The Italian Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was the greatest narrative poet of the Italian Renaissance. His richly human masterpiece, "Orlando furioso," adds a native bent for narration to an exquisitely polished octave stanza.
Ludovico Ariosto was born at Reggio Emilia: when he was 14, the family moved to Ferrara, where his father, Niccolò, was in service at the ducal court of the Este family. Five years later his father consented to Ludovico's abandonment of law studies in favor of literature. Ariosto was first employed at court in 1498; 2 years later his father died, leaving him to provide for nine younger brothers and sisters. In 1503 he entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, who sponsored performances of Ariosto's neoclassical comedies, Cassariain 1508 and I suppositi in 1509. His later comedies are the unfinished I studenti (1518-1519), II negromante (1521), and the most successful of them, La Lena, performed under his direction in 1529.
In 1513 Ariosto met the beautiful Alessandra Benucci, whom he married secretly in 1527 to avoid the loss of Church benefices. In 1518 he entered the service of the cardinal's brother, Duke Alfonso d'Este. Except for a 3-year period when he governed the bandit-ridden Garfagnana region for the duke, Ariosto was allowed more time for writing than he had been by Cardinal Ippolito. His Satire (Satires) treat ironically his problems in Ferrara, where the Este brothers failed to recognize his worth, in the Garfagnana, and on missions to the papal court.
Ariosto's Orlando furioso, a continuation of Boiardo's Orlando innamorato, went through three redactions, or versions (1516, 1521, and 1532). It is a romantic, comicepic retelling of the story of Roland (Orlando), the medieval French hero. Among a myriad of episodes about dauntless knights and enchanting women, the three main narrative threads are the Saracens' siege of Paris and their final rout; the insanity of Orlando, who was driven mad by unrequited love for Angelica, Princess of Cathay; and the love of the warrior woman Bradamante for Ruggiero. The progressive loss of reason by Orlando as he drifts from foreboding dream to hallucination to total madness is finely drawn. Ariosto's wise and realistic portrayal of human nature in all its intricacies in so fantastic a world—which includes even a moon journey—is a remarkable feat of poetry. By no means an outright parody, his poem exalts many values of the world of chivalry, such as love and fidelity. It influenced Cervantes, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Ariosto died in 1533 after completing the last version of his great narrative poem.
Further Reading on Ludovico Ariosto
An excellent, free-ranging verse translation of Ariosto's masterpiece, Orlando furioso, was published in 1591 by the Elizabethan author Sir John Harington (repr. 1963). Later translations include those of Temple Henry Croker in 1755 and William Stewart Rose in 1825. The recent prose translation by Allan Gilbert (2 vols., 1954) includes his informative appreciation of the poem. The work's unique place in Italian Renaissance narrative poetry is ably discussed by Francesco de Sanctis in History of Italian Literature (2 vols., 1870; new ed. 1914; trans. 1931) and by Ernest Hatch Wilkins in A History of Italian Literature (1954). See also Edmund G. Gardner, The King of Court Poets: A Study of the Work, Life and Times of Ludovico Ariosto (1906;repr. 1968), and Benedetto Croce, Ariosto, Shakespeare and Corneille (1920; trans. 1920).
Additional Biography Sources
Ascoli, Albert Russell, Ariosto's bitter harmony: crisis and evasion in the Italian Renaissance, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Griffin, Robert, Ludovico Ariost, New York, Twayne Publishers 1974.
Marinelli, Peter V., Ariosto and Boiardo: the origins of Orlando furioso, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.