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Manzoni, Memory, and the Fifth of May

Claudio Villa

July 16, 1821. As per his usual routine, Alessandro Manzoni began his day by visiting a tiny edicola to pick up his copy of the Gazzetta di Milano, one of the few Italian dailies that managed to evade censorship in the Austrian dominated Italian city-states. What he read stopped him dead in his tracks.

Napoleon Bonaparte was dead. He had died while on a tropical vacation in exile months earlier on May 5, 1821 (believe it or not, there was a time pre-24 hour news cycle), on the stunning volcanic island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.

In a letter to his good friend, the historian Cesare Cantù, Manzoni described the deceased French Emperor and former King of Italy as "a man who had to admire without being able to love; the greatest tactician, the most indefatigable conqueror, in possession of the greatest quality befitting of a politician: the ability to know when to wait and when to act. His death shook me. It was as if the world were missing some essential element."

In fact, Manzoni was so moved by the news of Napoleon's death that the day after he came to learn of it, July 17, he did what you might expect any other human being to do in a similar circumstance. He picked up a pen and spontaneously began to feverishly scribble 108 verses of poetry — with a mildly complicated rhyming structure known as a settenario — bout Napoleon. While he did that, his first wife, who was likely pregnant at the time with one of his nine children, did her part by playing epic musical compositions on the piano for inspiration. And then, on July 19 - only three days later — Manzoni titled his poem "Il cinque maggio" and put down his pen.

Because of censorship, "Il cinque maggio" did not appear in print in Italy until 1822. The Austrian censors posed such a problem that much of what was written on Napoleon was either unsigned, or marked with the initials or general designations indicating that the author was one of Napoleon's former soldiers or old officers. Manzoni is forever indebted to Goethe who, while elderly and extremely busy shaking up German life in the early nineteenth-century, correctly believed Manzoni was a "genius" and published his poem in a German magazine, which allowed for it's great European success.

An enormous perfectionist, Manzoni thought his work was flawed, but what he had actually created was the yardstick by which the numerous other literary compositions on the death of Napoleon were to be evaluated. Every year, thousands of disgruntled schoolchildren in Italy and abroad are forced to memorize and recite the ode verbatim to their educators.

"Ei fu. Siccome immobile..."


May 5, 2002. An Italian man with shoulder length hair in a baby blue strip forever changed the meaning of ‘il cinque maggio' for a certain generation of calcio fans, many likely in dire need of an oxygen mask and/or a vacation. Simone Inzaghi. Not even the more famous (or infamous) Inzaghi brother. Seriously.

No longer does the phrase harken to mind the geographical sweep of Napoleon's conquests:

"Dall'Alpi alle Piramidi/dal Manzanarre al Reno, di quell securo il fulmine/tenea dietro al baleno; scoppio' da Scilla al Tanai,/dall'uno all'altro mar"

"From Pyramids to heights alpine/Flashed the god's swift lightning-stroke;/From Manzares to the Rhine/Rapid, crashing thunders broke,/Rolling on from Scylla's sea/Shaking farthest Muscovy"

(vv. 25 - 30)

Nor does the phrase invoke the Manzonian image of Napoleon wandering aimlessly alone in the desert, his spirit in the hands of what can only be assumed to be a very forgiving God, who guides him to a celestial place where the glory of this world is revealed to be fleeting and meaningless.

Instead, the phrase brings to mind the image of pre-buffet table gluttony era Ronaldo, his head cusped in his hands as tears trickled down his face, attempting to understand how he and Hector Cuper's Inter could have thrown away a scudetto that was practically already sewn on its chest.

Or it summons to mind the poor fortune of writer and actress Luciana Littizetto, who was so convinced of the unlikelihood of a Juventus scudetto that she promised to kiss Luciano Moggi if the event came to fruition. And then spent a great deal of time likely looking for a muzzle.

It conjures up memories of the euphoria of then Juventus captain Antonio Conte in a champagne-soaked t-shirt in the dressing room in Udine, very eloquently and poetically expressing just how much he was enjoying that particular victory as his teammates vainly attempted to cover his mouth.

"There is little to say, we're enjoying this. This is for the disappointment of two years ago at Perugia and there is someone watching who was at Perugia..."


The aspect of Manzoni's ode that differentiates it from the other writings on Napoleon at the time is that it doesn't judge Napoleon. His intention was neither to celebrate the accomplishments of the Frenchman nor to provide a digression on his failures. Moved by the alleged conversion to Christianity of Napoleon before his death, a conversion that happened to coincide with his own, Manzoni decided to view Napoleon in a more spiritual light and leave the historical judgement of the man to posterity. In fact, there's a verse in the ode, which has now become a popular expression in Italy: "Fu vera gloria? Ai posteri/ l'aruda sentenza" ("Was this true glory? The sentence will be decided by posterity" vv. 31 - 32).

But memory, the great antithesis between glory and downfall, and the evocation of history are prominent themes in "Il cinque maggio." There's a classic image painted by Manzoni of a pensive Napoleon in exile, looking out into the ocean, struggling to discern the distant and evading shore, and coming to the realization that he, who had once been the oppressor, had suddenly become the oppressed.

Oppressed by his memories.

Oppressed by his failures.

Oppressed by the thought of what could have been.

It's not difficult to figure out which football squad felt most like Napoleon on that day in May. When a Sergio Aguero goal brought about a similarly thrilling (those last minute heroics may make it more thrilling) conclusion to the 2011-2012 Premier League season, Martin Tyler encapsulated the moment quite tidily for Sky's viewers: "From chokers to champions in five crazy minutes." Reverse chokers and champions and the statement holds true for Inter that day.

Almost four years after that electrifying finish, and especially in those years post-Calciopoli, that day was a memory with a particularly strong, quasi-tyrannical grip on many juventini. It was an anniversary worthy of commemoration every year, but was a particularly pleasant time to recall when times were tough and it was Inter Milan occasionally doing the celebrating. It was almost like a coping mechanism.

In those years when it felt like Juventus was locked in what seemed to be purgatory, I often wondered what it must have been like to become a fan of the team post-2002 and to consequently not have lived that moment. As a Torontonian, I've heard my fair share of tales of the Joe Carter homerun that brought the World Series championship home to Canada for the second time. My grandparents, who still can't speak English or even understand the rules of baseball, have photos framed in their house of them celebrating the World Series win on Yonge Street. Nostalgia is great, but as a toddler at the time of the win, it's been difficult not to feel as if those memories were available to an exclusive club of people of a certain age. Those were the best of times and they were locked away in some faraway, unimaginable past.

Sometimes, it's not only memory that can by tyrannical, but age as well.


May 5, 2013. If you pay even the slightest attention to history, it's difficult not to grasp how curiously cyclical it can be. Poetic too.

In Manzoni's "Il cinque maggio" he writes that Napoleon found himself "due volte nella polvere,/due volte sull'altar" ("Twice in the dust by thousands trod,/Twice on the altar as a god" vv. 47 - 48). I'm sure he would agree it adeptly describes Juventus in the past decade as well.

Juventus captured another scudetto on the 5th of May, albeit in a less dramatic fashion. The occasion naturally provided new lasting images to a younger generation of fans who were around this time to bear witness to history: Arturo Vidal's penalty that sealed the deal and his classic hands-form-a-heart celebration; Conte stripped down to his white boxers and dumped in an ice bath; the near beheading of Giovinco, ironically the second shortest player, on the Juventus bus as it paraded through the streets of downtown Turin; the pitch invasions; and so on and so forth.

But then there were those moments that just seemed so perfect and poetic. Antonio Conte played another prominent role in the mythology of the day, but this time as the team's coach. He led his men to victory against soon-to-be relegated Palermo, the very team he made his return to the side lines against this year following an extremely questionable suspension. Oh, and he celebrated this victory hand-in-hand with his daughter, the very aptly named "Vittoria."

It's possible that not even Manzoni could have scripted it.

All translations taken from the Rev. Joel Foote Bingham's The sacred hymns "Gl'inni sacri" and The Napoleonic ode "Il cinque maggio" of Alexander Manzoni; tr. English rhyme, with portrait, biographical preface, historical introductions, critical notes, and appendix containing the Italian texts (London: H. Frowde, 1904).