IF you look into the window of an Italian bookstore, there are two works which you will almost surely see there among the many exposed for sale. One is the famous historical romance, ” I Promessi Sposi,” of Alessandro Manzoni; and the other is a description of Italy, entitled ” Il Bel Paese,” by Antonio Stoppani. These writers both gave new impulses to young Italy, reflected its peculiar sentiments, its colour, and its glories, and thus made their way into the hearts of their countrymen, to find hospitable lodgment there.
They come within the covers of this book because they were both connected with the same part of the Italian lakes region, with Lecco. They were in truth subalpine men. Manzoni was born in Milan, of a family long settled near Lecco, and there, also, he placed the scene of his famous romance. And Stoppani, also, lived at Lecco, the geology of whose surroundings he made the starting-point for world-wide researches.
Alessandro Manzoni (1785 – 1873)
It seems strange, perhaps, that a literary figure like that of Manzoni should have be-come the presiding genius of so prosaic and commercial a town as Lecco is to appearance. He it is who has made Lecco a familiar name throughout Italy, and placed it on the lips of many people who have never heard of the silk and iron industries of the place. In the evening, when the population, Latin-fashion, pours out into the main street to talk and walk, the lamps on the four corners of Manzoni’s monument in the square are lighted, and make of his statue a literary shrine for the strollers to admire.
In truth, Italians study his ” I Promessi Sposi ” almost as diligently as they do their Dante and ” Divina Commedia.” The famous book occupies almost the same position in Italian literature that ” Don Quixote ” holds in Spanish. The first edition is dated 1821; but since then there have been no less than 118 editions in Italian, nineteen in French, seventeen in German, and ten in English.
It must be acknowledged that Manzoni’s opportunity for fame was unusual. In other countries the romantic literary renaissance of the early nineteenth century brought many men of genius to the front; but in Italy Manzoni seems to have had the field very much to himself. Hence his position may be termed unique, which is not saying that he does not deserve the admiration so generously showered upon him. For the sake of those who have never read ” I Promessi Sposi,” or have forgotten the story, one may be permitted to remind them that the book tells the tale of two young people, Renzo and Lucia, who in the year 1628 and there-after pass through many tribulations before they can be married and remain happy ever after. Lucia is abducted. Renzo, on his part, goes through thrilling adventures; but the faithful lovers are finally brought together again in Milan, at the time of the plague, through the instrumentality of a priest, Christopher.
Manzoni used his historic material cleverly in this simple story, so as to make it appeal at once to the individual and to the nation. In a letter to his closest friend, Claude Charles Fauriel, the French scholar, in 1821, Manzoni thus gave his idea of historical novels as a form of literature: ” I may tell you that I conceive of them as a representation of a given state of society by means of facts and characters so nearly resembling reality that one could believe it a true story which one had just discovered.”
The Manzoni family were originally feudal lords from Sarzio in the Val Sassina, near Lecco. The writer’s father, Don Pietro Antonio Manzoni, moved down, in 1710, to a villa called Caleotto, built by the grand-father, Don Alessandro. On this villa a marble tablet now records the fact that Manzoni was not only the author of ” I Promessi Sposi,” but also of the ” Inni ” and the ” Adelchi.” The ” Inni ” is a collection of lyrics, partly sacred and partly secular, among which that one inspired by the death of Napoleon I., ” Il Cinque Maggio,” is said to be the most popular lyric in the language. The ” Adelchi ” is a tragedy dealing with the conquest of Lombardy by Charlemagne, but containing many veiled allusions to the modern Austrian rule of Manzoni’s day.
At school Manzoni was reckoned among the unpromising scholars, until, at the age of fifteen, he broke forth into poetry with some sonnets of great promise. He accompanied his mother to France and lived with her there in Auteuil, near Paris. Later he returned to Milan and resided at Via Morone No. 1, spending his summers at Brusuglio, three miles out of Milan. Among his closer friends was also Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, the founder of the order of Rosminians. Manzoni lived to the advanced age of eighty-eight. His funeral, in 1873, was one of the most sumptuous Italy has witnessed in recent times, and has become memorable in the annals of art because Verdi wrote a requiem for it, which has since be-come famous as one of the greatest examples of that particular musical form.
Antonio Stoppani (1824 – 91)
When we come to Stoppani, we find our-selves considering a scholar and teacher whose personal appearance is still remembered by many. It is said to have been much like that of Renan. He was born in Lecco, and early learned to know its surroundings with singular accuracy.
He was a geologist by instinct from boyhood, a natural collector of stones and shells, an observer from whom nothing pertinent to his special interest escaped. He was passionately fond of his Lecco. Even after extensive travels, he always returned to it with renewed admiration. On the lake, up the narrowing valleys, on the mountain-tops, he was ever the ardent naturalist; and with that, too, the poet and patriot. He early arrived at geological conclusions, the importance of which he did not suspect until a savant was sent down from Vienna to pre-pare a treatise on the geology of Lombardy, and found that Stoppani had already done the work in the rough. Stoppani’s re-searches were published soon after, under the title of ” Studii Geologici e Paleontologici sulla Lombardia.” With this he at once stepped into the front rank of the world’s naturalists.
Not until he had carefully studied his native district, idealized it, and philosophized about it, did he turn farther afield, over the beautiful peninsula of his greater country, Italy itself. In 1875 appeared his ” I1 Bel Paese,” the most popular of his books, a book which revealed to many Italians the many-sided beauties of their own soil, from the ice, snow, and waterfalls of the Alps to the ineffable blue of sea and sky in lower Italy. As an example of a monograph on a subject in natural science, treated in a popular style, Stoppani’s ” What Is a Volcano? ” deserves to be taken as a model. It was as teacher, as educator in various schools and universities, and as public lecturer that Stoppani left his mark upon the new Italy of today.
In Pavia, in Florence, as head of the great Ambrosian Library in Milan, he helped to make the Italians conscious of their own possibilities, and taught them to treasure the past, and to prepare for the future. It was one thing to give Italy the appearance of a political unit. It was quite another matter to make it truly united. Stoppani realized this, as did Manzoni. He would have preferred a confederation first, to lead up to a centralized state by degrees. But the fact of political union being accomplished, the next best thing was to raise the morale of the whole people by every possible means, and this Stoppani laboured long and enthusiastically to accomplish.