Ludovico Ariosto Ariosto, Ludovico (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Orlando furioso 1532

La Cassaria [The Coffer] (play) 1508

I Suppositi [Supposes] (play) 1509

La Lena [Lena] (play) 1528

Il Negromante [The Necromancer] (play) 1529

Ariosto's Satyres in Seven Famous Discourses (satire) 1534

Opera Minori de Ludovico Ariosto (poetry, play, satire, letters) 1964

Torquato Tasso (essay date 1594)

SOURCE: Tasso, Torquato “Book II.” In Discourses on the Heroic Poem, translated by Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel, pp. 57-110. Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1973.

[In the following excerpt originally published in 1594, Tasso discusses Orlando furioso in terms of the Aristotelian concept of epic unit.]

[The poet] must see to it that his fable (by fable I mean the form of the poem that can be defined as the weaving or composition of its events)—he must see to it, I say, that the fable he wishes to fashion is entire, or, as we may put it, whole, that it is of an appropriate magnitude, and that it is one. (p. 62)

The fable is to be...

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William Hazlitt (essay date 1815)

SOURCE: Hazlitt, William. “Sismondi's ‘Literature of the South’.” Edinburgh Review 25, no 44 (June 1815): 31-63.

[In the following excerpt, Hazlitt compares Orlando furioso with Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered.]

[Ariosto's excellence is] infinite grace and gaiety. He has fine animal spirits, an heroic disposition, sensibility mixed with vivacity, an eye for nature, great rapidity of narration and facility of style, and, above all, a genius buoyant, and with wings like the Griffin-horse of Rogero, which he turns and winds at pleasure. He never labours under his subject; never pauses; but is always settting out on fresh exploits. Indeed, his excessive...

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Robert M. Adams (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Adams, Robert M. “Ariosto: Less Is More.” American Scholar (winter 1981/82): 95-102.

[In the following essay, Adams suggests that the genre-shifting, playful subversiveness of Orlando furioso makes clear the limitations of a contemporary literary criticism and academic discourse.]

Nobody gets less chance to read books for pleasure, all the way through, for their own sakes, than a professor of literature. The myth, of course, is quite different. The professor is supposed to sit in his study, placidly reading one Great Book after another, sipping and sampling and passing judgment, like a wine connoisseur with an infinite cellar and infinite time at his...

(The entire section is 5973 words.)

Peter DeSa Wiggins (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Wiggins, Peter DeSa. “The Furioso's Third Protagonist.”1Modern Language Notes 98, no. 1 (January 1983): 30-54.

[In the following essay, Wiggins argues that Ariosto's rendering of Rodomonte suggests a complex, paradoxical, human character.]

According to Italo Calvino, “Rodomonte è un colosso dall'anima sensibile.”2 The author of Il cavaliere inesistente perceives the essence of Rodomonte's character, despite his ferocity in battle and his defiance of everything sacred, to be in his limitless mortification over the defeats dealt him by Doralice, Isabella, and Bradamante, one after another. Agreement with Calvino's...

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Judith Lee (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Lee, Judith. “The English Ariosto: The Elizabethan Poet and the Marvelous.” Studies in Philology 80, no. 3 (summer 1983): 277-99.

[In the following essay, Lee analyzes how a 1591 English translation of Ariosto's Orlando furioso both deliberately misinterprets critical elements of the work and demonstrates how the Elizabethans' concept of “the marvelous” both borrowed from and modified the elements of magic and myth found in the Furioso.]

Sir John Harington's Orlando furioso in English Heroical Verse (1591) was an anomaly—as a translation, as a poem, and as a work of literary criticism. Harington took unusual freedom with his text, even...

(The entire section is 8881 words.)

Elizabeth J. Bellamy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Bellamy, Elizabeth. “Alcina's Revenge: Reassessing Irony and Allegory in the Orlando furioso.Annali D'Italianistica 12 (1994): 61-74.

[In the following essay, Bellamy considers the ways in which Orlando furioso both conforms to European categories of allegory and epic and subverts its own allegorical and epic genres through ironic commentary.]

To place an epic within its European context is not always to discuss such matters as its influence on or borrowings from other European epics. With this in mind, I would like to begin my discussion of Ariosto's Orlando furioso with a brief consideration of what it might mean to talk about...

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Julia M. Kisacky (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Kisacky, Julia M. “Magic and Enchanted Armaments: Moral Considerations in Boiardo and Ariosto.” Forum Italicum 30, no. 2 (fall 1996): 253-73.

[In the following essay, Kisacky considers the significance of magic in a chivalric context in Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato and Ariosto's Orlando furioso.]

The distinction between magic and enchanted weapons helps to illuminate the poets' treatment of knights' use of magic. While magic weapons per se traditionally bring dishonor to their user, enchanted weapons do not. Both Boiardo and Ariosto depart from tradition by allowing knights unreproved use of magic; however, the texts reveal persisting reservations....

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Massimo Verdicchio (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Verdicchio, Massimo. “Concerning Ariosto's Modernity: Alcina's Case.” In Imagining Culture: Essays in Early Modern History and Literature, edited by Jonathan Hart, pp. 151-64. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.

[In the following essay, Verdicchio questions whether the use of allegory and irony in the Alcina episode of the Furioso renders Ariosto's work modern or postmodern.]

The issue of modernity both in the case of Ariosto and of today's theories of poetics seems an outdated question. This is so, not only because we have no trouble with the notion of Ariosto's modernity, which ever since its publication was never in doubt, but...

(The entire section is 6346 words.)

David Quint (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Narrative Interlace and Narrative Genres in Don Quijote and the Orlando furioso.Modern Language Quarterly 58, no. 3 (September 1997): 241-68.

[In the following excerpt, Quint argues that the “modern” technique of narrative interlace, in which multiple storylines are interwoven, is present in Ariosto's Orlando furioso.]

Cervantes owed much to Ariosto when he created the novel in Don Quijote. He derived from the Orlando furioso both the narrative technique of interlace, which places multiple story lines next to one another, and Ariosto's particular use of it to juxtapose and intermingle hitherto distinct narrative genres. In...

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Ronald L. Martinez (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Martinez, Ronald L. “Two Odysseys: Rinaldo's Po Journey and the Poet's Homecoming in Orlando furioso.” In Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso, edited by Valeria Finucci, pp. 17-25. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1999.

[In the following selection, Martinez examines Homer's Odyssey as a source for Ariosto's Orlando furioso and compares the journeying and homecoming of the poet-narrator of the Furioso with that of Rinaldo, the character whose journey frames the conclusion of the 1516 version of the poem.]

Rinaldo's journey from Paris to Lipadusa frames the concluding episodes of the 1516 Orlando furioso,...

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Valeria Finnuci (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Finnuci, Valeria. “The Masquerade of Masculinity: Astolfo and Jocondo in Orlando furioso, Canto 28.” In Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso, edited by Valeria Finucci, pp. 215-45. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Finucci offers a psychoanalytic reading of gender and disguise in Canto 28 of Ariosto's Orlando furioso, and finds that gender identities were not clearly defined and that the boundaries between normal, normative, and deviant behavior in the Furioso appear as fluid and permeable as in the early twenty-first century.]

“Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who's the fairest of them...

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Roger Prior (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Prior, Roger. “Shakespeare's Debt to Ariosto.” Notes and Queries 246 [48], no. 3 (September 2001): 289-92.

[In the following essay, Prior suggests that the Orlando furioso is an overlooked source for Othello.]

Did Shakespeare read Italian? Most of the evidence that he did comes from Othello. His principal source for that play was the story of the Moor in Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, and the play contains convincing indications that he read Cinthio in the original Italian.1 It has also long been supposed that he had read a passage in Ariosto's Orlando furioso—canto 46, stanza 80—which describes how the Trojan...

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Further Reading


Ascoli, Albert Russell. Ariosto's Bitter Harmony: Crisis and Evasion in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Book-length analysis of Orlando furioso that argues that Ariosto's poem both evokes and evades crises of self, the city-state and the church.

Blum, C. Sartini. “Pillars of Virtue, Yokes of Oppression: The Ambivalent Foundation of Philogynist Discourse in Ariosto's Orlando furioso.Forum Italicum 28, no. 1 (spring 1994): 3-21.

Examines the portrayal of women and sexual politics in Ariosto's poem.

Brand, C. P. “The Arts of the...

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