Dante’s Inferno And Manzoni’s The Betrothed

Alessandro Manzoni’s only novel The Betrothed is a national institution in Italy and second in popularity in this history of Italian literature only to Dante’s Divine Comedy. He was a liberal nationalist from an aristocratic family and a leading supporter of the reunification (Risorgimento) of Italy. His novel is set in Lombardy in 1628-31 and was in fact a call for liberation from foreign rule, which was still the norm in the fragmented Italy of the 1820s. Manzoni had been an unbeliever as a young man, but later rejoined the church and became very devout, which is why he took Dante seriously and incorporated themes and images from his work into The Betrothed. He believed in sin, salvation and damnation, and the power of conversion experiences that both he and the characters in his story underwent. Dante was also from the aristocracy and his family opposed the imperial party in Florence that was allied with the Holy Roman emperors, although he was not a liberal or nationalist in the modern sense. In The Inferno, he did take a certain satirical pleasure in consigning his political and personal enemies to eternal torment in hell, and reserved the lowest level of all for the betrayers. This had the ironic effect of making their names live forever, since these obscure political hacks from Florence in the year 1300 would otherwise have been long forgotten. Both of these classic works have certain commonalities, though, despite being separated by over five centuries, in that they were both written in the vernacular to appeal to the common people and that they denounced the corruption, abuse of power and lack of ethics in the political and ecclesiastical life of Italy.

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Dante Alighieri would have been surprised at being appropriated as one of the symbols of the reunited Italy, since that had not been one of his goals in writing the Divine Comedy, but rather an idea that came about centuries later during the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Like Manzoni, he was concerned with spiritual and moral values as well as civic virtues, and was a “rebellious intellectual who had courageously refused the cultural limitations and the impositions of the Florentine government that ruled his homeland” (Ciccarelli 85). He was merciless in lampooning the rulers of Florence for their ethical lapses, but this was not at all desirable to the rulers of the newly unified nation, who instead preferred to turn him into a cultural icon and the father of “national Italian civilization” (Ciccarelli 88). His family was allied with the in Florence, against the Ghibellines who supported the Holy Roman Empire, but to call him a nationalist in the modern sense would be highly anachronistic, Dante’s hatred of betrayers is also explained by the fact that a faction in his own party exiled him from Florence for life in 1302. In exile, he wandered all over Italy and France, and wrote his poem in “the Italian vernacular of commoners instead of the polished Latin of the schoolmen and nobility,” which had never been done before (De La Torre and Hernandez 154).

Both Dante the poet and Dante the character in the Inferno had been banished from Florence and were banned from involvement in political life there, and both took pleasure is imagining their enemies consigned to the flames of hell. He is still in love with Beatrice and hopes to find her somewhere in the afterlife, and is also highly concerned with the state of his soul and being forgiven by God. Unlike the stern and Stoic Virgil, who guides him through the lower regions and defends divine justice no matter how harsh or brutal, Dante often regards it as excessive. Nevertheless, only those with the highest moral standards can pass through hell and purgatory and then be admitted to paradise. Virgil leads him deeper and deeper to the lowest levels of hell, protects him against demons, and encourages him to have faith. Dante also hints that he regards himself as a greater poet than all the ancient and classical masters, even though he clearly admires them, he believes his Christian allegory as superior to its pagan antecedents. Their actual journey together lasts only three days, from Good Friday to the morning of Easter Sunday. He meets Virgil when he gets lost in the forest, and he informs him that Beatrice is in heaven but that he will have to make a long and difficult journey through hell and purgatory to find her. In fact, she had sent him here as a guide, even though he lived in Limbo with other pagans in the First Circle of hell. Dante was in love with Beatrice from the age of nine, although she later married another man then died at the age of 24 (De La Torre and Hernandez 155).

Dante had no respect for those who refused to make moral choices and confined them to the outskirts of hell, being constantly attacked by worms and wasps as they marched around aimlessly. In the Second Circle of hell the lustful and adulterers are punished by being whirled around in an endless storm, and her he meets a woman named Francesca who had a sexual relationship with her husband’s brother. In the next Circles, other people guilty of one of the Seven Deadly Sins are punished, such as gluttons living in a storm of feces, the greedy being forced to roll around huge rocks, and the wrathful forced to fight each other for eternity. Dante is pleased to see enemies of his from Florence like Farinata being tortured, tormented, boiled in blood and torn apart by dogs. Heretics, usurers, suicides and blasphemers are located here, in the city of Dis. His former Brunetto Latini is in the Seventh Circle of hell, wandering around forever in a desert of burning sand with other sodomites. In the Eighth Circle of hell, various pockets hold different groups of sinners such as pimps, men who took bribes or bought and sold political and church offices, hypocrites, liars, thieves and flatterers. These people spend eternity suffering from boils, plagues, vipers, and wounds that are never healed. All of these punishments in hell offered “a good example of medieval conceptions of sin and evil” (De La Torre and Hernandez 155).

At the very bottom of hell is the Ninth Circle, the frozen lake of Cocytus, where the traitors and betrayers are confined forever. This includes those who betrayed their family, friends, benefactors and countries, all frozen in ice at various depths, with the worst buried completely in ice. Dante finally sees the Devil at the lowest point of all, a by fog and outer darkness, and with each of his three mouths he is chewing on the greatest betrayers in history: Judas Iscariot and Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed and assassinated Julius Caesar. After this, Virgil and Dante pass through the river of forgetfulness and come out of hell on Easter Sunday, passing through it as Christ did before being resurrected. Compared to Manzoni, Dante’s political and theological worldview is still basically medieval, and emphasized to ubiquity of sin and the difficulty of redemption. Of course, sin and evil were still commonplace in Manzoni’s world, but he was more optimistic about redeeming the world. In Dante’s time, theologians commonly believed that about one-third of the angels had been expelled from heaven in Satan’s rebellion, and their numbers were placed at anywhere from 133 million to 2.6 billion. Whatever the true number of demons and witches, this meant that Christians “lived in a world infested with demons” who were constantly tempting humanity to sin (De La Torre and Hernandez 158).

Manzoni personally disliked violence, but he also believed that a war of national liberation was necessary to free Italy from foreign domination. He was also a liberal and free trader, who thought that economic regulations like the attempt to control bread prices in Milan during the 1628 famine were futile, but unlike many other liberal nationalists he also painted a sympathetic portrait of some members of the Catholic Church rather than placing them always on the reactionary side. Unlike others of his generation, who thought that Dante and his religious views were unscientific and outdated, Manzoni “Followed Dante’ aesthetic vision quite closely,” and thought that Italy required a common language and culture, which it had never had since Roman times (Ciccarelli 84). He also thought that Dante was quite useful for writing about “historical realities” and dynamic historical processes, more so than other Renaissance stylists like Petrarch (Ciccarelli 79). Contrary to their intentions, however, Dante and Manzoni ended up being used by conservative interests as “a means for propping up the political establishment that governed the Kingdom of Italy” (Ciccarelli 85).

Not only the educated classes read The Betrothed, but the novel was so popular that even the illiterate had it read to them. Like Dante, he wrote in Italian, and indeed “laid the foundation for the modern Italian language — the first stones for which had been set out by Dante in the fourteenth century” (Hamnett 165). Manzoni even thought that Dante’s native Tuscan dialect should become the national language of Italy when it was reunified, as if finally was three years before his death in 1873. The setting of The Betrothed was Milan in 1628-31, during the Thirty Years War when Lombardy was ruled by the Spanish and their Austrian Hapsburg allies. Even in the 1820s when Manzoni was writing his novel the Austrians still ruled Northern Italy, and his work was rightfully seen as a nationalist tract against foreign domination, with German mercenaries blamed for bringing the plague to the city as described in Chapters 29 and 30 (Hamnett 159). Don Rodrigo symbolizes the Spanish overlords, and a “central theme of the novel is the abuse of private power backed by armed retainers,” in the absence of moral norms or the rule of law (Hamnett 161).

Rodrigo is infatuated with Lucia, and used the threat of force to prevent the parish priest Don Abbondio from performing the marriage service with Renzo the silk weaver. Don Abbondio is easily intimidated by Rodrigo’s ‘bravos’, who will not let him perform the marriage, even though this action is contrary to law. Nor can the local lawyer help them, so Lucia sends for Fra Cristoforo from the local monastery and he helps them to escape. Lucia is hidden in a convent, but Rodrigo later arranges for the Unnamed to kidnap her. He keeps Lucia in his castle until he is finally converted by Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, allowing her to be freed and reunited with Renzo at the end. Renzo becomes a radical and revolutionary in the course of the book, and is involved with the bread riots in Milan in 1628 and other “politically dangerous situations,” forcing him to escape temporarily unto the Venetian Republic. At the time of the riots, “the streets and squares were swarming with men in the grip of a common rage,” which was also the case in Manzoni’s era (Manzoni 167). Renzo only takes the chance of returning to Milan when he learns that Lucia might be in the quarantined area where the plague is. Both Renzo and Lucia have the plague but recover from it, but their native village is wiped out by the disease and the plundering of the German mercenaries. Fra Cristoforo, is still a saintly monk, now working in the plague hospital, is strongly opposed to the abuse of private power by the Spanish, yet he also persuades Renzo to forgive Don Rodrigo, who is dying of the plague himself (Hamnett 162). Manzoni wrote this scene as a “conscious parallel” to Dante’s Inferno, with the plague hospital as Purgatory for both Renzo and Rodrigo, and Cristoforo as the guide Virgil, but also representing “the Christian hope of redemption” (Hamnett 163). This terrible plague house “represents hell and death, with its demonic guardians, the ‘monatti’, who rob the dead before burying them,” while the Capuchin monks like Cristoforo are the angels in white (Ciccarelli 85).

Manzoni had abandoned the Catholic Church as a young man, but converted back in 1810 after experiencing a . He came to the conclusion that liberal clerics were “in an ideal position to fight in Christ’s name for the creation of that more just world that the Enlightenment utopians had envisioned in the 18th Century, but failed so disastrously to achieve in the French revolution (Feinstein 131). Fra Cristoforo was his religious ideal, a man who had originally been named Lodovico and had committed murder in a fit of rage, but now channeled his temper into the fight for truth and justice. Of course, not all clergy measured up to this standard, for Don Abbondio proves to be a coward who “instantly capitulates” to the evil of Don Rodrigo (Feinstein 132). Manzoni’s great hope was that the Catholic Church and liberal government would improve the lives of the peasantry and impoverished masses of Italy, although this did not occur in the 19th Century and “millions of Italians were forced to emigrate en masse” (Feinstein 133).

Manzoni and Dante wrote in the Italian vernacular of their day to appeal to the common people of Italy, and denounced the corruption, injustice and arbitrary power that existed in government and church life. Dante joyfully consigned his political and personal enemies in Florence to every type of eternal punishment if hell that he could imagine, while Manzoni preferred to concentrate of salvation and redemption, and how the Church could still covert the worst sinners into saints, including Fra Cristoforo and the Unnamed. Unlike Dante, of course, he was a modern nationalist and liberal who wanted the Catholic Church to be more enlightened, particularly in improving the lives of the peasants and common people. Both writers were also used by the new regime of Risorgimento Italy as symbols or cultural and political unification, although Dante would certainly have preferred the role or ironist and satirist, denouncing the corruption of church and state, while Manzoni would also have been disappointed that the new order had turned out to be less democratic and enlightened than he had hoped. Their undeserved fate was to become icons and establishment writers, which was completely contrary to their original intentions.


Carson, Ciaran. The Inferno of Dante Alighieri. New York Review of Books, 2002.

Ciccarelli, Andrea. “Dante and the Culture of the Risorgimento: Literary, Political or Ideological Icon?” In Albert Russell Acoli and Krystyna Von Hennberg (eds). Making and Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento. Oxford, 2011: 77-102.

De La Torre, Miguel and Albert Hernandez. The Quest for the Historical Satan. Fortress Press, 2011.

Feinstein, Wiley. The Civilization of the Holocaust in Italy: Poets, Artists, Saints, Anti-Semites. Rosemont Group, 2003.

Hamnett, Brian. The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Oxford, 2011.

Manzoni, Alessandro. The Betrothed. Penguin Classics, 1984.