Critical Evaluation

Orfeo by Poliziano holds several distinctions. Literary scholars consider it the first modern pastoral drama, that is, one set in the countryside; it is the first modern drama drawing on a classical, or ancient, theme and on classical authors, and also the first Italian play with a nonreligious theme. In addition, musicologists consider it the first modern opera, or at least opera’s precursor, since it was intended to be accompanied by music in its public performance.

Above all, Orfeo is a testament to the poetic talents of its author. When he was still a relatively young man, Poliziano wrote the entire drama in the span of only two days. The drama was a part of the festivities, in 1480, celebrating a visit by the child duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Sforza, to Mantua; the drama was commissioned by the Mantuan cardinal Franceso Gonzaga. The Sforza dukes were delighted with music, and they sponsored the Milanese choir and individual composers. Lorenzo de Médici, Poliziano’s patron for most of his life, also cultivated music in his city, Florence. Poliziano’s drama emerged from a historical setting that encouraged his natural poetic and musical talents.

In composing Orfeo, Poliziano employed his vast knowledge of classical literature to produce elegant poetry in several languages (Italian, Latin, and Greek). He adopted his theme from Greek mythology, recounting a tale that was well known to his audience. The challenge was to weave together an entertaining presentation. Although the legend of Orpheus concerns his journey to the underworld in order to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, Poliziano begins the story at an earlier point, before her untimely death. It seems that he almost shifts the traditional plot line from Orpheus’s endeavors to those of Aristaeus, who first seeks to make Eurydice his lover.

Set in a pastoral scene, Orfeo gives freedom to the audience to enjoy all the warmth and the...

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