Ludovico Ariosto 1474-1533
Italian poet and playwright.
A contemporary of Niccolò Machiavelli, Baldassare Castiglione, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raphael Sanzio, Ariosto is considered one of the foremost poets of the Italian Renaissance. In his satires and comedies Ariosto departed from classical models in order to establish a new vernacular genre. Ariosto is best known for his epic romance Orlando furioso, which is generally considered one of the greatest literary achievements of the Italian Renaissance. A major influence on Spenser's Faerie Queene and Cervantes' Don Quixote, Orlando furioso combined elements of Arthurian and Carolingian legend to create a myth that was both moral and entertaining. Along with Ariosto's comedies, the Furioso also provided source material for Shakespeare's plays, including Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, King Lear, and Merchant of Venice. With its intriguing, often ironic, blend of history and myth, realism and magic, sophisticated wit and swashbuckling adventure, Orlando furioso has entertained readers for over four hundred years.
The eldest of ten children, Ariosto was born in 1474 in the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia, where his father, an official to the duke of Ferrara, was stationed. When Ariosto was ten years old, the family moved to Ferrara, one of the most splendid courts in Italy whose rulers, the house of Este, had built up a despotic control over a region stretching across Italy. In 1489 Ariosto attended the University of Ferrara, where he studied law at his father's insistence. After convincing his father that he lacked aptitude for law, Ariosto was free to pursue literature. Ariosto's father died in 1500, leaving a large family to support. In 1503 Ariosto took a position with Ippolito, Cardinal d'Este. Like other Italian courts in the Renaissance, the Ferrarese court was a cultural mecca, and starting in 1508, Ariosto was involved in the production of entertainments, especially the theater. Ariosto was one of the first authors to write comedies, which, though drawn from classical sources, were written in the vernacular and addressed contemporary themes. Ariosto's patrons, like those of his contemporaries, coveted the fame that their protegés could bring them. Orlando furioso, which Ariosto first published in 1516 but continued to revise until 1532, was dedicated to the Estensi, or Este family, and celebrated its achievements. In addition to his courtly duties, Ariosto was expected to serve on diplomatic missions for the house of Este. His first two comedies, La Cassaria and I Suppositi, were performed in 1508 and 1509, but war interrupted the production of plays, and Ariosto did not see his other plays performed until 1528. In 1517, Ippolito, Cardinal d'Este decided to go to Hungary; Ariosto stayed in Ferrara and serve the Cardinal's brother, Alfonso d'Este. Between 1517 and 1524 Ariosto wrote seven satires, the first of which justified his decision not to go to Hungary; another addressed his misery at his appointment as governor of Garfangana, a remote, lawless province, where he served from 1522 to 1525. Like his lyric poetry, these satires, however, were not published during Ariosto's lifetime. After returning to Ferrara in 1525 where he was offered a post organizing entertainments, Ariosto married Alessandra Benucci, a widow he had known and loved for over twelve years but who had been married when they met. Ariosto lived his last years quietly, working on his revision of Orlando furioso, which he finished one year prior to his death in 1533.
Ariosto's comedies, which display the same flashes of humor and irony found in the Furioso, established him as one of the foremost writers of Italian vernacular comedy. Strongly influenced by Plautus and Terence, the comedies contain characters and situations more recognizably products of the Renaissance than of classical Rome. The plots are variations on conventional love intrigues. Disguise, deception and trickery provide entertaining situations, skillfully elaborated in witty dialogue. Ariosto is also known for writing some of the first satires in the vernacular. Modeled on Horace, the satires take on the hypocrisy of the Ferrarese and sixteenth-century Italian society. Ariosto's major work, Orlando furioso, continues and completes the work of another Ferrarese poet, Boiardo. whose Orlando innamorato (1494). Boiardo's poem brought together features of Carolingian and Arthurian cycles. Orlando, the Italian version of the protagonist of the Chanson de Roland, falls in love and deserts his cause for an enemy princess. Like Boiardo's Innamorato, the Furioso follows the tradition of the epic romance, which combines elements of the classic epic—lofty, historical, or legendary theme, usually of a military nature; heroic, larger than life characters; and a grandiose narrative style—with aspects of the medieval romance, including tales of knightly quests, chivalry, and love. Orlando furioso is written in ottava rima, or eight-line heroic stanzas, and the poem has often been praised for its fluidity and grace. Ariosto described the forty-six cantos of the Furioso as a tapestry whose multi-colored threads weave a subtle blend of comedy and pathos, irony and invective, burlesque and epic eulogy. The main themes are carefully interwoven, with each one surfacing as the poet follows his characters' adventures in successive phases. While enchanting readers with magical tales of chivalry and adventure, however, Orlando furioso simultaneously undermines its own sincerity and seriousness.
Orlando furioso has enjoyed critical and popular success since its publication. In 1517, Machievelli wrote: “I have just read Orlando furioso by Ariosto, and truly the poem is fine throughout, and in many places is wonderful.” The poem did not strike its earlier readers as a lighthearted burlesque of the romances of chivalry, and the passages most favored in France, Spain and England were those embodying serious, heroic elements—the battles and duels. French and Spanish lyric poets seized on the love lyrics in the Furioso. Allegorical interpretations flourished in the sixteenth century, and Renaissance readers believed its ethos supported Christian and courtly ideas. After the Counter-Reformation, the Furioso was criticized for licentiousness. Ariosto's fame declined in the seventeenth-century, but new interest arose in the eighteenth century. In 1727, Voltaire dismissed Ariosto as a poet “with low comical Imaginations,” while Goethe praised his ease of style and harmonious verse, which obscured the seriousness of the poem. In the eighteenth century the poem came to be viewed as morally objectionable due to occasional licentiousness. The poem's lack of formal unity and its fanciful tales also came under attack in the eighteenth century, but as the century drew to a close and literary taste began to favor spontaneity and fluidity over rigid structural dicta, there was a resurgence of critical interest in Ariosto. Romantic critics found the poem flippant and failing to take the problems of the poet's age seriously. In the late nineteenth century, the poem continued to be much admired, although some frowned upon what they felt was questionable morality and insincerity. Contemporary critics are struck by the Furioso's surprising modernity, wit, and use of irony. Although many have found that Orlando furioso is no longer the “best seller” it was in the sixteenth century, it continues to enchant readers.