The intellectual life of Ferrara had two roots: the University, and Guarino da Verona. Founded in 1391, the University had soon closed for lack of funds; reopened by Niccolò III, it led a half-starved existence until Leonello (1442) reorganized and refinanced it with an edict whose prelude deserves commemoration:
It is an ancient opinion, not only of the Christians but of the Gentiles, that the heavens, the sea, and the earth must some day perish; in like manner, of many magnificent cities nothing but ruins leveled with the ground can now be seen, and Rome the conqueror herself lies in the dust and is reduced to fragments; while only the understanding of things divine and human, which we call wisdom, is not extinguished by length of years, but retains its rights in perpetuity.6
By 1474 the University had forty-five well paid professors, and the faculties of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine were rivaled in Italy only by those at Bologna and Padua.
Guarino, born at Verona in 1370, went to Constantinople, lived there five years, mastered the Greek language, and returned to Venice with a cargo of Greek manuscripts; a legend told how, when a box of these was lost in a storm, his hair turned white overnight. He taught Greek at Venice, where he had Vittorino da Feltre among his pupils, and then at Verona, Padua, Bologna, and Florence, absorbing the classical scholarship of each city in turn. He was already fifty-nine when he accepted an invitation to Ferrara. There, as tutor to Leonello, Borso, and Ercole, he trained three of the most enlightened rulers in Renaissance history. As professor of Greek and rhetoric in the University his success was the talk of Italy. So popular were his lectures that students made their way through any rigor of winter to wait outside the unopened doors of the room in which he was scheduled to speak. They came not only from Italian cities, but from Hungary, Germany, England, and France; and many of them went forth from his instruction to fill vital posts in education, law, and statesmanship. Like Vittorino, he supported poor students out of his personal funds; he lived in humble quarters, ate but one meal a day, and used to invite his friends not to feasts but to fave e favole—beans and conversation.7 He was not quite the equal of Vittorino as a moral paragon; he could pen virulent invectives like any humanist, perhaps as a literary game; but his thirteen children were apparently begotten on one wife, he was temperate in everything but study, and he maintained health, vigor, and mental clarity till his ninetieth year.8 It was chiefly due to him that the dukes of Ferrara supported education, scholarship, and poetry, and made their capital one of the most renowned cultural centers in Europe.
The revival of antiquity brought with it a renewed acquaintance with classic drama. Plautus, son of the people, and Terence, manumitted darling of the aristocracy, came alive again after fifteen centuries, and were acted on temporary stages at Florence and Rome, above all at Ferrara. Ercole I, in particular, loved the old comedies, and spared no revenues in producing them; one representation of the Menaechmi cost him a thousand ducats. When Lodovico of Milan saw a performance of this play at Ferrara he begged Ercole to send the players to repeat it at Pavia; Ercole not only sent them but went with them (1493). When Lucrezia Borgia came to Ferrara, Ercole celebrated her hymeneals with five of Plautus’ comedies performed by 110 actors, with lavish interludes of music and ballet. Guarino, Ariosto, and Ercole himself translated Latin plays into Italian, and performances were given in the vernacular. It was through imitation of these classic comedies that Italian drama took form. Boiardo, Ariosto, and others wrote plays for the ducal company. Ariosto drew up plans, and Dosso Dossi painted the fixed scenery, for the first permanent theater of Ferrara and modern Europe (1532).
Music and poetry also won the patronage of the court. Tito Vespasiano Strozzi needed no ducal subsidies for his verse, for he was the scion of a rich Florentine family. He composed in Latin ten “books” of a poem in praise of Borso; leaving it unfinished at his death, he bequeathed to his son Ercole the task of completing it. Ercole was well fitted for the assignment; he wrote excellent lyrics, Latin and Italian, and a longer poem, La caccia —The Hunt— dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia. In 1508 he married a poetess, Barbara Torelli; thirteen days later he was found dead near his home, his body savagely pierced with twenty-two wounds. This is a mystery story still unsolved after four centuries. Some have thought that Alfonso had approached Barbara, had been repulsed, and revenged himself by hiring assassins to kill his successful rival. It is unlikely, for Alfonso, as long as Lucrezia lived, showed her every sign of fidelity. The desolate young widow composed an elegy whose ring of sincerity is rare in the usually artificial literature of the Ferrara court. “Why may I not go down to the grave with thee?” she asks the slain poet:
Vorrei col foco mio quel freddo ghiaccio
Intorpidire, e rimpastar col pianto
La polve, e ravivarla a nuove vita!
E vorrei poscia, baldanzosa e ardita,
Mostrarlo a lui che ruppe il caro laccio,
E dirgli: amor, mostro crudel, può tanto.*
In this courtly society, dowered with leisure and fair women, the French romances of chivalry were a daily food. In Ferrara Provençal troubadours had sung their lays in Dante’s time, and had left a mood of fanciful, not onerous, chivalry. Here, and throughout northern Italy, the legends of Charlemagne, his knights, and his wars with the Moslem infidels had become almost as familiar as in France. The French trouvères had spread and swelled these legends as chansons de geste; and their recitals, piling episode upon episode, hero upon heroine, had become a mass of fiction monumental and confused, crying out for some Homer to weave the tales into sequence and unity.
As an English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, had recently accomplished this with the legends of Arthur and the Round Table, so now an Italian nobleman took up the task for the cycle of Charlemagne. Matteo Maria Boiardo, Count of Scandiano, was among the most distinguished members of the Ferrara court. He served the Estensi as ambassador on important missions, and was entrusted by them with the administration of their largest dependencies, Modena and Reggio. He governed poorly but sang well. He addressed passionate verses to Antonia Caprara, soliciting and publishing her charms, or reproaching her for lack of fidelity in sin. When he married Taddea Gonzaga he turned his muse to graze in safer pastures, and began an epic—Orlando innamorato (1486f)—recounting the troubled love of Orlando (i.e., Roland) for the enchantress Angelica, and mingling with this romance a hundred scenes of tilt, tournament, and war. A humorous legend tells how Boiardo sought far and wide to find a properly resounding name for the boastful Saracen in his tale, and how, when he hit upon the mighty cognomen of Rodomonte, the bells of the Count’s fief, Scandiano, were set ringing for joy, as if aware that their lord was unwittingly giving a word to a dozen languages.
It is hard for us, in our own exciting times, agitated even in peace with the tilts and tournaments of hostile words, to interest ourselves in the imaginary wars and loves of Orlando, Rinaldo, Astolfo, Ruggiero, Agramante, Marfisa, Fiordelisa, Sacripante, Agricane; and Angelica, who might have stirred us by her beauty, disconcerts us by the supernatural enchantments that she practises; we are no longer bewitched by sorceresses. These are tales that befitted a comely audience in some palace bower or garden close; and indeed, we are told, the Count read these cantos at the Ferrara court9—doubtless a canto or two at a sitting; we do Boiardo and Ariosto injustice when we try to take them an epic at a time. They wrote for a leisurely generation and class, and Boiardo for one that had not yet seen the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII. When that disillusioning humiliation came, and Italy saw how helpless she was, with all her art and poetry, against the ruthless powers of the North, Boiardo lost heart, and after writing 60,000 lines he dropped his pen with a stanza of despair:
Mentre che io canto, o Dio redentore,
Vedo l’ Italia tutto a fiamma e foco,
Per questi Galli, che con gran valore
Vengon, per disertar non so che loco…*
He did well to end, and wisely died (1494) before the invasion had reached full force. The noble sentiment of chivalry that had found rough utterance in his poetry evoked only the rarest response in the troubled generation that ensued. Though he had earned a niche in history by developing the modern romantic epic, his voice was soon forgotten in the wars and turmoil of Alfonso’s reign, in the alien rape of Italy, and in the seductive beauty of Ariosto’s gentler verse.