A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XI

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Boiardo had accomplished a great work. He had raised the old chivalric romance to epic dignity, and shown its capability of classic form. This, impeded by his provincial education and the low standard of poetry prevailing in his time, he had not himself been able to impart. The achievement was reserved for one who has infinitely transcended him in reputation, though it may be questioned whether he has indeed greatly surpassed him in any respect but style and the gift of story-telling, and who is certainly inferior to him in sincerity and simplicity.

Lodovico Ariosto was born at Reggio, near which town Boiardo also had first seen the light, on September 8, 1474. His family was noble, and his father, who survived his birth about twenty years, filled many important offices. Like the fathers of Petrarch and Boccaccio, he insisted that his son should follow the profession of the law, which the youth renounced after five years of fruitless, perhaps not very persevering study. His father's death left Ariosto at the head of a large family, for which he had to provide out of a scanty patrimony. He solaced his cares by classical studies, which made him a fair Latin poet. About 1503 he entered the service of the Cardinal of Este, brother of the Duke of Ferrara, and hence a member of that house whose glory it has been to. have numbered two of the most illustrious poets of Italy in its train, and whose infelicity to have derived more obloquy than honour from the connection. Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato had been designed for the glorification of the house of Este, but the purpose is not sufficiently obtrusive to spoil our pleasure in the poet's ideal world. Ariosto took up the thread of the narrative where his predecessor had dropped it, and writing in the spirit of a courtier, produced in the Orlando Furioso a sequel related to Boiardo's poem much as Virgil's national epic on the wanderings of Æneas is related to Homer's artless tale of the wanderings of Ulysses.

In so far as Ariosto's objects were poetical fame and the honour of his native country they were attained to the full; but his toil was almost vain as respected recompense from the princes for whose sake he had blemished his poem. The Cardinal, a coarse, unscrupulous man, fitter for a soldier than an ecclesiastic, was apparently unable to discern any connection between Ruggiero's hippogriff and the glories of his descendants, and upon the publication, of the Orlando in 1510, asked the poet quite simply "where he had been for all that rot?" He is stated, however, to have presented Ariosto with a golden chain, rather for the ornament of his person than the relief of his necessities, as he could not venture to turn it into money. Ariosto further incurred his Eminence's displeasure by hesitating to accompany him on a mission to Hungary, and found it advisable to exchange his service for the Duke's. The Duke, a prince lavish in shows, economical in salaries, thought the poet abundantly rewarded by the governorship of the Garfagnana, which it was necessary to confer upon somebody. The Garfagnana was a wild district overrun with poetical banditti, readers and admirers of their governor's epic. Here Ariosto gained much honour, but little emolument.

His experience of his patrons generally justified his favourite motto, Pro bono malum. Even the munificent Leo X. did nothing for him but kiss him on both cheeks, and remit half the fees upon the brief that assured his copyrights, his particular friend Cardinal Bibbiena pocketing the other. His sole real benefactor was the Marquis del Vasto, husband of the lady whom we shall find celebrated by Luigi Tansillo, who settled an annuity of a hundred ducats upon him. Even this was consideration for value to be received, the Marquis, himself a poet, being properly impressed by the Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona maicim. Ariosto acquitted himself of his obligation like a man, comparing his patron to Cæsar, Nestor, Achilles, Nireus, and Ladas. Great as was the renown which his Orlando procured for him in his lifetime, its profits were not such as to render him independent of patronage; yet, after all, he was able to boast that the modest house which he built for himself, and where he died in 1533, was paid for by his own money.[1] It is kept to this day by the municipality of Ferrara; and Ariosto's manuscripts, evincing his indefatigable care in the revision of his poem, are preserved in the public library.

The chief literary occupations of his latter years had been the composition of comedies, the superintendence of theatrical perfonnances for the entertainment of the Duke, and the incessant revision of the Orlando Furioso, enlarged from forty to forty-six cantos. The last edition published under his own inspection appeared in 1532, and was not regarded by him as definitive. He also began a continuation, intended to narrate the death of Ruggiero by the treachery of Gano, of which only five cantos were written.

So great is the variety of the Orlando Furioso, that it appears difficult at first to discover a clue to a main action among its thronging and complicated adventures. Ginguené and Panizzi, however, have shown that one exists, and that this is the union of Ruggiero and Bradamante, the fabulous ancestors of the house of Este. All the poet's skill is exerted to keep them apart, that he may bring them together at last. Orlando, Rinaldo, Angelica, the chief personages of the Innamorato, have become subordinate characters; and, notwithstanding the title of the poem, Orlando's madness is but an episode. The unfortunate consequence is the transfer of the main interest from personages whom Boiardo had made highly attractive, to Ruggiero and Bradamante, less impressive in the hands of Ariosto, whose forte is rather in depicting tender or humorous than heroic character. It would not be just to say that this occasions the chief disadvantage of the poem in comparison with the Innamorato, the loss of the elder poet's delightful naïveté. Rather the change of plan and the falling off in simplicity spring from the same root, the taste and character of the author.

Ariosto was more of a courtier than a knight, and thought more of the house of Este than of the paladins of Charlemagne. He wrought upon Boiardo in the spirit of Dryden adapting Chaucer; while his predecessor, though himself courtly, may rather be likened to William Morris. Boiardo, though also purposing the panegyric of the house of Este, sings for the delight of singing, and introduces no incongruous fifteenth-century figures into his romantic pageant, Ariosto mars his epic by contemporary allusions, as Spenser and Tennyson marred theirs by far-fetched allegory. It must be remembered, in justice to him, that his perpetual adulation of the court of Ferrara seemed less extravagant then than now. To us the importance attached to a family which would be forgotten if Ariosto and Tasso had not swelled its retinue, and if Lucrezia Borgia^ had not married into it, borders on the absurd. It seems preposterous that hosts should be equipped, and giants and dragons and enchanters set in motion, and paladins despatched on errands to the moon, that Ariosto may compliment a cardinal whose want of culture rather than his penetration led him to rate these compliments at their worth. But in Ariosto's day that court was a bright and dazzling reality, and almost every member of his immediate circle depended upon it for his bread.

If we can forget his servility, or persuade ourselves to deem it loyalty, we shall find little to censure in Ariosto. Shelley's assertion that he is only sometimes a poet implies a narrow conception of the nature of poetry. Rather may it be said that he is always a poet, always fanciful, always musical, always elevated, though not always to a very great altitude, above the level of the choicest prose. It is true that he has nothing of the seer in his composition, that his perfect technical mastery is rarely either exalted or disturbed by any gleam of the light that never was on sea or land, that his poem is destitute of moral or patriotic purpose, and that his standard in all things is that of his age. This merely proves that he is not in the rank of supremely great poets—a position which he would not have claimed for himself; nor have his countrymen paralleled him with Dante. He is hardly to be called Homeric, though endowed with the Homeric rapidity, directness, conciseness, and, except when he voluntarily turns to humour and burlesque, much of the Homeric nobility.

Perhaps the nearest literary analogy to the Orlando Furioso in another language is the Metamorphoses of Ovid. In both poems appear the same perspicuity and facility of narration, the same sweetness of versification, the same art of interweaving episodes into a whole. Ariosto's vigour and directness, nevertheless, are wanting to Ovid, and the palm of invention and of the delineation of character undoubtedly belongs to him, for Ovid was forbidden to introduce a new incident, or vary any of the personages afforded by his mythological repertory. The fact that the Orlando is not, like the Jerusalem, a new Æneid, but a new Metamorphoses, entirely justifies the introduction of such burlesque satire as the abode of Discord among the monks, or such delightful extravagance as Astolfo's flight to the moon in quest of Orlando's brains, resulting in the recovery of no inconsiderable portion of his own. Such episodes are, indeed, the most characteristic passages of the Furioso; yet in others, such as the siege of Paris and the madness of Orlando, Ariosto shows himself capable of rising to epical dignity, which he could have assumed more frequently if it had entered into his plan. This rather required the gifts of the painter, whether of natural scenery or of human emotion, which he possessed in the most eminent degree; and of the ironic but kindly observer of human life, which he exhibited so fully that even his descriptions are less popular and admired than the reflective and moralising introductions to his cantos. Never was such wildness of imagination ballasted with such solid good sense. Yet, when all is said, his most distinctive merit remains his unsurpassed talent of exposition, his unfaltering flow of energetic, perspicuous, melodious narrative; excellence apparently spontaneous and unstudied, but in truth due to the strenuous revision of one who judged himself severely, and deemed with Michael Angelo that trifles made perfection, and perfection was no trifle. Mr. Courthope, in an admirable parallel, has pointed out his great superiority as a narrator to his disciple Spenser, whose pictures, nevertheless, glow with deeper and softer tints, and whose voluminous melody fills the ear more perfectly than Ariosto's ringing stanza.

The controversy whether Ariosto or Tasso's poem is the greater epic, as it was one of the most obstinately interminable ever raised by academic pedantry, is also one of the idlest. They belong to different departments of art; it would be as reasonable to compare a picture with a statue. The question, nevertheless, which of the men was the greater poet, does admit of profitable discussion, though it may be difficult to establish any but a subjective criterion. If endowment with the poetical temperament is to be taken as the test, the palm certainly belongs to Tasso, whose actions, thoughts, and misfortunes are invariably those of a poet, and whose inward music is constantly finding expression in lyrical verse. Ariosto's comparatively few lyrics generally wear a less spontaneous aspect than Tasso's; the incidents of his life rather bespeak the man of affairs than the man of books; and if his Orlando had perished, we should hardly have surmised how great a poet had been lost in him.

If, on the other hand, the palm should be bestowed for mastery of art, it seems rather due to Ariosto, who handles his theme with more vigour, and has it more thoroughly under control. He is not obliged, like Tasso, to embellish his poem with episodes which, by their superior attractiveness, almost eclipse the main action: the few passages of the kind in the Orlando are strictly subordinate, and not among its principal ornaments. The chief artistic blots upon his poem could not well have been avoided. So completely, though unjustly, has he overshadowed his predecessor Boiardo, that we are apt to forget that his work is an example, unique in literature, of the successful continuation of another's. The adulation of the house of Este was an inheritance from his precursor; it is only to be regretted that, contrary to the example of Boiardo and the subsequent practice of Tasso, he should have given it disproportionate prominence. The incurable defect of the action of the Furioso is also a legacy from the Innamorato. Ruggiero, the real hero of Ariosto's part of the poem, wins the hand of Bradamante, and becomes the ancestor of the house of Este, by apostasy. The poem finds him a pagan, and leaves him a Christian. All that ingenuity can effect is employed to extenuate his desertion; nevertheless, the sympathies of every reader must be with the Saracen Rodomonte when he appears in the last canto to tax Ruggiero with his change of sides, and necessarily (for otherwise what would have become of the house of Este?) is slain for his loyalty, to the scandal of poetical justice.

That Ariosto, apart from his boundless invention and command of language and narrative, was a true poet, is shown by the extreme beauty of the majority of the introductions to his cantos, where he appears even more at home than in the descriptions of the deeds of prowess of which he was at bottom so sceptical. Another strong point is the number, vividness, and originality Of his similes, not in general copied from ancient poets, but peculiar to himself, and perfectly descriptive of the object designed to be illustrated. One of the most apparently characteristic similes of a great master of quaint comparison, the late Coventry Patmore, is borrowed from him.[2]

The sense of Ariosto is easily represented in English, but it is another matter to reproduce his felicity of phrase. The following stanzas in Miss Ellen Clerke's version are from the description of Angelica's flight from Rinaldo:

"Through dark and fearsome woods she takes her flight,
By desert places wild, and lonely ways.
The stirring of the leaves and foliage light
Of oak, or elm, or beech that softly sways,
Doth startle her aside in sudden fright,
To wander here and there as in a maze;
While every shadow seen on hill or hollow
Seems to her fear Rinaldo's who doth follow.

As baby fawn, or tender bleating goat,
Which from its leafy cradle hath espied
Its hapless dam seized by the quivering throat,
By leopard fierce, and oped her breast or side,
Flees from the brute to sylvan depths remote,
Trembling with fears by fancy multiplied,
And at each stump that she in passing touches.
Deems that the monster grasps her in its clutches.

That day and night, and all the next, sped she

In circles round about, she knew not where,
But reached at last a grove right fair to see,
Stirred lightly by the cool and fragrant air.
Two crystal streamlets, murmuring o'er the lea,
Perennially refreshed the herbage there,
And a sweet tune sang, in melodious treble,
Their gentle current, chafed by flint and pebble.
And deeming that she here is safe indeed,
A thousand miles beyond Rinaldo's quest,
Weary of summer heat and travel speed,
Resolves she for brief spell to take a rest;
'Mid flowers dismounts, and looses in the mead
Her palfrey, and doth of the rein divest,
To wander by the wave pellucid flowing,
With juicy grasses on its margin growing.
A tempting bush she sees, not far away,
Of thorn a-bloom with roses blushing red,
Which in the wave doth glass itself alway,
Screened from the sun by spreading oaks o'erhead,
An empty space within it doth display
A chamber cool, with densest shade o'erspread,
Where leaves and branches roof so close have woven,
Nor sun nor glance its dusk hath ever cloven.
A couch of softest grass within the lair
Invites to rest upon its herbage sweet.
Down in its midst doth sink the lady fair,
And lays her there, and sleeps in that retreat;
But not for long, for shortly she was 'ware
Of the approaching tread of coming feet.
She softly rises, and through leaves a-quiver
A knight in armour sees draw near the river."

The morality of the Orlando Furioso, some licentious episodes excepted which stand quite apart from the main action, may be considered good, being that of a refined and courtly circle where lofty virtues were cordially recognised in theory, however they might fail to be exemplified in practice. Ariosto does not, like Tasso, convey the impression of a man above his time, and only depressed to its level by unpropitious circumstances. He is the child of his age, at the summit of its average elevation, but not transcending this. Yet it would have been well for Italy if her princes and statesmen had generally acted upon those ideas of honour and loyalty which they found and doubtless admired in their favourite poet. Such precepts as the following, even though enforced by the teacher's example, were in their view much too good for ordinary practice:

"Bundle with cord is not so bound, I ween,
Or plank to plank so riveted by nail,
As knightly troth that once hath plighted been,
Doth with the true and loyal soul prevail.
Nor is Fidelity depicted seen,
Save robed from head to foot in candid veil,
Visage enveloping and frame and limb,
Since but one stain would make her wholly dim.
Pure must she ever be, and free from spot,
If to one only or to thousands plighted;
Nor less if vowed in woodland wild or grot
Far from men's ways and dwellings disunited,
Than where the judge doth duly law allot,
And deeds are sealed, and testimonies cited.
Nor oath she needs, or like appeal to Heaven;
Enough the solemn word once gravely given.
His pledge chivalric, and the faith he gave,
Zerbin in every circumstance defended;
But ne'er did prove himself their duteous slave
More than when now disconsolate he wended
With this detested hag, whom like the grave
His soul abhorred: by plague or death attended,
Full sooner had he fared; but honour's claim
Bound him to that objectionable dame."

To appreciate Zerbino's fidelity to his word, it must be known that, having been vanquished in a joust, he has been compelled to vow to escort a hideous old woman of singular depravity, and to maintain her beauty and virtue against all comers, with the prospect of being killed in her service. A more comic situation will hardly be found in any of the romances.

Ariosto's comedies must be considered along with the Italian drama in general. The most important of his minor poetical works are the Satires, rather in the vein of Horace than of Juvenal, and, in truth, hardly satires at all in any proper sense of the term. They are good metrical talk on light subjects, elegant, chatty, and discursive. His own disappointments are alluded to very good-humouredly. His lyrical pieces are not remarkable, except one impressive sonnet, in which he appears to express compunction for the irregularities of his life:

"How may I deem That thou in heaven wilt hear,
O Lord divine, my fruitless prayer to Thee,
If for all clamour of the tongue Thou see
That yet unto the heart the net is dear?
Sunder it Thou, who all behold'st so clear,
Nor heed the stubborn will's oppugnancy,
And this do Thou perform, ere, fraught with me,
Charon to Tartarus his pinnace steer.
By habitude of ill that veils Thy light,
And sensual lure, and paths in error trod,
Evil from good no more I know aright.
Ruth for frail soul submissive to the rod
May move a mortal; in her own despite
To drag her heavenward is work of God."

Late in life the poet married; whether he also reformed seems doubtful. His amours, however, were unaccompanied by tragedy or scandal. In fact, this most wildly imaginative of the Italian poets seems to have had less than most poets of the poetic temperament, and the amiability for which he is universally praised was not accompanied by any remarkable acuteness of feeling. His virtues were those of an excellent man of the world; he was liberal, courteous, sensible, just, and sincere.

The success of the Orlando Furioso, which Bernardo Tasso, writing in 1559, affirms to be better known and more talked of than Homer, naturally produced the same effect as the popularity of Scott and Byron produced in England—"All could raise the flower, for all had got the seed." The two most important of these imitations, the Girone il Cortese of Luigi Alamanni and the Amadigi of Bernardo Tasso—both good poets, to be mentioned again in other departments of literature—resemble Pygmalion's image before the interposition of Venus; all the constituents of a fine poem are there, but the breath of life is wanting. "The Girone," says Ginguené, "is a very dignified, very rational, and generally well-written poem, but cold and consequently somewhat tiresome." If there is more warmth in the Amadigi, there is also more loquacity, and the power of the author, an excellent writer on a small scale, is quite inadequate to sustain continuous interest through a hundred cantos. The comparison which he necessarily courts with the old romance of Vasco Lobeira, the best work of its class, is always unfavourable to him. His copious employment of elfin machinery gave him opportunities of which he failed to avail himself. The best of him as an epic writer is his gift of brilliant description. The younger Tasso's Rinaldo is a very extraordinary production for a youth of eighteen, but the impulse towards the chivalrous epic was exhausted by his time, and he wisely found another way of rivalling Ariosto. The Orlandino and the Ricciardetto belong rather to the class of the mock heroic, to be treated hereafter. The names of a few of the most remarkable bona-fide attempts at chivalric poetry must suffice: the Guerino il Meschino of Tullia d'Aragona, the Ogier the Dane of Cassiodoro Narni, the Death of Ruggiero of Giambatista Pescatore, the Triumphs of Charlemagne of Francesco de' Lodovici, the First Exploits of Orlando of Lodovico Dolce, and the Angelica Innamorata of Vincenzo Brusantini.

Apart from the poems of the chivalric cycles, Italy witnessed but few attempts at epic in the first half of the sixteenth century. Of the author of one of these, however, it might be said, Magnis excidit ausis. Giovanni Giorgio Trissino was born of a noble family at Vicenza in 1478. He repaired the defects of a neglected education with singular industry, and endeared himself to the two Medici Popes, Leo and Clement, who entrusted him with important diplomatic missions. His most successful poetical work, the tragedy of Sophonisba (1515), brought him great fame, and actually does mark an era in the history of the drama. He wrote much on grammar, but could effect only one reform, the distinction between i and j and u and v. After his retirement from diplomacy Trissino lived many years among his fellow-citizens, wealthy and honoured; but his later years were embittered by a painful and disastrous lawsuit with his son by his first marriage. He died in 1549.

Trissino had commenced in 1525 the composition of his epic. The Deliverance of Italy from the Goths, which was published in 1547 and 1548. It has some literary interest as the first attempt to write Italian epic poetry in blank verse, but its great misfortune is to be in verse of any kind. The diction is good, the exposition simple and clear; if turned into prose it would make a pleasant story for youth, something like Féenelon's Telemachus. But how a man of Trissino's cultivation could have persuaded himself that a mere metrical form, and this neither artful nor tuneful, could turn prose into poetry, is indeed difficult to understand. The disyllabic termination of the lines—almost inevitable in Italian—is not conducive to metrical majesty at the best; and Trissino seems to have had no idea of cadence or variety, and to have been content if he could scan his lines upon his fingers. There is no inspiration, and no pretence to inspiration, from exordium to peroration of his sober epic; his Pegasus is not only a pack-horse, but a pack-horse without bells.

In truth, the displacement of the Goths, making room for the Pope, the Lombard and the Byzantine Exarch, was no deliverance for Italy, but her great misfortune. A poet, however, is not obliged like a historian to distinguish nicely between Theodoric and Alaric; and Trissino, with all his pedantry, might have ranked as a bard if he could have felt as a patriot; if he could have depicted the Italy of the Goths as the prototype of the Italy of his own age, rent amid French and Spaniards and Germans. Whether he conceived the idea or not, he could not or dared not give it utterance. He nevertheless energetically denounced the abuses of the Papacy by a prophecy put into the mouth of an angel.

The history of chivalric poetry is especially interesting, as it in all probability exactly repeats that of the Homeric epic. While the great events, the siege of Troy and the Saracen invasion of France, are being really enacted, we have no poetry at all. After two or three centuries ballads appear, disfiguring genuine history, and shifting its centre of gravity to incidents unimportant in themselves, but susceptible of poetical treatment. After two or three more, poets arise who embellish these romances, bestow poetical form upon them, and work them into consistent wholes. Had Italy been no further advanced than Greece at the corresponding epoch, the poems of Boiardo and Ariosto would have braved two centuries of oral recitation, and come much corrupted and interpolated into the hands of some Aristarchus who would have given them their final form. The invention of printing suppressed this ultimate stage of development, but encouraged the growth of imitators, whom it preserved from annihilation, while unable to preserve them from oblivion.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. "Parva sed apta mihi, sed nulli obnoxia; sed non
    Sordida, parta meo sed tamen aere domus."

  2. "Joltings of the heart, like wine
    Poured from a flask of narrow neck."

    See Orlando Furioso, canto xxiii. st. 113.