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Most Shameful Excesses

On Alessandro Manzoni.


The Betrothed
Alessandro Manzoni (Translated by Michael F. Moore)
Modern Library, pp. 704, $28.99

Alessandro Manzoni’s novel I promessi sposi (usually translated into English as The Betrothed) was first published in 1827 and is celebrated as both the first modern Italian novel and one of the greatest literary works in the Catholic tradition. If you cannot understand Italian, you should read Archibald Colquhoun’s stylish 1951 translation (reprinted in 2013 by Everyman’s Library). Other, more recent versions may be more accurate; but Colquhoun’s version feels and sounds like Manzoni in ways that its successors rarely do. In 1954, Colquhoun followed up his translation with Manzoni and His Times: A Biography of the Author of The Betrothed. There is no more readable introduction to Manzoni in English. Colquhoun was not a Catholic; like many of Manzoni’s twentieth-century champions he was skeptical of Christianity. This leads him to highlight material that many of Manzoni’s more orthodox apologists would prefer to ignore.

Catholic readers of Colquhoun’s biography will be taken aback by certain details: Manzoni, for all his piety and devotion to prayer, scornfully dismissed the Rosary as the “psalter of the ignorant.” His political opinions too may surprise self-consciously traditionalist Catholics. It seems difficult to square all of Colquhoun’s revelations with I promessi sposi itself, which deserves pride of place in every Catholic home. But what are we to make of its author? Alessandro Manzoni turns out to have been, among other things, a self-described Jansenist. Jansenist Catholicism as Manzoni believed in and practiced, while tolerated grudgingly by some of the Church hierarchy in his day, was very likely heretical (in the strong sense of the term). Yet nineteenth-century “Liberal Catholicism” is incomprehensible to anyone who has not studied the Jansenists.

Jansenism is often confused with Calvinism, and the doctrines formulated by John Calvin. Like the Jansenists, Calvin regarded himself as an orthodox interpreter of the authentic teachings of Saint Augustine, at least with respect to God’s Grace, and the salvation of souls. Yet the association is misleading in many ways. For all the shared focus on a strictly Augustinian view of God’s Grace, and the superficial common ground between the Calvinists and Jansenists in terms of moral rigidity and a highly regulated daily life, it would be unwise to ignore the unbridgeable gap between the two positions. Jansenists were Catholics: they believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, whereas Calvinists continue to believe in the Mass, not as a sacrificial rite, but as a mere ritual of remembrance. Calvinists take radically different views of all the sacraments, beginning with the purpose and meaning of baptism, and reject Catholic dogmas on saints, the priesthood, and any number of foundational issues. To equate the two positions is to be slanderous in the eyes of both sides. The comparison is ultimately too vague.

Jansenism arose as a response not only to the rise of Protestantism but to the practices of the Jesuits, many of whom helped justify moral laxity among the wealthy. As the Jesuits gained influence, and began to supply confessors to powerful families, they were cautious not to impose too rigorous a morality on their high-society penitents. By allowing penitents the benefit of the doubt, Jesuit schools of thought protected them (in theory) from any errors of judgement on the part of their confessors that might cause them to be refused absolution, and thus cut off from the sacraments. But of course this only worked if those who had sinned were truly repentant. It was not meant to invite either penitents or their confessors to twist facts, or find obscure but favorable opinions to let sinners off the hook.

The Jansenist movement originated with two friends who met as theology students either in Paris or Louvain. Monsignor Cornelius Jansen, or Jansenius, as he is commonly known, came from a modest background, but eventually rose to become Bishop of Ypres. Jean Duvergier de Hauranne was the son of minor Basque nobles; in 1620 he became Commendatory Abbot of Saint-Cyran, and so is traditionally referred to as Saint-Cyran, or l’Abbé de Saint-Cyran. Saint-Cyran acted as his friend’s patron for a few years, then invited him to his family seat, where they spent three years intensely studying the works of the early Church Fathers, particularly Saint Augustine. Jansenism as a set of doctrines originates from Jansenius’s posthumously published study Augustinus; as a distinct spirituality and mode of life it developed from 1633, when Saint-Cyran served as confessor and spiritual director to the nuns at Port-Royal. 

In 1625 the abbey of Port-Royal moved to Paris; the original site, Port-Royal-des-Champs, became an ascetic community for laymen who took no vows but lived in seclusion as the “Solitaries” of Port-Royal. The Solitaries were, for the most part, cultured men from distinguished families; they founded and staffed a school where Jean Racine, greatest of French tragedians, received his classical education. Blaise Pascal was never one of the Solitaries; but after his famous conversion on the night of  November 23, 1654, he made frequent retreats at Port-Royal-des-Champs, and would become one of the Jansenists’ fiercest champions in his polemical Lettres provinciales.

The story of the Jansenists’ struggle with the Jesuits, the Vatican, and the French king, and the destruction of Port-Royal-des-Champs in 1709, can be difficult to follow. In the eighteenth century, as Jansenism lost its influence and was subject to various sanctions, it developed offshoots and mutations that were occasionally unfortunate; the most embarrassing of these was the “Convulsionnaire” (convulsionary) movement centred round the tomb of the eccentric, reclusive, self-flagellating Jansenist ascetic abbé François de Pâris at the church of Saint-Médard in Paris. Pilgrims gathered at the tomb and had convulsions, spoke in tongues, or displayed behavior that seemed to some miraculous but in other eyes looked more like mass hysteria. Voltaire’s brother Armand Arouet  was associated with these convulsionaries; so were countless other respectable people. The Jansenists on the one hand were cultivating a kind of superstitious folk piety that was unknown to the nuns and Solitaries of Port-Royal-des-Champs. On the other hand, they were developing an anti-authoritarian political streak, which was largely a response to perceived persecution at the hands of the Vatican, the French crown, and the Jesuits. The Jansenists sometimes openly defied the authority not only of the Crown but of the Vatican itself; in general they were anti-absolutist (as opposed to anti-authoritarian); many of them drifted towards anti-monarchist positions. Throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Jansenists became increasingly allied with liberal, radical, and even revolutionary political ideas, despite the uneasiness among cultured intellectuals with the populist and superstitious elements in Jansenist spirituality. But some philosophes openly admired their rigor and discipline, and openly compared them to the ancient Stoics.

Liberal reformers agreed with the Jansenist disdain for worldly and material interests within the Catholic Church, as well as Jansenists’ contempt for State hierarchy and State favors, the Jansenists’ apparently disinterested devotion to public affairs, and above all their insistence on convictions and first principles, and their sometimes showily austere way of life. That said, there were obvious irreconcilable differences between Jansenist Catholicism and the liberal individualism and Deist or atheist materialism of the philosophes.

Italian Jansenists and Jansenist sympathizers tended to be opposed to the notion of the Pope as a temporal ruler, and to the very existence of the Papal States. Alessandro Manzoni’s friend Father Antonio Rosmini was deeply influenced by Jansenist ideas and practices, and generally hostile to anything associated with the Jesuits, who tended towards absolutist and reactionary political positions throughout the nineteenth century. But Jansenism in its strong form died out during Manzoni’s lifetime; these tendencies and practices drifted into the Liberal Catholic movement, which was an attempt to reconcile revolutionary republicanism with an authentically devout, rigorous adherence to the traditional teachings of the Church. 

To understand how the most beloved of all Catholic novelists might have ever become involved in any of this, it is necessary to understand Manzoni’s relationship with his mother and her family, through whom he was associated with important circles of anticlerical and republican intellectuals in Milan and Paris. Manzoni’s maternal grandfather was the jurist and criminologist Cesare Beccaria, Marchese di Gualdrasco e Villareggio. Beccaria remains best-known for his influential treatise on prison reform Dei delitti e delle pene, which called for reform of criminal law and abolition of the death penalty. He also maintained that torture was barbaric. The treatise was quickly translated into many languages; the French edition included a commentary by Voltaire. When he visited Paris, Beccaria was treated as a celebrity by the intelligentsia; Diderot, Helvétius, and Holbach all paid him homage, as did David Hume (then chargé d’affaires to the British ambassador).

Beccaria was also one of the co-founders of a short-lived but highly influential intellectual journal, Il Caffè, which was published from 1764 to 1766. Liberal members of the Milanese aristocracy were equally interested in the Scottish Enlightenment and the writings of the French philosophes. But until the advent of this journal there had been no real focus or direction to their liberalism beyond a vague intellectual Francophilia and an inclination towards the practical reform of various institutions along scientifically informed lines. Il Caffè was in some senses a literary project: in form, tone, and general approach the essays were inspired by the Tatler and Spectator. Italian literary and intellectual prose of the period tended to be fussy, pompous, and verbose; one of the aims of Il Caffè was to feature writing with simpler rhetoric and clearer style. But this periodical was in no way dominated by belles-lettres or artistic or humanistic concerns. Intellectually it was equally derivative of Edinburgh, London, and Paris-based theorists and philosophers in its attention to economic theories, jurisprudence, political economy, and evidence-driven theories of reforming society. Although Il Caffè was short-lived, the circle of intellectuals that grew around it developed into the principal reform-minded group within the Milanese establishment. During the French Revolution, Beccaria and his associates were denounced as Jacobins. This is not generally true: although there were a few genuine radicals among them, the most influential Milanese liberals favoured relatively moderate reform; the majority among them seem to have welcomed the advent of Napoleon.

Manzoni’s direct ties to French rationalist circles were established by his mother, who became friendly with Sophie de Condorcet, widow of Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, the rationalist philosopher, mathematician, and Girondin leader who died in prison during the Terror. The Marquis de Condorcet was an economic liberal with influential ideas on constitutional government. 
His widow translated Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and remained influential throughout her life as a prominent salon hostess. Madame de Condorcet was at the centre of a group known as the Société des Idéologues, which was founded by Antoine Destutt, Comte de Tracy. Destutt de Tracy coined the term “ideology” to describe the study of the nature and origin of ideas. He was a social theorist as well as a philosopher; he and his group were openly atheist, anticlerical, republican, and focused on a laissez-faire approach to economic policy. The Idéologues were most influential in the early years of the nineteenth century until Napoleon decisively turned against them, mocking them openly in public. With the Bourbon Restoration they lost all remaining political power, but retained considerable social and intellectual prestige as the liveliest liberal intellectual circle in Paris; Stendhal frequented the Idéologues’ salon for a time, as he recounts in Souvenirs d’égotisme, his memoir of his life in Paris throughout the 1820s.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Austrian occupying forces in Lombardy would suspect Manzoni of maintaining contact with subversive groups. This was inevitable, given his connections through his mother and maternal grandfather to élite liberal and republican intellectual circles, and his own friendships with figures who were vocally opposed to the Austrian occupation. Also, Manzoni was very well acquainted with the founders and editors of Il Conciliatore, a literary and intellectual journal that was published fortnightly between September 1818 and October 1819. He knew many or most of the writers. Il Conciliatore was only implicitly political: its position was liberal, Romantic, anti-authoritarian, and generally progressive in its way, but the editors took care never to criticize the government except to hint at possible reforms. The intended audience was more the Lombard bourgeoisie than the liberal aristocrats of Milan. Still, the Austrian secret police noted that all the major opponents to the Austrian occupation happened to be either subscribers or active contributors to Il Conciliatore. Although he naturally distanced himself from radical anticlericalism after his conversion, Manzoni remained personally close to intellectuals who maintained the positions that he had repudiated. His confessors, spiritual directors, and clerical friends tended to Jansenists, so that he was never tempted to adopt absolutist, Ultramontane, or otherwise reactionary opinions. In French Revolutionary terms, Manzoni’s sympathies consistently remained with the Girondins, who were (in modern terms) right-wing classical liberals favouring a separation of Church and State, an independent national church and a constitutional government. 

Manzoni’s background and these sympathies make it all the more strange that he became the pre-eminent Catholic novelist of the nineteenth century. His first forays into the literary world were as a lyric poet. His earliest surviving verses are fiercely anti-Catholic, anti-clerical, and anti-religious, as might be expected from a teenager in that world who was besotted with Napoleon. At the time Manzoni’s principal influences included the Piedmontese tragedian Count Vittorio Alfieri and the Lombard neoclassical poet Giuseppe Parini. In terms of living literary mentors, Manzoni enjoyed the guidance of Vincenzo Monti, who was technically brilliant but lacking in firm principles, and the passionate, turbulent Napoleon-worshipping soldier-poet Ugo Foscolo. During this period Manzoni began to develop strong views about the Italian language. This was mainly the result of his sojourn in Venice during the winter of 1803–1804. He stayed with a cousin, and was enchanted by the Venetian dialect. This was also his first exposure to the plain-spoken, down-to-earth comedies of Carlo Goldoni, whose realism and sheer purity of language had a great impact on him. Goldoni was never one of Manzoni’s major avowed influences; though the humility and realism of Goldoni’s approach, and his refreshingly simple dialogue, appear to have decisively shaped Manzoni’s tastes and style.  

In 1805, Donna Giulia Manzoni’s lover Count Imbonati died. Manzoni went to Paris to be with his mother, and would spend most of the next five years there. Count Imbonati left his entire fortune to Donna Giulia; Don Pietro Manzoni died in March 1807, leaving his entire fortune to his son. 
Manzoni became intimately associated with the Idéologues; Mme de Condorcet’s lover, Claude Fauriel, became his closest friend. Fauriel was a former Jacobin; in 1830 he would become a professor of foreign literatures at the Sorbonne. Once Manzoni had buried his father decently and come into his inheritance, Donna Giulia decided that he should marry, and selected Henriette Blondel as his bride. Henriette’s family were Swiss merchants and bankers; indeed, the Blondels’ agents in Paris were Donna Giulia’s own bankers. The Blondels were Calvinists: this resulted a scandal in Milanese society when, on February 6, 1808, Don Alessandro and Henriette were married, first in a civil ceremony at the Town Hall, then in an austere ritual with a Calvinist minister in the Blondels’ drawing-room.

In Paris, Henriette became attracted to Catholicism through a Swiss friend who was friendly with Father Eustachio Dègola, a Genoese priest who was perhaps the most prominent of Italian Jansenists. In August 1809, Manzoni’s first child was baptized in the Catholic Church; the following month, the still-unbelieving Manzoni officially requested a re-celebration of his marriage in the Catholic Church. Later that year, Henriette formally abjured Calvinism.

Manzoni’s own spiritual conversion to Catholicism took place in April 1810. He and Henriette had joined the crowds in Paris celebrating the marriage of Napoleon to Marie-Louise. During a fireworks display, a stray rocked swerved into the crowd, causing a stampede. Henriette was swept away by the mass of people. Manzoni panicked, and ducked into the nearby church of Saint-Roch, where a Benediction service was taking place. He prayed to God for his wife to be returned safely to him. When he went back home, he found Henriette patiently waiting for him. The following week Manzoni began formal instruction with Father Dègola.

In June 1810, Manzoni, his wife and the newly Jansenist Donna Giulia left Paris and settled at Count Imbonati’s estate at Brusuglio. The family confessor and spiritual director was Monsignor Luigi Tosi, who was then a Canon of the Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan, and would be installed as Bishop of Pavia in 1823. Tosi was an old-fashioned Jansenist: politically very conservative, he had no time for radical or republican ideas. He would have a great influence on Manzoni’s studies and literary output. In 1815, Manzoni published his five Inni Sacri, which won him the admiration of both Goethe and Stendhal. Henceforth Goethe would be a champion of his work. But the influence of Tosi was causing some strain. Manzoni’s literary and intellectual circles in Milan and Paris remained predominantly atheist and anticlerical; although his wife and mother were strict in their devotions, they do not seem to have had very many devout friends, other than the clergy who had an increasing influence over their lives. In 1817, Tosi took Manzoni’s prized edition of the complete works of Voltaire and burned it volume by volume.

Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi, the Genevan historian and political economist, was one of the Geneva correspondents for Il Conciliatore. His multi-volume history of Italian republics in the Middle Ages would be the principal source for Manzoni’s tragedy Carmagnola. But the main reason Manzoni was so intimately familiar with Sismondi’s writings is that he was induced by Tosi to attack its distorted vision of Catholicism and the Church. Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica was published in 1819. After publishing this apologetic, Manzoni resumed work on more congenial projects. Carmagnola was published in 1820; in 1821 he completed his celebrated ode “Il Cinque Maggio” on the death of Napoleon; he finished his tragedy Adelchi the following year. Goethe was now enthusiastically championing his work, even though Manzoni’s talent was more for lyric than dramatic poetry. His tragedies are interesting as exercises in “Shakespearean” Romanticism, but survive only as curiosities in literary history.

Manzoni did not understand how to write for the stage. Disappointed by the reception for his tragedies, he abandoned work on a third that he had begun drafting on the Roman gladiator and revolutionary Spartacus. Instead, he decided to work on a novel. In a letter to Claude Fauriel he wrote:

I scarcely dare to add yet another few words on literary projects. To do so shows a real longing to become a major author, which I have. You must know then that I am in the middle of a novel, whose story is set in Lombardy between 1628 and 1631.

The memoirs that have come down to us from that period give a picture of a society in an extraordinary state: utterly arbitrary government combining feudal with popular anarchy; laws that are astounding both in their aims and their results; deep, ferocious, pretentious ignorance; classes with opposing interests and principles; some little-known anecdotes, preserved in reliable documents, that reveal all of this to a great extent; and a plague which gives rise to the most shameful excesses, the most absurd prejudices and the most touching virtues, etc. etc.... This is the material to fill a canvas, or rather this is the material that might only serve to demonstrate the incompetence of the man who sets to work on it . . . 

I flatter myself that I shall at least avoid the charge of imitation. To this end I am immersing myself as far as I can in the spirit of the era which I have to describe, so I can live in it; this spirit was so one-of-a-kind that it will be entirely my fault if I fail to communicate this quality when I describe it. I think the best way not to do as others do with respect to the sequence of events and the plot will be to make myself think about the way people behave in real life, particularly in areas where real life opposes the spirit of fiction. In every novel I read, I seem to glimpse efforts to establish interesting and unexpected connections between the various characters, to bring them onstage with others, to find events which at some point affect all of them and their various destinies to reveal what is in truth an artificial unity that is not to be found in real life. I am aware that such a unity pleases the reader, but this seems to me the result of ingrained habit. I know that this is considered a virtue in some works of genuine high quality, but reckon that it will one day be criticised, and that this means of connecting events will then be cited as an example of the way fashion influences even the freest and most highly cultivated spirits, and of the sacrifices made in the name of taste. 

I promessi sposi was inspired by a seventeenth-century edict that Manzoni read in the 1821 study Dell’ingiuria, dei danni, del soddisfacimento e relative basi di stima avanti i tribunali civili by the Milanese economist Melchiorre Gioia, who had found it in Muratori’s Annali d’Italia. Manzoni’s great friend Father Rosmini would later dismiss Gioia as a charlatan, and consider him a personal enemy; but at this point Father Rosmini and Manzoni had not yet met (their first encounter was in 1826). Of particular interest in this study was Gioia’s emphasis on laws that had been imposed on societies by foreign occupiers, particularly when legislators paid no attention to local customs or realities. Manzoni’s principal historical sources for I promessi sposi were the histories of the Milanese Church and the plague of 1630 by Father Giuseppe Ripamonti, a member of the famous College of Doctors at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. These gave him the outlines of his narrative; he filled in details with exhaustive research into archival sources as well as contemporary studies on law, economics, and medicine. In another letter to Claude Fauriel he wrote:

To show you briefly what my main idea about historical novels is, I will tell you that I think of them as representing a state of society through actions and characters that are so close to reality that they could be taken for genuine historical texts. When historical events and characters are added to this mixture, it seems to me that they ought to be represented with the strictest historical accuracy; in this respect Richard Coeur-de-Lion in Ivanhoe seems lacking. 

On September 17, 1823, Manzoni finished the first draft of I promessi sposi. Fauriel spent over a year and a half, from November 1823 to summer 1825, at Manzoni’s estate at Brusuglio working with his friend on the manuscript. In August 1825, the corrected text was given to a copyist; in October it was handed over to a printer; but corrections took a great deal of time, and I promessi sposi was finally published in June 1827. It was initially controversial in clerical circles, and at one point was allegedly almost placed on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum; but by 1830 even the Jesuits were celebrating it as a triumph of Catholic literature. Manzoni’s harshest critics turned out to be his former allies among liberal and anti-clerical intellectuals. Also, his Jansenist spiritual director and spiritual advisors remained dubious about the value of novels. Father Rosmini was one of few clergy in his orbit who approved wholeheartedly of I promessi sposi.

The rest of Manzoni’s life is principally of interest to specialists in the Italian language and historians of the reunification of Italy; after the publication of his great novel he dried up artistically, and wrote no more fiction or verse. Henriette’s sudden death on Christmas Day 1833 shattered him; the last forty years of his life were grimly melancholy. On Epiphany 1873 he slipped outside a church; he died on May 22, aged eighty-nine. On December 31, 1875, Gustave Flaubert wrote a letter to George Sand in which he famously asserted: “L’homme n’est rien, l’oeuvre tout!” (“The man is nothing; his work is everything.”) When you compare the delightfully entertaining I promessi sposi to the sad, dour man who wrote it, you see how Flaubert may have had a point. Whatever Manzoni’s personal shortcomings, his great novel demonstrates deep sympathy and wisdom, and can help direct readers towards the only truth that matters. 

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

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Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. 

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