"...the worst thing that can happen to you isn't suffering or being poor; the worst thing is doing what's wrong."
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni was recommended to me by Pope Francis. Well, he recommended it to me and to everyone else who read or heard his general audience address back in May. Pope Francis specifically encouraged engaged couples to read the Italian novel as a source of edification before marriage.
Verdi, the Italian opera composer, called Manzoni's work "a gift to humanity." For the Italians, The Betrothed ranks as one of greatest examples of Italian literature--second only to Dante's Divine Comedy.
Though named after the couple who represent the novel's principle characters, the work is more historical fiction than romance. The work is set in northern Italy (mainly Milan) in the early 1600s.
The Betrothed begins with the anticipated wedding of Renzo and Lucia. When Renzo approaches their parish priest on the day of the wedding, cowardly Don Abbondino suddenly presents a host of excuses and declares that the wedding simply cannot happen that day. Renzo eventually learns that a wealthy aristocrat, Don Rodrigo, has threatened the priest. Rodrigo has his eyes set on Lucia and is determined to have her as his own, through threat and force.
Renzo and Lucia must flee their small town and part ways, a separation that spans two years and most of the novel.
"Farewell, my mother's house, where I used to sit, with a secret in my heart, listening to the ordinary sound of ordinary people's feet...Farewell that other house, to which I am still a stranger, and at which I have so often glanced out of the corner of the eye in passing, with a blush; in which my heart thought to find a tranquil, lasting home with my husband. Farewell, little church, where my soul so often recovered its peace, singing the praises of the Lord; where a certain rite was prepared for me, and promised to me; where the secret desire of the heart was to be solemnly blessed, and love was to become a holy duty; farewell! He who gave you so much joy is everywhere; and he never disturbs the happiness of his children, except to prepare for them a surer and greater happiness."
Historical circumstances magnify the conflict when a famine hits the area. Renzo finds himself squarely in the middle of the bread riots in Milan, where the peasantry balk at the high prices and violently rebel. Bakeries are looted, scapegoats targeted, and Renzo has a warrant for his arrest as the authorities try to set a deterring example to the rioters.
Later is the threat and destruction that accompanies the German army as it passes through the region on its way to Mantua. To supplement their already low pay, the German soldiers consider treasures along their way assumed supplemental income. Homes are invaded, made filthy, and ransacked. Property is destroyed, fields and crops decimated by the ranks of men looking for food. The Italian folk must flee and seek refuge elsewhere, many of them eventually returning to nothing.
And most heart-wrenching and destructive is the wave of the bubonic plague that rages in northern Italy from 1629-1631. History calls it the Great Plague of Milan. Up to one million people, or 25% of the population, may have perished.
Manzoni's depiction of the plague is grippingly horrifying. He describes the appatorie, bell ringers who lead the carts of corpses, warning those still alive that the pestilence is approaching.
Behind him came two horses, stretching out their necks and digging in their hoofs as they strained their way forward; and then a cart laden with dead bodies, and another, and another, and another, with monatti walking alongside the horses, urging them on with fists, whips and oaths. Most of the bodies were naked, though some were carelessly wrapped in a few rags. Piled up and interwoven together, the dead looked like a cluster of snakes slowly reviving in the warmth of spring, for those grisly heaps stirred and slithered horribly at every jolt. Heads wagged, maidens' lovely hair fell this way and that, arms freed themselves from the tangled mass of limbs and dangled and beat against the wheels.
Renzo, two years estranged from Lucia, searches for her in the lazaretto, a quarantine station. The local officials turned over care of the lazaretto to the Capuchin friars because no one else would assume the responsibility, which was akin to a death sentence. Manzoni states that during the seven months that Fr. Felice oversaw the lazaretto, some 50,000 people sought shelter there.
|The Lazzaretto in Milan in 1880, a few years before it was demolished|
In the midst of extreme suffering, motherless babies suckling goats for milk, and thousands dying all around, Renzo seeks out Lucia, not certain whether he will find her dead or alive. Yet first, he learns of another's presence in that den of death: Don Rodrigo, the assailant that tore the lovers apart. If not for his lust and injustice, Renzo and Lucia would be husband and wife, united even if in death.
Father Cristoforo, the saintly friar who acts as a spiritual guide and mentor to the betrothed couple, admonishes Renzo when he vindictively threatens to quash the remaining bit of life in Don Rodrigo.
"You know," continued Father Cristoforo, "that God can hold back the hand of a bully, and you've said so yourself many a time; but remember that he can also hold back the hand of an avenger. And because you're a poor man, because you've been wronged, do you think that God cannot protect a man--a man whom he has made in his own image--against your vengeance? Do you think he'll let you do whatever you please? Never! But do you know what you can do? You can hate your neighbor and lose your own soul. By indulging that one feeling you can lose all hope of God's blessing. For however things go with you hereafter, whatever fortune may befall you, you can be sure that everything will be as a punishment to you, until you forgive him..."
For all that Lucia and Renzo endure, as a couple and individually as they struggle to reunite, their suffering is far better than that of Don Rodrigo. The former is redemptive, if put to good use; the latter damning, if not repented.
My mother has often echoed that sentiment to me. Often, when something is challenging or just not going as planned, she will reflect to me, "Well, at least we didn't sin."
Manzoni's novel is a tale of persevering love, of a promise made between two betrothed that the violence of history threatens to sever. It is full of sinners and saints both: not all of the clergy are saints, though some are; not all of the sinners are beyond the scope of God's mercy. Justice and forgiveness play their part as the weight of Renzo and Lucia's promise to marry is tested, strengthened, and purified through the fire of suffering.
"God is the God of the poor as well as the rich; but how can you expect him to help us if we sin against him?"