Summary · The figure of Manzoni's Gertrude
between Pasolini, Moravia and Battaglia
· Gertrude's 'comedy' and Manzoni's hypocrisy according to Pasolini · Manzoni's decadent nun of Monza
according to Moravia
· The (un)veiled Gertrude and the
discreet Manzoni according to Battaglia

The Nun of Monza from The Betrothed according to the 20th century

The figure of Manzoni's Gertrude between
Pasolini, Moravia and Battaglia

The character of Gertrude is undoubtedly one of the most complex and enigmatic in Manzoni's entire novel. The Milanese author carried out such painstaking work on her and such psychological expertise that he succeeded in producing, with undoubted portraiture skills, an image skilfully modelled by a chiaroscuro of a certain depth and without precedent. It is no coincidence that the 'Lady' of Monza has been the object of reflection by important figures in Italian literary culture, all equally committed to highlighting the obscure complexity of the mystery that connotes both the physiognomy of literature's most famous nun and the singular relationship she had with her own creator.

Mosè Bianchi, The Lady of Monza, 1865, Milan, Modern Art Gallery.

Gertrude's 'comedy' and Manzoni's hypocrisy according to Pasolini

In the volume of reviews written for the weekly Tempo and collected under the title Descrizioni di descrizioni (1975), Pier Paolo Pasolini included the Monaca di Monza among the characters he most appreciated (together with Renzo, above all, and Don Abbondio), contrasting her instead (and, for some, even scandalously) with more exemplary figures such as Fra Cristoforo, the converted Innominato, Cardinal Borromeo and Lucia, whom he defined in no uncertain terms as "horrible, ready for 1950s American Technicolor".

And yet Pasolini does not exempt Gertrude from negative judgments either, not so much directed at the character herself as at Manzoni's construction of her: Starting in fact from the consideration that his favourite triad is entirely permeated with 'comic style' (i.e. realistic), the critic then specifies that while Renzo is the result of that 'comic' which is intertwined with the accidental area of everyday life - an aspect for which he acquires a remarkable realism clearly superior to that of the more idealised Lucia, Gertrude, as well as don Abbondio, derives his 'comedy' from the 'abyss of evil', and this forces Manzoni to be a bit hypocritical and Jesuitical towards them: to do a bit of moralistic mannerism (we forgive them, we don't forgive them) and to joke about them a bit, with not too much conviction", almost as if in proposing such perturbing subjects within the story he had the only interest of not adequately developing their real truth but of limiting it by keeping silent, dissimulating and if anything acting according to the imperatives of his own ethical principles, precluding the work from having a certain polyphony of characters.

Indicative of this dynamic of checks and balances is the co-presence, at the base of the profile of the Nun of Monza, of two different components: her being, on the one hand, the absolute emblem of the "sinner who must be ignored and kept away from herself with horror"; and on the other, in contrast, her being "a nun, and her religious habit is a decidedly insurmountable barrier erected by the Censorship".

In this clash of excess and attenuation it is possible to grasp another important detail of Manzoni's artistic workshop, namely the author's tendency to crystallise femininity in 'types', in stereotypes, the result of that psychological complex closely linked to the writer's biographical past, marked by the difficult relationship with his parents and especially with his mother (also at the origin of the young novelist's subsequent decision to take refuge in a boarding school): a clear example of this is, first and foremost, Lucia, daughter of that same 'Censorship' that makes her the embodiment of an extreme 'turning the other cheek', of an artificial and almost cloying abandonment to martyrdom always welcomed as a manifestation of divine will, and not only when it comes from outside, but often self-inflicted as a sort of corporal punishment (and so one might look, for example, at the vow of chastity, a further obstacle added to "the whole series of impediments that make up the plot of the novel").

No less exempt from the effects of this Manzonian 'neurosis' is Gertrude herself, in whom, however, the coexistence - not without a certain conflict, as already mentioned - of two different 'crystallizations' (that of the total and negative antagonist and that of the religious character whose veil is a guarantee of virtue) cause a short-circuit in the author's creative system whereby one component amplifies the other and vice versa, The more emphasis is placed on the monkish condition of the 'Lady', the more 'unbelievable' her misdeeds will appear, generating a paradox that leads the figure of Gertrude to escape the control of her creator and to acquire, in this way, a dangerously greater (and perhaps, why not, also unexpected) evidence.

Giuseppe Molteni, The nun of Monza detta "the Lady", 1847, Pavia, Italy, Municipal museums.

Giuseppe Molteni, The nun of Monza detta "the Lady", 1847, Pavia, Italy, Municipal museums

Manzoni's decadent nun of Monza according to Moravia

In turn, Alberto Moravia, in his essay L'uomo come fine (1964), identifies in the character of Gertrude the highest moment of Manzoni's 'proto-decadentism' and one of the best stories of 'conversion' - in a negative sense - of the novel: that of the 'Lady' from Monza is in fact the story of a "long and tortuous corruption, [... The story of the Lady of Monza is in fact a "long and tortuous corruption, [...], followed step by step with admirable realistic and inventive skill", to the point of being presented when she is "still hidden in her mother's womb", as if to give the reader the opportunity to follow the "progressive metamorphosis of the innocent child first into a desperate liar, then into a faithless nun, then into an adulteress and finally into a criminal", in a paradigmatic narrative parable that "is the most powerful thing ever written on the subject of corruption".

💡 Did you know? Again in L'uomo come fine, Moravia provides his own definition of 'decadentism' with reference to Manzoni's novel, describing this label as "a psychological, moral and social attitude, before being literary", a psycho-socio-moral attitude, therefore, that is one of weakness and illness, but for this very reason authentic and therefore poetic. It is no coincidence that Moravia maintains that it is precisely on characters such as Gertrude and Don Abbondio that the Milanese writer's most sublime art is to be found.

The parable of transformation in which Gertrude is the protagonist constitutes, therefore, an incomparable example both with respect to other analogous intra-textual experiences (such as those of the Unnamed and Fra Cristoforo) and with respect to similar cases on an intertextual level. Moravia makes a comparison with Denis Diderot's Religeuse, stating that 'one will have the impression of comparing a deep well of black, motionless water with a liquid, swift stream', precisely because of the different degree of clarity the authors guarantee with regard to their respective characters.

knows the causes of corruption and points them out to us, Manzoni, as in the case of Don Abbondio, prefers to keep them quiet. [...] Gertrude's corruption is a 'beautiful' corruption; that is, a mysterious, obscure corruption, without causes and, one might say, without effects: born of an ambiguously historical and social fatality, it is lost in the silence and shadow of the Church.

💡 Did you know? La religieuse by Denis Diderot is a novel that the author completed around 1780, but which was only published posthumously in 1796. It tells the story of Suzanne Simonin, the protagonist and narrator, who is forced by her mother to take vows in a cloistered monastic order and therefore intends to break them. Her decision is fiercely opposed by her mother superior, who will be morally and physically abusive. Suzanne succeeded, but was forced to go into hiding, living in fear of being caught.

In any case, with the Monaca di Monza Manzoni provides an example of his ability as a craftsman of the tale, a master in inserting within an elaborate macro-story an equally articulated and very fine sub-plot, which could without any difficulty detach itself from its imposing narrative frame to become an autonomous artistic creation. And Moravia himself does not fail to emphasise, once again, the otherness of the character and therefore his considerable importance, both in terms of the setting of the story and the link with the author:

never has a moment of abstraction, never falls into the affirmed and not demonstrated, into the said and not represented, as happens with the story of the Unnamed. Instead, it is a tight and pressing succession of images, things, objects, situations and characters. And Manzoni does not limit himself to being an impartial historian, as when he summarises in a few pages the criminal career of the Unnamed; on the contrary, he establishes from the beginning his own strong and subjective relationship with the figure of Gertrude; a relationship made at the same time of heartfelt pity and refined cruelty.

Nicola Consoni, The nun of Monza (Gertrude), 1861.

Nicola Consoni, The nun of Monza (Gertrude), 1861.

The (un)veiled Gertrude and the discreet Manzoni according to Battaglia

Perfectly in line with Moravian thought, the Catanese scholar Salvatore Battaglia, in his Mythography of the Character (1968), not only qualifies the story of the 'Lady' as a "small autonomous novel in the vast body of narration", but points to the existence of a new relationship between author and character, which he defines in its parts, presenting it first of all as changed in substance: Manzoni's habit is to place himself dialectically towards his own created figures, an irreducible contrast given by the constant process of rationalisation of reality, made up of "destiny" and "secret designs of Providence", which makes Manzoni's writing able to welcome "a passionate and romantic sensibility" but only after having resized and channelled it "into the rational order".

But in front of Gertrude and her 'moral tangle [...] the writer feels interdicted and alarmed', wandering in a deep and obscure psychological space, with increasingly evanescent boundaries and no way out, where the rationality of his own morality appears insufficient and he relies on it to illuminate the thick shadows of the meanders of evil:

[...] The narrator is unable to overcome the perplexity of the healthy man who dares to probe the sick regions of life. More than hesitation, he senses the dark threat of moral contagion. Because even evil, as soon as it becomes anatomized, begins to gain a margin of justification, or at least benefits from the extenuating circumstances that life and society always end up granting it. Analysis itself leads to realism, that is to say to a sympathetic disposition towards reality and experience.

As an omniscient narrator, Manzoni is used to reserving for himself his own dialogic 'corner', and often makes his judgement on facts and people known to the reader: but if, with regard to some, he provides clear-cut, cut, unproblematic considerations because they are dictated in a predefined manner by his own code of ethics (this is what happens with Don Rodrigo), with regard to Gertrude, on the other hand, he shows extreme caution, almost a fear towards characters that he perceives in the quality of 'poisonous substances' (and in this Battaglia anticipates the attention that Pasolini projected on the limits of Manzoni's creativity due to his moral reservations and the dissimulated fear he nurtures towards certain negative aspects of reality). And this calculated discretion of the author has a considerable impact on the pages that give us a profile of the 'Lady':

The result is a stylistic elaboration of unparalleled delicacy. Not even the conversion of the Unnamed, which is the most difficult part of the whole novel, cost him so much attention and scruple. His portrayal of the Nun of Monza is of such a tense awareness that it seems to have to break at every moment. From one line to the next, Manzoni gains a strip of accursed life in the light of his expression. This is why the Monaca di Monza is the most modern character of the Promessi Sposi. The protagonists that nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction has aligned in our literature, do not have, all together, the hermetic depth that Manzoni's creature possesses, or at least, none of them leaves that secret dismay that Gertrude communicates. Manzoni managed to make her patent [very evident] while leaving her shrouded in unfathomable secrecy.

Precisely in this qualitative combination of "evidence and mystery", as Battaglia defines it (in this he partly refers to what Moravia has already said about the "beauty" of Gertrude's enigma), in this instilling in the reader the clear awareness of the existence of impenetrable secrets in the character, the Nun of Monza finds her singular inimitability; and this together with the metaphorical "elusiveness" of her with respect to her creator, who in "clarifying her moral condition [... ], ends up giving her a more extensive halo of shadow".

By Vincenzo Canto
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