The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
Hosted by Michael F. Moore
Began on February 21, 2023 (49 Days)
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In June of last year, a group of about twenty prominent Italian writers gathered in New York for a series of panel discussions over the course of three days. Each panel was supposed to address a broad theme: destinies, combat with reality, and the definition of “Italianness” were a few. Regardless of the topic, however, many of the discussions came to center on a writer who had died one hundred and fifty years earlier: Alessandro Manzoni. Manzoni had created the modern language as well as the country’s greatest novel,I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). He was a pioneer in combining fiction and documents. He had rejected the idea of forging a hybrid national language, combining elements from all the regional dialects, in favor of a standard based on the literature and modern speech of a single region, Tuscany. And at the center of his novel, he had placed not a pair of upper-class lovers, as was the case in many of his European contemporaries' works, but two peasants. Rather than the protagonists of history, they were its victims.
Everyone in Italy reads I promessi sposi when they are in school, sometimes two or three times. If Dante is the country’s supreme poet, Manzoni is its supreme novelist. He wrote the novel in a period when Italy had not yet become a nation. In its pages, however, he defined the national character. He also defined the national language at a time when the vast majority of Italians were illiterate, and the written language, based on the great triumvirate of the fourteenth century—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—was antiquated.
The novel was extremely popular when it came out, both in the earlier 1827 edition, and in the revised 1840 edition. Many of the expressions he coined have entered into everyday speech. In the twentieth century, several film adaptations were made, starting in the silent era. Two TV series have been made and a third one is reportedly in the works. In a variation on imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, a wildly popular parody can be seen on YouTube, while the Italian branch of Disney issued a comic-book version with Donald and Daisy Duck as the protagonists, titled I promessi paperi.
The Betrothed takes place in 1628–1630 in the state of Milan, which was ruled at the time by the king of Spain. The Thirty Years’ War was raging in northern Europe. Meanwhile, a smaller but equally momentous conflict was brewing along the southern border of Milan. The duke of Mantua had died without leaving a direct male heir. Rival claims were made to the Duchy that came to involve the major powers of Europe: France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The ensuing war consumed the area, bringing with it famine and then a devastating plague.
Against this backdrop, a young couple’s wedding is prevented by a local lord. Throughout the novel the paths of these two fictional characters crosses those of actual personages, and are impacted by historical events, culminating in the great plague of 1630. Manzoni’s pages on this disaster, departing completing from the fictional realm, are among the most powerful descriptions of a contagion ever written.
The novel is at turns lyrical, philosophical, high gothic, and even comical. It is filled with wisdom but also endlessly entertaining.
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Join us on April 10 for a virtual discussion of The Betrothed with Michael F. Moore.
Michael F. Moore
is the translator, most recently, of The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (Modern Library). His other published translations range across genres, from modern classics to contemporary fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently: The Drowned and the Saved, by Primo Levi; Agostino, by Alberto Moravia; Quiet Chaos, by Sandro Veronesi; and Live Bait, by Fabio Genovesi. He is currently working on a new translation of Moravia’s short story collection, Rome Tales. For many years he served as the chair of the PEN Translation Committee and, subsequently, as the Chair of the Advisory Board of the PEN/Heim Translation Grant. He was also the staff interpreter and translator of the Italian Mission to the United Nations. Recognition of his work includes an NEA Translation Grant, the first translator-in-residence at Princeton University, and a fellowship at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. He received his PhD in Italian studies from New York University, with a thesis on Petrarch commentaries in the fifteenth century.
(1785-1873) is best known for his novel The Betrothed, which ranks among the masterpieces of world literature. It was first published in 1827 and then in 1842 in a revised edition. Manzoni was also a poet, prolific essayist, and playwright. In his life and in his writing, he was committed to the cause of Italian independence and the forging of a modern Italian identity, culture, and language.
The Betrothed. A Preview
January 30, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
There could be no purer form of “slow reading,” on which we are about to embark together, than translation.
The Betrothed. Introduction & Chapter 1 (through pg. 13: "were still around.")
February 21, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The original title page. Pictures! (More on these later.) The heroine caught between good and evil, death and disease. And beneath the author’s name, “Edizione Riveduta dall’Autore” (Edition Revised by the Author). Those revisions, of the original 1827 edition, were to emend occasional regionalisms and archaic usage and make the language more purely Tuscan, as I mention in the Preview.
The Betrothed. Chapter 1 (to end)
February 22, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
So much for the decrees! “The moment a decree appeared, the violent found new, more opportune means, through their power, to continue doing exactly what the decrees had sought to repress.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 2
February 23, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Chapter 2 opens with this comparison between the greater war outside—the War of the Mantuan Succession that will consume the area—and the war inside Don Abbondio’s head.
The Betrothed. Chapter 3
February 24, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Manzoni is very elliptical when it comes to sexual matters. His reluctance to describe Don Rodrigo’s harassment of Lucia corresponds to her own decision not to tell anyone, except for her confessor. We learn about her through her thoughts, her inner life, rather than anything she says aloud. Padre Cristoforo’s advice to her? “He told me to get married as quickly as we could, and in the meantime to stay home and pray to God.” You could say it was another era, but it still sounds kind of… cringe.
The Betrothed. Chapter 4
February 25, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“A scrawny girl… stooped down quickly to steal some herbs to feed her family, having learned from hunger that men, too, can subsist on grass.” Poverty and oppression in a single image. Keep this in mind when we reach the banquet at the palace of Don Rodrigo.
The Betrothed. Chapter 5
February 26, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The palace of Don Rodrigo seems like something straight out of an English Gothic novel. (The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe—who had never been to Italy—was wildly popular throughout Europe.) Manzoni acknowledges the theatricality of this scene immediately. “The palace of Don Rodrigo rose, isolated and severe, like a fortress atop one of the hills scattered along and rising above the lakeshore. The anonymous author (who should have simply told us the name of the place)…” And what a place. Grotesque villagers. An almost windowless façade. The dead vultures nailed to the door.
The Betrothed. Chapter 6
February 27, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Don Rodrigo’s audacity pushes Padre Cristoforo over the edge, by claiming that Lucia can find protection in his palace. At that point the friar explodes. In Italian, “l'uomo vecchio si trovò d'accordo col nuovo; e, in que' casi, fra Cristoforo valeva veramente per due.” A rough translation would read, “the older man reached a pact with the younger; and in instances like that, Fra Cristoforo was truly two men in one.” I struggled with that first clause, which in a baggy literal version would be hard to decipher. So I adopted the militaristic vocabulary bandied around the table earlier and settled on the more compact but powerful, “His old self joined with the new.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 7 (through p.108: “respective ranks.”)
February 28, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
A couple of side notes as we begin week two: A word about the Capuchins, aka, The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. They were founded in 1525 to reform the Franciscan Order, which they felt had veered too far away from the life of solitude and penance exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi.
The Betrothed. Chapter 7 (to end)
March 1, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“The next morning Don Rodrigo woke up as Don Rodrigo again. The dread planted in his bones by that warning, “The day will come,” had vanished together with the dreams of the night. All that remained was his anger, exacerbated by shame over his momentary weakness.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 8 (through p.130: “the others filed behind him.”)
March 2, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The Italians refer to this episode as “La notte degli imbrogli”—The night of [question mark]. I struggled to find an equivalent for “imbroglio,” which in Italian refers to a tangled mess. The English “imbroglio” is too cute for the series of mishaps and misunderstandings that occur on this night.
The Betrothed. Chapter 8 (to end)
March 3, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
One of the first instances of Manzoni describing a crowd scene. Not even Dickens captured the chaotic energy of the mob so effectively.
The Betrothed. Chapter 9 (through p.151: “are also quite capable.”)
March 4, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
In this second part of the novel, the action shifts to two locations south of Lake Como. First, to Monza, where Lucia and her mother seek refuge in a convent. Manzoni has some fun with the convention of not giving the name of real places or persons in a fictional work.
The Betrothed. Chapter 9 (to end)
March 5, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“The Signora, who in the presence of the seasoned Capuchin had measured her actions and her words, no longer worried once she was alone with the naïve peasant girl. The things she said became stranger and stranger. Rather than report them, we think it best to briefly relate the background of this unhappy woman.” Finally we begin.
The Betrothed. Chapter 10 (through p.174: “her closest relatives.”)
March 6, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“The Prince (at a moment like this I don’t have the heart to call him her father)... ” Manzoni himself was father to 13 children, almost all of whom he outlived.
The Betrothed. Chapter 10 (to end)
March 7, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Gertrude discovers that it is easier to tell someone what they want to hear—to lie—than to relate the messy truth.
The Betrothed. Chapter 11 (through p.193: “keep track of it.")
March 8, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
"Like a pack of bloodhounds that, having chased a hare in vain, return to their master, humiliated, heads hanging and tails between their legs, the bravi returned to Don Rodrigo’s palace on that night of tricks and treachery."
The Betrothed. Chapter 11 (to end)
March 9, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
A little more scheming from Don Rodrigo on how to rid himself of Renzo.
The Betrothed. Chapter 12
March 10, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“The particular circumstances I am describing here were like the sudden spike of a chronic illness.” Foreign occupation as a “chronic illness.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 13
March 11, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Ha! A leap from fiction to nonfiction in a single sentence. Manzoni drawing attention both to the illusions of fiction and the deceptions of historians.
The Betrothed. Chapter 14
March 12, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The Tower of… babble. At the beginning of this chapter Renzo is intoxicated by the crowd. At the end he is just plain intoxicated.
The Betrothed. Chapter 15
March 13, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The pinch of the cheek as a sign of affection.
The Betrothed. Chapter 16
March 14, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Renzo’s flight from the authorities, with the encouragement of the passersby, echoes the much earlier flight of Ludovico to the monastery.
The Betrothed. Chapter 17
March 15, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
This chapter is perhaps the novel’s deepest dive into Renzo’s conscience.
The Betrothed. Chapter 18
March 16, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
We the readers know exactly what Renzo did, but the people of the village are hearing only official reports that they know in their hearts to be untrue.
The Betrothed. Chapter 19
March 17, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The Betrothed. Chapter 20
March 18, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The opening to this chapter could have been written by the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe.
The Betrothed. Chapter 21
March 19, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Now we enter into the moral heart of the novel, which interrogates the concept of God and of “the good.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 22
March 20, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“At this point in our story, I cannot resist lingering for a moment..."
The Betrothed. Chapter 23
March 21, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
This chapter is filled with quotes from the New Testament, in line with its theme that salvation is possible for even the greatest sinner.
The Betrothed. Chapter 24 (through p.396: “as soon as you’re ready.”)
March 22, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The Nameless One returns to his castle, a changed man.
The Betrothed. Chapter 24 (to end)
March 23, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“If you asked them to repeat exactly what [the Cardinal Archbishop] said, they wouldn’t be able to fish out a word. But they have the feeling inside.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 25
March 24, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
We’re back to Pescarenico, where the villagers now feel free to gossip about Don Rodrigo. Or do they.
The Betrothed. Chapter 26
March 25, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
There seems to be a shifting of sympathies here, starting with Manzoni’s own interjection.
The Betrothed. Chapter 27
March 26, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The War of the Mantuan Succession.
The Betrothed. Chapter 28 (through p.467: “their hands from hunger.”)
March 27, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Manzoni turns now to what he calls “a rough account of public events,” which will take us through the next few chapters.
The Betrothed. Chapter 28 (to end)
March 28, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The lazaretto, a living hell, whose name is taken from the Venetian island of Santa Maria di Nazareth, which in antiquity was called “Nazarethum.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 29
March 29, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
A brief reprieve from the march of history.
The Betrothed. Chapter 30
March 30, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Notice how Manzoni depicts mass movements, from the mob in Milan attacking the bakeries to the sea of refugees fleeing their homes.
The Betrothed. Chapter 31
March 31, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
This chapter opens with an image of the grim reaper, a trigger warning.
The Betrothed. Chapter 32 (through p.534: “purpose of the conflict.”)
April 1, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“Anointers,” with its religious connotations, does not quite carry the foul overtones of the Italian “untori.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 32 (to end)
April 2, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“As crime grew, so did madness.”
The Betrothed. Chapter 33 (through p.554: “treatise on political economy.”)
April 3, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Don Rodrigo’s nightmares as the fever of the plague sets in.
The Betrothed. Chapter 33 (to end)
April 4, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
The return to Pescarenico.
The Betrothed. Chapter 34 (through p.574: “the living were left.”)
April 5, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
“But what city was this?”
The Betrothed. Chapter 34 (to end)
April 6, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Amid so much horror, Manzoni depicts one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the novel.
The Betrothed. Chapter 35
April 7, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Renzo enters the lazaretto, a place that can only be compared to Dante’s Inferno.
The Betrothed. Chapter 36
April 8, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Do we dare hope for a happy ending?
The Betrothed. Chapter 37
April 9, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Not only does the rain wash away the pain of the past two years, it also washes away the plague.
The Betrothed. Chapter 38
April 10, 2023 by Michael F. Moore
Although I was relieved when I finally finished my translation, a cloud of melancholy descends upon me as we conclude the novel and our reading together.