The idea that to change a political landscape one must first influence people’s minds relies on the premise that what one reads influences what one thinks. In other words, if “ideas have consequences,” then books have consequences, too. The fate of Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) in Italy, however, may prove this to be an unfortunately naive assumption.

Manzoni’s masterpiece, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) (1827), was made compulsory reading for second-year students of Licei classici—classically oriented high schools for academically gifted students—in 1923. The novel is frequently acknowledged as the touchstone of the “proper” Italian language. Manzoni crafted his words in the fashion of the contemporary Tuscan language, considered the most literary among the dialects spoken in Italy...


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