Manzoni: grimaces of power

In chapter XIII of Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi, Renzo, one of the two betrothed, is involved in a riot in Milan, where people, exasperated by food shortage, start assaulting the bakeries. To placate the rioters and rescue an official who risks being lynched by the crowd, the Chancellor Antonio Ferrer is forced to intervene. Manzoni represents in his portrait all the hypocrisy and duplicity of power embodied by Ferrer. While cutting through the raging crowd with his wagon, Ferrer shows a hyperbolically smiling face, «a countenance that was all humility, smiles, and affection». He also tries to enhance his intervention with gestures, «now putting his hands to his lips to kiss them, then splaying them out and distributing the kisses to right and left». Ferrer pronounces the empty keywords that are supposed to please the crowd: bread, plenty, justice. But at the end, overwhelmed by the pressure of voices, faces, and bodies surrounding his vehicle, he draws in, puffs out his cheeks, gives off a great sigh, and shows a completely different expression of intolerance and impatience.

Il vecchio Ferrer presentava ora all’uno, ora all’altro sportello, un viso tutto umile, tutto ridente, tutto amoroso, un viso che aveva tenuto sempre in serbo per quando si trovasse alla presenza di don Filippo IV; ma fu costretto a spenderlo anche in quest’occasione. Parlava anche; ma il chiasso e il ronzio di tante voci, gli evviva stessi che si facevano a lui, lasciavano ben poco e a ben pochi sentir le sue parole. S’aiutava dunque co’ gesti, ora mettendo la punta delle mani sulle labbra, a prendere un bacio che le mani, separandosi subito, distribuivano a destra e a sinistra in ringraziamento alla pubblica benevolenza; ora stendendole e movendole lentamente fuori d’uno sportello, per chiedere un po’ di luogo; ora abbassandole garbatamente, per chiedere un po’ di silenzio. Quando n’aveva ottenuto un poco, i più vicini sentivano e ripetevano le sue parole: “ pane, abbondanza: vengo a far giustizia: un po’ di luogo di grazia. ” Sopraffatto poi e come soffogato dal fracasso di tante voci, dalla vista di tanti visi fitti, di tant’occhi addosso a lui, si tirava indietro un momento, gonfiava le gote, mandava un gran soffio, e diceva tra sè: — por mi vida, que de gente! —

The image of Ferrer’s expressions and gestures can be related to visual political caricatures, which in this period reach a high level of iconographic complexity. Among other possible examples, the double-faced Chancellor made me think of the very famous work by Daumier representing The Past. The Present and The Future, patterned after both Philipon’s pear-like portrait of the king Louis Philippe, and Titian’s Allegory of Prudence. The triple-faced king represents the hypocrisy and stubborn persistence of power and, like Ferrer’s portrait, shows a smile concealing a sneer.

Honoré-Victorin Daumier, The Past. The Present. The Future, January 9, 1834. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Honoré-Victorin Daumier after Charles Philipon, Croquades Made at the Hearing on 14 November 1831 (the metamorphosis of King Louis-Philippe into peer). Source: Gallica Digital Library, public domain.

Titian, Allegory of Prudence, 1565-1570, London, National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Both Daumier’s and Manzoni’s portraits of the meanness of power recall the trembling laugh that Baudelaire associated with caricature: the comic deformation of reality is always sketched on the edge of tragedy. In Manzoni’s novel caricatures hint at more tragic, violent distortions, due to oppression and injustice. Manzoni represents the deformation of the social body produced by the blindness of power, and foresees the monstrosity and historical violence that humanity is going to experience during the Twentieth century.

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