Saturday, March 20, 2004

I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed (by Sarah)

SIENA (#40)

In Italian class, we are reading I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni. Practically every student reads this book in school, so no is really excited about it (except that weird American student, me!) So here is just a little of what I have learned so far…

Manzoni is one of the most important Italian authors besides Dante. In the 1400’s, Dante Alighieri wrote La Divina Comedia (The Divine Comedy) This was important because it was written in the Italian vernacular and basically created the Italian language of that time. Manzoni did the same thing only about 400 years later. His Promessi Sposi was a landmark for the modern Italian language of that time, which can be compared to Shakespeare for the English language.

I decided to do some more research on Manzoni because I found myself even more interested. My dad helped me translate his biography at the beginning of the Italian version of I Promessi Sposi. As you will soon read, I found some very remarkable facts about Manzoni, and was able to relate his life to his novel in the essay below.

Essay #1 Main thesis: Manzoni represents himself as the Unnamed.

Alessandro Manzoni was an Italian writer who believed that writing should be like real life, and indeed, he shows this in his novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) where he himself is represented a main character, the Unnamed. This is obvious because both people share similar ideas about idealism and reality. Also, practically the same events happened in both of their lives to make them see the world in a different view.

First of all, both Manzoni and the Unnamed had one experience that changed their whole outlook on life. This was their conversion to the Christian faith. Manzoni grew up not really believing in any faith. He was very into the French revolution and talking politics with intellectuals, but he didn’t find any interest in religion.

Then he was married to Henriette Blondel, a Swiss woman in 1808, and she was Protestant. The fact that Manzoni was Catholic was a big problem for her parents both before and after the wedding. Manzoni was able to convince them that he wasn’t a serious Catholic, yet when they had their first child, Manzoni found it imperative that the child be Catholic. He then persuaded his wife to get a proper conversion to the Catholic faith along with himself.

This was clearly a very critical time in his life. After his conversion, his poetry and novels began to include more and more religious material. He began to see the world more threw the eyes of a religious family man than a rebellious philosopher.

In I Promessi Sposi, the Unnamed went through basically the same fundamental change. The Unnamed was an extremely wealthy lord who lived near Milan in the north of Italy in the 1600’s when the story took place. Alike many other powerful nobles, he surrounded himself with men called bravoes. Bravoes were feared because they were men who didn’t follow the laws of the country and acted under their masters. (This relationship between the bravoes and their lords functioned much like organized crime works nowadays.) The Unnamed found no reason to believe in God or have religious views of any kind. He actually had enough power to control the church if he wished.

However, when he kidnaps Lucia as a favor for another powerful lord, Don Rodrigo, his feelings begin to change. Lucia constantly prays to the Virgin Mary and the Unnamed is stunned by her trust and strong belief in God. On page 392 he is in deep thought about his past without religion and belief, “But those memories, far from giving him the strength he needed to carry out the present enterprise, far from banishing that unwelcome feeling of compassion, filled his heart with a sort of terror, a strange frenzy of repentance. In fact he found it quite a relief to go back to his earlier thoughts of Lucia – the very thoughts he had been trying to find fresh courage to suppress.”

In addition, he saw the opportunity of freeing Lucia as a deed that could clear all of his wrongs that he committed in the past. Just as Manzoni did, the Unnamed went to the highest clergy member he knew, the Cardinal, Federigo Borromeo, and was told that he would be officially converted and cleansed of all his sins if he freed the girl.

Although the Unnamed had committed so many crimes over the years, suddenly he was almost considered a saint. This sudden transition is clear when the Unnamed says on page 418, “O truly great and truly merciful God! Now I know myself, now I understand what I am! My inequities stand before my eyes, and I am revolted by myself – and yet…and yet I feel a comfort, a joy…yes, yes, a joy such as I have never known during all this repugnant life of mine!” So, his point of view adjusted considerably just like Manzoni’s did as he saw the world as a place for people to do good instead of as a place of misconduct and uncertainty.

Besides mere events that occurred in both Manzoni and the Unnamed’s lives, they both had periods where they believed that they were misunderstood as individuals. From around 1801 until 1810, Manzoni felt isolated and was always brooding and frustrated with his writing. He wanted to write the truth, but he also wanted to write his ideas. His ideas at this time where all about liberty, equality, and justice, and the problem was that he didn’t see any of these things happening in reality. Therefore, he had a huge struggle figuring out what exactly he could write where it was both his ideas and reality. (This whole idea comes from the introduction from the editor of the Italian version of I Promessi Sposi.)

Just like Manzoni, the Unnamed also goes through a short period like this as well. After he talked to his prisoner Lucia, he began to have feelings and thoughts but knew that no one could really understand. The author demonstrates his fury on page 391 where “…the Unnamed strode rapidly to his room, locked himself inside with desperate haste, as if barricading himself against a host of enemies, threw off his clothes with equal haste, and went to bed.” It really shows how annoyed and depressed he is with himself and feels as if everyone has turned against him. Later, on page 394, he becomes so fed up that he pulls out a gun. The author describes, “Suddenly, he sat up and reached out towards the wall beside his bed. He seized a pistol, pulled it down and…at the very moment when he was about to put an end to life which had become unbearable, his heart was invaded by a new fear, a new disquiet which could almost be called posthumous; for he now cast his mind forwards into the future – that time which would ineluctably continue to flow on after his death.” He was so confused about his life and where it was going, that he almost put an end to it all.

Manzoni never went as far as that. Manzoni and the Unnamed where truly the same characters in the way that they both felt the common puzzlement in who they really were as people and how to be understood by everyone around them.

Finally, Alessandro Manzoni and his made up character the Unnamed are also the same in the way that they both use the power of words, both mentally and literally. Manzoni uses his words and ideas to get a point across to the reader. He tries to convince the reader that he is right, and indeed is very successful.

While Manzoni uses his words in a persuasive tone, the Unnamed uses his power of words literally. When he wants something done, all he has to do is snap his fingers and give orders to his servants. One example of this is on page 371, where he sends Nibbio off for a task. “With a determined air the Unnamed ordered him to take horse at once, ride straight to Monza… The villainous envoy (Nibbio) returned sooner than his master expected….”. Again, his true supremacy is shown on page 381, where he demands the old woman to do something for him, and then “The old woman went off eagerly to obey her orders, and to issue other instructions with the authority of the name (the Unnamed) which assured prompt compliance from all in the castle, whoever pronounced it.” This quote really covers the whole idea of the power the Unnamed had, simply by mentioning it is he that’s giving the commands. From all of these examples, it’s plain to see that the Unnamed and Manzoni both had complete dominance over their surroundings simply by using their words.

In conclusion, Manzoni really acted on his beliefs in having his novel be real, as he based one of his characters on himself. The feelings that Manzoni had were incorporated into the Unnamed’s personality. They both went through one event, conversion to Christianity, which changed their view on life. Manzoni and the Unnamed also had the same troubles in finding themselves and making their ideas clear to everyone around them. Their final similarity is that they both use their words to have their needs expressed and to persuade others in thinking correspondingly with their own beliefs. On page 457, it is apparent that Manzoni cleverly expressed his own dreams in the outcome of the Unnamed’s change. “They saw him as a saint, but as one of those saints whom we see depicted with head held high and sword in hand… Every man there had the affection for him which springs from admiration. In his presence they felt the awe which even the most surly and insolent spirits experience when confronted by a superiority which they have already acknowledged…”


Manzoni, Alessandro (Translated by Penman, Bruce). The Betrothed. England: Penguin Books, 1972.

This is the book that was most useful. All of the quotes and page numbers in the essay are taken from this edition of The Betrothed.

Manzoni, Alessandro. I Promessi Sposi. Firenze: Editore Bulgarini Firenze, 2000.

This book is the original text, so it is in Italian. The introduction was used for most of the information about Manzoni provided in the essay.

COMMENTS from the original blog"

2004-04-04 00:07:24 marv
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
I read I Promessi Sposi too (older xlation - Archibald Colquhoun).  Natalia Ginzburg wrote a whole book about him and his family (English xlation == The Manzoni Family [La famiglia Manzoni].  Even after the first edition of IPS was published Manzoni took a trip to Florence because he wanted to hear the Tuscan dialect of the peasants - he wanted to revise it using the 'purest' Italian.

2004-04-04 00:15:39 stefano
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
Now it is my turn to complain:  "this is pretty heavy stuff, Sarah."  But you know, it is not unnecessarily heavy stuff since it is trying to deal with some pretty heavy ideas.  I had to read each paragraph carefully but it was worth it.

2004-04-04 00:28:57 marv
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
My sense of IPS was that it more like a folktale than our idea of a modern novel.  Just now looking through Ginzburg's book I saw the name 'Walter Scott'.  Scott wrote such vivid, historical novels that he changed the way historians wrote much less novelists.

2004-04-04 07:01:53 BubbieBarbi
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
Hot Damn!  Marv knows EVERYTHING!   I never heard of Manzoni till today, thanks to Sarah's essay.  Great job, Sarah!

2004-04-04 10:06:57 sarah
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
very interesting. I would like to read the book that Natalia Ginzburg wrote, it sounds really good!

2004-04-04 10:07:41 sarah
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
yeah. heavy and deep, huh.

2004-04-04 16:44:09 doreen
Re: I Promessi Sposi - The Betrothed
Hahahaha  You're danged right the weird American student.

JUST KIDDING ahahahaha

A  great thesis, i must say.  Great overall mood to it.  And a pleasant voice.

A+ keep up the good work,


2004-04-15 15:10:1040 david
Italian Motorcycles
I am in the dreaming stage of motorcycle purchasing again and I found one I really like made by Moto Guzzi.  You may wonder where I am going with this.  It is called the Moto Guzzi Griso.  Griso is a name taken from a character in this very book.

"Wicked and unmistakable, it takes its name from a famous character in 'Promessi Sposi', the Italian novel par excellence written by Alessandro Manzoni and set near Mandello del Lario." -

Check it out if you are so inclined.

2004-04-21 16:08:4040 sarah
Re: Italian Motorcycles
I looked at the site, and the Griso looks like a very nice moto.  Griso was Don Rodrigo's most trusted thug. So, I guess they are making the connection that the motorcycle, alike Griso, is a ""body guard""!! VERY COOL!


stefanoq said...

I love the connection to the muscle bike at the end. Fantastic.

stefanoq said...

I remember rereading this with Sarah about the same time I was going to the Questura (police station) every day about our visa. I felt a lot like the betrothed couple in the story: powerless to even know about, let alone influence a decision that was going to affect us profoundly. It's interesting to think of this book as a kind of foundation for the modern state of Italy because there is essentially no INSTITUTIONAL law here: just a kind of personal law.

Perhaps the most important lesson in the story -- at least in this cultural and political dimension -- is that nothing can be done by individuals. You absolutely need to be part of a group in order to aggregate influence, to protect yourself, and to push "official" decisions through obscure and sometimes hidden processes. It's just a matter of fact: the groups you are in affect everything. And changing groups or being between groups is not really an option.