Ludovico Ariosto Ariosto, Ludovico (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Ludovico Ariosto 1474-1533

Italian poet, dramatist, and satirist.

The following entry provides recent criticism of Ariosto's works. For additional information on his career, see LC, Volume 6.

Ariosto is among the foremost poets of the Italian Renaissance. His characteristic blend of masterful storytelling, inimitable narrative technique, and graceful linguistic expression reach their culmination in the work synonymous with his name: the epic romance Orlando furioso. In this poem, Ariosto draws upon classical and medieval tradition to fashion a series of interlocking tales of adventure, chivalry, magic, and romance—the whole permeated with a distinctive narrative irony that renders Orlando furioso unique among works of its genre.

Biographical Information

The eldest of ten children, Ariosto was a native of the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia. At the age of ten his family moved to Ferrara, where his father, Niccolò Ariosto, served as an official to the dukes of the city-state, the Este family (or Estensi). In 1489, at his father's insistence, Ariosto undertook legal studies at the University of Ferrara, though he had no interest in law. During his five years of ostensible study, he was more involved in extracurricular activities: writing Latin poetry and acting in plays staged at the Ferrarese court. After finally convincing his father that he had no aptitude for the law, Ariosto was free to pursue his interest in literature, but his classical studies were soon curtailed by the need to earn a living. This need became particularly acute after 1500, when Niccolò Ariosto died and his son was obliged to shoulder financial responsibility for the large family.

As he already had some experience working for the Estensi, Ariosto accepted a position in 1503 with Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, in whose service he performed various court duties and fulfilled diplomatic missions. As was common among Renaissance Italian courts, the Ferrarese court was a cultural mecca; whenever his duties permitted, Ariosto contributed eagerly to its literary atmosphere. He continued to write poetry (none of which was published in his lifetime), both in Latin and the vernacular, and premiered his first play, La cassaria, in 1508 and his second, I suppositi, the following year. Although the first edition of Orlando furioso did not appear until 1516, it is thought that Ariosto began his monumental work in 1504 or 1505; the composition and later the careful revision of the poem occupied Ariosto almost to the end of his life.

In 1517 Ippolito proposed a move to Hungary, but Ariosto, loath to leave Ferrara, declined to accompany him and was consequently dismissed from the cardinal's service. Ariosto then joined the household of Ippolito's brother, Alfonso I, who appointed the reluctant poet to the post of governor of Garfagnana, an outlying district under the dominion of Ferrara. Garfagnana proved to be a violent, lawless place; the unpleasantness of the three years Ariosto spent there is detailed in one of his satires. Upon his return to Ferrara, the city he always considered his home, Ariosto was offered a more congenial post, that of director of entertainment at the Este court. Sometime between 1526 and 1530, Ariosto married the widow Alessandra Benucci, a woman he had known and loved for over a dozen years, but who was married when they met. Ariosto lived his last years quietly in his Ferrarese cottage, his reduced duties finally affording him the opportunity to complete the revision of his life's work, Orlando furioso, a year before his death in 1533.

Major Works

Ariosto is best known for his epic poem Orlando furioso; relatively little attention has been focused on his other poetry and plays. However, Ariosto developed much of his style and skill in these earlier works. He is credited with establishing vernacular versions of two genres: the formal satire written in classic form, and Roman comedies set in contemporary times. He wrote seven satires, believed to be largely autobiographical, which celebrated values such as simplicity and honesty. In addition to his writing, Ariosto was required to fill other court duties, one of which was to oversee entertainment and dramatic performances. As a result, Ariosto wrote five plays, two of which are recognized to be among the best of the age—La cassaria and La Lena (1528). While the plays were based on established Roman models and often incorporated existing plots, Ariosto transformed the genre by writing in the vernacular, setting the plays in modern contexts and increasing the complexity of the plots. This work in the vernacular Tuscan laid the groundwork for his best-known work, Orlando furioso. In this epic poem, the poet consciously builds on the unfinished work of Matteo Maria Boiardo's Orlando innamorato. Ariosto features numerous interwoven plots developed simultaneously and employs a wide range of primary and secondary characters. His work has been likened to a tapestry featuring many different threads woven together into a whole. His tone is both irreverent and instructive, appealing to both the educated patrons and the uneducated masses. The focus of the work is the conflict between honor and avarice, although the knights' quest for pure honor often appears absurd and impractical. Ariosto wrote in a polished, skillful, and innovative style, which won him acclaim from both his peers and later critics.

Critical Reception

From its first publication, Orlando furioso earned Ariosto praise and recognition as one of the most important and innovative Renaissance writers. However, critics such as Robert Griffen have cautioned readers to neither discount the importance of Ariosto's other works, such as his plays, nor to take them at face value. For instance, he questions earlier assertions that the seven satires are largely autobiographical. Other modern criticism has focused on the history of literary reaction to Ariosto's writing. D. A. Kress has examined the transformation of Ariosto's reputation from sterling to sordid by nineteenth-century French critics who were more concerned about popular moral views than literary structure. Anne Reynolds has surveyed sixteenth-century criticism, touching on the noted debate concerning whether Torquato Tasso's work Gerusalemme liberta (1575) out-shines Ariosto's Orlando furioso. Valeria Finucci has discussed the role of gender politics and Christian ideology in the enduring popularity of the character Isabella. In his 1990 essay, Dennis Looney surveyed three important book-length criticisms—works by Albert Russell Ascoli, Marianne Shapiro and Peter V. Marinelli. Looney noted that all three works focus on other Renaissance texts that have influenced the writing and interpretation of Orlando furioso. Marinelli emphasized the role of the Neoplatonists and Shapiro investigated Ariosto's use of doubling and repeating, but Looney cautioned that Ariosto's work resists interpretation because of its multifaceted nature, interwoven text, and exuberant pace.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

La cassiara [The Coffer] (play) 1508

I suppositi [Supposes] (play) 1509

Orlando furioso di Ludovico Ariosto de Ferrara [Orlando Furioso] (poetry) 1516

*Cinque Canti [Five Cantos] (poetry) c. 1519

La Lena [Lena] (play) 1528

Il negromante [The Necromancer] (play) 1529

Satire [Satires] (satires) 1534

Opera minori di Ludovico Ariosto (poetry, plays, and letters) 1964

*The pieces in this volume were written around 1519, probably revised in the mid-1520s, and left unfinished. They were not published until 1545, after Ariosto's death.

Peter V. Marinelli (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Marinelli, Peter V. “Neoplatonist Art: Ariosto, His Contemporaries, and His Friends.” In Ariosto and Boiardo: The Origins of Orlando Furioso, pp. 103-24. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Marinelli stresses the influence of Neoplatonist writers on the themes and structure of Orlando furioso.]

He was altogether outside the philosophy of the Renaissance, whether Ficino's or Pomponazzi's, as he was outside every philosophy.

Benedetto Croce, Ariosto, Shakespeare and Corneille

Non allettava l'Ariosto la mensa dei platonici, e...

(The entire section is 13299 words.)

Albert Russell Ascoli (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ascoli, Albert Russell. “Critical Readings of the Orlando Furioso.” In Ariosto's Bitter Harmony: Crisis and Evasion in the Italian Renaissance, pp. 43-120. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Ascoli documents the interplay of influence between Renaissance texts, noting the treatment of Hercules in Orlando furioso.]

The first impulse of this reader and this reading of Orlando Furioso is formalist: a rarely repressed tendency to the pleasures of close textual analysis. Nonetheless, recent critical events have made it very difficult to move directly to a thematic and/or structural interpretation of the...

(The entire section is 12696 words.)

Daniel Javitch (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Javitch, Daniel. “Narrative Discontinuity in the Orlando Furioso and its Sixteenth Century Critics.” Modern Language Notes 103, no. 1 (January 1988): 50-74.

[In the following essay, Javitch examines the critical reception of Orlando furioso in the sixteenth century to illustrate the growing significance of Neoclassical ideas.]

The many actions, characters, and various adventures of chivalric romance required multiple plot lines which had to be interrupted constantly in order for each of them to progress more or less simultaneously. So when Ariosto chose to make his Orlando Furioso a sequel to Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, he...

(The entire section is 9994 words.)

Marianne Shapiro (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Shapiro, Marianne. “Ariosto's Multiple Vision.” In The Poetics of Ariosto, pp. 152-91. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Shapiro details the role of repetition and doubling in achieving apparently contradictory goals in Orlando furioso.]

My previous chapter referred to the “binary form of accurate understanding” as it concerned the maddened Orlando, who could not be saved by the anaesthetic of self-irony from obsession and its concomitant rigidity. We will test this assumption now, exploring and delineating the perfectly contrary movement of Ariosto's writing as it affects plot construction. I hope to reveal in this...

(The entire section is 14267 words.)

Leslie Z. Morgan (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Morgan, Leslie Z. Introduction to Lodovico Ariosto: Five Cantos, translated by Leslie Z. Morgan, pp. vii-xxv. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Morgan considers the relationship of Cinque Canti to Ariosto's more famous work, Orlando furioso.]

Orlando Furioso has been known to the English-speaking world for centuries. John Harington's first translation into English in 1591 has been followed by numerous others. Though the Cinque Canti, [Five Cantos,] is closely related to the Orlando Furioso, no one has so far seen fit to translate it into English. Its importance is not doubted by Italian scholars,...

(The entire section is 8108 words.)

Valeria Finucci (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Finucci, Valeria. “(Dis)Orderly Death, or How to Be In by Being Out: The Case of Isabella.” In The Lady Vanishes: Subjectivity and Representation in Castiglione and Ariosto, pp. 169-97. Stanford, Calif. Stanford University Press, 1992.

[In the essay that follows, Finucci compares Isabella to Medusa and posits that Isabella's self-willed death in Orlando furioso reaffirms gender roles and social power relations.]

In Orlando furioso, Ariosto reserves the highest praise and the longest eulogy for Isabella. Not coincidentally, she is the only major female character to die. Isabella stages her own death in Canto 29 when she asks the Saracen hero...

(The entire section is 12973 words.)

Anne Reynolds (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Reynolds, Anne. “The Sixteenth-Century Polemic over Ariosto and Tasso, and the Significance of Galilei's Ariosto ‘Postille’.”1 In Miscellanea di italianistica: In memoria de Mario Santoro, edited by Michele Cataudella, pp. 105-24. Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1995.

[In the following essay, Reynolds lays out the key theories of seventeenth-century literary critics while reflecting on Galileo Galilei's views on Orlando furioso.]

It is clear that in his literary criticism Galilei owes a profound debt to classical theoreticians, including Cicero, Horace, Quintilian, Demetrius Phalereus, Longinus, and Aristotle2. Whether his...

(The entire section is 7383 words.)

D. A. Kress (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kress, D. A. “Critics and Critiques.” In The Orlando Legend in Nineteenth-Century French Literature, pp. 63-83. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

[In the following essay, Kress surveys the changing critical reception of Orlando furioso among nineteenth-century French critics.]

By tracing the ideas presented within the many critical assessments of the Orlando furioso produced during the nineteenth century, an excellent overview of the evolving perceptions towards Ariosto may be attained. Although present-day critics have not totally ignored this area of Ariosto studies, much remains to be accomplished. In general, research has focused on the early...

(The entire section is 9320 words.)

Katherine Hoffman (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hoffman, Katherine. “‘Un così valoroso cavalliero’: Knightly Honor and Artistic Representation in Orlando furioso, Canto 26.” In Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso, edited by Valeria Finucci, pp. 178-212. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Hoffman explores Ariosto's apparent conflict between idealistic honor and pragmatic political practices by focusing on canto 26 of Orlando furioso.]

Insofar as the Orlando furioso with its breakneck succession of episodes can be said to have lulls, canto 26 is one of them. One of several cantos in which the plot is sustained and embroidered, it includes no major...

(The entire section is 12553 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Javitch, Daniel. Proclaiming a Classic: The Canonization of Orlando furioso. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991, 205 p.

Considers the interpretation and critical reception that sixteenth-century readers gave to Orlando furioso.

Looney, Dennis. “Recent Trends in Ariosto Criticism: Intricati rami e aer fosco.” Modern Philology 88, no. 2 (November 1990): 153-65.

Studies the criticism of Albert Russell Ascoli, Peter V. Marinelli, and Marianne Shapiro to establish the direction of modern critical theories on Orlando furioso.

MLN 103, no. 1 (January 1988).


(The entire section is 170 words.)