The Betrothed

The Betrothed

infobox Book |
name = The Betrothed
title_orig = I Promessi Sposi
translator = Charles Swan

image_caption = Title page of the edition of 1842
author = Alessandro Manzoni
country = Italy
language = Italian
genre = Historical novel
publisher =
pub_date = 1827 (first version)
1842 (revised version)
(Title pages give wrong date because of delays in publication)
english_pub_date = 1828
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages =
isbn =
oclc =

"The Betrothed" (orig. _it. I Promessi Sposi) is an Italian historical novel by Alessandro Manzoni, first published in 1827, in three volumes. It has been called the most famous and widely read novel of the Italian language. [Archibald Colquhoun. "Manzoni and his Times." J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1954.] who

Set in northern Italy in 1628, during the terrible, oppressive years under Spanish rule, it is sometimes seen as a veiled attack on Austria, who controlled the region at the time of writing (the definitive version was published in 1842). It is also noted for the extraordinary description of the plague that struck Milan around 1630.

"The Betrothed" was inspired by Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" and was the first Italian historical novel. It deals with a variety of themes, from the cowardly, hypocritical nature of a priest (Don Abbondio) and the heroic sainthood of others (Padre Cristoforo, Federico Borromeo), to the unwavering strength of love (the relationship between Renzo and Lucia and the struggle of these betrothed to finally meet again and get married), and offers some keen insights into the meanderings of the human mind.

Although widely under-appreciated abroad, in Italy the novel is considered a real masterpiece of world literature and a basis for the modern Italian language, and as such widely read and studied in every school. Many expressions, quotes and names from the novel are still commonly used in Italian, such as "Perpetua" or "Questo matrimonio non s'ha da fare" ("This marriage is not to be performed", used ironically).

"I promessi sposi" was made into an opera of the same name by Amilcare Ponchielli in 1856 and by Errico Petrella in 1869. There have been many film versions of "I promessi sposi": 1909, 1913, 1923, 1941, 1964, etc.

Writing and publication

The idea for the novel came to Manzoni in 1821, from something he saw in a book he took on holiday with him to Brusuglio. This was an edict of 1627 (reprinted in Melchiorre Gioia's "Economia e Statistica") which specified penalties for any priest who refused to perform a marriage. More material came from Giuseppe Ripamonti's "Milanese Chronicles". [Archibald Colquhoun. "Manzoni and his Times." J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1954.]

The first version, "Fermo e Lucia", was written between April 1821 and September 1823. [Jean Pierre Barricelli. "Alessandro Manzoni." Twayne, Boston, 1976.] It was heavily revised, and finished in August 1825. Corrections and proof-checking took two years. The original title, "Gli Sposi Promessi", was changed for the sake of euphony shortly before its publication on 15 June 1827.

In the early 19th century, there was still some controversy as to what form the standard literary language of Italy should take. Manzoni was firmly in favour of the dialect of Florence, and after washing his vocabulary on the banks of the Arno (as he put it), he revised the novel for its republication in 1842.

Plot summary

Chapters 1-8: Flight from the village

Renzo and Lucia, a couple in an unnamed Lombard village, are planning to wed on 8 November 1628. The parish priest, Don Abbondio, is walking home on the previous evening when he is met by a pair of "bravoes" (thugs) who tell him he is not to perform the marriage, as the local baron forbids it.

The next day, Renzo is amazed when he turns up at Don Abbondio's home to hear that the marriage is to be "postponed". A long argument ensues and Renzo succeeds in extracting from the priest the name of Don Rodrigo. It turns out that Don Rodrigo has his eye on Lucia.

Lucia's mother, Agnese, advises Renzo to ask the advice of Dr Azzeccagarbugli ("Dr Quibbleweaver" in Colquhoun's translation), a lawyer in the town of Lecco. Dr Azzeccagarbugli is at first sympathetic, showing Renzo a recent edict on the subject of priests who refuse to marry, but when he hears the name of Don Rodrigo he panics and drives Renzo away. Lucia sends a message to Fra Cristoforo, a respected Capuchin friar at the monastery of Pescarenico, asking him to come as soon as he can.

At dawn, Fra Cristoforo arrives at Lucia's cottage and hears the story. He immediately leaves for Don Rodrigo's mansion, where he finds the baron at a meal with his cousin Count Attilio, along with four guests, including the mayor and Dr Azzeccagarbugli. When Don Rodrigo is taken aside by the friar, he explodes with anger at his presumption, and sends him away, but not before an old servant has a chance to offer him help.

Meanwhile, Agnese comes up with a plan. In those days, it was possible for two people to marry by declaring themselves married before a priest in the presence of two amenable witnesses. Renzo runs to his friend Tonio and offers him 25 lire if he agrees to help. When Fra Cristoforo returns with the bad news, they decide to put their plan into action.

The next morning, Lucia and Agnese are visited by beggars who are in fact Don Rodrigo's men in disguise, examining the house in order to plan an assault. Late at night, Agnese distracts the servant Perpetua while Tonio and his brother Gervaso enter Don Abbondio's study, ostensibly to pay a debt. They are followed indoors secretly by Lucia and Renzo. When they try to carry out their plan, the priest throws the tablecloth in Lucia's face, and drops the lamp, and they struggle in the darkness.

In the meantime, Don Rodrigo's men invade Lucia's house – but no-one is there. A boy named Menico arrives with a message of warning from Fra Cristoforo, and they seize him; but when they hear the alarm being raised by the sacristan, they assume they have been betrayed, and flee in confusion. Menico sees Agnese, Lucia and Renzo in the street and warns them not to return home. They go to the monastery, where Fra Cristoforo gives Renzo a letter of introduction to a certain friar at Milan, and another letter to the two women, to organise a refuge at a convent in the nearby city of Monza.

Chapters 9-10: the Nun of Monza

Lucia is entrusted to the nun Gertrude, a strange and unpredictable noblewoman whose story is told in these chapters.

A child of the most important family of the area, her father decided to send her to the cloisters for no other reason than to simplify his affairs: he wished to keep his properties united for his first-born, heir to the family's title and riches. As she grew up, she sensed that she was being forced by her parents into a life which would comport but little with her personality. However, fear of scandal, as well as manoeuvres and menaces from her father, induced Gertrude to lie to her interviewers in order to enter the convent of Monza, where she was received as "la Signora" ("the lady"). Later, she fell under the spell of a young man of no scruples, associated with the worst baron of that time, the "Innominato" (the Unnamed).

Chapters 11-17: Renzo in Milan

Renzo arrives in famine-stricken Milan and goes to the monastery, but the friar he is seeking is absent, and he wanders further into the city. A bakery in the Corsia de' Servi, "El prestin di scansc" ("Bakery of the Crutches"), is destroyed by a rabble, which then goes to the house of the Commissioner of Supply in order to lynch him. He is saved in the nick of time by Ferrer, the Grand Chancellor, who arrives in a coach and announces he is taking the Commissioner to prison. Renzo becomes prominent as he helps Ferrer make his way through the crowd.

After witnessing these scenes, Renzo joins in a lively discussion and reveals views which attract the notice of a police agent in search of a scapegoat. The agent tries to lead Renzo directly to "the best inn" (i.e. prison) but Renzo is tired and stops at one nearby, where after being plied with drink he reveals his full name and address. The next morning he is woken by a notary and two bailiffs, who handcuff him and start to take him away. In the street Renzo announces loudly that he is being punished for his heroism the day before, and with the aid of sympathetic onlookers he effects his escape. Leaving the city by the same gate he entered, he sets off for Bergamo, knowing that his cousin Bortolo lives in a village nearby, where he will be beyond the reach of the authorities of Milan (under Spanish domination), as Bergamo is territory of the Most Serene Republic of Venice.

At an inn in Gorgonzola, he overhears a conversation which makes it clear to him how much trouble he is in, and he walks all night until he reaches the River Adda. After a short sleep in a hut he crosses the river at dawn in the boat of a fisherman, and makes his way to his cousin's house, where he is welcomed as a silk-weaver under the pseudonym of Antonio Rivolta. The same day, orders for Renzo's arrest reach the town of Lecco, to the delight of Don Rodrigo.

Chapters 18-24: Lucia and the Unnamed

News of Renzo's disgrace comes to the convent, but later Lucia is informed that Renzo is safe with his cousin. Their reassurance is short-lived: when they receive no word from Fra Cristoforo for a long time, Agnese travels to Pescarenico, where she learns that he has been ordered by a superior to the town of Rimini. In fact, this has been engineered by Don Rodrigo and Count Attilio, who have leaned on a mutual uncle of the Secret Council, who has leaned on the Father Provincial. Meanwhile, Don Rodrigo has organised a plot to kidnap Lucia from the convent. This involves a very great robber baron whose name has not been recorded, and who hence is called "l'Innominato", the Unnamed.

Gertrude, blackmailed by Egidio, a male neighbour (and acquaintance of "l'Innominato") whose attentions she has returned, persuades Lucia to run an errand which will take her outside of the convent for a short while. In the street Lucia is seized and bundled into a coach. After a nightmarish journey, during which she vows to take the veil if she is delivered from her predicament, Lucia arrives at the castle of the Unnamed, where she is locked up in a chamber.

The Unnamed is troubled by the sight of her, and spends a horrible night in which memories of his past and the uncertainty of his future almost drive him to suicide. Towards the morning, on looking out of his window he sees throngs of people walking past. They are going to listen to the famous Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo. On impulse, the Unnamed leaves his castle in order to meet this man. This meeting prompts a "miraculous" conversion which marks the turning-point of the novel. The Unnamed announces to his men that his reign of terror is over. He decides to take Lucia back to her native land under his own protection, and with the help of the archbishop the deed is done.

Chapters 25-27: Fall of Don Rodrigo

The astonishing course of events leads to an atmosphere in which Don Rodrigo can be defied openly, and his fortunes take a turn for the worse. Don Abbondio is reprimanded by the archbishop.

Lucia, miserable about her vow to renounce Renzo, still frets about him. He is now the subject of diplomatic conflict between Milan and Bergamo. Her life is not improved when a wealthy busybody, Donna Prassede, insists on taking her into her household, and admonishing her for getting mixed up with a good-for-nothing like Renzo.

Chapters 28-30: Famine and War

The government of Milan is unable to keep bread prices down by decree, and the city is swamped by beggars. The "lazzaretto" is filled with the hungry and sick.

Meanwhile the Thirty Years War brings more calamities. In September 1629, German armies under Count Rambaldo di Collalto descend into Italy, looting and destroying. Agnese, Don Abbondio and Perpetua take refuge in the well-defended territory of the Unnamed. In their absence their village is wrecked by the mercenaries.

Chapters 31-33: Plague

These chapters are occupied with an account of the plague of 1630, largely based on Giuseppe Ripamonti's "De peste quae fuit anno 1630" (published in 1640). Manzoni's full version of this, "Storia della Colonna Infame", was finished in 1829, but not published until it was included as an appendix to the revised edition of 1842.

The end of August 1630 sees the death in Milan of the original villains of the story. Renzo, troubled by Agnese's letters, and recovering from plague, returns to his native village to find that many of the inhabitants are dead and that his house and vineyard have been destroyed. The warrant, and Don Rodrigo, are forgotten. Tonio tells him that Lucia is in Milan.

Chapters 34-38: Conclusion

On his arrival in Milan, Renzo is astonished at the state of the city. His highland clothes invite suspicion that he is an "anointer": that is, a foreign agent deliberately spreading plague in some way. He learns that Lucia is now languishing at the "lazzaretto" along with 16,000 other victims of the plague.

But in fact, Lucia is already recuperating. Renzo and Lucia are reunited by Fra Cristoforo, but only after Renzo first visits and forgives the dying Don Rodrigo. The friar absolves her from her vow of celibacy. Renzo walks through a rainstorm to see Agnese at the village of Pasturo. When they all return to their native village, Lucia and Renzo are finally married by Don Abbondio, and the couple make a fresh start at a silk-mill at the gates of Bergamo.


*Lorenzo Tramaglino, or in short form Renzo is a young silk-weaver of humble origins, engaged to Lucia, whom he loves deeply. Initially rather naive, he becomes more cunning throughout the novel as he is confronted with many difficulties: he is separated from Lucia and then unjustly accused of being a criminal. Renzo is somewhat short-tempered, but also gentle and honest.

*Lucia Mondella is a pious and kind young woman who loves Renzo. She is forced to flee from her town to escape from Don Rodrigo in one of the most famous scenes of Italian literature, the "Addio ai Monti" or "Farewell to the mountains."

* Don Abbondio is the priest who refuses to marry Renzo and Lucia because he has been threatened by Don Rodrigo's men; he meets the two protagonists several times during the novel. The cowardly, morally mediocre Don Abbondio provides most of the book's comic relief; however, he is not merely a stock character, as his moral failings are portrayed by Manzoni with a mixture of irony, sadness and pity, as has been noted by Luigi Pirandello in his essay "On Humour" ("Saggio sull'Umorismo").

*Fra Cristoforo is a brave and generous friar who helps Renzo and Lucia, acting as a sort of "father figure" to both and as the moral compass of the novel. Fra Cristoforo was the son of a wealthy family, and joined the Capuchin Order after killing a man.

*Don Rodrigo is a cruel and despicable nobleman and the novel's main villain. He decides to prevent with the force Renzo and Lucia's marriage, threatens to kill Don Abbondio if he marries the two and tries to kidnap Lucia.
*L'Innominato (literally: the Unnamed) is probably the novel's most complex character, a powerful and feared criminal who is torn between his ferocious past and the increasing disgust he feels for his life. Based on the historical character of Francesco Bernardino Visconti [In September 1832, Manzoni wrote in a letter to his friend Cesare Cantù: "L'Innominato è certamente Bernardino Visconti. Per l'"æqua potestas quidlibet audendi" ho trasportato il suo castello nella Valsassina." ("The Unnamed is certainly Bernardino Visconti. For the equal right to dare to do anything [a reference to Horace's "Ars Poetica", v. 10] , I transported his castle in the Valsassina"). The letter is numbered 1613 (page 443) in the 1986 edition by Cesare Arieti & Dante Isella of Manzoni's letters.] , who was really converted by a visit of Federico Borromeo.

* Agnese is Lucia's wise mother.

* Federico Borromeo is a virtuous and zealous cardinal. Historical character.

*Perpetua is Don Abbondio's loquacious servant.

*La Monaca di Monza (the Nun of Monza) is a tragic figure, a bitter, frustrated and ambiguous woman. She befriends Lucia and becomes genuinely fond of her, but her dark past still haunts her. Based on a historical character.

*Griso is one of Don Rodrigo's henchmen, a silent and traitorous man.

*Dr Azzecca-garbugli ("Quibble-weaver") is a corrupt lawyer.

*Count Attilio is Don Rodrigo's malevolent cousin.

*Nibbio (Kite - the bird) is the Innominato's right-hand man.

*Don Ferrante is a phony intellectual and erudite scholar who believes the plague is caused by astrological forces.

*Donna Prassede is Don Ferrante's wife, who is willing to help Lucia but is also a slightly arrogant bigot.

English translations

*"The Betrothed Lovers" (1828), by Rev. Charles Swan, published at Pisa
*Three new translations (1834)
*Two new translations (1844, 1845); the 1844 translation was the one most reprinted in the 19th century
*"The Betrothed" (1924), by Daniel J. Connor
*"The Betrothed" (1951), by Archibald Colquhoun


"After a long debating and searching together, they concluded that troubles often come, yes, because we've given us a cause; but that the most cautious and innocent conduct isn't enough to keep them away; and that when they come, with guilt or without guilt, the trust in God sweetens them, and makes them useful for a better life. This conclusion, although found by poor people, has seemed us so just, that we have thought to put it there, as the juice of all the story." (Second-last paragraph)


External links

* [ English translation of "The Betrothed"]
* [ A review of "The Betrothed"] written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1835 and published in the "Southern Literary Messenger".
* [ Audiobook] -- complete reading -- MP3 Creative Commons

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