Fictional Truth 

June 1 2020

In a conversation with Gianluigi Ricuperati, one of the curators of the Triennale Milano Public Program, Sandro Veronesi starts with a comment on Alessandro Manzoni’s book The Column of Infamy to reflect on historical truth and the role it has played in the development fiction writing in Italy, making a comparison with the literary traditions of other European and foreign countries.

The Column of Infamy is set in Milan during the plague of 1630, and it tells the story of two men, Guglielmo Piazza and Gian Giacomo Mora, who are accused of being plague-spreaders and of being responsible for the spread of the epidemic, and are sentenced to death for the crime. In the Ticinese district of Milan, a column was erected to testify to their infamy and it was demolished only in 1778, when they had been proved innocent. Sandro Veronesi refers to it as “a story that is so grotesque that it has become a symbol of judicial persecution. The book is quoted whenever someone wants to complain about persecution or injustice inflicted by the state or the judiciary. The column was erected to recall for all time the infamy of the barber Gian Giacomo Mora. A century and a half later they realised that he had been a victim and the column was torn down. By contrast, the memory of the column casts infamy and shame on all those involved in the persecution.”

Sandro Veronesi recalls that there are two versions of The Column of Infamy: one dated 1823 and another of 1840, the former being published before the first edition of The Betrothed, which came out in 1827. The 1823 version is considered to be the first historical novel, in the modern sense of the term, in which the author uses his creativity to invent the dialogues between the characters and tell a story. Manzoni sacrificed this initial solution in order to achieve the historical truth he aimed to convey in the second version.

Detail from the description of the torture of Guglielmo Piazza and Gian Giacomo Mora in 1630 with The Column of Infamy

“Manzoni is one of the most imaginative writers, with the most digressions, that we have ever had, and yet he throttled all of this in the name of historical truth, bringing his own work into question. This remains as an underlying theme in Italian literature. In Italy, and to some extent in France, in this diehard core of Europe, novels are considered to be rather trashy, made-up things that fall apart.” Sandro Veronesi blames Manzoni’s decision to stick to so-called historical truth in his literary works on the widespread scepticism towards novels and the truths they can convey, which was and, to some extent, still is a feature of Italian fiction.

The Column of Infamy examines topical issues, but it also has a classic theme, and indeed this book is what initially gave rise to the problem linked to the tradition of Italian fiction. This, coupled with Alessandro Manzoni’s attitude towards his own work, led to the meagre tradition of novels in Italy, when compared with that of our French neighbours, or the English, the Germans or the Russians, who have an extremely robust tradition precisely because it was so well sustained during the nineteenth century. We too started out very well with The Betrothed, but it was the author of that very masterpiece who, instead of believing in it, disowned it all just a few years later. Anything that was not based on truth, on historical documents, and on historicism was considered to be without any real value. This idea influenced the entire twentieth century in Italy, and practically no novels were written in the nineteenth century, because Italy was absorbed by the success of opera, and therefore did not look elsewhere. Italy did indeed have its novelists in the twentieth century, but they always lacked confidence in fictional truth, which had been brought into question so drastically by the very person who had introduced it. The first and second versions of The Column of Infamy help us understand why Italy is still and always has been so unwilling to accept the novel as a means not only to create great literature, but also to convey the truth.”

Image by Francesco Gonin for the 1840 edition of The Column of Infamy

Benedetto Croce’s famous mauling of Manzoni was precisely because of its approach to historical truth, and he accused the author of The Betrothed of anti-historicism. “The ferocious criticism that Benedetto Croce poured onto The Column of Infamy concerns none other than the truth of the facts, because even though, in the name of this truth, Manzoni sacrificed his first version of the work, it was the more enjoyable and narrative one, and the truth was based on facts that changed over the course of a century. Benedetto Croce’s mauling was motivated precisely by this supposed historical truth. Nobody would have dreamt of slating the first version.”

Manzoni’s interpretation was opposed by Cesare Beccaria, his maternal grandfather, who at the end of the eighteenth century had retrieved the story of Guglielmo Piazza and Gian Giacomo Mora.

“Beccaria recognises the absurdity of the torture, which was considered by the institutions at the time as a proof of truth: it was said that people would tell the truth under torture. Beccaria says this is an aberration: without torture, that story would never have existed. Manzoni, on the other hand, who is much more moderate and would never say anything against the institutions, maintains that the mistake is not down to the institutions, but to the free will of the judges, who are mistaken because they are guided by evil. They misinterpret the instruments they have to hand. It is not the fault of the institutions or the law of the time, but of the men, which is after all Manzoni’s poetic vision. The important historical fact, however, was what Beccaria pointed out: it was the fact that those men were able to use torture. This historical truth is conveyed by Croce when he mauls Manzoni’s second version of The Column of Infamy.

Towards the end of the interview, when speaking about the tough situation that the health crisis has put us in, Sandro Veronesi, an architect by training, says how important it is to redesign the spaces that surround us: “Task forces, scientific and technical committees, and colleges all need architects. When things open up again, we will have to deal with the problem of spaces. If you don’t call in the architect, life won’t get going again.”

Sandro Veronesi is a writer. He graduated in Architecture in Florence in 1985. His best known novels include: La forza del passato (2000, Premio Viareggio, Premio Campiello), Caos calmo (2005, Premio Strega), XY (2010, Fandango, Premio Flaiano 2011, Premio Super Flaiano 2011), Viaggi e viaggetti. Finché il tuo cuore non è contento (Bompiani), Non dirlo. Il vangelo di Marco (2015, Bompiani), Un Dio ti guarda (2016, La Nave di Teseo), Cani d’estate (2018, La Nave di Teseo), Il colibrì (2019, La Nave di Teseo). He contributes to numerous newspapers and literary magazines.

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