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Teacher to the Nation


The scene is the Basilica of Saint Mark, in Milan, in 1874. 

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manzoniAlessandro Manzoni 

The church is thronged, as it had been at the beloved man's funeral one year ago.  Now the man's friend, his hair quite gray, stands on a dais before a vast orchestra and choir, and in quick and tremulous gestures he raises his arms and brings them down, rising and falling again and again, as the words thunder as if from heaven:

Dies irae, dies illa, 
Solvet saeclum in favilla, 
Teste David cum Sybilla!

The music rains down like that final fire that will dissolve the world.  Yet the man is not angry.  The choristers do not sing with fear.  For one passionate hour they perform that sequence for the Mass for the Dead.  It is only one part of the performance.  There are the Kyrie and the Sanctus and the other prayers; the Agnus Dei, with a duet of sopranos soaring heavenward in appeal: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.

The conductor is also the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest genius of opera the world has known.  Verdi was a Catholic, and an Italian patriot.  So was the man who lay in his coffin in San Marco, in honor of whom Verdi composed his stupendous work of sacred opera.  His name was Alessandro Manzoni, the greatest Italian writer of the 19th century, a loyal son of the Church, and to this day a beloved teacher to the nation.

What is enlightenment?

It would not have been so, if mere human beings had had their way.  As I write, I'm looking at a painting of the young Alessandro.  He is tall, with a long face, a shock of black hair, and pensive, intelligent eyes.  In the wrong place, at the wrong time, he could have done great harm to ­himself, to others, and to the Church.

And he was indeed in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  When he was a youth, he joined his divorced mother in Paris, in the fashionable salons, where men divided their days between indulging their intellects in falsehood, called reason, and their bodies in debauchery, called liberty.  Tear down the unspeakable thing!  Voltaire had cried, meaning the Church, and Alessandro agreed.  It was convenient to agree.

From then till the day of his death, Manzoni dedicated himself, his intellect, and his art to Christ, the Church, his beloved Italy, and the poor.

But God had other plans for him.  He married a ­pious Protestant girl, and in 1810, at the age of twenty-five, Alessandro Manzoni was present at her reception into the Catholic Church.  From then till the day of his death, Manzoni dedicated himself, his intellect, and his art to Christ, the Church, his beloved Italy, and the poor.

For he hadn't forgotten everything from those salons.  Pagans often speak more wisely than they know.  The French had rebelled against the arbitrary abuse of power; and no one in Italy wrote with more fire against that than did Manzoni.  French intellectuals had taken up the cause of the poor; and the hero and heroine of Manzoni's greatest work, The Betrothed, are but a poor young tailor, Renzo, and his ­promised spouse, Lucia.  Manzoni was not a sentimentalist.  He saw that reason brought light, but reason led to God, who is light.  Enlightenment without God is red in tooth and claw: men will but more efficiently tear one another to ­ribbons.  The Church led men to the true light.

Night, and a pistol

Another scene.

It is night, in a castle atop a mountain overlooking the town of Lecce.  A man sits in his study.  He is not young.  His life is etched upon his face: a life of will, the exercise of power, an almost ascetic disdain for common pleasures, a keen intellect wasted.  He is holding a girl in a room below.  He has kidnapped her from a convent in Lecce, where she was hiding from a local nobleman, Don Rodrigo.  She was promised in marriage to a peasant, a young tailor.  Why has he done this?  What is this Don Rodrigo to him?

The man's name arouses such fear that no one dares to breathe it.  He is L'Innominato: The Unnamed.  His own servants and henchmen tremble when he comes before them.  And the girl…if only she had tried the ways of women!  A leer, a pout, something to scorn, something impure; but she knelt before him, and she promised to pray for him.

"You have had a mother, my lord!"  she cried.  "Think of my mother.  What have I done to you, my lord?  Why will you not let me go home to my mother?" Her innocence disarmed him.  Her innocence did more than that.

He takes a pistol out of its case and lays it before him on the desk.  It is loaded.  He cocks it, uncocks it, and cocks it again.  A wasted life, a life of wickedness, and from that wickedness no joy, but only darkness visible.  And if he dies, no one will pity him.

So it goes through the night, when in the early dawn he hears sounds from far below.  Bells?  The neighing of horses?  The chatter of happy people?  What is that life from which he has shut himself out?

The Unnamed descends.

Reader, do you want to know what happens?  Do you want to be there when this lifelong criminal, this terrible man feared by everyone and weighted down by sin upon sin, descends the mountain?  Why are the bells ringing?  Who has come to town?  You must read The Betrothed.

Hanging in the balance

Another scene.  The plague has struck Lombardy — plague after famine.  The saintly Cardinal of Milan, Federico Borromeo, has emptied his coffers for the relief of the poor.  He has also built an asylum for the sufferers — a lazaretto.  There, priests and nuns do all they can to feed the sick, to tend to them, to give them consolation, to protect their children, and to bury the dead.  One hundred of the cardinal's priests will die in the effort.

One of those, Fra Cristoforo, is standing by the bed of a dying man.  It is, or was, an aristocrat, Don Rodrigo by name.  The man is raving in a fever.  He cannot understand what is said to him.  He appears to be dying in his wickedness.

Also standing there is a young tailor, Renzo.  The dying man is his worst enemy.  He had stolen his bride-to-be, and now she is either dying somewhere in this vast field of sickness, or dead.

Or you may ask schoolchildren about Renzo and Lucia, and they will be happy to tell you things; because in Italy, The Betrothed is not just studied.  It is beloved.

He had sworn vengeance.  "If I don't find her," he had cried, "I'll sure find someone else!  In Milan, or in his filthy palace, or in the devil's own house, I'll find that swine who separated us!  My Lucia, twenty months it's been, she'd have been mine, and if we had to die, at least we'd die together.  But if he's still alive and I find him" — but the priest had cut him short.

Not with easy words.  Death and judgment everywhere, and hell gaping wide!  "Wretched sinner!"  cried the priest, "Look and see who chastises man, who judges and is not judged!  Who plies the lash and who pardons!  But you, worm of the earth, you want to deal out justice.  You know what justice is, you!"  And with such words, not balm but a purifying fire, he scored the soul of the boy, stripped away its selfishness, and left it bare to the dreadful medicine of God.

So they stand, the boy and the priest; the one a young survivor, the other about to die of the illness himself.  And there in bed lies the evil man, the source of so much misery.

"For four days he has been as you see.  No sign of consciousness," says the priest.  "Maybe the Lord is ready to grant him an hour of reconciliation, but he wants you to pray for him; maybe he wants you and that innocent girl to pray; maybe he reserves his grace for your prayer alone, the prayer of a heart in pain, but resigned to the pain.  Maybe the salvation of this man — and your own — depends upon you, hangs upon one impulse of pardon, of compassion — of love!"

What happens then?  You must read The Betrothed.

Where is his like?

When Alessandro Manzoni died at the age of eighty-eight, all of Italy mourned.  If you go to Lecce, you can see in the Piazza Manzoni a monumental sculpture of the author, an old man seated with a book, his head slightly tilted, as in kindly thought about the grandeur and the folly of man, and the love of God that overcomes all wickedness.  Or you may go to Milan, to the Cimitero Monumentale, where he is entombed.  Or you may ask schoolchildren about Renzo and Lucia, and they will be happy to tell you things; because in Italy, The Betrothed is not just studied.  It is beloved.

No one now where English is spoken stands as Manzoni did for the Italians.  But he would never want us to end with praise of himself.  The true and only man, as Manzoni knew, was Christ.  So I will end with a verse from Manzoni's hymn in honor of the Resurrection:

He is risen: his sacred head 
Rests upon the cloth no more; 
He is risen: to one side 
Of the lonely sepulcher 
Lies the shroud he tossed away: 
Like a strong man flushed with wine 
Wakes the Lord upon this day.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "Teacher to the Nation." Magnificat (March, 2020).

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The Author


Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song, which in addition to free content will have podcasts and poetry readings for subscribers.

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