Two Plagues in Lombardy

A medical worker wearing protective mask at a medical checkpoint at the entrance of Reutershe Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia, Italy, March 3, 2020. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)
Literature amid a pandemic

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n November 26, 2019, I gave an invited lecture to university students in the beautiful Lombard city of Brescia, one of at least 25 small and medium-sized Italian cities between Rome and the Alps that provide some of the most humane, livable urban habitations in the world. In the early evening my host walked with me through the city, which in addition to its Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings — churches and palaces (including a monastery founded in 753 a.d.) — also contains the well-preserved ruins of a Roman theater and the Capitoline Temple (73 a.d.). Pope Paul VI was born near Brescia; Pope John XXII near Bergamo. The quiet elegance and wealth of this city of about 200,000 people, like its smaller, even more picturesque neighbor Bergamo, provide a poignant reminder of how gracious and humanly scaled pre-19th-century cities could be, despite their injustices. I later drove for about an hour to my home in nearby southern Switzerland, wondering why I had not in nearly 50 years of living in this part of the world stopped to visit Brescia.

Three months later, at the end of February, Lombardy was the epicenter of the Coronavirus plague, with staggering death totals especially in Bergamo and Brescia, and hospitals and health professionals nearly overwhelmed. Other Lombard cities, including the nearby capital, Milan, the city of Saint Ambrose, St. Augustine, and Alessandro Manzoni, and the true center of Italy’s commercial and industrial life, are experiencing the same crisis, with attendant social isolation as a defensive tactic. An eerie, sinister, unexpected experience for people living in Italy’s wealthiest — and one of Europe’s wealthiest — most educated, and most long-civilized regions (the sociologist Robert D. Putnam and two Italian colleagues pointed out how long and deeply civic traditions have prevailed in northern Italy in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993)). Lombardy and the adjacent Veneto are also Italy’s most religiously devout regions, notable for lay spirituality and philanthropy.

The two literary works that all educated Italians know something about are Dante’s Divine Comedy (ca. 1300) and Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi, 1827; 1840), and many Italians are thus aware that a major feature of the great novel is its heart-rending depiction of the Bubonic Plague in Milan and Lombardy in 1628–29, an experience that people of the 21st century can be forgiven for not thinking that they would ever have to face again.

Manzoni (1785–1873) was a Milanese and a Lombard aristocrat, although he spent crucial years of his youth (1805–1810) in Paris. The novel was written originally in Lombard dialect and published in 1827, but he translated it into Tuscan Italian (the language of Dante) and published the new edition in 1840, thus helping to secure Tuscan as the modern Italian language for the soon-to-be-unified Italian state. Though familiar with the immensely popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, Manzoni created a work of extraordinary genius, of narrative power, character insight, and great pathos far beyond the world of Scott’s novels (which I admire). For those who have not read it, it is hard for those of us who have done so to exaggerate the greatness of this novel, the only one Manzoni ever wrote. After reading it, but before ever meeting Manzoni, Giuseppe Verdi wrote (1868), accurately, that ‘it was one of the greatest books ever to come from the human brain. It is not only a book, it is a consolation for humanity.’ Verdi went on to write the great Requiem in 1874 on the occasion of the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. For some, especially non-Italians, his high praise may have seemed excessive and chauvinistic, but it is not.

The Italians need, and deserve, this consolation now, inasmuch as they can avail themselves of it. As an un-self-conscious Lombard recently and poignantly said, “When will this Calvary end?”

In my eight years of teaching literature to excellent, upper-level undergraduates at the University of Virginia (1985–1993), one of the courses I regularly offered was a “Comparative Literature” course on the novel, 1750 to the present, largely devoted to non-English-language novels, in translation, including French, Italian, Russian, and Japanese novels. To my great surprise, the only novel that I ended up teaching nearly every semester was Manzoni’s: student response to this vast novel (over 700 pages) was enormously positive and deeply affecting to the instructor.

Many years later, my planned course of three final valedictory public lectures at the University of Italian Switzerland for spring 2020, after a quarter of a century teaching there (since the university’s inception), and after 50 years of teaching, was to be “Literature as Praise, Resistance, and Consolation.” Only the first was delivered (or probably will be delivered), but in Brescia, not Lugano.

Verdi’s word, consolation, now rings as true as his great music.

Historically very accurate, Manzoni’s novel depicts terrible curses external to people in Lombardy that afflicted them — the negligent, self-interested Spanish rule of Milan in the 1620s, its wink-and-a-nod relation to local Italian Mafiosi chieftains, their ruthlessness, incompetence leading to bread shortages, the plague itself, and ecclesiastical collusion with the cynical secular powers. But to identify and enumerate these exquisitely observed dynamics cannot suggest the grandeur, generosity, and justice of the great novel: despite the fact that even our “advanced” Western societies sometimes experience very similar dynamics today.

In fact the novel cries out for the superlatives that critics — including non-Italian critics — have given to it. The English critic Martin Seymour-Smith, writing in 1979, compared Manzoni’s novel to Shakespeare. In my own 2012 edition of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, I compared Manzoni to Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Seymour-Smith and I are not alone in the non-Italian-speaking world.

Lives are changed by the book.

Though born and initially raised in conventional upper-class circles in Lombardy, the aristocrat Manzoni came to maturity in Paris in a skeptical, libertine, anti-clerical, “Voltairean” intellectual environment. But he married a young French-Swiss Protestant woman and they fell into Catholic circles (1805–1810) that were oriented to austere, Pascalian Christianity: insistently rational, and therefore skeptical of all those holding or aspiring to power — Napoleon, Jacobinism, liberalism, but also aristocracy and the Church itself. Despite his adult reconversion to Catholicism and long residence in Lombardy, the Milanese Manzoni never visited Rome.

The consolation comes, as it does in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolstoy, from a persistent judiciousness about the human condition, a thoroughgoing devotion to moral law, to justice, that animates the human heart, and that satisfies its deepest hungers. Dante, Spenser, and Milton wrote consciously in light of a desire to create a work of art “doctrinal to a nation” (perhaps the 17th-century French dramatists did too); Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did something like this for the Russians (and Melville tried to do it for the Americans). Evelyn Waugh’s late Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–1961) strikes notes of piety, mercy, and pity found nowhere else in his fiction. The great Sinologist William Theodore DeBary (1919–2017) has explored in brilliant studies how Confucianism provided a core of piety and wisdom for the Chinese for many centuries (we can only hope its real legacy survives the current regime, perhaps in Taiwan).

To read Manzoni’s novel, as to read Paradise Lost or Dickens’s great novels, is to be inspired and exalted, but also — more to the present tragedy — to be consoled in the belief that life is essentially ethical, that there is a providential disposition within reality (“Rough-hew it how we will,” in Shakespeare’s phrase). We are conditioned (not determined) beings, but also conditional ones: we operate under judgment (“I fear judgment,” says Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear, meaning that he lives in a moral universe and is therefore trustworthy), not only our own, internal judgment, or short-term social opinions, but the authority of rationally generalizable moral consciousness (i.e. the will of God): “Habeo conscientiam ergo humanus sum” (I have a conscience, therefore I am a human being.). Consolation can therefore come from believing that one has lived a moral and merciful (misericordioso, pietoso) life, even in the light of faults, for which one seeks forgiveness; even in the light of unexpected, premature, apparently senseless death.

The “providential aesthetic” in art, and especially in literature (René Girard seems to think it inevitable in all truly great novels), is the attempt to vindicate purpose, ethics, justice, the Good, God, against chance and necessity, fortune and fate, and against egotism (Original Sin). It is easy to choose passages in Manzoni’s brilliant narrative to illustrate this belief, but the deeper effect he achieves is not so easy to illustrate — it requires, like the actual reading of Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, the submission of the reader to an extended narrative and his or her willing collaboration in the valuations, more implicit than explicit, of that narrative, which must be credible enough to reflect the mixed character of the lives of the individuals reading the work. Chapters in a moral education — a kind of cooperative grace (gratia cooperans).

Manzoni’s gentle irony depicts the ludicrous absurdity and injustice of much human interaction, but it is not — like so much 20th-century and contemporary literature — absurdist irony, life as a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (a view that Shakespeare depicts and condemns). The basso continuo of Manzoni’s prose is praise of life as essentially good, mockery and condemnation of the vicious powerful, illumination of the ignorant and foolish, and vindication of all sorts and conditions of people who remain true to the providential disposition into which they were born. It is a lesson for all times.

The comedy and gentle irony of Manzoni’s great novel are never ends in themselves, but serve the greatest of literary-ethical-religious aims, starting with human self-knowledge. “The idea of duty is present like a seed in the hearts of all men” (The Betrothed, ch. 21). He also speaks of “That special self-questioning anguish which often troubles good men” (ch. 4), and which troubled him. “Habeo conscientiam ergo humanus sum.”

Literate Italians, and many more, in Lombardy and elsewhere, who simply trust in the generous religion conveyed to them through the good popes and the Church at its best (e.g., John XXIII, from Bergamo, Paul VI, from Brescia), will remember Manzoni’s providential vision in a time of immense suffering and the existential challenge of utter, ultimate meaninglessness that so many smug, highly esteemed modern thinkers and writers told them was — tell us is — the truth of our condition. Manzoni’s depiction of the 17th-century Lombard plague can give some consolation to the sufferers of the plague of 2020 — in Lombardy and elsewhere — a plague much worse because of the evisceration by feckless modern skepticism of the resources that have for 2,000 years enabled millions of people to bear disease, suffering, and death, with dignity and hope.

M. D. Aeschliman is the author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism, which has been published in a new, augmented edition (Discovery Institute Press) and will soon appear in French from Pierre Téqui (Paris). He retires this year after 50 years of teaching on both sides of the Atlantic.

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