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

Introductory Note

COUNT ALESSANDRO MANZONI was born at Milan, Italy, March 7, 1785. He was educated at Lugano, Milan, and Pavia, and after taking his degree he joined his mother in Paris, where he found her in the circle of Mme. Condorcet and the surviving rationalists of the eighteenth century. These associations led him for a time into scepticism, but he was later converted to Catholicism, and remained a steadfast adherent of that faith till his death, defending it in his writings against the Protestant historian Sismondi. Manzoni was a warm sympathizer with the aspirations of his country toward political independence, but he took no very active part in public agitation. When Italy was at last free, he was made a Senator and awarded a pension. He died at Milan, May 22, 1873.

Manzoni’s most important literary productions are in poetry, drama, and the novel. In the first group he wrote some hymns notable for the warmth of their religious sentiment, and two odes, “Il cinque maggio” and “Marzo 1821.” The former of these, on the death of Napoleon, first brought him fame. His dramatic compositions, “Il Conte di Carmagnola” and “Adelchi,” represent an attempt to free Italian drama from the restraints of the classical conventions, but neither met with general approval in Italy. Goethe, however, reviewed the earlier in the most favorable terms. In a prefatory essay Manzoni made an important contribution to the romantic protest against the restrictions of the dramatic “unities” of the classical drama. But the Italians were not yet prepared to accept truth in the treatment of human nature in place of stylistic polish and conventional form.

The reception given to Manzoni’s masterpiece, “I Promessi Sposi” (1825–26) was very different. In form a historical novel, written at a time when the vogue of the Waverley Novels had stimulated the production of this form of fiction throughout Europe, the interest of “The Betrothed,” as it is usually called in England, is rather psychological and sentimental than external. The scene is laid in Lombardy between 1628 and 1631, and the plot deals with the thwarting of the love of two peasants by a local tyrant. The manners of the time are presented with great vividness and picturesqueness; one of the most notable elements being the elaborate description of the plague which devastated Milan in 1630 (see Chaps. xxxi–xxxvii). The novel has taken a place as the most distinguished novel of modern Italy, and has been translated into nearly all the literary languages.

The age-long dispute as to which dialect should be used as the standard language of Italian prose engaged the interest of Manzoni in his later years; and, becoming convinced of the claims of Tuscan, he rewrote the entire novel in order to remove all traces of non-Tuscan idiom, and published it in 1840. This proceeding had the effect of rekindling the discussion on the question of a national Italian literary language—a discussion which still goes on. Along with the revised edition of “I Promessi Sposi,” he published a kind of sequel, “La Storia della Colonna infame,” written more than ten years before; but this work, overloaded with didacticism, is universally regarded as inferior. Both at home and abroad, Manzoni’s fame rests mainly on the novel here printed, a work which has taken its place among the great novels of the world, not merely for its admirable descriptions of Italian life in the seventeenth century, but still more for its faithful and moving presentation of human experience and emotion.

Mention has been made above of a so-called sequel to “I Promessi Sposi”; and since this publication is less easily accessible than Manzoni’s more famous works, being properly regarded as unworthy of a place beside his great novel, it may interest the reader to have some account of its contents.

At the end of Chapter xxxii of “I Promessi Sposi,” Manzoni refers to the affair of the anointers of Milan, men who were suspected of smearing the walls of the houses with poison intended to spread the pestilence; but he relegates to another place a full account of the incident. It is this matter which he takes up in “La Storia della Colonna infame.”

One morning in June, 1630, a woman standing at a window in Milan saw a man enter the street della Vetra de Cittadini. He carried a paper on which he appeared to be writing, and from time to time he drew his hands along the walls. It occurred to her that he was perhaps an “anointer,” and she proceeded to spread her suspicion, with the result that the man was arrested. He was found to be one Piazza, a Commissioner of the Tribunal of Health, who was able to give such an account of himself as, in ordinary times, would have led to his immediate acquittal. Both the populace and the judges, however, were panic-stricken, and eager to vent on any victim the fear and anguish into which the ravages of the plague had plunged them. Piazza was accordingly tortured, and after repeated and horrible sufferings was induced to make a false confession and to implicate an innocent barber, who, he said, had given him the ointment and promised him money if he spread it on the houses. Mora, the barber, was next arrested and submitted to a similar illegal and infamous process, until he also confessed, throwing the burden of blame in turn upon Piazza. Under false promises of immunity and suggestions of what was wanted from them, they alleged that several other persons were their accomplices or principals, and these also were thrown into jail. The evidence of Mora and Piazza was mutually contradictory on many points and was several times retracted, but the judges ignored these matters, broke their promise of immunity, and condemned both to death. They were placed on a car to be carried to the place of execution; as they proceeded, their bodies were gashed with a hot iron; their right hands were struck off as they passed Mora’s shop; their bones were broken on the wheel; they were bound alive to the wheel and raised from the ground, and after six hours were put to death. This they bore with fortitude, having previously declared their innocence, retracted their confessions, and absolved their alleged accomplices. Mora’s house was demolished, and a pillar, called the Column of Infamy, was erected on the spot, where it stood till 1778.

After the murder of these two miserable men, the judges proceeded to press the cases against the others whose names had been dragged into the matter, one of whom was an officer called Padilla, son of the Commandant of the Castle of Milan. Several of these suffered the same tortures and death as Mora and Piazza; but Padilla’s case dragged on for two years, at the end of which he was acquitted.

The story of this terrible example of judicial cruelty had been to some extent cleared up by Verri in his book on Torture, but Manzoni was anxious to show that, evil as were the laws which permitted the use of the rack, it was not they but the judges who were responsible. For even the laws of torture prohibited the methods by which these men were made to inculpate themselves, and the illegality and monstrosity of the whole proceeding were attributable to a court eager for a conviction at all costs to gratify the thirst for blood of a maddened and ignorant populace.

The incident is related by Manzoni with considerable diffuseness and much technical argument; but the frightful nature of the events and the exhibition of the psychology of a panic-stricken mob give the production a gruesome interest.