As an author, Alessandro Manzoni was acutely aware of the difficulties of chronicling the past. His masterpiece The Betrothed, published in the early 19th century, recounts events that happened 200 years previously. At the beginning of the novel, the author describes history as “an illustrious war against time” – reflecting the struggle to bring the past back to life before people and events become obscured in its mists.
The Betrothed is the most widely-read novel in the Italian language and a standard textbook in Italian schools. But the prominence of the book, which is said to have Dante and Shakespeare as its two main reference points, has diminished.
Even less resilient in the memory is Manzoni’s role in the emergence of a common Italian identity.
Garibaldi’s military campaigns provided the physical force for unification, the politicians constructed and administered the nascent state afterwards, but Manzoni – more than anyone else – gave the country a heart, cultural soul and a language.
The announcement in October of the reopening of his house in Milan after extensive restoration should therefore be seen as an important victory in this “war against time”. The author lived there for more than 60 years right up until his death in 1873. It is where he started writing The Betrothed in 1823 and completed the revision process which led to the publication of the novel in 1827.
The leading Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo joined forces with the Fondazione Centro Nazionale Studi Manzoniani to restore the house as a cultural centre. At the reopening, the bank’s chairman of the supervisory board, Giovanni Bazoli, made clear that it is a way to safeguard the memory of Manzoni for future generations, suggesting that it will ensure:
“His work can continue to inspire our consciences and our actions today”.
He said that the house is a symbol of identity and history for both Milan and Italy, noting that Manzoni was committed not just to cultural renewal but strove for moral regeneration within a unified country. “Through the creation of a language which was to become the basis for a unified Italy, he made a leading contribution to the formation of a modern national awareness,” Bazoli added.
In The Betrothed, Manzoni used the fictitious discovery of a manuscript from the 17th century as his way into the description of past events. Using a technique tried by Cervantes, Aristotle and Sir Walter Scott, Manzoni pretended that the story of Lucia and Renzo’s struggle to marry despite the tortuous machinations of a rich and evil nobleman – Don Rodrigo – had been written by someone else.
Drafted in the Italian of Milan and northern Italy, Manzoni decided to rework it in Dante’s language, as spoken in Tuscany. He travelled to Florence before completing the novel to immerse himself in the local dialect, telling his mother in a letter that he was going to sciaquare i panni in Arno (literally, “rinse clothes in the Arno”), meaning that he intended to wash the text in the city’s river to purify it with a more refined Italian.
Manzoni’s conversion to Catholicism, said to have happened in 1810, was another important influence on the writing of The Betrothed. It is a moral tale about ordinary people striving in a world of injustice and cruelty. He highlighted the hardship of life in 17th-century Lombardy under Spanish rule, deliberately evoking the suffering of people of his own time under the Austrians.
The restoration of the house, which was entirely financed by Intesa Sanpaolo, involved renovating the building and its surroundings. But it was also intended to make it more accessible and improve the use of the spaces, including the museum, inside.
It is part of a project of Intesa Sanpaolo, aimed at restoring important parts of Italy's heritage, providing access to them and highlighting their cultural significance.
Manzoni wrote The Betrothed at a time of political upheaval, social unrest and insecurity. His reference to history as a war against time was developed further by his criticism of historians as “illustrious champions” who record only the major events and their effects on important personalities. The ambition to show Manzoni’s house, and through it his life and works, to as many people as possible is very much in keeping with the author’s view that ordinary people matter just as much as famous ones.
History in bricks and mortar
Manzoni bought the house in via Morone 1 in 1813. It was chosen because of its central location, close to Milan’s La Scala opera house, libraries, bookshops and a close circle of friends. Subsequently, it was acquired by a count, Bernardo Arnaboldi, and then by Cariplo, the Lombardy savings bank which later donated the property to Milan city council on the understanding that it would become a museum.
Manzoni’s life in his Milan home was punctuated by frequent periods of family grief. His first wife, Henriette Blondel, died in 1833, and his second wife, Teresa Borri, also pre-deceased him in 1861. Of his nine children, only two outlived their father, and the death of his eldest son in 1873 probably contributed to his subsequent decline in health.
Manzoni was part of Il Risorgimento, the unification movement, but refrained from publicly expressing or demonstrating his allegiance. Instead he had meetings with like-minded intellectuals and writers at home. On the fifth day of the Cinque Giornate di Milano, a five-day rebellion against Austrian rule, a crowd is said to have gathered at his house to express solidarity with the writer.
As part of the building’s restoration, all the material about his life and work has been rearranged. Paintings depicting the author, his family and friends, pictures of the places in Milan he used to frequent and parts of his large collection of books are all on display in different sections.
* Casa Manzoni, Via Gerolamo Morone 1, 20121 Milan. Open Tuesday-Friday, 10am-6pm; Saturday, 2pm-6pm; entry is free. casadelmanzoni.it
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