Orfeo

by Angelo Ambrogini

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Critical Evaluation

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Orfeo by Poliziano holds several distinctions. Literary scholars consider it the first modern pastoral drama, that is, one set in the countryside; it is the first modern drama drawing on a classical, or ancient, theme and on classical authors, and also the first Italian play with a nonreligious theme. In addition, musicologists consider it the first modern opera, or at least opera’s precursor, since it was intended to be accompanied by music in its public performance.

Above all, Orfeo is a testament to the poetic talents of its author. When he was still a relatively young man, Poliziano wrote the entire drama in the span of only two days. The drama was a part of the festivities, in 1480, celebrating a visit by the child duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Sforza, to Mantua; the drama was commissioned by the Mantuan cardinal Franceso Gonzaga. The Sforza dukes were delighted with music, and they sponsored the Milanese choir and individual composers. Lorenzo de Médici, Poliziano’s patron for most of his life, also cultivated music in his city, Florence. Poliziano’s drama emerged from a historical setting that encouraged his natural poetic and musical talents.

In composing Orfeo, Poliziano employed his vast knowledge of classical literature to produce elegant poetry in several languages (Italian, Latin, and Greek). He adopted his theme from Greek mythology, recounting a tale that was well known to his audience. The challenge was to weave together an entertaining presentation. Although the legend of Orpheus concerns his journey to the underworld in order to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, Poliziano begins the story at an earlier point, before her untimely death. It seems that he almost shifts the traditional plot line from Orpheus’s endeavors to those of Aristaeus, who first seeks to make Eurydice his lover.

Set in a pastoral scene, Orfeo gives freedom to the audience to enjoy all the warmth and the instinctive emotions of their earthy existence. Although the story itself is tragic (Orpheus loses Eurydice), the tone of the play is light and lyrical, a tone in which audiences can revel. Listeners can participate, cheering on Orpheus in his efforts to regain his wife. They can join in his excitement when he sings, “Eurydice is won—my life restored. . . . Triumph, by my skill achieved.” When he, in his careless pride, however, loses her on the way back, they can just as eagerly enjoy condemning him. Poliziano succeeds in turning the classical tragedy into a Renaissance sport, as passionately entertaining as any joust. Indeed, the gaiety of the drama and of its occasion is reinforced in Orfeo’s ending, in which a chorus of bacchants urges everyone to “drink down the wine.”

The theme may be classical and the circumstances festive, but Orfeo stands also in the tradition of medieval religious dramas. From the eleventh century, mystery plays—called mystery plays because they deal with the wonders of Christian history and beliefs—were presented publicly as entertainment and as tools of instruction. Audience members were already familiar with the stories, such as Noah and the flood, but they nevertheless enjoyed the performances. Poliziano succeeds in drawing upon this tradition for the basic form of his play, but he creates for it a wholly new content with Orfeo. The ancient legend of Orpheus was well known, but Poliziano gives it new life in this festive setting.

The structure of Orfeo reflects the rapidity with which Poliziano composed it. The play begins with shepherds discovering the beauty of Eurydice, and Aristaeus’s desire to make her his lover. There is dramatic potential in that story portion alone for Poliziano to develop,...

(This entire section contains 805 words.)

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but he does not do so. Instead, he uses the pretext of Orpheus singing to insert public praise of Cardinal Gonzaga, whom he applauds as a great patron. From there, Poliziano quickly moves to Orpheus’s resolve to journey to the underworld. The audience, therefore, receives a seemingly new principal character, in place of Aristaeus. Finally, after Orpheus’s unsuccessful endeavors to be reunited with Eurydice, a chorus of women overhears him complaining of the futility of loving women. In response, they decapitate him, and so the play’s structure takes another, seemingly illogical turn before culminating with the call to drink. Despite these structural inconsistencies, the play’s purpose is entertainment, for which such discrepancies are minor.

Orfeo serves two purposes. First, it expresses a celebration for the young duke and the cardinal and anticipation for their future leadership of their cities. Second, it serves as a harbinger of Poliziano’s talents and of the presumably glorious literary achievements that he will produce for all Italians. Orpheus is so charming that his music is able to calm the savage beast and even to cause rocks to sway. By implication, Poliziano’s music will surely inspire comparable responses among his human listeners.