As we approach the supreme poet of the Italian Renaissance, we must remind ourselves that poetry is an untranslatable music, and that those of us to whom the Italian language is not a native boon must not expect to understand why Italy ranks Lodovico Ariosto only next to Dante among her bards, and reads the Orlando furioso with an affectionate delight surpassing that which Englishmen take in Shakespeare’s plays. We shall hear the words but miss the melody.

He was born on September 14, 1474, at Reggio Emilia, where his father was governor. In 1481 the family moved to Rovigo, but apparently Lodovico received his education in Ferrara. Like Petrarch he was set to study law, but preferred to write poetry. He was not much disturbed by the French invasion of 1494; and when Charles VIII prepared a second descent into Italy (1496), Ariosto composed an ode, in Horatian style, putting the matter in what seemed to him a proper perspective:

What signifies to me the coming of Charles and his hosts? I shall rest in the shade, hearkening to the gentle murmur of the waters, watching the reapers at work; and thou, O my Phyllis, wilt stretch thy white hand among the enameled flowers, and weave me garlands to the music of thy voice.10

In 1500 the father died, leaving to his ten children a patrimony sufficient to support one or two. Lodovico, the oldest, became father of the family, and began a long struggle with economic insecurity. His anxieties warped his character into a timidity and angry subservience unintelligible to those who have never hungered between rhymes. In 1503 he entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. Ippolito had little taste for poetry, and kept Ariosto uncomfortably busy with diplomatic errands and trivia, for which the poet received 240 lire ($3000?) a year, irregularly paid. He sought to improve his position by writing lauds of the Cardinal’s courage and chastity, and defending the blinding of Giulio. Ippolito offered to raise his salary if he would take holy orders and become eligible for certain available benefices; but Ariosto disliked the clergy, and preferred to philander rather than to burn.

It was during his service with Ippolito that he wrote most of his plays. He had begun as an actor, and had been one of the company that Ercole sent to Pavia. When he himself devised dramas they bore the stamp of Terence or Plautus, and were frankly offered as imitations.11 His Cassaria was performed at Ferrara in 1508, his Suppositi at Rome in 1519 before an approving Leo X. He continued to write plays till his last year, and left the best of them, Scolastica, unfinished at his death. Nearly all turn on the classic theme of how one or more young men, usually through the wits of their servants, may possess themselves, by marriage or seduction, of one or more young women. Ariosto’s plays rank high in Italian comedy, low in the history of drama.

It was again during his employment with Ippolito that the poet wrote most of his enormous epic, Orlando furioso; apparently the Cardinal was no hard taskmaster after all. When Ariosto showed Ippolito the manuscript the realistic prelate, according to an uncertain tradition—se non vero, ben trovato— asked him, “Where, Messer Lodovico, have you found so much nonsense (tante corbellerie)?”12 But the laudatory dedication seemed to make more sense, and the Cardinal paid the cost of publishing the poem (1515), and secured all rights and profits of its sale to Ariosto. Italy did not think the poem nonsense, or thought it delectable nonsense; nine printings were bought up between 1524 and 1527. Soon the choicest passages were being recited or sung throughout the peninsula. Ariosto himself read much of it to Isabella d’Este in her illness at Mantua, and rewarded her patience with a eulogy in later editions. He spent ten years (1505–15) writing the Furioso, sixteen more in polishing it; every now and then he added a canto, until the whole ran to almost 39,000 lines, equivalent to the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.

At first he merely proposed to continue and expand Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato. He took from his predecessor the chivalric setting and theme, the loves and battles of Charlemagne’s knights, the central characters, the loose episodic construction, the suspension of one narrative to pass to another, the magic operations that often turn the tale, even the idea of tracing the pedigree of the Estensi to the marriage of the mythical Ruggiero and Bradamante. And yet, while praising a hundred others, he never mentions Boiardo’s name; no man is a hero to his debtor. Perhaps Ariosto felt that the theme and characters belonged to the cycle of legends themselves, rather than to Boiardo.

Like the Count, and unlike the legends, he stressed the role of love above that of war, and so proclaimed in his opening lines:

Le donne, i cavalier, l’arme, gli amori,
Le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto—

“Women I sing, and knights, and arms, and loves, and deeds of chivalry and bold emprise.” The story carries out this program faithfully: it is a series of combats, some for Christianity against Islam, most for women. A dozen counts and kings contest Angelica; she flirts with them all, plays them one against another, and is caught in an anticlimax when she falls in love with a handsome mediocrity, and marries him before she has time to make the usual examination of his income. Orlando, who enters the story after eight cantos have rolled by, pursues her over three continents, neglecting meanwhile to go to the aid of his sovereign Charlemagne when the Saracens attack Paris. He goes mad on learning that he has lost her (canto XXIII), and recovers sanity sixteen cantos later when his lost wits are found in the moon and brought back to him by a predecessor of Jules Verne’s lunar navigators. This central theme is confused and obfuscated by the interpolated adventures of a dozen other knights, who pursue their respective women through forty-six cantos of seductive verse. The women enjoy the chase, perhaps excepting Isabella, who persuades Rodomonte to cut off her head rather than to deflower her, and earns a monument. The old legend of St. George is included: the beautiful Angelica is chained to the rocks beside the sea as a propitiatory offering to a dragon who hungers for a virgin annually; and before Ruggiero can arrive to rescue her the poet contemplates her with Correggian appreciation:

La fiera gente inospitale e cruda

Alla bestia crudel nel lito espose

La bellissima donna così ignuda

Come Natura prima la compose.

Un velo non ha pure in che rinchiuda

I bianchi gigli e le vermiglie rose,

Da non cader per Iuglio o per Decembre,

Di che non sparse le polite membre.

Creduta avria che fosse statua finta

O d’alabastro o d’altri marmi illustri

Ruggiero, e su lo scoglio così avvinta

Per artificio di scultori industri;

Se non videa la lachrima distinta

Tra fresche rose e candidi ligustri

Far rugiadose le crudette pome,

E l’ aura sventolar l’aurate chiome.13

Which may be rendered, musicless:

A people fierce, inhospitable, crude

Exposed upon the shore, to savage beast,

A woman fairest of the fair, and nude

As when first Nature her sweet form composed.

No smallest veil enclosed the lilies white

And vermeil roses of her flesh, that bear

Midsummer’s ardor and December’s cold

Unhurt, and gleam on her resplendent limbs.

She might have seemed to him a statue made

Of alabaster, or some marble form

Bound to the stone by sculptor’s artifice,

Had he not seen a bright tear fall between

The roses and white privets of her cheeks,

Bedewing breasts like apples firm, and seen

The breezes breathing on her golden hair.

Ariosto does not take all this too seriously; he is writing to amuse; he deliberately charms us, by the incantation of his verse, into an unreal world, and mystifies his tale with fairies, magic weapons and enchantments, winged horses touring the clouds, men turned into trees, fortresses melting at an imperious word. Orlando spits six Dutchmen on one spear; Astolfo creates a fleet by throwing leaves into the air, and catches the wind in a bladder. Ariosto laughs with us at all this, and smiles tolerantly, not sarcastically, at the tilts and shams of chivalry. He has an excellent sense of humor, salted with gentle irony; so he includes, in the waste deposited by the earth upon the moon, the prayers of hypocrites, the flatteries of poets (peccavit), the services of courtiers, the Donation of Constantine (XXXIV). Only now and then, in a few moral exordiums, does Ariosto pretend to philosophy. He was so completely the poet that he lost and consumed himself in forging and polishing a beautiful form for his verse; he had no energy left to pour into it an ennobling purpose or a philosophy of life.13a

Italians love the Furioso because it is a treasury of exciting stories—with never a pretty woman too far away—told in melodious and yet unaffected language, and in racy stanzas that lure us swiftly on from scene to scene. They forgive the long detours and descriptions, the innumerable and sometimes labored similes, for these too are dressed in sparkling verse. They are rewarded, and silently shout “Bravo!” when the poet hammers out a striking line, as when he says of Zerbino,

Natura il fece, e poi roppe la stampa,—14

“Nature made him, and then broke the mold.” They are not long disturbed by Ariosto’s expectant flattery of the Estensi, his paeans to Ippolito, his praise of Lucrezia’s chastity. These obeisances were in the manner of the times; Machiavelli would stoop as low to conquer a subsidy; and a poet must live.

But this became difficult when the Cardinal decided to campaign in Hungary, and desired Ariosto to accompany him. Ariosto demurred, and Ippolito freed him from further service and recompense Alfonso saved the poet from penury by giving him an annual stipend of eighty-four crowns ($1050?), plus three servants and two horses, and requiring almost nothing in return. After forty-seven years of obstinate but hardly celibate bachelordom, Ariosto now married Alessandra Benucci, whom he had loved when she was still the wife of Tito Vespasiano Strozzi. By her he had no children, but two natural sons had rewarded his premarital efforts.

For three years (1522–5) he served unhappily as governor of the Garfagnana, a mountainous region racked with brigandage. But he was unfit for action or command, and gladly retired to spend the remaining eight years of his life in Ferrara. In 1528 he bought a plot of land on the outskirts of the city, and built a pretty house, still shown in the Via Ariosto, and maintained by the state. Across the front he inscribed Horatian lines of proud simplicity: Parva sed apta mihi, sed nulli obnoxia, sed non sordida, parta meo sed tamen aere domus—”Small but suitable for me, hurtful to no one, not mean, yet acquired by my own funds: home.” there he lived quietly, working occasionally in his garden, and revising or expanding the Furioso every day.

Meanwhile, further emulating Horace, he had written to various friends seven poetical epistles that have come down to us under the name of satires. They are not as sharp and compact as those of his model, nor as bitter and lethal as Juvenal’s; they were the product of a mind loving and never quite finding peace, bearing fretfully the whips and scorns of time, the proud man’s contumely. They describe the faults of the clergy, the simony rampant in Rome, the nepotism of worldly popes (Satire i). They excoriate Ippolito for paying his menials better than his poet (ii). They expound a cynical conception of women as rarely faithful or honest, and offer the advice of a tardy expert on choosing and taming a wife (iii). They lament the indignities of a courtier’s life, and wryly recount an unsuccessful visit to Leo X (iv):

I kissed his foot, he bent down from the holy seat, took my hand, and saluted me on both cheeks. Besides, he made me free of half the stamp dues I was bound to pay. Then, breast full of hope but body soaked with rain and smirched with mud, I went and had my supper at the Ram.

Two satires mourn his narrow life at Garfagnana, his days “spent in threatening, punishing, persuading, or acquitting,” his muse frightened and paralyzed into silence by crimes, lawsuits, and brawls; and his mistress so many miles away! (v-vi) The last epistle asks Bembo to recommend a Greek tutor for Ariosto’s son Virginio:

The Greek must be learned but also of sound principles, for erudition without morality is worse than worthless. Unhappily, in these days, it is difficult to find a teacher of this sort. Few humanists are free from the most infamous of vices, and intellectual vanity makes most of them skeptics also. Why is it that learning and infidelity go hand in hand?15

Ariosto himself had through most of his life taken religion lightly; but, like nearly all the intellects of the Renaissance, he made his peace with it in the end. Even from youth he had suffered from a bronchial catarrh, which was probably aggravated by his travels as courier for the Cardinal. In 1532 the trouble sank deeper, and became tuberculosis. He struggled against it as if not satisfied with a mere immortality of fame. He was only fifty-eight when he died (1533).

He had become a classic long before his death. Twenty-three years earlier Raphael had painted him, in the Parnassus fresco of the Vatican, with Homer and Virgil, Horace and Ovid, Dante and Petrarch, among the unforgettable voices of mankind. Italy calls him her Homer, and the Furioso her Iliad; but even to an idolater of Italy this appears more generous than just. The world of Ariosto seems light and fantastic beside the ruthless siege of Troy; his knights—some as indistinguishable in their character as in their armor—hardly rise to the majesty of Agamemnon, the passion of Achilles, the wisdom of Nestor, the nobility of Hector, the tragedy of Priam; and who will equate the fair and flighty Angelica with the dia gynaikon, the goddess among women, Helen conqueror in defeat? And yet the last word must be as the first: only those can judge Ariosto who know his language thoroughly, who can catch the nuances of his gaiety and his sentiment, and can respond to all the music of his melodious dream.

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