by Angelo Ambrogini

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Angelo Ambrogini, better known as Poliziano, composed his lyrical drama Orfeo in 1471. The occasion for its composition was the visitation of Mantua by the fifth Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Poliziano’s patron, the prominent Florentine banker Lorenzo de’ Medici, commissioned the young poet (he was only seventeen at the time) to write the drama to be performed during the festivities.

Poliziano derived the plot of the play from the Greek myth of Orpheus. According to lore, Orpheus is a singer who loses his beloved wife, Eurydice, and descends to the underworld to plead with Pluto, king of the underworld, for Eurydice’s return. As Orpheus petitions Pluto, Proserpine, Pluto’s wife, is deeply touched by his plea, and she addresses the king of Hell with these paradoxical words:

Husband, I never guessed

That in our realm oppressed

Pity could find a home to dwell:

But now I know that mercy teems in Hell.

I see Death weep; her breast

Is shaken by those tears that faultless fell.

Let then thy laws severe for him be swayed

By love, by song, by the just prayers he prayed! (Scene 4)

Proserpine is surprised by the possibility of mercy that Orpheus has brought to the underworld. The paradox is that the sincerity of Orpheus’s feeling, the beauty of his music, and the urgency of his prayers make the darkest place in the universe a temporary dwelling of mercy and pity. Even Death weeps because of the tragedy that has befallen the innocent couple. And though the laws of the underworld are firm, there is room for its rulers to relent.

Pluto grants Orpheus’s petition on the condition that, as he and Eurydice walk back to the realm of the living, he will never look back at her. He fails, and Eurydice must return to the underworld. In his grief, Orpheus vows to never love a woman again. Disconsolate, he laments his sad lot. As he does so, the subject of his lamentation turns to the woes that a woman’s love brings:

How pitiful is he who changes mind

For woman! for her love laments or grieves!

Who suffers her in chains his will to bind,

Or trusts her words lighter than withered leaves,

Her loving looks more treacherous than the wind!

A thousand times she veers; to nothing cleaves;

Follows who flies; from him who follows, flees;

And comes and goes like waves on stormy seas! (Scene 6)

Orpheus continues:

High Jove confirms the truth of what I said,

Who, caught and bound in love’s delightful snare,

Enjoys in heaven his own bright Ganymed:

Phoebus on earth had Hyacinth the fair:

Hercules, conqueror of the world, was led

Captive to Hylas by this love so rare.

Advice for husbands! Seek divorce, and fly

Far, far away from female company! (Scene 6)

In the stanza above he refers to other myths to prove that loving women brings sorrow. He contrasts the binding conjugal love with homosexual relationships (Jupiter and Ganymed, Apollo and Hyacinth, Hercules and Hylas) which, in his opinion, are liberating. This motif of same-sex love may reflect Poliziano’s own homosexuality.

As the Maenads, Bacchus’s female companions, hear Orpheus’s denunciation of women, they become frenzied and seek to kill him. They tear Orpheus to pieces as an act of revenge and as a sacrifice to Bacchus:

He shall yield up his hide

Torn as woodmen pine-trees rive!

No power his life can save,

Since women he hath dared deride!

Ho! To him, sisters! Ho! Alive! (Scene 6)

The Maenads then sing an ecstatic hymn to Bacchus, god of wine and revelry, praising the...

(This entire section contains 733 words.)

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power of effervescent life:

Bacchus! we all must follow thee!

Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!

With ivy coronals, bunch and berry,

Crown we our heads to worship thee!

Thou hast bidden us to make merry

Day and night with jollity!

Drink then! Bacchus is here! Drink free,

And hand ye the drinking-cup to me!

Bacchus! we all must follow thee!

Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe! (Scene 6)

This conclusion to the drama is in line with the Renaissance Humanist ideal of triumphant, boisterous physicality, as opposed to medieval asceticism. By one reading, Orpheus is punished not so much for his preference for the love of men, which he expresses in his anguished lament, as for his denunciation of the joys of life that the Renaissance had revived from the classical world.