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.
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.
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...
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