The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni: An Italian Classic

Review: The Betrothed (I Promessi sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni

Translated by Michael F. Moore (2022)

My Quick Take: Thwarted lovers, scheming aristocracy that you love to hate, cowardice and bravery! Lots to love in this classic Italian novel. And there’s a plague too.


I had never heard of The Betrothed, an Italian classic whose definitive edition was published in 1842. I chose the 2022 Moore translation, because the translator hosted the slow group read of this book with A Public Space and it was fantastic!

Seriously, this is a very readable, engaging book if you’re interested in dipping your feet into the classics world, and you can still go to the APS Together archive and follow the daily schedule and comments. It is kind of strange that it isn’t better known. Translated classics from Dumas to Dante spring easily to mind, but on an informal survey of friends, no one had heard of The Betrothed, save my husband’s Italian coworker, who promptly expressed disdain for it after being forced to read it in her Italian high school. I can understand that.

Though written in the 19th century, the action is set around 1630, when Italy was under Spanish rule. The novel’s premise is that Manzoni has found a manuscript presumably in a neglected corner of a library that relates a fascinating tale, but there’s a problem. Manzoni finds it terribly written:
“’s so common! So vulgar! So full of mistakes! Lombard idioms abound! Malapropisms, arbitrary grammar, mangled sentences…he manages to sound both uncouth and affected on the same page, in the same sentence, and in the same word. Out come the bombastic declamations, composed of pedestrian solecisms, and everywhere the ambitious awkwardness…In short, it would be unpresentable to today’s readers.”
Instead of tossing it aside to be forgotten, he decides to rewrite it and present the best parts of the story. The "fictional" Manzoni is quite self-congratulatory about the whole thing. It’s an auspicious, tongue-in-cheek Introduction to this story, one that proves to be entertaining and well-written indeed.

Renzo, a working-class small town boy is head over heels in love with Lucia, a young woman ensconced in village life and living with her ever-resourceful mother Agnese. Renzo and Lucia just want to get married. Simple, you’d think! Not so. Local aristocratic villain Don Rodrigo has decided Lucia should be his (dishonourably, to be sure) out of sheer, stupid boredom and for his own amusement. Local priest Don Abbondio is intimidated into not marrying them on pain of death…and thus our scene is set.

The action moves around the Italian countryside as the characters try their best to escape the evil Don Rodrigo while desperately trying to tie the knot, with Milan a key setting. I enjoyed the humour, but there’s pathos aplenty too. Local priest Don Abbondio shows us cowardice, and though we may view him with disdain, I think he represents our often hidden, less noble selves. Contrast him with the noble priest Fra Christoforo, who stands up to Don Rodrigo’s plots and helps the lovers. He embodies the human ideal, a self-sacrificing agent of the divine.

But to me, the most interesting character in The Betrothed was “The Nameless One,” a powerful aristocrat who has truly been a bad actor. He’s used his power only for gain, and made others suffer terribly under his rule. Everyone is terrified of him. When we meet him, though, his mind is troubled, questioning his want to do evil, and beginning to sense a deep unease and self-loathing for his choices. When he agrees to aid Don Rodrigo in his plot against Lucia and Renzo, he takes Lucia into his castle as a prisoner, but Lucia becomes his undoing, the impetus for his conversion to saintliness.

Indeed, Manzoni details many of the characters’ backstories, which sometimes serve as chapter-long asides. What I appreciated in the telling was how so many of them began as one thing and became another. I suppose that is the case with all of us, and Manzoni highlights how life circumstances, tragedy, mistreatment, or even simple privilege can shape character and set one on the road to good or evil. And, thankfully, that people can change.

The backdrop for the first half of the book is a famine; hot-headed Renzo gets caught up in grain riots in Milan with dire consequences. Apparently famine under Spanish occupation was a frequent occurrence in Italy in the first half of the 17th century, and only half of the population lived beyond age 20, with infant mortality a whopping one third. It was riveting enough, this account of famine and the effect on the commoners.

But then, my reading became a bit surreal.

The plague hit northern Italy–the old, familiar Black Death, also known as Yersinia pestis–in 1629-30. Now easily treated with basic penicillin, it was a scourge then. During the time of The Betrothed, it's estimated that the plague killed 60,000 of 130,000 people in Milan. Pretty dire.

Of course, we’ve just had a plague of sorts, our own pandemic. Many were lost and it touched everyone in its own way, but the world’s vulnerable most of all.

For a long interlude, The Betrothed deviates from the main plot line and Manzoni settles in to recount the plague, centring his telling in Milan. Some of the accounts we see are from Renzo’s point of view, but mostly Manzoni just tells us what happened. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It felt as if I was hearing an account of our own pandemic, not a plague from almost 400 years ago. The plague was not a new thing to these Milanese, and people were clearly dying! But the citizens, the nobles, the government…all engaged in denial, and blaming foreigners, witchcraft, and doctors. “But, oh, the incredible deadly power of common prejudice!” The doctors are the heroes here, as they try their hardest to educate the masses and put public health measures into place. Alas, they are hounded for bearing the bad news, and can’t get around town without having rotten fruit thrown at them.

People refused to take basic precautions against the spread, and engaged in citizens’ arrest of foreigners, who they suspected of ulterior motives for spreading contagion; or, more cynically, they simply used them as scapegoats. It was frighteningly reminiscent of the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during our pandemic. Citizens see “unguent” everywhere, a white powder they think is causing the sickness, spread by foreigners, or even their own neighbours. It’s the same as our modern conspiracy theories:
“People willingly embraced these rumors as they became more distressed by the disease’s presence, and irritated by its stubborn threat. For anger is quick to punish, and as a wise man accurately observed, it would rather blame troubles on human misconduct, against which it can exact revenge, than recognize a cause against which it can only resign itself.”
Reading these sections was fascinating and also sad, because it brought home that point that human nature really doesn’t change all that much. There’s such nobility in all of us, but also the capacity to look away or lash out when frightened. I can see the fear that drove the people in 1630 Milan to their denial and aggression, and I have a lot of compassion for that. I suppose it’s a lesson that I can take to heart now: I can try to practice compassion for myself and for all of us who faced the pandemic and reacted in different ways. That said, I still think we need to work harder to be critical thinkers and learn from history.

The plague ends, as it always does, and so does everyone’s bad behaviour around it. That’s human nature too, I think, to reorient to the next big thing. Manzoni returns to the main story and more shenanigans ensue.

And then…well, you’ll have to read it yourself to see if Renzo and Lucia finally tie the knot.

In a last aside to the readers, the fictional author Manzoni laments that he may have bored us all with his long telling of the story. I’d tell him: No way! This was a wonderful, readable, entertaining and sobering classic that was a genuine pleasure. I hope that it finds a wider audience with this new translation.


I finished reading The Betrothed during my trip to Italy in April 2023. It seemed a somewhat unlikely coincidence, given that I hadn’t travelled outside the country since 2019. And what’s more, our two week Italian vacation culminated in a half-day in Milan. We arrived in Milan on a Sunday mid-morning via high-speed train, stowed our bags at the train station luggage storage, and explored the city for about six hours in total, before heading back to the train to depart central Milan for our airport hotel. We flew out early the next morning.

But those six hours were full of interesting happenings. We walked into the central plaza of the Duomo of Milano–the main cathedral–and were amazed at the enormous crowd of tourists. It’s truly an awesome cathedral, even in the land of breathtaking cathedrals. We had bad quality risotto alla Milanese, visited the Ferrari flagship store (where we were certainly the worst dressed people browsing the expensive merch), and goggled at the fashionistas lining up for the posh designer clothing stores.

But the most fun was running around trying to find sights in Milan that were mentioned in The Betrothed. It was like a time-limited scavenger hunt, and even Alan got into it. He is, in the end, much better with maps than I am. Super helpful!

When Renzo first comes to Milan, he is at the top of a rise overlooking the city and he sees the said Duomo half-built. My primary goal was to get a picture of the book cover with the Duomo for this article. It was a challenge because it was a sunny day and that darned iPad screen reflection just wouldn’t cooperate. After lunch we tried a different vantage point and…Yay! I got my shot.

We also found the gate that Renzo used to enter Milan–the Porta Venezia, which in the time of The Betrothed was named the Porta Orientale.

Porto Venezia

Finally, the lazzaretto of Milan plays a huge role in the book. It was the site that housed the 1630 plague victims–400 yards square–and is where Renzo finally found Lucia after such a long search. Today, little remains. It was built in the late 1400s, used as a health centre during outbreaks, repurposed for different uses, and finally demolished to make way for housing development in the late 1800s.

Milan lazzaretto c. 1880

At the centre of the lazzaretto was the church San Carlo al Lazzaretto (you can see it in the two pictures above), where a crucial scene near the end of the book takes place. Renzo meets Fra Christoforo there, who tells him how to find his love Lucia. The church still stands, in the middle of urban apartment buildings!

San Carlo al Lazzaretto

Only a small portion of the wall stands today, and we visited it, then went for our final gelato on the next block before heading back to the station.

What remains of the lazzaretto

All in all, a satisfying The Betrothed-Manzoni scavenger hunt in Milan. It is quite amazing where a bookish life can take you.