After moving to the Collegio dei Nobili Longone in Milan, the young Manzoni came into contact with the political exiles who had fled to this city. He met Foscolo, Monti and Visconti, and discovered Enlightenment ideas. One of his early compositions, the short poem entitled Del trionfo della libertà which he wrote in 1801 following the Peace of Lunéville and which was published posthumously in 1873, reveals a robustly Jacobin and anticlerical spirit. In his college years he also composed a number of sonnets: Autoritratto (1801), modelled on Alfieri’s Sublime specchio di veraci detti, A Francesco Lomonaco. Per la sua ‘Vita di Dante’ (1802), the first of his poems to be published, Alla Musa (1802) and Alla sua donna (1802), inspired by the ‘angelic Luigina’ Visconti, with whom the poet was in love. Echoes of Alfieri and Parini can also be found in the ode Qual sulle Cinzie cime (1802-3), the four Sermoni and the idyll Adda, composed in 1803 when Manzoni invited Monti to the villa in Caleotto, Lecco.
Between 1805 and 1806, having joined his mother in Paris, Manzoni wrote Carme in morte di Carlo Imbonati in blank verse. The text was published midway through 1806, but none of the later reprints from 1825 onwards were approved by Manzoni, who probably felt that by writing a eulogy for his mother’s partner he had slighted his father Pietro, who was still alive at the time.
The short mythological poem Urania also belongs to the Parisian period, written between 1808 and 1809 and clearly influenced by Monti’s Musogonia and Vico’s philosophy.
‘Having entered one day into the church of Saint Roch, after troubled prayer, he rose from the floor a believer.’ These were the words which Father Zanella used to describe the intense conversion experience undergone by his friend Manzoni, who had in fact been drawing closer to Catholicism since 1809, guided by the Jansenist meditations of the priest and writer Eustachio Degola initially and later by those of Bishop Luigi Tosi.
Three years later, in 1812, Manzoni took up his pen again to start the cycle of sacred hymns, or Inni Sacri, which in many ways constitute the high water mark of his poetic output. The rejection of classicism, and the innovative way in which he juxtaposes lofty and humble tones, lends the poems collectively an epic quality, in which the poet’s voice blends in with that of the multitude of believers.
Manzoni planned to write twelve such hymns, following the principal celebrations of the liturgical calendar, but completed just five. The first four were published in Milan by the printer Pietro Agnelli in 1815: La Resurrezione, Il nome di Maria, Il Natale and La Passione. La Pentecoste, begun on 21 June 1817 and interrupted by the drafts of Adelchi and the novel, was published by Vincenzo Ferrario in Milan in 1822.
The sixth hymn, Ognissanti, was probably begun around 1830. Manzoni worked on it some more in 1847, but without the drafts ever reaching a definitive form.
A hymn not included in the original project is Il Natale 1833, started (but not completed) a year after the death of his wife Enrichetta Blondel, and published posthumously in 1874.
Published in Milan in July 1819 by the printer Antonio Lamperti, Manzoni’s Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica was the author’s first prose text to be published. The work is presented as a rebuttal of chapter CXXVII of Sismondi’s Histoire des républiques italiennes du Moyen Age (1818), in which he accused Catholic morality of being corrupt. The logic, rhetoric and eloquence of the work are skillfully enhanced through a series of exempla with which Manzoni enlivens the narration, revealing early signs of his gift as a novelist. The style of the writing, which reflects a departure from the apologetic tradition, did not fail to attract Tommaseo’s attention, who commented on it thus: ‘In that good-natured and wise faith, in that powerful and studied simplicity, in that natural truth not smothered by so many artful tecniques, I felt a new spirit of youthfulness blow into my mind.’ In 1855 Manzoni published a second edition of the Osservazioni, with the addition of an appendix providing a critique of utilitarianism (Del sistema che fonda la morale sull’utilità).
On the same subject – rejection of the utilitarian conception of morality and defence of the rational basis of religion – he also drafted a letter, dated 12 November 1829, to his friend Victor Cousin. The letter, though, was never sent, despite the author going to considerable pains over its composition, so much so that some sections of it were reworked up to six times. In the dialogue entitled Dell’invenzione (1850), written in Ciceronian style, Manzoni explored the concepts of art, the cognitive power of thought, and justice, inspired by Rosmini’s philosophical reflections.
Much to Bishop Tosi’s disappointment, who would have preferred him to have finished writing his Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica, in 1816 Manzoni began work on the historical tragedy Il Conte di Carmagnola. Completed the following year, the tragedy was published, at the author’s expense, in January 1820 by Vincenzo Ferrario.
The main character is an historical figure, Francesco di Bartrolomeo Bussone, a mercenary captain in the early fifteenth century who, after serving the Duke of Milan, enrolled in the enemy Venetian army. Following the Venetian victory at the Battle of Maclodio (1427), Carmagnola allowed his soldiers to free the prisoners, and chose not to pursue the defeated army, thus awakening the Venetian government’s suspicions, who proceeded to sentence him to death as a traitor. In Manzoni’s view, however, the Venetians had condemned an innocent man, as the Count’s conduct was consistent with the military code of the times. Carmagnola, sacrificed in the name of corrupt national interest, thus takes on the role of victim in the titanic struggle against injustice in society.
The tragedy, dedicated to Fauriel who translated it into French (prose), did not enjoy much popular success, and was criticized by the French writer Victor Chauvet for not maintaining the canonical Aristotelian unities. Manzoni’s reply is contained in his Lettre à M.C. sur l’unité de temps et de lieu dans la tragédie, written in 1820 but published in 1823.
The tragedy Adelchi, conceived by Manzoni during his stay in Paris from October 1819 to July 1820 after reading Thierry’s inspiring works, was written between September of that year and May 1822. In two years of intense activity, interrupted by writing the introduction and the first two chapters of Fermo and Lucia, and despite suffering from continuous nervous complaints, Manzoni also found time to write an historical treatise entitled Discorso sopra alcuni punti della storia longobardica in Italia.
The main character in the story, which is set between 772 and 774, is the Longobard prince Adelchi, torn between his love of justice and his awareness of belonging to the race guilty of oppressing the Latins (who in the meantime have appealed to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, to help them). As in The Betrothed, here too the author’s appeal to Italians rings out loud and clear, for they too, like the Latins, are ‘a people dispersed and possessing no name’, and should be wary of placing their trust in help from outside.
The story’s female protagonist is Ermengarda, Adelchi’s sister, and wife of Charlemagne whom he has repudiated. Along with Lucia in the novel, Ermengarda embodies Manzoni’s ideal of womanhood: modest and reserved, but at the same time determined and strong-willed. Both Lucia and Ermengarda bear the spiritual countenance of Enrichetta, to whom he dedicated Adelchi, using her maiden name alone as if to protect her individuality: ‘Enrichetta Luigia Blondel who alongside conjugal affections and maternal wisdom, was able to preserve a virginal soul’.
The poem Aprile 1814 was written between 22 April and 12 May 1814 (it was later published, unfinished, by Bonghi in 1883), in the aftermath of the wretched failure of the attempt by the ‘Italici puri’, led by Federico Confalonieri, to gain independence for Lombardy.
Another rebellion against foreign rule was led by Gioacchino Murat, who on 15 March 1815, declared war on Austria, invoking the support of all Italians in an attempt to achieve national unification. Defeated by the Austrians at Tolentino, the Neapolitans were forced to agree to the return of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV, who had Murat executed in October. As soon as news of Murat’s proclamation reached Manzoni, he started to compose Il proclama di Rimini, which he interrupted when the attempt failed. As recalled by Cantù, even Manzoni himself recognized the poem’s lack of poetic quality, in particular line 34 (‘Liberi non sarem se non siam uni’), of which he is reputed to have said: ‘Mazzini and myself have always had faith in the independence of Italy, to be guaranteed and fulfilled by its unification. My faith in this unification was such that I offered it the greatest of sacrifices, that of knowingly writing a bad line of poetry’.
In spring 1821, when the Austrians put down the Milanese liberal revolts, and intellectuals such as Confalonieri, Pellico and Berchet were arrested, Manzoni wrote the ode Marzo 1821. Unpublished, it was dedicated to Teodoro Koerner, ‘the Germans’ Mameli’ whom the author believed, incorrectly, had fallen in the battle of Leipzig.
Napoleon died in Saint Helena on 5 March 1821, but Manzoni only read of the news on 16 July, in the Gazzetta di Milano, while out walking with his wife and mother in the gardens at Brusuglio.
As he recounted to Cristoforo Fabris, Manzoni felt the lines ‘coming to him beneath his feet’, and in three days had composed the ode accompanied by Enrichetta at the piano.
Aware of the difficulties involved in obtaining approval for publication from the Austrian censor’s office, Manzoni sent two handwritten copies to the police department: one was returned to him, as expected, with instructions not to publish it, while the other was smuggled out and circulated secretly around Milan to begin with, then the rest of Italy and elsewhere.
Despite Manzoni’s disapproval, it was his own admirers who copied, published and circulated the ode, which was translated into German by Goethe.
The first edition authorized by Manzoni is found in the last instalment of his Opere varie, printed in Milan between 1845 and 1855.
During its laborious revision Manzoni’s novel underwent major changes, structural and linguistic. In Fermo e Lucia the narration proceeded in alternate sections, describing first of all Lucia’s adventures, then those of her husband-to-be Fermo (whose name was later changed to Renzo). From as early as the second draft (known as the seconda minuta), however, the young couple’s adventures are interwoven in a more complex narrative structure.
Linguistically speaking, the 1825-27 version of The Betrothed (known as the Ventisettana) shows the first results of Manzoni’s study of the Accademia della Crusca dictionary, and in particular his thorough analysis of those fifteenth-, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors who provided examples of standard Tuscan language use, in its spoken forms especially.
On 15 June 1827 the novel was published in three volumes, printed by Vincenzio Ferrari, under the definitive title I Promessi sposi. Storia milanese del secolo XVII scoperta e rifatta da Alessandro Manzoni. It was an instant success, and Manzoni soon became internationally famous, with translations into French, English and German circulating as early as 1828.
Although the language of the ventisettana represented an improvement on that of Fermo e Lucia, it was still bookish. Manzoni was only able to finally leave for Tuscany in the summer of 1827, to go and ‘brazenly’ ask the Florentines whether or not they did in fact use certain terms.
In Florence he began revising the wording of his ennuyeux fatras (‘boring hodgepodge’). This was the period of the famous ‘rinsing’ of the novel’s ‘seventy-one sheets’ in the river Arno, with the enthusiastic help of linguistic experts Cioni and Niccolini, ‘washerwomen such as I could never find elswhere’.
After returning to Milan on 7 October 1827, Manzoni’s corrections slowed following the deaths of Enrichetta and Giulia. He resumed work between 1838 and 1839, with the encouragement, among others, of his second wife Teresa Borri. Being unable to hear the living language spoken in Florence, Manzoni was assisted by Emilia Luti, the Florentine governess in D'Azeglio’s household, and by his son-in-law, Bista Giorgini.
The phase of linguistic revision came to an end in 1840, when the first instalments of the final edition were published, adorned with the plate illustrations of Francesco Gonin to prevent unauthorized copies from circulating. Publication of the so-called Quarantana was completed in November 1842, with the release of the Storia della colonna infame, a pamphlet on the trials of the plague-spreaders held in Milan in the aftermath of the 1630 plague.
Despite The Betrothed’s success, Manzoni distanced himself from the novel in his essay Del romanzo e in genere de’ componimenti misti di storia e invenzione (1845). Under the growing influence of Rosmini’s philosophy, he argued that the genre was too rich in invention and therefore unsuited to his quest for ‘positive truth’.
Until the long-desired journey to Florence became possible, Manzoni sought material for ‘writing well’ among the pages of Italian authors of all centuries, but the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in particular, attempting to find that ‘domestic atmosphere’ that was lacking in his novel.
Linguistic research was thus carried out from books, and while Manzoni waited for an opportunity to hear the Florentines speak themselves, he devoted himself to studying and plundering texts by authors who were not literary greats (with the exception of a few famous names). Avidly devouring the works of these authors – mainly those from the comic tradition of the sixteenth century, such as Lasca, Lippi, Cecchi, Buonarroti the younger, D’Ambra, Varchi and Gelli, and Fagiuoli from the eighteenth century – Manzoni, together with Grossi (who in the meantime had moved into the house in Via Morone) proceeded to underline phrases, idiomatic expressions and words that seemed best suited to recreate spoken Tuscan. In this way he was able to use the knowledge he acquired to annotate the Accademia della Crusca dictionary compiled by Antonio Cesari and his purist collegues (1806-11), which he ‘reduced to such a state that he would not let it be seen’.
In 1835 Manzoni started work on a treatise entitled Sentir messa, initially together with Grossi and then on his own. This work, left unpublished, was conceived in defence of Grossi’s novel Marco Visconti. The novel had been very successful with the public, but sparked various criticisms from the Piedmontese grammarian Michele Ponza, who considered Grossi to have overused Lombard idioms, such as ‘sentir messa’ (to ‘hear’ mass) instead of ‘udire’. As a result of their indepth research of Tuscan texts, Manzoni and Grossi were able to defend the use of the disputed expression which proved to be not merely dialectal form but rather an indication of a valuable convergence between Tuscan and Lombard.
However Manzoni’s real ‘unending labour’ was the treatise Della lingua italiana, on which he started work in 1830 and continued for another three decades, producing five versions, none of which was ever published. Manzoni started with the first two volumes (on the nature of language and ‘which is the true Italian language’), while nothing remains of the third book which would have discussed ‘how to achieve from it those effects which result and are desired from a language, by virtue of which an Italian language is and must be sought’. In the second version Manzoni reviewed some of the ‘systems’ such as the one by developed by Antonio Cesari over time to resolve the enduring question of the Italian language.
The linguistic works which Manzoni did actually publish all emerged after the Quarantana was published, and constitute a clear manifesto of his linguistic preferences aimed at reproducing the Florentine spoken by the middle classes.
The first is a letter/essay adressed to the Piedmontese lexicographer Giacinto Carena, dated 26 February 1847 and published three years later. This is the first time Manzoni explicitly states that the model for a common Italian language should be the (then) current spoken Florentine.
In 1868 Manzoni published a report for the Italian Minister of Education, Emilio Broglio, entitled Dell’Unità della lingua e dei mezzi per diffonderla. In this report Manzoni, who at the time was senator and head of a commission set up to promote the use of a unified Italian language, presented his proposal to compile a new dictionary of the Italian language (Novo vocabolario della lingua italiana) bsed on Florentine usage, work on which began in 1870 and was only brought to completion in 1897. Manzoni later added an Appendix to the report, in which he returned to defending the historical reasons for the choice of the Florentine dialect. Also in 1868, Manzoni published a letter entitled De vulgari eloquio (on the interpretation of Dante’s linguistic theory) and another letter, on the dictionary project this time (Lettera intorno al Vocabolario), in Ruggero Bonghi’s newspaper La Perseveranza.
Manzoni’s last published linguistic work was a letter to the Neapolitan Alfonso Della Valle di Casanova dated 30 March 1871, in which he expressed his approval of Casanova’s project to publish an annotated, parallel edition of the corrections made to the Ventisettana.
The letters Manzoni wrote in the course of his long life may be numbered in their thousands: to his mother, children, friends and literary colleagues in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. By far the most substantial correspondence is that with Claude Fauriel, one of the most distinguished of the Parisian italianisants, a friend of Giulia Beccaria and Manzoni’s cultural father.
From this dense correspondence a more private image emerges, at times self-ironic, of Manzoni the man, husband and father. Everyday anecdotes, requests for books and manuscripts, but also plants and seeds for the villa at Brusuglio, weave in and out of these pages, telling the story of a whole life.
Many of the letters also afford us a glimpse into Manzoni’s creative processes, recounting, for example, the various tortured stages in revising the novel’s language. Rossari, Grossi, Cioni, Niccolini and Giorgini (to mention but a few) were the privileged witnesses of the process that would lead to the completion of The Betrothed, and were frequently called upon to dispel doubts, such as whether the correct term for ‘clockmaker’ in Florence was ‘Orologiere, Orologiaio o Oriolaio?’ (one of the notes which Manzoni wrote to Bista Giorgini almost daily).