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Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533)


Italian poet, remembered primarily for his Orland Furioso, published in its final version in 1532. Ariosto's work was the most celebrated narrative poem of the Italian high Renaissance. Numerous artists have used its characters and incidents for paintings and musical works. Titian's (c. 1488-1576) painting Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1512), formerly called Ariosto, presents a young, noble man, who seems to be at the same time approachable and formally restrained.

What bit, what iron curb is to be found,
Or (could it be) what adamantine rein,
That can make wrath keep order and due bound,
And within lawful limits him contain?
When one, to whom the constant heart is bound
And linked by Love with solid bolt and chain,
We see, through violence or through foul deceit,
With mortal damage or dishonour meet.

(in Orlando Furioso)

Ludovico Ariosto was born in Reggio Emilia, the son of Count Niccolò Ariosto. Originally the surname appears to have been Da Risto, there was also a place called Risto in the Bolognese territory. His family moved to Ferrara when he was ten. There he studied law from 1489 to1494, and also started to study Latin and Greek language and literature under the tutelage of the humanist scholar Gregorio da Spoleto. When his father died in 1500, Ariosto took care of family estates for some years as the eldest of 10 children. In 1502 he was appointed commander of the fort of Canossa. Next year he entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este. As familiare, he was at present when the cardinal ate, he was ready to welcome him whenever he came home, helped him undress, and gave him drinks made of medicinal plants. Gradually Ariosto received higher duties. In 1513 Ariosto met Alessandra Benucci. After the death of her husband, Tito Strozzi, she became Ariosto's mistress.

Because the family had settled comfortably in Ferrara, Ariosto refused in 1517 to accompany Cardinal d'Este to Hungary - Ariosto told he had a flu. He was dismissed from the court and in 1518 he entered the service of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, the Cardinal's brother. In 1522 he was sent to govern the Garfagnana region in the wildest part of the Apuan Alps, where he was not happy with his duties. After three years, he returned from the bandit-ridden post to Ferrara. Around 1527 Ariosto secretly married the widow Alessandra Benucci, and spent the last part of his life revising and enlarging Orlando Furioso. Ariosto never finished the sequel to his famous work, Cinque canti (Five Cantos), about the breakup of the chivalric world of Charlemagne, which he wrote between the 1516 and the 1532 editions. This poem was first published by his son Vincenzo at the end of the 1545 edition of Orlando Furioso and separately in 1548. Ariosto died in his house at Ferrara on July 6, 1533.

"In any case, as poet Ariosto was boundless in invention and, therefore, prone to imperfections; was extravagant; as perhaps unheroic. But as man he was tender, good-humored, patient. And so a great deal of his tenderness seeps through into his poems and makes it really more epic than that of the formally heroic Tasso." (Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, 1938)

Ariosto began writing Orlado Furioso in about 1505, but he constantly expanded the work, polished its metre, and revised it to fit in the Tuscan vernacular. In 1507 he read the unfinished work to the convalescent Isabella Gonzaga d'Este, "causing two days to pass not only without boredom but with the greatest of pleasure." It took sixteen years before Ariosto published the 1532 edition, a year before his death. The plot revolves around the conflict of the Christian versus the Moor, the war between Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Agramante, King of North Africa, and Marsilio, King of Spain. With the defeat and death of Agramante, the conflict ends, and Marsilio returns to Spain.

Orlado Furioso was a self-conscious continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, which was left unfinished upon the author's death in 1494. Ariosto started the story more or less at the point where Boiardo left it, with the words "Le donne, i cavallier, l'arme, gli amori, / le cortesie, l'audaci imprese io canto." (Of wives and ladies, knights and arms, I sing, / of courtesies and many a daring feat." Although Ariosto called his poem a gionto or addition, it can be read without reference to the earlier text. The first edition of the work appeared in Venice in 1516. Ariosto revised his poem in 1521 and 1532. During this period Castiglione completed  The Book of the Courtier (1528) and Machiavelli was writing his Discourses on Livy (1531). Ariosto's work was a great success, but Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, to whom it was dedicated, scorned his achievement. Ariosto complained of Ippolito's attitude in his first satire.

Ariosto's invention was that he "sings" the poem to his audience, as a traveling troubadour. Every now and then he remembers to flatter the family of d'Este, addressing his patron Cardinal Ippolito d'Este as generosa erculea prole (noble descendant of Hercules). Twice he mentions Lucrezia Borgia, whom he praised as a model for feminine virtue. (The Borgias, especially Lucrezia, allegedly had a habit of poisoning all. Lucrezia had lovers as well as several husbands.) The legendary main character, Orlando, was reputedly Charlemagne's nephew. He goes mad (furioso) because his love for the beautiful Angelica is not returned. Eventually he recovers his wits and joins the army ranks. Other themes are the war between Christians and Saracens, and the secondary love story of Ruggiero, one of Agramante's pagan champions, and Bradamante, a Christian woman warrior. Their marriage is destined, although Ruggiero falls under the spell of Alcina on her magic island; she is the sister of Morgan Le Fay from the Arthurian legends. One of the most interesting tales is the wizard Atlante's magic castle, where knights wander through its loggias and passageways, lured by their unsatisfied desires.

At that time Chivalric epics, such as Pulci's Morgante and Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, and traditional tales of knights, were highly popular. Orlando Furioso presented a rich variety of characters, mixed romance, epic, and lyrical poetry, and made fun of outmoded chivalric manners, but not in the spirit of Don Quixote, which appeared much later (1605-1615). The leader of the Moors, Rodomonte, is cruel and treacherous, but otherwise the Christian knights and the Moors ride together in French woods in their search of adventures.

The first English translation of Orlando Furioso did not appear until 1591. Though John Harington adopted the metre of the original, ottava rima, his version was not faithful to the original work. Ben Jonson dismissed it "under all translations the worst". John Hoole, who also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, used heroic couplet. Richard Hodgens and Guido Waldman have made prose versions. Ariosto's poem had a profound influence on such poets as Tasso, Spenser, and Lope de Vega. It also fascinated artists, and in the mid-1700s Tiepolo painted in Villa Valmarana in Vicenza frescoes illustrating its scenes. In the Renaissance mausoleum that Count Pier Francesco Orsini's built to the memory of his wife, several of the inscriptions in the garden were derived from Orlando. Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) illustrations for Orlando are among his finest works.

Ariosto also wrote seven satires, beginning in 1514, and five comedies. As a member of a group organized to produce plays by Plautus and Terrence at the Este court of Ferrara, he became especially familiar with their approaches to comedy, and their work provided the model for his own dramas. In La cassaria (The Coffer, prose version in 1508, verse version in 1531) two servants succeed in arranging desirable marriages for their masters. I suppositi  (The Pretenders, prose version 1509, verse version 1528/31) was based on Terence's The Eunuch and Plautus's The Captives. Shakespeare used parts of the work in his play The Taming of the Shrew. Il Negromante (The Necromancer, 1520), centered on a marriage kept secret, Gli studenti (The Students, written ca. 1519, published 1547), was an unfinished comedy set in Ferrara. La Lena (Lena, 1528) was based on the story of Peronella in Boccaccio's Decameron. Ariosto's younger brother Gabriele completed and produced Gli studenti as La scolastica for the Duke of Ferrara, but no performance date is known. Ariosto's son Virginio produced the play under the title L'Imperfetta. This version was probably performed in 1556 for the Duchess of Parma, and was discovered by a scholar named Abdelkader Salza in the early 20th century.

For further reading: King of the Court Poets: A Study of the Work, Life and Times of Lodovico Ariosto by E.G. Gardner (1906, new edition in 1982); Ariosto, Shakespeare, and Corneille by B. Croce (1920); Vita di Ludovico Ariosto ricostruita su nuovi documenti by M. Catalano (1931); Sul teatro dell' Ariosto by C. Grabher (1946); Ludovico Ariosto by R. Griffin (1974); Ludovico Ariosto: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1956-1980 by Robert J. Rodini, Salvatore di Maria (1984); Ariosto's Bitter Harmony by Albert Russell Ascoli (1987) The Poetics of Ariosto by Marianne G. Shapiro (1988); The Orlando Legend in Nineteenth-Century French Literature by D.A. Kress (1996); Orlando Furioso: A Stoic Comedy by Clare Carroll (1997); Life and Genius of Lodovico Ariosto by J. Shield Nicholson (2002); Ariosto Today: Contemporary Perspectives by Donald Beecher, et al. (2003)

Selected bibliography:

  • La cassaria, 1508 and 1531 (lyrical version of the play)
    - The Coffer, in The Comedies of Ariosto (tr. 1975)
  • I suppositi, 1509 and 1528-31 (lyrical version of the play)
    - Supposes (tr. George Gascoigne, 1566) / The Pretenders, in The Comedies of Ariosto (tr. 1975)
  • Satires, 1514
    - Ariostos Satyres in Seven Famovs Discourses (tr. Garius Markham, 1608) / The Satires (tr. Rudolf B. Gottfried, 1977)
  • Orlando Furioso, 1516 (first version, final version in 1532; A giunta, or appendix, known as the Cinque canti, was published posthumously in 1545)
    - Orlando Furioso (tr.  John Harington, 1591; Temple Henry Croker, 1755; John Hoole, 1783; William Stewart Rose, 1823-31; other translators: Allan Gilbert, 1954; Richard Hodgens, 1973; Guido Waldman, 1973; Barbara Reynolds, 1975) / Ane Abbregement of Roland Furious Translait out of Ariost (tr. John Stewart of Baldynneis, in Poems ed. Thomas Crockett, 1913)
    - film: I Paladini - Storia d'Armi ed'Amori / Hearts and Armour (1983), dir. by Giacomo Battiato, starring Rick Edwards, Barbara De Rossi, Ron Moss, Leigh McCloskey
  • Gli studenti, 1518 (unfinished)
    - The Students, in The Comedies of Ariosto (tr. 1975)
  • Il Negromante, 1520
    - The Necromancer, in The Comedies of Ariosto (tr. 1975)
  • La Lena, 1528
    - Lena, in The Comedies of Ariosto (tr. 1975)
  • La scolastica, 1543 (completion of Gli studenti)
    - The Scholastics, in The Comedies of Ariosto (tr. 1975)
  • Cinque Canti, 1545/1548 (ed.: Luigi Firpo, 1964; Lanfranco Caretti, 1977)
    - Five Cantos (tr. Leslie Z. Morgan, 1992) / Cinque canti=Five Cantos (tr. Alexander Sheers and David Quint with an introduction by David Quint, 1996)
  • L'Imperfetta, 1556? (completion of Gli studenti) [The Imperfect One]
  • Commedie e satire di Lodovico Ariosto, 1856 (edited by G. Tortoli)
  • Lettere, 1887 (ed. Antonio Capelli)
  • Le commedie, 1940 (rev. and enl. edition, edited by M. Catalano)
  • Opere minori, 1954 (ed. Cesare Segre)
  • Tutte le opere di Ludovico Ariosto, 1964-1984 (3 vols., ed. Cesare Segre)
  • Opere, 1968 (ed. Giuliano Innamorati)
  • Opere, 1970  (ed. Adriano Seroni)
  • The Comedies of Ariosto, 1975 (contents: The Coffer; The Pretenders; The Necromancer; Lena; The Students; The Scholastics; translated and edited by Edmond M. Beame, Leonard G. Sbrocchi)
  • Opere, 1989 (3 vols., ed. Mario Santoro)
  • Commedie, 1997 (ed. Luigina Stefani)
  • "My Muse Will Have a Story to Paint": Selected Prose of Ludovico Ariosto, 2010  (translated with an introduction by Dennis Looney)

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