Manzoni and the rinsing of clothes in the Arno
“He is no more. As reft of breath
The heedless body lay at last
On whom such boundless hopes were cast,
Immobile in the calm of death.
So, by the tidings, in amaze
The earth is held, and with her gaze
The parting hour doth mutely scan
Of this great spirit; if again
Upon the dust of her wide plain,
All blood-besprinkled, ever can
The footfall of a mortal show
Like unto his, she doth not know.”
These are the first two stanzas of "The Fifth of May", Alessandro Manzoni’s ode to the death of Napoleon, which took place on May 5 1821, during his exile on the island of Sant'Elena. That of the author of "I promessi sposi" is a figure inextricably linked to our Florence. A few years later, in fact, Manzoni will indicate the Florentine dialect as the official linguistic model for the Unified Italy with the famous "rinsing of clothes in the Arno".
With its one hundred and eight verses grouped in stanzas from six septenaries, "Il cinque maggio" is one of the best-known lyric compositions in Italian literature. The ode traces the exploits of the generalissimo "fatal man", from whom Manzoni was raptured at merely the age of eleven, by his magnetism, after a fleeting encounter at the Scala in Milan. However, it is not a glorious mystification of the leader, but more a reflection that contrasts the far broader design of divine Providence with the limited human dimension.
It is precisely Providence, the protagonist of the "I promessi sposi", an element between the human and the metaphysical, narratively comparable to the Deus ex machina of the Greek theater. Guided by God's project, the memorable events of Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella are a fundamental chapter, not only of literature, but also of the Italian language.
The question of language remained, in fact, unresolved for centuries, starting from the Dante’s monolithic "Divine Comedy". In the times of the Supreme Poet, in fact, the vernacular was divided into numerous dialectal variants, ennobled also by the Sicilian Poetic School, which used it in a courtly form in their compositions.
After the "Prose della volgar lingua", in which Pietro Bembo indicated the Tuscan speaking as a model of the Italian language, in addition to Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca, it will be in fact the "On the Unity of Language and the Means to Propagate it" by Alessandro Manzoni to mark a decisive turning point in 1868, only seven years after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, on March 17 1861.
Manzoni had already attributed to the Florentine language an essential role in the linguistic, social and cultural unification of the country. In fact, in 1827 the author went to Florence to "rinse the clothes in the Arno", or rather, to submit his work "I promessi sposi" to the definitive linguistic revision, one of the key works of all Italian literature.