Alessandro Manzoni’s gift for seeing the humorous, pathetic, and anger-making aspects of a world in which justice is difficult to find ought to be more recognized. But it is no wonder that what attracts people are the faith, hope, and love that are both the hidden foundation and crown of political and economic life.
Alessandro Manzoni’s classic novel The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) has been on the lips of many this year, largely because of its depiction of the plague in Milan in the years 1629 and 1630. The plague scenes, like all of the historical novel’s scenes and general action, are drawn from a deep study of historical accounts and a deep knowledge of human nature. Its amusing indictment of the failures and often superstition of civic leaders, doctors, and the populace in general will resonate with those who have watched with bemusement, indignation, and annoyance the responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Plus ça change….
The novel, however, is no mere plague tale. The story of the titular couple, Renzo and Lucia, two young peasants whose attempt to marry is interrupted by a local aristocrat’s determination to take the young woman for himself (based on a bet), is a rollicking story of love, faith, and adventure. Originally published in 1827 and revised in 1840 to reflect Manzoni’s acceptance of the “Tuscanization” school which held that written Italian should be based on the dialect used by the great writers of the Italian past, it achieved great fame in his own time and was an inspiration to those who desired a unified Italy. Though he died thirty-three years after its definitive edition, the greatness of the novel was such that the young Italian state gave Manzoni a state funeral. Verdi’s famous Requiem was composed specifically for the funeral of his friend.
Some have compared Manzoni’s work to the other great nineteenth-century historical novelists working in England. But as Bruce Penman wrote in the introduction to his splendid translation for the Penguin Classics series:
If Dickens had written only one novel, and there had been no Fielding or Thackeray; if his novel had foreshadowed the theme of a successful national liberation movement and had had a profound, lasting and beneficial effect on the English language; then we would have a book that would stand out in our own literature in the same way that “The Betrothed” does in Italy.*
Indeed, a friend of mine who studied Italian literature in Milan once told me that every graduate student in Italian literature must at some point show mastery of two works: Dante’s Commedia and I Promessi Sposi. The novel’s fans included many of the great nineteenth-century English writers. Sir Walter Scott proposed that it was the greatest romance of all time, and no wonder, given its unforgettable characters, plotting, historical accuracy, humor, occasional pathos, and spiritual depth.
To this brief list of its delights, what moved me upon a reading of it this summer was its keen understanding of the nature of the law in a fractured time and of economics. The story takes place from 1628 to 1630 during the War of Mantuan Succession, when the Spanish had direct rule over Milan but the French and the Hapsburgs were warring over control of northern Italy. In this time of uncertainty at the highest levels of government, there were many laws, but the rule of law was a rarity. The introduction early on to the parish priest of Lecco, a comic figure whose cowardice is the first driver of the plot, gives a sense of a world very similar to our twenty-first-century America in which we too have a proliferation of laws, the enforcement of which is dependent on who has the power to resist. Don Abbondio, we are told, is the type of man who “did not wish to be devoured” but had “neither claws nor teeth.” This was the worst situation for a man at that time.
For the forces of law gave no protection to the tranquil, inoffensive type of man, who had no other means of inspiring fear in anyone else. We do not mean that there was any lack of laws with penalties directed against private acts of violence. There was a glut of such laws in point of fact. The various crimes were listed and described and detailed in the most minute and long-winded manner. The penalties were of insane severity; and, as if that were not enough, they were almost invariably subject to augmentation at the whim of the magistrate himself, or of any one of a hundred subordinate officials.
The upshot of these laws was that any magistrate could get to “guilty” if he wanted. But that “if he wanted” was the question, for there was no sense of equality under the law. Repeated proclamations of the laws only served “to provide a pompous demonstration of the impotence of their authors” since their “immediate effect” was “the addition of many new harassments to those which the pacific and the weak already suffered from their tormentors, and increase in the cunning shown by the guilty; for their impunity was an organized institution, and had roots which the proclamations did not touch, or at least could not shift.”
One thinks of those who, in the summer of 2020, dared to attempt to defend themselves during the riots and who then became the subject of criminal charges. Manzoni says that though they were aimed at preventing and punishing every type of crime, what the proclamations of the 1620s did was “put stumbling blocks in the way of simple folk, who had no special power of their own nor protection from others, and harass them at every step they took.” Meanwhile, a criminal who provided himself “refuge in a monastery, or in a palace, where the police would never dare set foot; anyone who, without other precautions, wore a livery that ensured him the support of the pride and interests of a powerful family, or of a whole class, had a free hand to do what he liked, and to laugh at all the stir created by the edicts.” The drama is initially driven by the action of Don Rodrigo, a local aristocrat with political connections in Milan who threatens bodily harm for Don Abbondio if he witnesses the wedding of Renzo and Lucia and attempts to kidnap the bride when it appears Don Rodrigo cannot convince her to come with him.
While there are few monasteries with the kind of influence that would protect violent criminals today, there are plenty of secular palaces and families that ensure a free hand for those who do their crimes or violence. Simply with regard to nonviolence, the exploits of countless politicians who themselves issued edicts for the “public health” because of COVID-19 and then blithely ignored them could fill an essay of its own. With regard to uses of force, one does not have to agree with the decision of young Kyle Rittenhouse to drive in to Kenosha armed and ready to defend businesses (as well as use his skills as an EMT to help the wounded) to find it odd that this young man was charged with crimes while none of the others involved in the melee were similarly charged. And anyone who follows the twitter feed of Andy Ngo will look with astonishment at his chronicle of rioters and looters in Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere whose jail cells have a revolving door; released without bail, they repeat their violence night after night. Those who do require bail find such money handy as “progressive” political and entertainment figures bail them out immediately. With regard to the seizure of young girls, the exploits of Jeffrey Epstein (of “Lolita Express” fame) and his international cast of political and business associates shows that, apart from dentistry and other technological marvels, our world looks remarkably like that of four centuries before.
Later in Manzoni’s story this dynamic of prosecutions for thee but not for me is shown when young Renzo comes to Milan to seek help from the Capuchins there but is caught up in a series of riots and targeted for arrest because he is poor and from out of town, even though he realizes he is in over his head and tries to stop the violence. It is always better to stay away from mobs if at all possible, for their “acts of popular justice… are among the worst acts of justice the world ever sees.” Manzoni’s diagnosis of mobs and riots while describing their action (derived in part from his witnessing very violent riots in Milan himself in 1814 and reflecting on them) is the mark of a superior writer and mind. So too is his understanding of the economic actions of the ruling class that precipitated them.
Harvests were bad in 1627, but a second bad harvest in 1628 combined with high taxes, the quartering of troops in villages (“which even in peacetime was indistinguishable from that of enemy invaders”), and various other externalities had caused a bread shortage and, Manzoni tells us, “its painful, salutary, inevitable consequence, a rise in prices.” The popular approach, then as now, is to forget the laws of supply and demand and seek out a scapegoat for the prices: “Real or imaginary hoarders of grain, landowners who did not sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it in stock—everyone in fact who possessed or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage and for the high prices, and made the target of universal complaint and of the hatred of rich and poor alike.” The solution of the Milanese magistrates was the one that often appeals to magistrates—price fixing and penalties for any who dared to sell above the maximums.
As Manzoni observes, “But all the official measures in the world, however vigorous they may be, cannot lessen a man’s need for food, nor produce crops out of season.” The result of fixing prices below the real value of a good in the economy is that importing the scarce good will not happen since outsiders don’t want to lose money, people subject to the regulation will be tempted to really hoard their goods, and those who do sell at the rates will lose money and run out of the good. After the Milanese bakers complained, the local governor, who already had military problems, decided to set up a commission to fix the prices that had already been fixed—at least raising the maximums to something bearable for the bakers. “The bakers breathed again,” Manzoni tells us, “but the people went mad with fury.”
Thus the riots. Bread and flour were seized from the bakers and, in the way of the “worst acts of justice in the whole world,” the mob decides to destroy the evil bakers’ shops. Manzoni laconically observes: “The destruction of sifting machines and breadbins, the wrecking of bakeries and the mobbing of bakers are not really the best methods of ensuring long life to a plenteous supply of bread. But that is one of those philosophical subtleties which a crowd can never grasp.” The end of the bread shortage does not come from politicians “fixing” either prices or situations, but from a good harvest coming in the following year.
Manzoni’s novel raises all these problems of justice and economics in the city not to propose new economic and political solutions. But Manzoni’s keen eye indicates how politicians can make things worse with their belief that from the making of many laws and magical economic thinking will come the rule of law and prosperity. He also sees how ordinary people can make things worse when they are swept up into action on behalf of the “least of these” that only worsens the plight of the least and everybody else. His is the vision of a good society and not a perfect one. It is a society in which tragedy occurs and the innocent sometimes pay the price for others’ folly and criminality, a society in which laws, regulations, and enterprise can make a difference—but only if those involved act well and those who act poorly ask forgiveness and try to change their ways.
“Justice is the one thing you can always find,” sing Toby Keith and Willie Nelson in their song “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses.” But you cannot always find it very easily. The crises of Manzoni’s romantic tale find resolution largely not through the prudent and just action of politicians, mobs, or mobs of politicians. The politicians play small and sometimes important roles, true enough. But the crises resolve through the conversion of a criminal aristocrat brought to birth by the words of a faithful young woman. The resolutions are helped along by an archbishop who acts like a Christian. They are often helped along through what seems like dumb luck, which enough of the characters are wise enough to recognize as God’s humble, mysterious action. And they are brought to completion by love, which is the thing that is even deeper than justice.
Manzoni’s gift for seeing the humorous, pathetic, and anger-making aspects of a world in which justice is one thing you’d really like to find but cannot ought to be more recognized. But it is no wonder that what attracts people are the faith, hope, and love that are both the hidden foundation and crown of political and economic life.
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* All quotations are from the Penguin Classics edition.
The featured image is “Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni” (1841) by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.