Ludovico Ariosto Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)
ph_0111204878-Ariosto.jpg Ludovico Ariosto.

Article abstract: Ariosto, although an accomplished Latin poet, made vernacular Italian the established language for serious poetry from lyrics and satires to drama and the epic.

Early Life

The life and works of Ludovico Ariosto, like those of his administrator-soldier father, are closely bound to the house of Este, the Dukes of Ferrara. In spite of the instability created by the almost-constant struggles between this city-kingdom and other rival city-states, the Estensi court in Ferrara was one of the finest in Renaissance Europe. It supported an army, a university, jousts and hunts, and many artists. Architects, painters, sculptors, musicians, and poets were an everyday presence in the life of this court, which was located on the main pilgrimage and trade routes of Spain, France, and Italian city-states such as Venice and Bologna. The young Ariosto was introduced to this center of gracious living in 1485, when his father, Niccolò, after commanding citadels surrounding Ferrara for twelve years, was recalled. Ariosto had been born in Reggio, one such vast citadel, in 1474, the first of ten children.

Ariosto’s love of literature only became a problem when Count Niccolò, his father, enrolled him in the five-year law curriculum at the university about 1489. He completed slightly more than two uncongenial years toward his doctorate of law, while working with the court theater in his spare time, before his father relented and allowed him to study classical poetry in about 1494. Gregorio da Spoleto, who also taught the sons of the Strozzi and Este families, was a gifted and devoted teacher. Within one and a half years, Ludovico was the prize student, giving recitations at court and composing humorous poems about student life as well as lyrics and eclogues in Latin. It was not until 1503-1505, under Pietro Bembo, that Ariosto started composing serious poetry in the vernacular.

Ariosto’s devotion to such work, however, was interrupted by family financial problems in 1498. That year, to lessen problems occasioned by his father’s fall from ducal grace, Ariosto entered the service of Ercole I d’Este. Two years later, Niccolò died, leaving Ariosto head of the family, with four younger brothers to educate and five sisters to support until their marriages, with only meager income from properties surrounding Ferrara. Duke Ercole appointed him to a more lucrative position as captain of a garrison in 1502. The next year, however, the last of his uncles died and Ariosto was forced to return to Ferrara to look after his family. He was then given a position in the household of Ercole’s son, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, which he kept until 1517. Ippolito’s household, rather than being churchly, rivaled his father’s and his brother Alfonso’s in all aspects—art, women, hunting, feasting, and battling. Services demanded by a courtier might range from overseeing feasts to accompanying Ippolito on diplomatic or military missions. Ariosto’s health declined, and stomach disorders, which would plague him all of his life, began.

Life’s Work

The first written evidence of an inner conflict between Ariosto’s art and his courtier occupation is found in two poems written at about the same time. One was in praise of Ippolito’s purity and chastity, and the second was an epithalamium for Lucrezia Borgia, already twice married. These poems helped establish his position as the court poet and are, perhaps, the first evidence of what was to become his dominant tone as a poet—irony. His burdens were not lightened by the birth of his first illegitimate son, Giambattista, after a brief liaison, probably with a servant. It is also possible that during this time, in order to increase his income, he took minor Holy Orders, but he steadfastly refused the hypocrisy of the lucrative benefices of full priesthood. By 1507, his growing reputation as a poet relieved him from some of the least congenial aspects of his service. That year, he was sent to Ippolito’s sister’s court in Mantua to convey a poem celebrating the birth of Princess Isabella’s first son. Isabella and her court welcomed him and especially admired a work in progress he read to them, a work all scholars agree must have been the first draft of the Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591).

During the time between this visit and the poem’s publication, Ariosto’s time was doubly occupied. At court, he was in charge of many theatrical productions. In 1508, his own comedy, La cassaria (The Coffer, 1975), was elaborately produced and popularly received for Carnivale. He followed with another success, I suppositi (The Pretenders, 1566), in 1509, and prepared Il negromante (The Necromancer, 1975) for Carnivale in 1510, although its production was stopped because of the precarious political and military concerns of the city. Violence plagued Ferrara. In 1508, Ariosto’s best friend, Ercole Strozzi, was assassinated, supposedly by Alfonso’s men. Ariosto himself was mediating between Ferrara and the Papacy in Rome and France, with whom Ferrara had allied itself between 1507 and 1509, attempting to reassure each faction. He was on such a mission when Pope Julius’ troops attacked Ferrara, and Alfonso was excommunicated. He rejoined Ippolito the next year, in...

(The entire section is 2212 words.)

Ludovico Ariosto Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

On September 8, 1474, Ludovico Ariosto was born in Reggio Emilia, duchy of Modena, the first child of Count Niccolò Ariosto, captain of the city’s fortress, and Daria Malaguzzi Valeri. When Ludovico was about ten years old, his family moved to Ferrara. There, his father accepted the position as the general financial administrator of the dukedom. From 1489 to 1494, the younger Ariosto studied civil law, but only reluctantly and at his father’s behest. During this same period, he began to manifest a pronounced preference for literary studies. In 1494, he obtained paternal permission to study Latin and Greek with the Humanist Gregorio da Spoleto and, later, with Sebastiano dell’Aquila. In the meantime, between 1494 and 1500, Ludovico began to frequent the court of the duke of Este, Ercole I d’Este. He could not help but be greatly influenced by the Ferrarese court culture, where Boiardo’s works were often read and discussed and where frequent dramatic spectacles were enacted with the help and participation of the youth from the Ferrarese court.

In 1500, however, the serenity of Ariosto’s studies was abruptly terminated by the unexpected death of his father. As the oldest of ten children, Ludovico had to assume the responsibility for providing for his younger brothers and sisters. From that moment, there began a period of intense preoccupation with family affairs that made him long to return to his previous, relatively indolent life of literary pursuits—a wish that he realized only in his last years. In 1502, he received a commission as captain of the fortress at Canossa, but he remained there for only a short time. In 1508, he entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, the duke’s brother,...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Ludovico Ariosto Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Ludovico Ariosto was an influential verse dramatist of his time, following the form of the Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence and rigorously adhering to the unities of time and place, though setting the plays in Ferrara and using the society of that city for his plots. His plays include La cassaria (1508; The Coffer, 1975), I suppositi (1509; The Pretenders, 1566), Il negromante (1520; The Necromancer, 1975), and La Lena (1528; Lena, 1975). His final play, “I studenti,” written in 1533, was completed posthumously by his brother Gabriele and retitled La scolastica (1547; The Students, 1975).


Ludovico Ariosto was one of the greatest Italian poets, his supreme achievement being the long poem Orlando furioso. Many writers and thinkers of the Renaissance regarded Orlando furioso as one of the greatest works ever composed, and its influence lasted well into the Romantic period, though it is little read today. Although Ariosto’s patrons, the Este family, did not fully recognize the importance of the poet who was under their care, Ariosto’s epic poem established a proud, if fictitious, line of descent for the Estensi, pleased the court at Ferrara, and spread Ariosto’s name across Europe; even bandits were said to hold him in awe. Orlando furioso captured the essence of Renaissance thought in its dynamic combination of classical form, fantasy, chivalry, medieval romance, irony, morality, and style. Fiercely independent as an artist, Ariosto obsessively wrote and rewrote his epic until it became, along with the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael, one of the supreme artistic expressions of the Italian Renaissance.


Ludovico Ariosto was the son of Niccolo Ariosto, captain of the guard of Reggio Emilia, and vassal of the Duke of Ferrara. Niccolo was a stern father and a harsh ruler who was hated by the people of Reggio Emilia. In 1484, he moved to Ferrara with his ten children and set Ariosto to the study of law, despite the boy’s inclination toward poetry. Ariosto resisted and was eventually permitted to study literature with Gregorio de Spoleto, until 1499, when Gregorio left for France as the tutor of Francesco Sforza. Ariosto was fluent in Latin (Horace became his favorite poet, exerting a significant influence on his later poetic forms and style), but, as a result of Gregorio’s departure and subsequent events, he never learned Greek, a failure which he regretted for the rest of his life. His first poetry was in Latin and earned the praise of Pietro Bembo, who urged him to continue writing in Latin. Ariosto, however, with his taste for simple things, preferred the vernacular and soon wrote only in Italian.

In 1500, Ariosto’s father died and the young man was forced to take up the management of his mother’s dowry and put aside his studies in order to care for his four brothers and five sisters. His dream of a simple life filled with humanistic studies was shattered; he found himself preoccupied with the banal tasks of finding positions for his younger brothers and administering the estate, an experience on which he would comment bitterly in his Satire. In 1502, he wrote a long Latin poem in honor of the marriage of Alfonso d’Este to Lucrezia Borgia and was rewarded with a captaincy in Reggio. He worked his way up to gentleman-in-waiting to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, the brother of Duke Alfonso, and was sent on various diplomatic missions for the Este family. In 1509, for example, he went to Rome to seek the aid of Pope Julius II against Venice. On two other occasions, he visited the pope, trying to tighten the relationship between Julius and the Estensi, who were allied by marriage to Louis XII of France. Julius, however, became instrumental in driving the French from Italy with the League of Cambrai. Indeed, Ariosto irritated Julius so much that the pope threatened to have him tossed into the Tiber; he was forced to flee over the Apennines with Duke Alfonso in order to escape the consequences of Julius’s fury.

In 1513, Ariosto visited the new pope, Leo X, who had been his friend as a cardinal, expecting the pope to become his patron. Leo, however, was a Medici (son of Lorenzo de’ Medici), and that family hated the Estensi, so Ariosto went home empty-handed. In the same year, on his way home from a diplomatic mission in Florence, he began a long romantic attachment to Alessandra Benucci. He had carried on a number of previous romances, several leading to the birth of illegitimate children. One son, Virginio, born in 1509 to Orsolina Catinelli, became Ariosto’s favorite and resided with Ariosto until the old man’s death, even after Ariosto married Alessandra.

In 1516, Ariosto completed his first version of Orlando furioso and dedicated it to his unappreciative patron, Ippolito. (The cardinal coarsely asked Ariosto where he had come up with all that foolishness.) Ariosto was thoroughly disillusioned with his patron, who, he suspected, gave him his pension to compensate the poet only for his life-threatening duties as a diplomatic messenger and not at all for his poetry. Furthermore, Ariosto was irregularly paid. A year later, when Ippolito was appointed bishop of Budapest, Ariosto pleaded his ill health, the poor health of his mother, and a desire to continue with his studies and refused to accompany Ippolito to Hungary. The poet was not disappointed when the angry cardinal released him from his service and even denied him an interview. Ariosto proudly said that if the cardinal had imagined he was buying a slave for a miserable seventy-five crowns a year, he was mistaken and could withdraw the pension.

Ariosto entered the service of Duke Alfonso and became governor of Garfagnana, a wild area between the provinces of Modena and Lucca, claimed by the Luchesi, Pisans, and Florentines. It had surrendered to the Estensi, however, and though given only halfhearted support by the duke, Ariosto proved himself a capable, honest, and diligent administrator. His letters to the duke from his headquarters in Castelnuovo show that, despite his feeling of being in exile, he was a wise ruler in meting out justice, exacting tribute, and controlling the bandits. He was constantly called upon to settle squabbles, feuds, and complaints and to coax one faction to make peace with another. There is a story of his having been captured by bandits and taken to their chieftain. When the bandit leader discovered that he was addressing the author of Orlando furioso, he humbly apologized for his men’s failure to show Ariosto the respect he deserved, a respect not shown even by his patrons. Ariosto did his best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and was delighted when, after three years, he was allowed to return to Ferrara. One critic has observed that sending the gentle Ariosto to Garfagnana could be compared to Queen Victoria sending Tennyson to subdue a rebellion in Afghanistan; such were the absurdities of the patronage system.

Seeking a tranquil existence, Ariosto bought a vineyard in the Mirasole district with money he had set aside. He had always been frugal, and he built a small, simple house with a Latin motto on the facade: “Parva sed apta mihi, sed nulli obnoxia, sed non/ Sordida, parta meo sed tamen aere domus” (“A little house, but enough for me; to none unfriendly, not unclean, and bought with my own money”). Living with his son Virginio and his lame brother Gabriele, he was married to Alessandra Benucci (secretly, so that he could still collect his ecclesiastical income) and spent his time gardening, reading the Latin classics, writing comedies, and superintending their performance and the construction of a theater. He also made his third revision of Orlando furioso, increasing the number of cantos from forty to forty-six. When this task was completed, he traveled to Mantua to present a copy to Emperor Charles V, to whom the Estensi had become allied after abandoning the French. Charles appreciated the arts; allegedly, he once stooped to pick up Titian’s brush, and there was a rumor that he intended to crown Ariosto in a special ceremony. This never came about, however, and the poet died of tuberculosis a year after his trip to Mantua. He was buried in the church of San Benedetto, though his remains were later transferred to the Biblioteca Comunale of Ferrara.

The posthumous success of Ariosto’s great epic was extraordinary. It went through 180 editions in the sixteenth century, often in expensive illustrated formats. It was translated into all the languages of Europe and imitated in all of them.


About 1494, Ludovico Ariosto began writing poetry, and, for about ten years, he wrote almost exclusively in Latin, primarily using the poetic forms of Catullus and Horace but influenced by many classical poets as well, including Albius Tibullus and Sextus Propertius. Although his verse in Latin is not equal in technical skill to that of Giovanni Pontano or Pietro Bembo, it has distinctive qualities, particularly its sincerity, which caused Bembo to urge Ariosto to continue writing in Latin. Ariosto’s first published Latin ode, of 1494, is an Alcaic (the form most frequently employed by Horace), “Ad Philiroen” (“To Philiroe”). Written just as Charles VIII of France was about to invade Italy, it extols the blessings of peace and love. Catastrophe threatens, but it is good to lie under the trees gazing at Philiroe and listening to the murmur of a waterfall. Critic Francesco De Sanctis observes that Ariosto, in his Latin verse, thinks, feels, and writes like Horace. Political upheavals are not worth worrying about as long as one can wander in the fields in pursuit of Lydia, Lycoris, Phyllis, Glaura, or any other woman given a Latin pseudonym.

In these lyrics, such as “De puella,” “De Lydia,” “De Iulia,” “De Glycere et Lycori,” “De Megilla,” and “De catella puellae,” one immediately perceives the personality of Ariosto and the general aspiration of artists in the Renaissance to transcend ordinary events for the higher realms of art. Despite his diplomatic career, Ariosto always preferred a simple existence in unpretentious surroundings, but not until late in his life was he able to settle in his little house near Ferrara, where he could spend his time on poetry and gardening. His preference for this type of life is apparent even in his earliest works. He...

(The entire section is 4332 words.)

Ludovico Ariosto Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ludovico Ariosto (ahr-ee-AW-stoh), born in Reggio, Italy, in 1474, was destined to become one of the greatest of Italian poets. His father intended to have him follow the legal profession, and not until Ariosto had finished five years of legal training did his father relent enough to permit the young man to study his first love, classical literature, under the famous Gregorio da Spoleto. His father’s death, however, placed responsibility for the Ariosto family on the shoulders of young Ludovico, and he was to abandon his studies for several years. Beginning about 1495, young Ariosto achieved some fame in his own land as a writer of comedies. About 1512 two of his plays were seen on the stage by Ippolito, Cardinal d’Este, who...

(The entire section is 656 words.)