study provided for those who frequented it, they had not the least idea of such a thing. So that, to furnish such libraries, was to withdraw books from the use of the public; one of those means of cultivation, many of which were, and still are, employed, that only serve to render the soil more sterile.

It were useless to inquire what were the effects of this foundation of Borromeo on public education: it would be easy enough to demonstrate in two words, according to the general method of demonstration, that they were miraculous, or that they were nothing; but to investigate and explain, up to a certain point, what they really were, would be a work of much difficulty, little advantage, and somewhat ill-timed. Rather let us think what a generous, judicious, benevolent, persevering lover of the improvement of mankind he must have been, who planned such an undertaking—who planned it on so grand a scale, and who executed it in the midst of ignorance, inertness, and general contempt of all studious application, and, consequently, in spite of ‘What does it matter?’ and ‘There’s something else to think about;’ and, ‘What a fine invention!’ and, ‘This was certainly wanting;’ and similar remarks, which, undoubtedly, will have been more in number than the scudi expended by him in the undertaking, amounting to a hundred and five thousand, the greatest part of his property.

To style such a man beneficent and liberal in a high degree, it would be unnecessary, perhaps, that he should have spent much in the immediate relief of the needy; and there are, besides, many in whose opinion expenditure of the character we have described, and, indeed, I may say all expenditure, is the best and more beneficial almsgiving. But in Federigo’s opinion, almsgiving, properly speaking, was a paramount duty; and here, as in everything else, his actions were in accordance with his principles. His life was one continual overflowing charity. On occasion of this very scarcity, to which our story has already alluded, we shall have presently to relate several traits which will exhibit the judgment and delicacy he knew how to employ even in his liberality. Of the many remarkable examples which his biographers have recorded of this virtue, we will here cite but one. Having heard that a certain nobleman was using artifices and compulsion to force into a convent one of his daughters who wished rather to be married, he had an interview with her father; and drawing from him the acknowledgment that the true motive of this oppression was the want of four thousand scudi, which, according to his idea, were necessary towards marrying his daughter suitably, Federigo immediately presented the required dowry. Some may perhaps think this an extravagant act of bounty, not well-judged, and too condescending to the foolish caprices of a vain nobleman; and that four thousand scudi might have been better employed in this or that manner. To which we have nothing to answer, excepting that it were devoutly to be wished that one could more frequently see excesses of a virtue so unfettered by prevailing opinion, (every age has its own,) and so free from the general tendency, as in this instance that must have been, which induced a man to give four thousand scudi, that a young person might not be made a nun.

The inexhaustible charity of this man appeared, not only in his almsgiving, but in his whole behaviour. Easy of access to all, he considered a cheerful countenance and an affectionate courtesy particularly due to those in the lower ranks of life; and the more so in proportion as they were little thought of by the world. Here, therefore, he had to combat with the gentlemen of the ne quid nimis school, who were anxious to keep him within limits, i. e., within their limits. One of these, on occasion of a visit to a wild and mountainous country, when Federigo was teaching some poor children, and during the interrogations and instruction was fondly caressing them, besought him to be more cautious in handling such children, as they were dirty and repelling: as if the worthy gentleman supposed that Federigo had not discernment enough to make the discovery, or acumen enough to suggest this recondite counsel for himself. Such, in certain circumstances of times and things, is the misfortune of men exalted to high stations, that while they so seldom find any one to inform them of their failings, there is no lack of persons courageous enough to reprove them for doing right. But the good Bishop, not without anger, replied: ‘They are my lambs, and perhaps may never again see my face; and would you not have me caress them?’

Very seldom, however, did he exhibit any anger, being admired for his mild and imperturbable gentleness of behaviour, which might be attributed to an extraordinarily happy temperament of mind; while, in truth, it was the effect of constant discipline over a naturally hasty and passionate disposition. If ever he showed himself severe, nay, even harsh, it was towards those pastors under his authority whom he discovered guilty of avarice, or negligence, or any other conduct opposed to the spirit of their high vocation. Upon what might affect his own interest or temporal glory, he never betokened either joy, regret, eagerness, or anxiety: wonderful indeed if these emotions were not excited in his mind; more wonderful if they were. Not only in the many conclaves at which he had assisted, did he acquire the reputation of having never aspired to that lofty post so desirable to ambition, and so terrible to piety; but on one occasion, when a colleague, who possessed considerable influence, came to offer him his vote and those of his (so, alas! it was termed) faction, Federigo refused the proposal in such a manner that his friend immediately abandoned the idea, and turned his views elsewhere. This same humility, this dread of pre-eminence, was equally apparent in the more common occurrences of life. Careful and indefatigable in ordering and governing everything, where he considered it his duty to do so, he always shrank from intruding into the affairs of others, and even when solicited, refused, if possible, to interfere;—discretion and temperance far from common, as everybody knows, in men as zealous in the cause of good as Federigo was.

Were we to allow ourselves to prosecute the pleasing task of collecting together the remarkable points in his character, the result would certainly be a complication of virtues in apparent opposition to each other, and assuredly difficult to find combined. We cannot, however, omit to notice one more excellency in his excellent life: replete as it was with action, government, functions, instruction, audiences, diocesan visitations, journeys, and controversies, he not only found time for study, but devoted as much to this object as a professor of literature would have required. Indeed, among many other and various titles of commendation, he possessed in a high degree, among his contemporaries, that of a man of learning.

We must not, however, conceal that he held with firm persuasion, and maintained, in fact, with persevering constancy, some opinions which, in the present day, would appear to every one rather singular than ill-founded; even to such as would be anxious to consider them sound. For any one who would defend him on this head, there is the current and commonly received excuse, that they were the errors of the age, rather than his own; an excuse, to say the truth, which, when it results from the minute consideration of facts, may be valid and significant; but which generally, applied in the usual naked way, and as we must do in this instance, comes in the end to mean exactly nothing at all. And, besides, not wishing to resolve complicated questions with simple formulae, we will venture to leave this unsolved; resting satisfied with having thus cursorily mentioned, that in a character so admirable as a whole, we do not pretend to affirm that every particular was equally so, lest we should seem to have intended making a funeral oration.

We shall not be doing injustice to our readers to suppose that some of them may inquire, whether this person has left any monument of so much talent and erudition. Whether he has left any! The works remaining from him, great and small, Latin and Italian, published and manuscript, amount to about a hundred volumes, preserved in the library he himself founded: moral treatises, discourses, dissertations on history, sacred and profane antiquities, literature, arts, and various other subjects.

—And however does it happen,—this inquirer may ask,—that so many works are forgotten, or at least so little known, so little sought after? How is it, that with such talents, such learning, such experience of men and things, such profound thought, such a sense of the good and the beautiful, such purity of mind, and so many other qualities which constitute the elegant author; how is it, that out of a hundred works, he has not left even one to be considered excellent by those who approve not of the whole, and to be known by title even by those who have never read it? How is it that all of them together have not sufficed, at least by their number, to procure for his name a literary fame among posterity?—

The inquiry is undoubtedly reasonable, and the question sufficiently interesting: because the reasons of this phenomenon are to be found, or, at least, must be sought for, in many general facts; and when found, would lead to the explanation of other similar phenomena. But they would be many and prolix: and what if they should not prove satisfactory? if they should make the reader turn away in disgust? So that it will be better to resume our ‘walk through’ the story, and instead of digressing more at length on the character of this wonderful man, proceed to observe him in action under the conduct of our anonymous author.