Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533)

I just finished reading Ariosto's Orlando Furioso a couple of days ago, and it's my new favorite book. Ariosto's poem is a miracle of lightness, speed, and brio. His very name gives a clue to his primary characteristics--it's related to arioso, which means (in Italian) "airy" and is also a musical term referring to a brief song between a recitative and an aria ("Melodious, graceful; a short composition in the style of an aria but less symmetrical in its construction"). Ariosto's writing is all about brief, songful, asymmetrical moments gracefully crammed between beauties--his poem races gorgeously from one wild moment to the next. Imagine all the brightest and most "airy"qualities of Byron, Spenser, Calvino, and Cervantes jumbled deliciously together, and spiced with a dash of Kafka. It's little wonder so many other artworks sprang from such fertile soil--from further poems and books to Italian operas to paintings and engravings. C. S. Lewis (whose literary criticism generally rankles me) wrote that an ignorance of Ariosto would "rob us of a whole species of pleasures and narrow our very conception of literature."

The Furioso doesn't really begin or end--it is a gleaming chunk of life. It is all about pursuit, opening with a frantic chase and ending with a fleeing, howling spirit. It is filled with an infinitude of zany episodes; a trip to the moon (to recover Orlando's lost mind--everything we lose on earth pops up on the moon), the flights of the ludicrous hippogriff, angelic fistfights, the exploits of the fearless women warriors Bradamante (everyone's favorite) and Marfisa, an enchanted steel castle of endless mirrors and unattainable objects. The Furioso is about the labyrinthine impossibilities of desire and the wild weavings of destiny, told in a wry tone that jumps so quickly from person to person and scene to scene that the reader is soon swept up in Ariosto's ironic whirlwinds of Amor. Ariosto himself never gets caught up in his own whirlwinds, however--he remains serenely on the outside of his book, a master puppeteer.

This brilliant book has had many admirers and inspired artists over the 500 years since it's publication in 1516.
Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata is a child of the Furioso. Spenser's Faerie Queene directly imitates the Furioso, while Ariosto's tongue-in-cheek moments of chivalric lunacy provided an example for Cervantes' sublime Don Quixote. Voltaire claimed the Furioso to be the equal of the Iliad, the Odyssey and Don Quixote all rolled together. Hegel took serious note of the work as a philosophical demonstration of the fallibility of human perception. The urbane, ironic style of Byron's Don Juan owes an immense debt to Ariosto. Calvino wrote a delicious trilogy of novels (The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight; collected as Our Ancestors) as a delightful homage to Ariosto's genius. Sir Salman Rushdie's wondrous recent novel, The Enchantress of Florence, breathes the air of Ariosto as well. It has been a favorite of Spanish-language authors from Lope de Vega and Cervantes to Borges and Garcia Marquez. Scores of Baroque operas emerged from Ariosto's shining volume--from Handel's Alcina, Rinaldo, and Orlando to Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso and Rameau's Les Paladins, to name only a few. Here, for your viewing pleasure is a random assortment of wonderful images inspired by Ariosto's masterpiece. Tiepolo, for me, captures the pristine air of Ariosto's lyrical world perfectly (he devoted several frescoes to the Furioso in the Villa Valmarana), but some of the others (such as Dore) conjure up the bizarreries that makes this world unsettling.



This is truly the kind of book that one can read from every day, like the Divine Comedy or Finnegans Wake or the Bible. It is what Anthony Burgess fondly termed a "bedside book;" a book to live with and grow old with. It fashions a mercurial world of passion, mobility, wonder, longing, vivacity, and humor--an uncanny, shifting world that may change the way you view the world you happen to live in. I hope our world never forgets Ludovico Ariosto, but if we do, I'm sure he'll be very happy living on the moon with all of our other lost treasures.


L.C.McCabe said...


I adore that poem as well, and my favorite storyline of the various different simultaneous stories told was the love story of Bradamante and Ruggiero.

Such a story of impossible love and the two noble warriors fighting repeated battles in order to be together. It is not your ordinary Boy Meets Girl story at all, nor simple Quest Tale.

I do not know if you have read the poem's precursor? That is Matteo Maria Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato.

That story began with Angelica interrupting a tournament on Pentecost hosted by Charlemagne. She was sent by her father to ensnare the knights with her beauty and her brother Argalia was given enchanted armor and a magical golden lance. The ruse was to get all the knights in Christendom to joust with Argalia in the hopes of winning Angelica as their prize, but that his golden lance would defeat everyone.

Things go wrong and chaos ensues. So starts that story with Orlando becoming besotted with Angelica and the story shifts to Cathay in the east.

Other plotlines include: Gradasso invading the west to obtain Durindana and Bayardo; Agramante having a war council to call for invasion of the Frankish Empire and hearing of a prophecy that his expedition will fail unless he finds Ruggiero.

The thing I really like about the poem is seeing in the third book how Ruggiero and Bradamante met and fell in love on the battlefield.

This poem has finally been fully translated into English by Charles Stanley Ross and is available by Parlor Press. (There had been a previous abridged edition by Oxford University Press, but I would not advise reading that version since the unabridged version is now available. For one thing, Book 3 was not included at all in the Oxford University Press book.)

I'm always glad to stumble upon others who love the legends of Charlemagne.

Lichanos said...


Just wondering, what translation did you read? Or do you read Italian?

Steve Morrison said...

I read some Italian, but not enough, so I mostly stuck to the Guido Waldman prose translation. I need to try out one of the verse translations for comparison, but the Waldman was quite serviceable, and I recommend it.

lichanos said...

Interesting...I found an encyclopedia of translations on Google Books, and it sort of trashed the Waldman version, which I had planned on reading. It praised to the skies the Penguin-Reynolds verse translation, so I'm going to try that first.

One reference book's opinion!