This is where Wikipedia comes to the rescue. Manzoni turns out to be a titanic figure in Italian literature (Verdi's Requiem was written for his funeral). My favorite Wikifact, though, is this: " ...only after his marriage, under the influence of his wife, did he exchange [anticlericalism] for a fervent Catholicism." Most wives concentrate on your giving up smoking or whatever, not so much on the metaphysics. Different times, I guess.
As to I Promessi Sposi, the Daily Reading Guide, while fun, is no help:
13 Before Nobility Ran Tea RoomsFirst of all, how am I to trust the Harvard Classics when they don't know where to put the goddamn commas? Also, the drollness of nobility running tea rooms has palled a little since 1910. And finally, this description sells the excerpt short. It's another ripping yarn. (Cellini, as noted, is also ripping. I like to imagine the austere WASPs of Harvard shunting entertaining, garlic-soaked narrative off on the Italians, and keeping the bland yet worthy porridge of philosophy in the British Isles.)
Manzoni has pictured in this thrilling romance of the seventeenth century nobility, the pompous and sporting life of those good old days when nobles lived sumptuously in spacious castles surrounded by vast estates.
Of course, we're parachuted into Chapter XX with no map or anything, but that's okay, because it starts with, "THE CASTLE of the Unnamed was commandingly situated over a dark and narrow valley..." Alright! I know exactly where we are. We're in airport-novel-land:
From the height of this castle, like an eagle from his sanguinary nest, the savage nobleman surveyed every spot around where the foot of man could tread, and heard no human sound above him.The moldy translation actually adds to the enjoyment, as you can make fun of the text and be drawn into it at the same time. Later in this paragraph we find out that the Unnamed employs a number of "bravoes." Aw, snap -- Bravoes! Also, "ruffians" -- but I would expect no less.
After a little bit I figured out the plot, but I don't quite see the point of summmarizing it. There's a damsel in distress, I'll say that much. And it's kind of hard to figure out whether Signor Unnamed is one of the good guys or not -- he's some kind of crime lord, yet the ordinary folk love him, but he's going to kidnap our damsel (poor Lucia) -- it's confusing. Then, with the two-inches-deep psychology that separates the class from the trash in action fiction, we find out the Signor U. is confused as well:
...For some time past he had experienced, not exactly remorse, but a kind of weariness of his wicked course of life. These feelings, which had accumulated rather in his memory than on his conscience, were renewed each time any new crime was committed, and each time they seemed more multiplied and intolerable: it was like constantly adding and adding to an already incommodious weight...In his early days, the frequent examples of violence, revenge, and murder, which were perpetually exhibited to his view, while they inspired him with a daring emulation, served at the same time as a kind of authority against the voice of conscience: now an indistinct but terrible idea of individual responsibility, and judgment independent of example, incessantly haunted his mind ... Envying (since he could neither annihilate nor forget them) the days in which he had been accustomed to commit iniquity without remorse, and without further solicitude than for its success, he used every endeavour to recall them, and to retain or recover his former unfettered, daring, and undisturbed will, that he might convince himself he was still the same man.Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in. Nevertheless, he has Lucia kidnapped. Kidnapping most purple, I might add:
...she writhed her body, but found that she was held down on all sides; she collected all her strength, and made a desperate effort to push towards the door; but two sinewy arms held her as if she were nailed to the bottom of the carriage, while four other powerful hands supported her there.Manzoni is not to be held responsible for the use of the word "sinewy," of course, until you remember that he is a countryman of Fabio. Finally, as the chapter closes, we get another thumbnail description of the sensibility of the servant type:
All that she had seen and heard around her from her very infancy, had contributed to impress upon her mind a lofty and terrible idea of the power of her masters; and the principal maxim that she had acquired from instruction and example was, that they must be obeyed in everything, because they were capable of doing either great good or great harm. The idea of duty, deposited like a germ in the hearts of all men, and mingling in hers with sentiments of respect, dread, and servile devotion, was associated with, and solely directed to, these objects. When the Unnamed became her lord, and began to make such terrible use of his power, she felt, from the first, a kind of horror, and, at the same time, a more profound feeling of subjection.This is what it must be like to have your first job at Fox News. In any event, it's pretty great. I can kind of see why it's not much talked about now, because it's over the top -- so over the top you can't even see the top from where it is. Bishop Berkeley seems very far away.