Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel

THE BETROTHED by Alessandro Manzoni (1827) translated by Bruce Penman (1972)

Recently I got around to reading an old paperback copy of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.  I picked it up years ago because I read somewhere that it is a classic greatly beloved by Italians—much as The Pickwick Papers is beloved by the English and The Three Musketeers by the French.

The setting is northern Italy, around the end of the 16th century.  It is about the misadventures of Renzo, a good-hearted but foolish young workman, and his sweetheart, Lucia.  

I enjoyed it.  The author was a good storyteller and also a witty observer of the foibles of human nature.  

I also liked it because it gave me a glimpse of another time and place.  This helps remind me that today’s crises are not uniquely bad and that the way I and my friends see the world is not the peak of human wisdom.

Renzo and Lucia are eager to marry, but the local parish priest, Don Abbondio, keeps putting them off because he is afraid of the wicked local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, who has designs on Lucia.  

The two sweethearts flee, with the help of another Catholic clergyman, the Capuchin monk Father Cristoforo.  The two become separated, and Lucia takes refuge in the convent of the notorious Nun of Monza.

The Nun of Monza was a real person.  She was a member of an aristocratic family, pressured to take vows as a nun, more or less against her will, for dynastic and inheritance reasons.  

As a nun,  she lived a life of luxury and self-indulgence.  She look a lover, gave birth to a stillborn child and murdered a nun who threatened to tell about it.  But, in the novel, she takes a liking to Lucia.

Then Lucia falls into the clutches of an even more powerful and evil nobleman, the Unnamed.  He supposedly was so terrifying and ferocious that nobody, in his lifetime or after, dared refer to him by his real name—something like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. He also was a real person, although his name, Francesco Bernadino Visconti, is known to history.

Renzo meanwhile finds himself in Milan, where riots are going on because of a shortage of bread.  Manzoni observes that the authorities think they can increase the supply of bread by holding down the price, while the street mob’s solution is to burn down bakeries.

Our hero shoots off his mouth, and a police spy decides to finger him as the ringleader of the riots.

Renzo is arrested, but gets away.  Lucia is freed because of the intervention of the saintly Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Frederigo Borromeo.  He, too, was a real person, the first cousin of St. Charles Borromeo.

Then northern Italy is invaded by armies of the Holy Roman Empire.  Mercenary troops in those days were given free rein to rape and loot, and in Manzoni’s telling destroyed or befouled what they could not take with them.

The invasion is followed by an outbreak of bubonic plague.  Renzo tries to make his way to Lucia, but falls under suspicion being an “anointer,” one who deliberately spread the plague.


In a lot of ways, The Betrothed is a Christianized version of Voltaire’s Candide.  The novel is full of observations on human folly.

Such as: People respect the wisdom of a learned man, provided he tells them what they already know.

Or: When people are afraid to express their resentments, they actually become less resentful.

Or: No matter how dire the situation, the means can always be found to do something stupid. 

The difference is that Manzoni does not scoff at Christianity.

Father Cristoforo and Cardinal Borromeo are not only compassionate, brave and wise, which are virtues everyone appreciates.  They  also have the specifically Christian virtues. 

They forgive their enemies and return good for evil.  They sincerely think of themselves as sinners because their faith and altruism are not 100 percent perfect.  

They feel more pity for Don Rodrigo and the Unnamed than for their innocent victims, because the suffering of the innocent victims is limited and will be recompensed, while their tormenters, if unrepentant, will literally suffer forever in Hell.

Such people do exist, they are rare.  I put down the book with renewed appreciation of the radicalism of the teachings of Jesus.


In the aftermath, famine, war and plague have taken the lives of two-thirds of the people of the region.  Many survivors have post-traumatic stress disorder.  Everything seems ruined.

But as a result, wages are high and property is cheap.  This enables Renzo and Lucia to prosper.  They marry, have many children and are happy.

On the last page, they reflect on what they have learned.  They decide it is that troubles very often come to us because we have asked for them, but the most prudent and innocent conduct is not necessarily enough to keep them away, in which case trust in God goes far to take away their sting.

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One Response to “Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel”

  1. Nicky D Says:

    This is a great novel, and I’m surprised and delighted to see someone else talk it up!


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