Ariosto, Ludovico 1474–1533 Italian Poet

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Ariosto, Ludovico
Italian poet

Ludovico Ariosto was a Renaissance poet and playwright, best known for his poem Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland). The poem was wildly successful in Ariosto's lifetime and inspired artists and musical composers well into the 1700s. Ariosto also gained recognition for his critical view of humanism*.

Education and Career. Ariosto called Ferrara, Italy, his home for much of his life. He received a humanist education as a child and studied Latin literature and philosophy at the University of Ferrara. His father, an officer in service to the ruling Este family, wanted Ariosto to have a career in government. Therefore, at his father's insistence, Ariosto reluctantly enrolled in law school.

When Ariosto's father died in 1500, the young man dropped out of school to support his family. He worked for many years as an administrator and diplomat for a church official who was part of the Este family. In 1517 the duke of Ferrara, another Este leader, accepted Ariosto into his court. The duke later gave Ariosto a post as the government officer in charge of a mountainous Italian province. During his years of service to the Este, Ariosto wrote poetry, including Orlando Furioso. He completed the work in 1516 and revised in 1521.

In 1525, Ariosto returned from the mountain province and turned to supervising the construction and operation of the duke's theater. This gave him the opportunity to work with set designers on several of his own plays. Ariosto devoted his final years to plays and other literary projects, including the third and final revision of Orlando Furioso, which came out in 1532.

Ariosto and Humanism. Although Ariosto received a humanist education, he had doubts about its value. Several of Ariosto's works criticize humanist education through satire*. In Orlando Furioso, the character Ruggiero appears unable to learn ancient texts, suggesting that Ariosto believed some people were not suited to this type of education. In another piece, Ariosto mocked the humanist view that education in the classics was a cure-all for society's problems. He also attacked humanists as being immoral and suggested that their teachings were incomplete and sterile.

Important Works. Ariosto's most important and influential work, Orlando Furioso, is a long narrative* poem. In it, Ariosto used a medieval* war as a backdrop to explore many Renaissance themes, including love and insanity. He also expressed his views on such topics as the growing knowledge on geography, political and military alliances of the time, and the place of women in society.

The work drew on two different literary traditions: the ancient epic and the romances of the Middle Ages. Both describe the adventures of a hero, but in different ways. In an epic, the hero moves unfailingly toward a grand destiny. In a romance, by contrast, events tend to sidetrack the hero and distract him from his goals. Ariosto's central character, Roland, is a Christian knight fighting against the Saracens (Muslims) according to the rules of chivalry*. In this respect, he resembles an epic hero. He falls in love with the heroine Angelica and sets out to find her, encountering many adventures along the way, much like a hero of romance. However, in the middle of the story Roland becomes mad, losing his ability to function as a proper hero. The poem becomes more and more complex, as various characters appear and behave in unexpected ways that often do not fall within the traditions of epic and romance. In the confusing world of the story, the right course of action is not always clear.

Orlando Furioso was a best-seller in the 1500s, and its popularity lasted well into the next century. The poem inspired many later works of art and music. A number of European painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, painted scenes from the poem. Other famous artists illustrated editions of the work. One reason the poem appealed to artists was that it reflected Ariosto's own interest in art. It contained numerous descriptions of popular works of art as well as praises for several artists of his day. Orlando Furioso also inspired musical composers such as Claudio Monteverdi. A century later, Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel each used the poem as the basis of an opera.

In addition to his narrative poem, Ariosto wrote lyric poetry* and plays. He modeled his lyric poetry, written in Italian and Latin, on the works of earlier Roman and Greek poets. Ariosto produced his first two plays around 1490. Both were comedies based on Roman models but adapted to Italian life in the 1400s. Ariosto produced what many critics think is his best play, Lena, in the late 1520s, just a few years before his death.

(See alsoChivalry; Humanism; Italian Language and Literature; Poetry. )

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* narrative


* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* chivalry

rules and customs of medieval knighthood

* lyric poetry

verse that expresses feelings and thoughts rather than telling a story