Alessandro Manzoni, Die Verlobten (The Betrothed)
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1950
Some books are chosen to be read in schools. In Germany this doubtful honor has been bestowed on Goethe’s “Faust”, in Italy to “The Betrothed” written by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). The writer and scientist Umberto Eco once commented: “I love this novel because I was lucky enough to read it before my teachers forced me to.” So anyone who does not have to overcome a school trauma can, or rather must, get this wonderful book without worrying!
The plot isn’t difficult to understand: Two young people, Renzo and Lucia, are betrothed to each other. They live in Northern Italy in the 1620s. The local nobleman Don Rodrigo finds Lucia so charming that he chases her; she flees to a monastery whereas Renzo leaves Lake Como and ends up in Milan. After lengthy trials and tribulations, the couple is united again and marries. So there is even a first-class happy ending.
Manzoni is a master in breathing life into this seemingly simple plot and staging it through descriptions that would make good film-script material. If you read the first paragraphs it feels as if you watch a camera pan: descending from the sky down to Lake Como, from the bridge down to the village, arriving at the priest of this village, looking over his shoulder as he takes his evening stroll and seeing Don Abbondio kicking pebbles towards walls…
Stylistically brilliant, Manzoni makes excursions in history when, for instance, he gives a meticulous account of the plague. His portrayal of the Milan bread riot, which had resulted from another increase of the bread price and in which young Renzo gets entangled, is equally well-wrought and quite refined.
Contrary to what was in demand at the time, it’s not a romantic medieval novel which Manzoni provides here, but a relentless moral painting of the time when the Italians had been “enslaved” by the Spaniards. A passionate advocate of an Italian national state, Manzoni considered “The Betrothed” his contribution to this fight. He wanted to write for the people. It was vital that the people understood him. But how? One spoke dialect – or French. The Italian that Dante and Boccaccio had derived from the Florentine dialect was a language only used for literature but not universally. Manzoni tried it all the same. He erased the remaining “Lombard elements” in the first edition of his work and finally published “The Betrothed” in a three-volume and purely High Italian version in 1840-1842. A huge success! No other literary work of the 19th century could compete with this novel in Italy. Even Goethe was so enthralled that his recommendation resulted in as many as two German translations.
Much to Manzoni’s chagrin, his time didn’t know of a thing called copyright yet, and so the author could only sit and watch how others made a big haul with their pirate copies. Manzoni remarked: “As for the first edition, I have reason to assume that forty editions have been produced, one of these by me, with 1000 copies; the others may well have amounted to 59,000. In sum, I have received only one-sixtieth of the revenues.” He decided to illustrate a new edition with lavish engravings. As a matter of fact, no one copied him this time – the printing costs were so exorbitant that Manzoni didn’t make a lot of profit in the end. And yet, devoted Catholic as he was, he might have found solace in the moral his main characters drew from what they had gone through: bad luck and difficulties come and go, but “faith in God sweetens them and makes them useful for a better life”.
Translated by Annika Backe