Wellcome Collection
‘The Great Plague of Milan,’ 1630; a scene from Manzoni’s ‘I promessi sposi.’ Lithograph by G. Gallina after A. Manzoni.Wellcome Collection
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‘The Betrothed,’ a Novel of the Plague in Milan

How Primo Levi and Alessandro Manzoni each reckoned with catastrophe

Fredric Brandfon
April 03, 2020
Wellcome Collection
'The Great Plague of Milan,' 1630; a scene from Manzoni's 'I promessi sposi.' Lithograph by G. Gallina after A. Manzoni.Wellcome Collection

1630 was a plague year for northern Italy. A version of the bubonic plague that had affected neighboring France and Switzerland (along with England, Germany, and the Low Countries) arrived in Italy when German and French troops crossed the Swiss and French borders as part of the War of the Mantuan Succession (1627-1631), a military episode that was part of what is known as the Thirty Years’ War. By the spring of 1630, the plague was ravaging the countryside, but especially cities like Milan and Venice. One estimate has 30% to 35% of the northern Italian population fatally infected by the disease. Milan was hit hardest with approximately 60,000 deaths out of a population of 130,000. However, besides having an obvious corollary in today’s events, the Milan plague allows us to understand how a Jew and a Catholic, both brilliant writers, each reckoned with catastrophe in distinctly different ways.

More than a century after the Milan plague, in 1827, Alessandro Manzoni used both the war and the plague as a backdrop for his novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). The book is, first, a comedy of errors concerning the most star-crossed of lovers, but it is also a historical saga of war and pestilence, and a disquisition on the steps Milan took to deal with a deadly disease. Manzoni beautifully weaves all three stories together and, ever since its publication, The Betrothed has been considered a national treasure, taught in every school to every Italian high school student. On top of all else, it is a deeply religious and pious Catholic work, wherein heroic friars and serenely spiritual cardinals battle despicable and morally bankrupt aristocrats for the good, and the souls, of an innocent couple who just want to get married.

The Betrothed has so permeated Italian society, that modern Italian literature is rife with allusions to, and reflections of, the novel. Jewish Italian writers have been no exception. Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote Family Lexicon, an acerbic memoir of her mixed Jewish and Catholic family during Fascism and the Nazi occupation, later wrote The Manzoni Family, a biography of the writer’s household. Manzoni’s life as a privileged and consummate Catholic could not have been further from Ginzburg’s world of Jewish intellectual communists who withstood Fascism and the Second World War. Yet that distance did not deter her from meticulously reproducing the correspondence between Manzoni and his nine children in order to write their story.

Giorgio Bassani, a novelist who chronicled the tormented lives of Italian Jews under Fascism, anthologized five of his novellas, including his most noted work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and retitled the collection The Novel of Ferrara. He opened his masterpiece with a quotation from The Betrothed:

Of course, for whoever pays heed to it, the heart always has something to say about what’s to come. But what does the heart know? Just the least bit of what has happened already.

Manzoni’s words, in the context of his novel, are commentary on a farewell given by the saintly Father Cristoforo as he sends the unfortunate lovers off to unknown dangers after their misadventure attempting to trick the feckless parish priest, Don Abbondio, into marrying them. Father Cristoforo, the couple’s guardian angel, gives them his farewell: “My heart tells me we shall meet again soon.” It is the genius of Manzoni that he can pass the above cynical judgment on the heart’s knowledge at the book’s beginning, while fulfilling Father Cristoforo’s tender prophecy at the story’s end. It is then the genius of Bassani to select the same quotation to foreshadow the forced separation of Ferrara’s Jews from Italian society, brutally necessitated by Mussolini’s Racial Laws. Bassani uses the quotation to support his bitter view of what happened in wartime Italy, while in Manzoni’s book the same words highlight Father Cristoforo’s loving prescience. All of which is to say that Bassani’s appreciation of Manzoni’s book has been filtered through his Jewish experience.

Primo Levi, a relentless chronicler of his imprisonment at Auschwitz, is no different in that regard. Although Levi has said that as a schoolboy he found The Betrothed an “insufferably boring costumed romance,” the mature Levi had a different opinion:

I have just finished rereading, in The Betrothed, the famous scene in which Renzo, recovered from the plague, goes back to Milan in search of Lucia. They are magnificent pages, confident, rich in a strong, sad human wisdom that enriches you, and that you sense is true in all eras, not only in the time in which the story is set but also in Manzoni’s time and in our own.

The quotation is from an essay devoted to The Betrothed titled “Renzo’s Fist” that is collected in a volume of Levi’s short writings, Other Peoples’ Trades. The question is, why did Levi reread that particular part of The Betrothed and what was his point in writing about it?

Despite his praise of The Betrothed, and in particular the penultimate section where Renzo, the young innocent, recovered from the disease, goes to plague-ridden Milan in search of his beloved, the remainder of “Renzo’s Fist” is a critique of Manzoni’s stilted writing, if only in a few isolated instances. In one such instance, Levi criticizes Manzoni for depicting Renzo as running through the streets of Milan with a closed fist high in the air. This posture, Levi says, is “unnatural” and would impede actual running. In another instance, Levi takes issue with Renzo leaping onto a cart with his “arms raised high.” Again, for Levi this is an improbable description. In fact, each of Levi’s criticisms in his brief essay, six in all, concerns the bodily positions and “gestures” of various characters in the book, all of which Levi criticizes as “contrived“ and not credible. In that regard, Levi’s essay is exceedingly narrow in focus and of scant interest. Although he asks the readers’ indulgence for such a “close reading” of a few passages, one is left with the impression that there is more to Levi’s criticism than initially meets the eye. Why is Levi so annoyed by minute details in Manzoni’s depiction of suffering Milan and the lazaretto?

To understand what else might be going on in Levi’s essay, we should return to the portion of The Betrothed that Levi reread. Chapter 34 follows Renzo as he enters Milan in his search for his beloved Lucia. Manzoni describes the horrifying conditions in Milan at the height of the plague. The next chapter takes Renzo into the “lazaretto” the walled-off part of Milan where many of the sick and dying were enclosed to prevent any further infection of the general population. The lazaretto, a cross between a hospital, a fortress, and a ghetto, remained a part of the Milan landscape until the late 19th century.

In his own description of the Infektionsabteilung, the “Infection Department” at the Monowitz labor camp at Auschwitz, Levi owes much to the picture painted by Manzoni of the lazaretto and plague-ridden Milan. In the last chapter of If This Is a Man, Levi’s memoir of his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz, he describes his time in the “infirmary” during the last 10 days before liberation by the Soviets. Levi tells of his time while sick with scarlet fever living among other deathly ill prisoners with diphtheria, typhus, and dysentery. The picture Levi paints of the foulest of conditions at the Monowitz infirmary takes us back to Milan in 1630:

Rags lay everywhere, and, and more repulsive than the rags, filthy bandages, infected straw, dirty sheets which had been thrown out of the windows. Here and there lay dead bodies.—The Betrothed, Chapter 34
Not a bottle intact on the floor, a layer of rags, excrement and bandages, a naked contorted corpse.—If This Is a Man, “The Story of Ten Days”
He picked his way forward from hut to hut. ... He also examined the beds which stood outside in the open. He looked searchingly into faces exhausted by suffering, faces contracted by agony and faces calm in death.—The Betrothed, Chapter 35
In any case, by now in all the barracks there were beds occupied by corpses, as stiff as boards, whom nobody troubled to remove.—If This is a Man, “The Story of Ten Days”

Despite the similarities between Manzoni’s description of the lazaretto and Levi’s description of the Infektionsabteilung, there is a significant difference in how the two authors understand the meaning of each place.

For Manzoni the plague in Milan and the lazaretto are redemptive experiences. Of course, Manzoni did not live through the plague; in The Betrothed, he is describing a historical event some 200 years old. Seen from afar and seen through a Catholic lens, the lazaretto is not merely a charnel house. It is a place where the two young protagonists, at the urging of Father Cristoforo, must offer forgiveness to their dying tormentor, Don Rodrigo, himself in the final throes of the illness. The lazaretto is a place where the Church daily administers the sacraments and from which Renzo and Lucia gratefully emerge, fully betrothed. A few pages later they are married.

For Levi, the Infektionsabteilung, has no sacred or redemptive dimension. It is a place where everyone suffers, most die, and some few survive. At one point, in Levi’s story of the infirmary, once the SS has abandoned the sick inmates to their fate, deathly ill in 20 degree-below-zero-Celsius weather, there is a moment when the world of the inmates is transformed. Levi and a friend have obtained through Herculean efforts, a stove for their barracks:

Once the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and then Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty-three with Typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to the three of us who had been working. And so it was agreed.
Only a day before, such an event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said “Eat your own bread, and, if you can, that of your neighbor,” and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead.

In the hands of a Christian writer like Manzoni, that scene could easily be infused with Eucharistic significance. The communal breaking of bread could have been elevated to a sacred moment. Not so for Levi. Although he slyly indicates that the law of the Lager had reversed the law of the Torah, in particular the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet ... anything that your neighbor has,” Levi does not turn the sharing of bread into a religious experience. In the next sentence he says, “This was the first human gesture that occurred among us.” Sharing food was not sacred for Levi. It was human. The experience of Auschwitz from Levi’s first day to his last was a human experience where the sacred was nowhere to be found. At Auschwitz people suffered, died, and survived as human beings. There was no redemption; there was only survival.

Fredric Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist at Beer-Sheva, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa, and Jaffa, Israel, currently practices law in Los Angeles.