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.
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.
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.
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.