This book proposes a new critical interpretation of Alessandro Manzoni’s Storia della colonna infame (1842), which accounts for the Milanese trial of 1630 against presumed anointers, who were tortured and eventually executed despite the fact that no evidence of their guilt had been produced. Manzoni aimed to make a moral argument about a disturbing characteristic of evil: namely that reason fails to explain and justify it.
By comparing three different drafts of Storia della colonna infame and investigating Manzoni’s ethical conception of literature, the book investigates a problematic text by Manzoni, where rationalism clashes with religious faith in a dialogue that sometimes appears impervious. The book therefore analyses the way in which Manzoni builds his critical argumentation against evil and its embedment in language. Manzoni strove to produce a consistent historical narrative, where the rhetoric of “objective statements” and the rhetoric of “poetical likelihood” remained separated, in order to avoid confusion and ambiguity - in a word, errors - from which evil spreads as uncritical repetition of opinions.
Nonetheless, the writer did not aim to reform historiography but rather to answer questions that had been rooted in the heart of his poetics since 1817: is evil necessary, or does it depend on human will? And how can literature enhance ethics and strengthen readers’ resilience to evil? Many a contemporary author such as Levi, Sciascia and Ginzburg considered Manzoni’s text as a model for a literature that aimed to strengthen readers’ rhetorical ability to build consistent opinions, which is of paramount importance in ethics and provides the fundaments for theoretical reflection on the ethics of literature and its importance for life.