Pages of art and wisdom: The sound of silence in The Betrothed

«We could however, in small things as in large, avoid , for the most part, that long and off-course route, by adhering to a method put forward a long time ago: observe, listen, compare, think before we speak.»

We know that a great artist is one whose works have the power to speak to the present even many years after they have been conceived. When we are moved by poetry, paintings, or music which echo feelings which are already inside us, or when we read of events or circumstances which take place in a similar way in the past, we feel we can learn something from them or find comfort.

In The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni does not limit himself to writing about the effects of the 1630 plague epidemic on the lives of its main characters: infection allows the novel to take on a stronger chorality, bringing together the circumstances involving all the protagonists with the city of Milan and, indirectly, the rest of Europe.

Fear of contagion due to the presence in northern Italy of the imperial troops surfaces already in chapter XXVIII. However, what mainly interests Manzoni and what he dedicates two entire chapters to, going as far as putting the main characters to the side, is « the fury of contagion» and the way in which the authorities and citizens react.

Manzoni lashes out against would be whistle-blowers and people’s gullibility, denouncing how ignorance leads people to keep their eyes open only with the intent of finding a scapegoat (even more striking in this sense is History of the Infamous column, where Manzoni focuses on the tragic story of Gian Giacomo Mora).

Manzoni did not witness the effects of the plague in his own era: he was able to get an idea of it to apply in his work through study and the deeper perspective offered by a time lapse of two centuries; two centuries separate us, men and women of 2020, from the period the book was written. We should not just be reading it with the purpose of tracing the more obvious analogies; we should instead attempt not to repeat those mistakes which cause the epidemic to spread. Help out more and speak less.

«[…] adhering to a method put forward a long time ago: observe, listen, compare, think before we speak. However speaking, this alone, is so much easier than all the others together, that we also, I mean us humans in general, should be somewhat pitied