The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

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Apparently this is the most famous and widely-read Italian novel of all time. So it should be: it’s excellent :-). Apparently it’s taught in almost all Italian schools. I hope that the kids find it an enjoyable change from being made to wade through Dante’s Inferno, which is also taught in almost all Italian schools and which is not excellent.

As we all know, much of Northern Italy came under Spanish rule during the Italian Wars (come on, you do know this – it was the bit when Catherine of Aragon’s nephew’s troops took the Pope prisoner just as Cardinal Wolsey was trying to negotiate a divorce for Henry VIII). It then remained under Spanish rule until there was a big swap-round of territories following the War of the Spanish Succession (in which Britain and Austria fought France, the soon-to-be-Duke of Marlborough marched to the Danube, and Spain didn’t actually do very much apart from the bit at the end when Madrid attacked Barcelona. Keep up. Oh dear, I’m being really Anglocentric here, aren’t I 😉 ?). This book takes place in the Milan/Como area in the late 1620s and early 1630s. So it’s during the Thirty Years’ War … that was the one which was supposedly between the Catholic and Protestant German states, but involved people being chucked out of a window in Prague, a German prince and a Scottish-princess-of-England being elected King and Queen of Bohemia, Denmark wading in, Sweden wading in, Spain trying to reconquer the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire invading Hungary, and pretty much ended up as a fight between the French and the Habsburgs.

It does get rather confusing, it has to be admitted. I’m pretty good with the window in Prague and the Swedish intervention, even if I do say so myself, but I must confess that I had to do a quick bit of revision on how all this affected Italy. The answer was that there was a succession dispute in Mantua, the French and the Austrians stuck their noses in, the Austrian soldiers who barged through Milan in the process managed to bring the plague with them, and about 25% of the population of Milan died as a result.

That’s the historical background. The betrothed couple of the title are Renzo and Lucia, who live in Lecco, on Lake Como, and wish to get married and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, an aristocratic Spanish villain, one Don Rodrigo, has got his eye on Lucia, and threatens to send his heavies (the “bravos”) round to batter the local priest if the marriage goes ahead. So the priest wimps out of performing the marriage ceremony. Incidentally, whoever did the English translation for the Kindle edition should be told not to translate first names!   I’ve referred to Lucia, but the Kindle edition calls her “Lucy”, which is a very pretty name but doesn’t exactly sound very Italian. Even worse, they’ve renamed Rodrigo as “Roderick”. No, no, no! Rodrigo is the perfect name for a dashing, aristocratic Spanish baddie, riding around the countryside, terrorising people! Roderick, on the other hand, sounds like an Old Etonian banker from Surrey. At least he/she didn’t turn (Lo)Renzo into Laurence.

Anyway. Don Rodrigo is on the warpath, so Renzo and Lucia decide that they need to get away. Lucia and her mother take refuge in a convent in Milan. Renzo also goes to Milan, but gets caught up in a bread riot: the city is suffering severe food shortages, blamed largely on Spanish mismanagement. With the authorities after him, Renzo flees to his cousin in Bergamo, then under the rule of Venice.

With the connivance of a dastardly nun, Lucia is kidnapped by an ally of Don Rodrigo, referred to only as “The Unknown”. However, The Unknown conveniently undergoes a religious conversion thanks to the Cadinal Archbishop of Milan, one of the famous Borromeo family (the ones who still own the islands in Lake Maggiore, and one of whom recently married the younger son of Princess Caroline of Monaco), lets Lucia go, and even provides her with a substantial dowry. And the Cardinal arranges for any charges against Renzo to be dropped.  Unfortunately, a load of people get the plague. Several characters, including Don Rodrigo, die, but Renzo and Lucia both survive, and duly get married and presumably do live happily ever after.

It really is very good! All right, you have to bear in mind that it was first published almost 200 years ago, and that the religious stuff and the melodrama stuff was a lot more typical of books of those days than it is of books of today, but it works well, and the historical background comes across very well indeed.   Read and enjoy! Highly recommended :-).

3 thoughts on “The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

  1. Chris Deeley

    Wow! What a great review! You have an unbelievable breadth and depth of historical knowledge. Are you perchance a professor of history (maybe retired)? I’ve been to Lake Como – what a lovely part of the world.

    Like

      • Chris Deeley

        There’s a lovely hotel on the edge of the lake: not Villa d’Este, but Villa Flori, which is a little closer to Como and has a ferry stop about 100 metres away. George Clooney’s place is between the two hotels.

        Like

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