Ariosto, Lodovico (1474-1533)

Ferrarese poet and dramatist. His masterpiece Orlando furioso (published in 3 versions, 1516, 1521 and 1532) continued Boiardo's 'ottava rima' poem 'Orlando innamorato', using the 'matter of France', the medieval accumulation of legend around the figure of Charlemagne and his paladins, and some elements of the Arthurian 'matter of Britain' as foundation for a dynastic celebration of the Este family. He augmented the romance tradition with humanistic echoes of Virgil, Ovid and Horace, evocations of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante, and references to contemporary events: all unified by Ariosto's ironic narrative stance and stylistic control into a vision of the ideal, the irrational and the real in human life.

Forced to study law at the university of Ferrara and inheriting responsibility for his large family in 1500, Ariosto could not devote himself exclusively to literature. He entered Este service before 1501 and, although stimulated by the cultural ferment of the Ferrarese court and the visits of such mentors as Bembo, was kept busy on military and diplomatic missions, as retainer first to Cardinal Ippolito and later to his brother, Duke Alfonso I, both of whom are addressed in the Furioso. Ariosto's youthful Latin odes, elegies and epigrams testify to his study of Propertius, Catullus and Horace. In the terza rima Satire (1517-25) his themes offer a small panorama of court life, with calculated glimpses of his personal existence. A pioneer in Renaissance drama and in his last years director of Ferrarese court spectacles, Ariosto composed two prose comedies, La cassaria (1508) and I suppositi (1509), both later revised in verse, completed two other verse comedies, Il negromante and La Lena, in the 1520s, and left another to be finished by his heirs. Unpublished in his lifetime were the Cinque canti (1518-19 or 1521-28), probably intended as an addition to the first version of the Furioso in 40 cantos, and continuing the account of events leading to, but breaking off before, Orlando's death at Roncevaux through Gano's treachery. The disillusioned tone and stiffer style of the Canti were apparently recognized by Ariosto himself as unsuitable for mixing with the Furioso: he in fact lengthened it by 6 other cantos in its 'definitive' version of 1532. The language of the third version is significantly Tuscanized and stylistically smoothed, sacrificing some variety of tone while gaining in metrical regularity and rhetorical control, as well as in the integration of vastly diverse materials.

The Furioso is the funniest and saddest of poems, personal and detached, simple and artful. Into two major story lines inherited from Boiardo - Orlando's fall into unrequited pathological love for the irresistible Cathayan princess Angelica, with the subsequent loss and recovery of his reason, and the education and conversion to Christianity of the pagan prince Ruggiero, destined to wed the warrior maiden Bradamante and to found the Este line - Ariosto's technique of arbitrary suspense weaves a multitude of characters and motifs from medieval and classical sources, with historical addenda, apostrophes and continuous comment by an omnipotent, capricious and self-mocking narrative persona. Ariosto's own love (Alessandra Benucci, not called by name in the poem) is insistently blamed for the madness that the poet of the Furioso claims to share with his obsessed hero Orlando and with the greater portion of mankind.

An instant classic, despite Cardinal Ippolito's reported belittling of it, the Furioso became an issue in the late 16th century literary debate about the epic genre, and was pitted against Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata in a contest between the defenders of multiplicity and the exponents of classical unity. The idea of the Furioso as a poem detached from reality, perpetuated by Benedetto Croce's essay on its cosmic harmony, is challenged by modern critics who emphasize Ariosto's historical topicality and the seriousness of the themes and ethical concerns expressed in his well-modulated octaves.

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