Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
By Professor J. D. M. Ford
AT as early a date in their literary history as the thirteenth century, the Italians began to evince a propensity for tale-telling, and they have continued to indulge it unremittingly down to our own times. Until the nineteenth century, however, they favored the short story or tale, rather than the longer and more ambitious form of narrative prose fiction called the novel or romance. If in the fourteenth century Boccaccio wrote his Fiammetta, if about the end of that century or at the beginning of the next Andrea de Barberino compiled the Reali di Francia, and if the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the appearance of the pastoral romance (the Arcadia), and of novels of adventure as well as others infused with the erotic, or the sentimental, or the moralizing spirit, it must be admitted that all these works are either of poor vein, or, as is the case for the Fiammetta, the Reali di Francia, and the Arcadia of Sannazaro, they are far more important in other connections than as examples of prose fiction. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries present hardly anything of interest; with the early nineteenth century and the publication of the Lettere di Jacopo Ortis of Foscolo (1802) the true novel was inaugurated in Italian, and with the historical romance, I Promessi Sposi, of Manzoni, first put forth in 1827, its lasting success was achieved.
Alessandro Manzoni (he never used his title of Count) was born of a patrician family at Milan, on March 7, 1785. His maternal grandfather was the noted publicist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria. In his early studies, pursued mainly at Milan, he inclined naturally towards belles lettres, and, reading assiduously by himself, he developed the seeds of genius within him. Toward the literary career his steps were guided also by his relations with the kindly Italian poet, Monti, whom he venerated. In 1805 his mother took him to Paris, where he frequented salons, the atmosphere of which was wholly rationalistic and Voltairean, and in which he imbibed doctrines of skepticism. These, however, were not to last with him. At this time there was formed his friendship with the French scholar and man of letters, Claude Fauriel, who now and for many years later helped to mold his mind. Back in Milan in 1808, he married there in that year the Protestant lady, Enrichetta Blondel. Two years later, she became a Catholic, and Manzoni, impelled by her example and by a deep-rooted love, hitherto latent, for the ancestral religion, followed her into the Church, to remain thereafter a sincere and devout communicant. Abiding in the Milanese region, he wrote there in 1821 his remarkable ode, the Cinque Maggio, commemorating the death of Napoleon, and at about this same time he commenced the composition of I Promessi Sposi. When it was fully published in 1827, he removed with his family to Florence, and for a while enjoyed the favor of the grand duke,who decorated the walls of his palace with scenes from I Promessi Sposi,and the society of leading statesmen and writers, such as Giusti, Capponi, Niccolini, and Leopardi. Returning ere long to Milan, he had the misfortune to lose (1833) his wife, as well as his daughter, Giulia, who was married to the novelist Massimo dAzeglio. In the sorrow of this period he derived no little comfort from his friendship with the brilliant although impetuous philosopher Rosmini and the novelist Tommaso Grossi. He remarried in 1837. During the stirring days of 1848, he showed himself a sterling Italian patriot, and urged his three sons to fight valiantly against the Austrian arms then engaged in subjugating his native region of Lombardy. With the success of the Austrians he retired voluntarily to a villa on Lake Maggiore, but the liberation of Lombardy again in 1859 brought him prominently to notice. King Vittorio Emmanuele bestowed honors upon him and assigned him a pension, which to one in his straitened circumstances was very grateful. He was made a senator in 1860, and played a part in the Assembly which proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy. Shortly after, in 1864, he was one of the National Assembly that voted for the transference of the capital from Turin to Rome. The Holy City he never visited, but in 1872 he was elected an honorary citizen of Rome, and in the letter in which he thanked the mayor for the courtesy shown him he expressed his joy at the consummation of Italian unity. He died on May 22, 1873.
Among modern Italian poets Manzoni takes high rank. Besides some minor lyrics and other poems of an occasional nature he wrote the Inni Sacri, hymns in which he gives poetical form to the noblest and highest manifestations of the Christian religion, emphasizing especially the principles of charity, hope, and eventual comfort for all human ills; the ode Cinque Maggio, already mentioned; the ode Marzo, 1821, dealing with the aspirations and endeavors of the liberal party in Piedmont; and the two-verse dramas, the Conte di Carmagnola and the Adelchi. These tragedies figure among the best productions of the Romantic movement in Italy, and they are the first examples of the historical play in Italian. The Conte di Carmagnola is concerned with the story of the famous captain of free lances, Francesco Bussone, called Carmagnola, who in the fifteenth century was undeservedly done to death by his employers, the Venetians; the Adelchi turns upon events in Lombardy back in the time of its king Desiderius and his foe and conqueror, Charlemagne.
Noteworthy among the minor prose works of Manzoni are the documents in which he discusses the validity of the French system of unities as applied to dramatic composition (Lettre à M. Chauvet) and the purposes of the Italian Romantic school (Lettera al Marchese Cesare dAzeglio sul Romanticismo). In various writings he discusses the often-mooted question as to what is the true form of speech for Italian literary expression, and he ranges himself on the side of sanity by advocating the use of the Florentine vocabulary on the part of Italian authors from all parts of the peninsula.
His masterpiece is, of course, I Promessi Sposi,1 which, begun as we have seen in 1821, occupied Manzoni for some six years with its composition and its printing; yet, hardly had it appeared when, faithful to his belief that the Florentine speech was the correct language of cultured Italians, he set to work to eliminate the dialectisms and Gallicisms in it, and the result was that in pure Tuscan the novel appeared, after seventy-five reprints of the first edition had been made, in the perfected form of 1842. Its main plot is simple; for the central story is that of the long-deferred marriage of two peasants, Lorenzo and his beloved Lucia. A tyrannical local potentate, aided by the proverbial Italian bravos, forbids their nuptials, because his own evil fancy has fallen upon the girl, and her parish priest, whose duty it is to perform the marriage ceremony irrespective of all exterior influences, avoids doing so through terror of the tyrant, Don Rodrigo, and his bloodthirsty satellites. Eventually a pest carries away Don Rodrigo, and the union of the lovers is effected. They are married by their own timid parish priest, Don Abbondio, who has, in the meantime, been taught his duty by his noble superior, the saintly Cardinal Carlo Borromeo.
Following Sir Walter Scott, whom he expressly acknowledges as his model for his methods, Manzoni gave to his novel an historical setting, adapting it to the Romantic sentiments then dominating the literary world. He chose for the period of action the three years between 1628 and 1631, during the Spanish supremacy at Milan, when a terrible famine and pestilence made desolate that part of Italy, and he confined operations between Lake Como, which he knew so well, and the city of Milan. Before undertaking the writing of his great work he made a serious study of works dealing with the pestilence and with administrative affairs of the time in which it occurred. Then, with the intuition of the true artist, having the historical and social conditions well in mind, and possessing the power to analyze the most delicate of human feelings, he assembled a number of characters of divers sorts, through the play of which he presents us with a vivid picture of Lombardy in the early seventeenth century.
Next to Dante and Ariosto, Manzoni is, perhaps, the greatest of Italian authors, the most universal in appeal. His worth was quickly acknowledged abroad, by Goethe in Germany, by Chateaubriand in France, by Scott in the British Empire, and the last named was proud to have provoked imitation on the part of a genius of so high an order.