Manzoni’s The Betrothed: The Novel of Ratios of Power

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Manzoni’s The Betrothed: The Novel of Ratios of Power

Paper read at a conference on Manzoni at the University of Nijmegen, October 1973.

The Libraries of Renzo and Lucia

Renzo and Lucia can neither read nor write. In I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) this fact is of a decisive importance that I think has never received the attention it deserves. Not being able to read or write is (or may be presumed to be) a common characteristic of the heroes and heroines of many works of literature before and after them, but I cannot think of another great book in which the fact of being illiterate is so constantly present in the author’s awareness. Renzo and Lucia cannot read or write in a world in which the written word is always parading before their eyes, and this cuts them off from making their modest dream come true.

The written word crops up in the world of Renzo and Lucia in two ways: as an instrument of power and as an instrument of information.

As an instrument of power it is systematically antagonistic to the two poor fiancés. It is the written word as wielded by Dr. Azzecca-Garbugli, the “paper, pen, and inkpot” with which the host of the Luna Piena attempts to register the names and address of his two customers. Or, worse still, the invisible paper, pen, and ink with which Ambrogio Fusella succeeds in catching Renzo in a trap.

The lack of the written word as instrument of information becomes a recurrent theme in what is to such an extent a novel of separation. More attention ought to be paid to certain pages in chapter XXVII, one of the most significant parts of the book, dealing with the difficulties of Renzo and Lucia’s correspondence by means of letters written and read aloud by third parties. To the question of how illiterates communicate by letter Manzoni devotes a paragraph that I would certainly call one of the finest in the whole book:

The peasant who knows not how to write, and who needs to write, applies to one who knows that art, choosing as far as he can one of his own station, for with others he is hesitant, or a little untrusting. He informs him, with more or less clarity and orderliness, of who his ancestors were, and in the same manner tells him what to set down on paper. The literate person understands part and guesses at the rest, gives a few pieces of advice, suggests a few changes, and says, “Leave it to me.” He picks up his pen, puts the other’s thoughts as well as he can into literary form, corrects them, improves them, embellishes them, tones them down, or even omits them, according to how he thinks best, because—and there’s nothing to be done about it—someone who knows better than others has no wish to be a mere tool in their hands, and when he is concerned with the business of others he wants it to go a little in his own way. All the same, the above-mentioned literate does not always succeed in saying everything he wants to: sometimes he ends up saying something else entirely. This happens even to us, who write for publishers. When the letter thus composed gets into the hands of the recipient, who also has no skill in the ABCs, he takes it to another learned person of the same stamp who reads it and explains it to him. Questions of interpretation arise, because the person concerned, judging by previous events, claims that certain words mean certain things, while the reader, judging by the experience he has of composition, insists that they mean something else. In the end the one who does not know has to put himself in the hands of the one who does, and give him the task of answering; an answer that, since it follows upon the question, is then open to a similar interpretation. So, to take a case, if the subject of the correspondence is the least bit jealous; if there is a question of secret business, such as one would not like a third party to know; if, for example, the letter were to get lost; and if, in a case such as this, there were no intention to come out with things in particularly clear terms—well, then, however long the correspondence lasts, the two correspondents end up understanding each other about as well as two scholastics of an earlier day who have been disputing about entelechy—not to take a simile from contemporary life, which might well have earned us a box on the ear.

The struggle between the urgency of feeling, the resistance of the written language, and the deformations inherent in the transmission of it are described in terms of a shared view of social life, but also of an implicit confession by the author, who makes himself explicit in the comment that it “happens even to us, who write for publishers.” And we can only regret that, in telling us about this disappointing exchange of letters along such a stormy channel, Manzoni did not take a little more time, and extend the postal network between Renzo and Agnese to include Lucia as well.

However, in the same chapter, the role of the written word returns to the limelight a moment later, and it is a very different role, though still a negative one. We have a description of Don Ferrante’s library, a catalogue of Renaissance letters that could well fit into one of the early chapters of Michel Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses, and regarded by Manzoni with an eye utterly devoid of any historial filial piety, regarded, in fact, as a museum of false knowledge. It is not just the rejection by the Enlightenment of the dark sides of the past that agitates Manzoni; on the contrary, he is motivated here by one of the recurrent motifs in his moral polemic, an indictment of everything that represents the corruption of culture. Culture for Manzoni was an area in which human weakness manifested itself in the most blameworthy ways. For him the error of culture was an emblem of condemnation, a manifestation of the Fall. Hence his severity in judging Italian literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His Storia della colonna infame does not just draw its strength from the stringency of its “enlightened” battle against a prejudice and a judicial error. Indeed, in the last part of the argument, directed against the responsibility of intellectuals, Manzoni spares absolutely no one.

In contrast to Don Ferrante’s library, we might mention the library of the village tailor, in whose house Lucia is given hospitality after the conversion of the “Innominato.” He is “a man who knew how to read, and had in fact more than once read the Legends of the Saints and Puerin Meschino and the History of the Kings of France, and passed in those parts for a man of knowledge and talent.” It is the library of small-town country culture, which Manzoni regards with sympathy, as a use of the written word that has not yet been corrupted and still has something to be said in its favor: “From this comes the best dough in the world.” Manzoni’s attitude is not yet the Romantic vindication of folklore, but neither is it the disdain of the Enlightenment for traditional old-wives’ tales. It is curiosity with a touch of diffidence, such as the modern sociologist feels about the rights and wrongs of mass culture.

In short, the novel about the two illiterates is a book that contains a number of libraries. Looked at in one way, the entire novel takes place inside a library that contains the “faded, scratched-up manuscript” of the anonymous seventeenth-century author of this story of Milan. Similarly, the whole book culminates in the foundation of the Ambrosian Library, to crown the ideal center of the novel, the life of Cardinal Federigo Borromeo. This is a library to which Manzoni eventually entrusts the realization of his ideal of culture, not without some barbed remarks about the bad upkeep of Italian libraries. But even here the emphasis is on the spirit that animates Federigo in conceiving the library and organizing it in practice, rather than on the results, on the effects that the library will have on man’s history: “Do not ask what have been the effects of this foundation of Borromeo’s on public culture; it would be easy to demonstrate in two phrases, in the way in which one demonstrates these things: that they were miraculous, or that they were nil.” And when he goes on to consider the shelf bearing the hundred works written by the cardinal in person, Manzoni pulls back, not without having given us to understand that the stature of Federigo as a writer was not, alas, comparable to that of Federigo as a man.

Several times in the novel, Manzoni dwells upon the mistaken use of books. The use made by Don Abbondio, for example: the casual reader of grandiloquent panegyrics in which Saint Charles is compared to a little-known Carneades. “You should know that Don Abbondio liked to read a little every day, and a neighboring curate who had a bit of a library used to lend him one book after another, the first that came to hand.” Or, worse still, the use that is made of books in Don Rodrigo’s house, where the Gerusalemme liberata is bandied about in convivial disputes as a code of the rules of chivalry for the convenience of arrogant swordsmen.

But never is writing so ill-used as it is in legal documents. The contrast between the formality of the written law and the reality of the ratios of power dominates the entire book. It is no coincidence that this conflict starts in the very first chapter, with the proclamations against brigands, to show the impotence of lawmaking, and reappears in the third chapter, to show how the law is exploited by the Azzecca-Garbuglis according to two sets of weights and measures. Nor does church law fare any better. It counts for little, for example, that this law safeguards novices’ freedom to choose their vocation, when in order to conserve their patrimonies the families condemn their younger sons to the priesthood and their daughters to the nunneries. Parental authority and the pressures of the environment will certainly succeed in curbing the unruliness of Gertrude.

From all these features there emerges one common factor: Manzoni’s distrust of the written word; that is, distrust of the ideological masquerades of power. Defeated both on the plane of practical strength and on that of the written word, the two poor illiterate wretches have on their side a truth that writing nearly always conceals rather than reveals, a truth that is not at all consoling or edifying: the brute experience of the ratios of power.

The Triangle of Power

Around Renzo and Lucia and their bitterly opposed marriage, the forces in play are arranged in a triangle, with three authorities at the angles: social power, false spiritual power, and true spiritual power. Two of these forces are adverse and one is favorable. Social power is always adverse; the church is divided into a good and a bad church, one of which works to get around the obstacles set up by the other. This triangular figure is presented twice, more or less identically: in the first part of the book with Don Rodrigo, Don Abbondio, and Fra Cristoforo, and in the second with the Innominato, the nun of Monza, and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo.

To extract a geometrical scheme from such a complex and modulated book is not a misrepresentation. Never was a book calculated with greater precision than The Betrothed. Every poetic and ideological effect is regulated by predetermined but essential clockwork, by diagrams of perfectly balanced stresses. Certainly, the Manzonian quality of the book is rendered not so much by the skeleton as by the flesh, and the skeleton itself could have served for quite a different book—for example, a Gothic novel. The ingredients and characters to create even a Sade, with torture-house castles and convents rife with perversion, could have been there if Manzoni had not been allergic to the portrayal of evil. But to give Manzoni a chance to include in the novel all that he really wanted to say, and draw a veil over what he preferred not to say, the bone structure had to be absolutely functional. And there is no story more functional than the fable in which there is an objective to be reached in spite of impediments created by opponents, but with the aid of helpers; in which the hero and heroine have nothing to think of except doing the right thing and abstaining from doing the wrong things. This is the case with poor Renzo and Lucia.

In the two triangles, a slightly repetitive and general resemblance links Don Rodrigo and the Innominato, and the same can almost be said for Fra Cristoforo and Federigo. In the third angle, that of false spiritual power, there is a clean break. Don Abbondio and Gertrude are such different and individual characters that they determine the general tone of the narrative surrounding them, a comedy of humors when Don Abbondio is at center stage, a drama of conscience when Gertrude is dominant. (We may also see The Betrothed as a “poly-novel” in which a number of novels succeed one another and cross one another’s paths, with the novels of Don Abbondio and Gertrude merely the chief and most fully achieved ones.)

It is clear that of the three forces in operation in this triangle, the one Manzoni knows best—or, shall we say, the one that best expresses the eighteenth-century basis of his taste and culture—is the bad church. The good church, in spite of the ample space occupied in the novel by Cristoforo and Federigo, remains an external (though functional) presence. Around Cristoforo there still move those complex ratios of power that form one of the great dimensions of Manzoni: in this case the position of the Order of Capuchins, suspended between being independent of the system and being a necessary part of it, thanks to the immunity of the monasteries, which is valuable to both sides (as it was once valuable to the then arrogant Cristoforo), and capable of making even criminals respect the friars. For Federigo, on the other hand, in spite of the historical character presented fully within his context, it is only fictional predetermination that moves both him and his fearsome penitent. In the famous conversion episode, the die is cast from the moment the characters enter the scene, and there is no margin left for diversions or setbacks. From the very first moment, the Innominato displays “if not remorse, a certain boredom with his wickednesses,” while the cardinal is so sure of his power over souls that, when the visit of the wicked knight is announced to him, he thinks at once of the lost sheep and not of a formal move of political convenience.

Even the role of the tyrant is a character part. Between Don Rodrigo and the Innominato there is only a quantitative difference. The second enjoys more authority than the first (though we do not quite know why) and a more sinister reputation (though we know little of his evil deeds). His “castellaccio” (“grim castle”) repeats in darker colors the scenic function of Don Rodrigo’s “palazzotto” (“little palace”). Who exactly Don Rodrigo and the Innominato are is never clear, not just as psychological characters but with regard to their social positions. Manzoni is always punctilious in delineating hierarchies, the distribution of powers in the church or in political organs both central and peripheral—a Spanish châtelain, a mayor, a consul—but when he touches on feudal law as such, he is overcome with an unusual reticence. That Don Rodrigo is a feudal overlord is to be presumed, but it is never actually stated. We know only that he exploits the political power of his “uncle the count,” and that after his death the palace is inherited by a marquis. As for the Innominato, in an earlier version he is given the title of “count,” but Manzoni tries to make him appear more as an outlaw and a brigand than as the title holder of a feudal estate, with the right to exact taxes and demand forced labor. It is as if in Manzoni’s conscience, very attentive to institutional structures, it was precisely the normal institutions of feudalism, the mainspring of all the mechanisms of power in the book, that were concealed by a mechanism of self-censorship.

In fact, it is hard to establish the internal rules of The Betrothed, for Manzoni is constantly changing the focus of his telescope. Once certain that his narrative and conceptual machinery works in the main, he sets about adjusting the focus on different characters and different aspects, adopting for each of them a different light plot, with a greater or lesser degree of filter or of contrast. His technique of portrayal proceeds by a series of approximations in the various versions of the book, and the last is not necessarily better than the first.

What really and truly interests Manzoni is not so much the characters as the forces in operation in life and society, and their conditionings and clashes. The ratios of power are the real driving force of his narrative, and the crucial core of his moral and historical preoccupations. In representing these stresses—Fra Cristoforo at Don Rodrigo’s banquet, or the “free choice” of Gertrude’s vows as a nun, or the “vicar for provisions” in Ferrer’s carriage surrounded by the angry mob—Manzoni’s touch is always light and sure, and he puts his finger within a millimeter of the spot. It is no coincidence that The Betrothed is the most read Italian political book, one that all parties agree has helped to shape Italian political life, a text more than any other in which a person who practices politics, and finds himself day by day measuring an overall idea against objective conditions, can see himself reflected. But it is also the antipolitical book par excellence, starting as it does from the conviction that politics can change nothing, either through laws that claim to put restraints on de facto power or through the assertion of collective strength on the part of the outsiders. And Manzoni is not simply inventing. In actual fact, the proclamations against the brigands must be enforced by the Azzecca-Garbuglis, and the crowd assaulting the bakeries of Milan will always come up against the provocation of some Ambrogio Fusella, impelled by the “captain of justice” to lay his hands on the usual scapegoat. The book is an Italian classic in this sense as well, and it has never ceased to model reality after its own image.

There is also a “revolutionary” novel in The Betrothed that peeps out from time to time from among the folds of the “moderate” novel. For example, in the famous “reflection” on the roles of oppressor and victim in the midst of the mob on the “night of deceits,” or the way Renzo vents his own personal thirst for justice in the Milanese uprising over the price of bread. And if as a “revolutionary” novel it is only a novel of missed opportunities, even the opportunities of the “moderate” novel, however much more obvious, are relinquished time and again. The virtue of Fra Cristoforo fails to touch the heart of Don Rodrigo, and the decisive turning, postponed until it can reach a higher level with Federigo and the Innominato, does not bring the expected solution but simply marks a new stage. The “revolutionary” novel of an impossible revolution and the “moderate” novel of a mendacious conciliation would be equally false. Manzoni, who belongs to a world scarred by the trauma of the French Revolution, and who writes with the leaden cloak of the Restoration on his shoulders, has to work out the solution to his novel on a different level.

History, Famine, and Pestilence

It was only by passing from the viewpoint of individuals to a universal one that he could resolve the vicissitudes of the betrothed couple from Lecco. And when we realize that the part of Providence is played by the plague, then we understand that the theme of petty political ideology went up in smoke some time ago. The real forces at work in the novel stand revealed as natural and historical disasters of slow incubation and sudden conflagration, upsetting the little game of the ratios of power. The picture expands, the link between macrocosm and microcosm remains close and at the same time uncertain, rather like our questions concerning the biological and anthropological future of the world today. On closer examination, The Betrothed is from the very outset a novel of famine, of devastated lands, from the beginning of chapter four, when Fra Cristoforo arrives from Pescarenico with his baggage of skeletal images: “the skinny girl, holding a gaunt cow on a rope in the pasture,” and so on. (There is in Manzoni a painter of genre pictures. Northern and grotesque almost in the manner of Brueghel, which crops up from time to time. Another example of this “school” is Don Rodrigo’s village in chapter five, and yet another is the scene in the hospital of the plague victims.)

What Manzoni portrays is a nature forsaken by God—something other than the rule of Providence! And when God manifests himself to put things right, he does it with the plague. Some people today tend to see Manzoni, beneath the paintwork of edifying ideology, as a kind of nihilist, and with a brand of nihilism that we are to find more radical only in Flaubert.

As far as mankind is concerned, there are nothing but failures: bad government, rotten economy, wars, the invasion of the Landsknechte. It is a history book wrapped up in the pages of a novel, and, moreover, history as we now understand it, with the “eventful” parts (such as Wallenstein’s battles or the succession to the dukedom of Mantua) confined to the table talk of Don Rodrigo, while what commands the field are the crises in agriculture, the price of grain, the demand for labor, the intensity of epidemics. The Betrothed gives us a vision of history as a constant confrontation with catastrophe.

To go back to our triangles—corrupt potentates, bad church, good church—we can now superimpose on them a new triangle with angles representing human history (bad government, wars, uprisings), nature forsaken by God (famine), and divine justice, terrible and inscrutable (the plague). Manzoni’s plague, as well as being a grandly orchestrated set piece, is a new dimension in which all the characters and stories turn out differently. Even Renzo’s picaresque journey is transformed into a journey of mystical initiation, culminating in the leap onto the gravediggers’ cart and punctuated by the carnival riotousness of death. This point deserves to be better remembered, not only for the phrase “povero untorello” (“poor plague-spreader”) but also because this unexpected danse macabre is one of the few moments at which Manzoni writes without restraint. We even have the apparition of the madman carried away riding backward on a black horse (in an earlier version it was Don Rodrigo in person), dragged off to hell as if in a religious drama.

To complete the scheme of the opposing and supporting forces in the “religious drama” of The Betrothed, we have only to find a place for mankind’s hankering to force God’s designs, as a counterbalance to the world forsaken by God. It is a “resolving” force that turns into an obstacle. On the individual level this force is represented by Renzo’s attempts at resistance, from the first vague efforts, which fail because his friends withdraw, to the complex orchestration of the “night of deceits.” On the collective level the same force acts, and is defeated, on the day the Milanese storm the bakeries.

Under this heading I would not list only these two episodes, which are among Manzoni’s supreme poetic achievements, but also one of the murkiest parts of the book: Lucia’s vows. Manzoni places little stock in justification by works, and considers Lucia’s vows on a level with all the gestures of human voluntarism, as a vain attempt to force God’s designs, a legalistic error, smacking of the legalism that he abhorred, and almost as a wish to press God into making a contract. As an invalid contract the vow is easily annulled by Fra Cristoforo—a Fra Cristoforo who has risen again from the hospital of the plague victims, almost a shadow of his former self, returning now to die as soon as he has accomplished his task, like the magical helper in folk tales who often takes the form of a beneficent animal destined for sacrifice.

The target is always one and the same: the vanity of human voluntarism in the face of the inexorable, complex forces at work. And these forces can be recognized as much in the lineaments of severe transcendency as in the natural forces investigated by science. More than once in Manzoni the language of an abrasive theology gets mingled with that of a science that looks only at the facts. The Colonna infame is not the work of an “enlightened” Manzoni precedent to or parallel with the “providentialistic” Manzoni: the two are one and the same man. The persecution of supposed plague-spreaders is an execrable error, both in the light of scientific knowledge about the spread of bacterial epidemics and in the light of Manzoni’s theology, according to which a scourge like the plague cannot depend on an act of the human will, or on the actions of a handful of men, but only on the hand of God, or the chain of human failings that move God to punishment and the most extreme remedies of His Providence.

In The Betrothed the same line is taken in the discussions about the famine. As early as Don Rodrigo’s banquet in chapter five, such discussions are based on the mistake of thinking that bread is scarce because of deliberate acts by hoarders or bakers; as far along as chapter twelve, Manzoni the historian and economist explains the complexity of the climatic, social, military, and administrative causes that lead to famine. The arguments of science, even here, are also the arguments for a belief in the measureless might of God, for a religious feeling that in its heart of hearts is no more optimistic than the atheism of Leopardi.

These two poets, still so imbued with the crisis of eighteenth-century culture, reacted on two opposing ideal planes, and in ways between which we can now recognize the parallel aspects, not simply the contrasts in which the moral and stylistic choices of our youth became polarized. Leopardi was more drastic in rejecting all that faith in both human progress and the bounty of nature had to offer in terms of facile illusions. Manzoni was more cautious and contradictory in rejecting any consoling religiosity that concealed the pitilessness of the world. For both of them, simply because they started with an exact knowledge of the forces they had to confront, human action had some meaning.