1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ariosto, Lodovico

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ARIOSTO, LODOVICO (1474-1533) Italian poet, was born at Reggio, in Lombardy, on the 8th of September 1474. His father was Niccolo Ariosto, commander of the citadel of Reggio. He showed a strong inclination to poetry from his earliest years, but was obliged by his father to study the law—a pursuit in which he lost five of the best years of his life. Allowed at last to follow his inclination, he applied himself to the study of the classics under Gregorio da Spoleto. But after a short time, during which he read the best Latin authors, he was deprived of his teacher by Gregorio’s removal to France as tutor of Francesco Sforza. Ariosto thus lost the opportunity of learning Greek, as he intended. His father dying soon after, he was compelled to forego his literary occupations to undertake the management of the family, whose affairs were embarrassed, and to provide for his nine brothers and sisters, one of whom was a cripple. He wrote, however, about this time some comedies in prose and a few lyrical pieces. Some of these attracted the notice of the cardinal Ippolito d’Este, who took the young poet under his patronage and appointed him one of the gentlemen of his household. This prince usurped the character of a patron of literature, whilst the only reward which the poet received for having dedicated to him the Orlando Furioso, was the question, “Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovic?” The poet himself tells us that the cardinal was ungrateful; deplores the time which he spent under his yoke; and adds, that if he received some niggardly pension, it was not to reward him for his poetry, which the prelate despised, but to make some just compensation for the poet’s running like a messenger, with the risk of his life, at his eminence’s pleasure. Nor was even this miserable pittance regularly paid during the period that the poet enjoyed it. The cardinal went to Hungary in 1518, and wished Ariosto to accompany him. The poet excused himself, pleading ill health, his love of study, the care of his private affairs and the age of his mother, whom it would have been disgraceful to leave. His excuses were not received, and even an interview was denied him. Ariosto then boldly said, that if his eminence thought to have bought a slave by assigning him the scanty pension of 75 crowns a year, he was mistaken and might withdraw his boon—which it seems the cardinal did.

The cardinal’s brother, Alphonso, duke of Ferrara, now took the poet under his patronage. This was but an act of simple justice, Ariosto having already distinguished himself as a diplomatist, chiefly on the occasion of two visits to Rome as ambassador to Pope Julius II. The fatigue of one of these hurried journeys brought on a complaint from which he never recovered; and on his second mission he was nearly killed by order of the violent pope, who happened at the time to be much incensed against the duke of Ferrara. On account of the war, his salary of only 84 crowns a year was suspended, and it was withdrawn altogether after the peace; in consequence of which Ariosto asked the duke either to provide for him, or to allow him to seek employment elsewhere. A province, situated on the wildest heights of the Apennines, being then without a governor, Ariosto received the appointment, which he held for three years. The office was no sinecure. The province was distracted by factions and banditti, the governor had not the requisite means to enforce his authority and the duke did little to support his minister. Yet it is said that Ariosto’s government satisfied both the sovereign and the people confided to his care; and a story is added of his having, when walking out alone, fallen in with a party of banditti, whose chief, on discovering that his captive was the author of Orlando Furioso, humbly apologized for not having immediately shown him the respect which was due to his rank. Although he had little reason to be satisfied with his office, he refused an embassy to Pope Clement VII. offered to him by the secretary of the duke, and spent the remainder of his life at Ferrara, writing comedies, superintending their performance as well as the construction of a theatre, and correcting his Orlando Furioso, of which the complete edition was published only a year before his death. He died of consumption on the 6th of June 1533.

That Ariosto was honoured and respected by the first men of his age is a fact; that most of the princes of Italy showed him great partiality is equally true; but it is not less so that their patronage was limited to kind words. It is not known that he ever received any substantial mark of their love for literature; he lived and died poor. He proudly wrote on the entrance of a house built by himself,

“Parva, sed apta mihi, sed nulli obnoxia, sed non
Sordida, parta meo sed tamen aere domus;”


which serves to show the incorrectness of the assertion of flatterers, followed by Tiraboschi, that the duke of Ferrara built that house for him. The only one who seems to have given anything to Ariosto as a reward for his poetical talent was the marquess del Vasto, who assigned him an annuity of 100 crowns on the revenues of Casteleone in Lombardy; but it was only paid, if ever, from the end of 1531. That he was crowned as poet by Charles V. seems untrue, although a diploma may have been issued to that effect by the emperor.

The character of Ariosto seems to have been fully and justly delineated by Gabriele, his brother:—


“Ornabat pietas et grata modestia Vatem,
Sancta fides, dictique memor, munitaque recto
Justitia, et nullo patientia victa labore,
Et constans virtus animi, et clementia mitis,
Ambitione procul pulsa, fastusque tumore.”


His satires, in which we see him before us such as he was, show that there was no flattery in this portrait. In these compositions we are struck with the noble independence of the poet. He loved liberty with a most jealous fondness. His disposition was changeable withal, as he himself very frankly confesses in his Latin verses, as well as in the satires.


“Hoc olim ingenio vitales hausimus auras,
Multa cito ut placeant, displicitura brevi.
Non in amore modo mens haec, sed in omnibus impar
Ipsa sibi longa non retinenda mora.”


Hence he never would bind himself, either by going into orders, or by marrying, till towards the end of his life, when he espoused Alessandra, widow of Tito Strozzi. He had no issue by his wife, but he left two natural sons by different mothers.

His Latin poems do not perhaps deserve to be noticed: in the age of Flaminio, Vida, Fracastoro and Sannazaro, better things were due from a poet like Ariosto. His lyrical compositions show the poet, although they do not seem worthy of his powers. His comedies, of which he wrote four, besides one which he left unfinished, are avowedly imitated from Plautus and Terence; and although native critics may admire in them the elegance of the diction, the liveliness of the dialogue and the novelty of some scenes, few will feel interest either in the subject or in the characters, and it is hard to approve the immoral passages by which they are disfigured, however grateful these might be to the audiences and patrons of theatrical representations in Ariosto’s own day.

Of all the works of Ariosto, the most solid monument of his fame is the Orlando Furioso, the extraordinary merits of which have cast into oblivion the numberless romance poems which inundated Italy during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

The popularity which an earlier poem on the same theme, Orlando Innamorato, by Boiardo, enjoyed in Ariosto’s time, cannot be well conceived, now that the enthusiasm of the crusades, and the interest which was attached to a war against the Moslems, have passed away. Boiardo wrote and read his poem at the court of Ferrara, but died before he was able to finish it. Many poets undertook the difficult task of its completion; but it was reserved for Ariosto both to finish and to surpass, his original. Boiardo did not, perhaps, yield to Ariosto either in vigour or in richness of imagination, but he lived in a less refined age, and died before he was able to recast or even finish the poetical romance which he had written under the impulse of his exuberant fancy. Ariosto, on the other hand, united to a powerful imagination an elegant and cultivated taste. He began to write his great poem about 1503, and after having consulted the first men of the age of Leo X., he published it in 1516, in only 40 cantos (extended afterwards to 46); and up to the moment of his death never ceased to correct and improve both the subject and the style. It is in this latter quality that he excels, and for which he had assigned him the name of Divino Lodovico. Even when he jests, he never compromises his dignity; and in pathetic description or narrative he excites the reader’s deepest feelings. In his machinery he displays a vivacity of fancy with which no other poet can vie; but he never lets his fancy carry him so far as to omit to employ, with an art peculiar to himself, those simple and natural pencil-strokes which, by imparting to the most extraordinary feats a colour of reality, satisfy the reason without disenchanting the imagination. The death of Zerbino, the complaints of Isabella, the effects of discord among the Saracens, the flight of Astolfo to the moon, the passion which causes Orlando’s madness, teem with beauties of every variety. The supposition that the poem is not connected throughout is wholly unfounded; there is a connexion which, with a little attention, will become evident. The love of Ruggero and Bradamante forms the main subject of the Furioso; every part of it, except some episodes, depend upon this subject; and the poem ends with their marriage.

The first complete edition of the Orlando Furioso was published at Ferrara in 1532, as noted above. The edition of Morali (Milan, 1818) follows the text of the 1532 edition with great correctness. Of editions published in England, those of Baskerville (Birmingham, 1773) and Panizzi (London, 1834) are the most important. The indifferent translations into English of Sir John Harrington (1591) and John Hoole (1783) have been superseded by the spirited rendering of W. Stewart Rose (1823). See also E. Gardner, Ariosto: the Prince of Court Poets (1906).