Francesco Gonin, View of Lake Como, 1840
(illustration for chapter 1 of Alessandro Manzoni's)
'That branch of the lake of Como, which extends towards the south, is enclosed by two unbroken chains of mountains, which, as they advance and recede, diversify its shores with numerous bays and inlets. Suddenly the lake contracts itself, and takes the course and form of a river, between a promontory on the right, and a wide open shore on the opposite side. The bridge which there joins the two banks seems to render this transformation more sensible to the eye, and marks the point where the lake ends, and the Adda again begins—soon to resume the name of the lake, where the banks receding afresh, allow the water to extend and spread itself in new gulfs and bays.
The open country, bordering the lake, formed of the alluvial deposits of three great torrents, reclines upon the roots of two contiguous mountains...'
- Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, 1827
Thus Manzoni begins his celebrated novel in the manor of a rather dry geography lesson. According to Umberto Eco, almost all Italians hate the book 'because they were forced to read it at school.' They also wonder why he spends so long describing the features of Lake Como before getting on with the story. 'Manzoni proceed as if he were filming from a helicopter slowly landing (or as if he were reproducing the way God looks down from the heavens to single out a human individual on the Earth's surface).' With the third sentence the description moves from geography to topography. Then, once it has attained a human scale, the landscape begins to be described as it would be experienced by someone walking over it. And from there Manzoni passes from topography to history before finally alighting on an individual, Don Abbondio, who is making his way along a lane on the 7th day of November, 1628.
On this blog I have described something similar before: Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, in which the long scene-setting prepares the reader for a book whose story will encompass more than just the activities of its characters. In The Betrothed, Eco says, 'we are being told not just the story of some poor little human beings but the History of Divine Providence.' That opening in which Manzoni assumes 'the viewpoint of god, the great Geographer' also tells us something about Don Abbondio. This is 'not just an exercise in literary self-indulgence; it's a way of preparing the reader straightaway to a read a book whose main protagonist is someone who looks at the way of the world from on high.' In the portrait I have reproduced here Manzoni is shown in front of Lake Como. He looks neither towards us or over his surroundings but upwards, to a point somewhere above the world.
The Umberto Eco quotations above are from Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he delivered in 1993. This post is prompted in part by the sad news of Eco's death last month, which has been marked by many tributes and obituaries, from The New York Times to BLDGBLOG. The last of his Walks concludes with the story of a visit he had recently made to a planetarium. There the curator arranged the display so that it showed what the stars would have looked like on the night of 5-6 January 1932, the first night of Umberto Eco's life.
'Perhaps others have had a similar experience. But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning. ... Perhaps I had found the story that we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of movie theaters: it was the story in which the stars and I were protagonists. ... That was a fictional wood I wish I had never had to leave.'