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Chapter Four— Ariosto and His Children
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Chapter Four—
Ariosto and His Children

A work of literature may be considered a classic—a unique, enriching, enduring masterpiece—even if very few people read it any more. Durability need not mean immortality. It's enough that a book was enjoyed by many generations of readers past for it to have earned classical status, even if most modern readers have lost the ability to enjoy it. One might also measure the originality, the capaciousness, and the fertility of a book—all possible marks of a classic—by the number and quality of the other works of art it has directly or indirectly inspired.

By either test, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso —a 38,736-line Italian poem first printed in its complete form in 1532—must be judged one of the most enduring and fruitful works of literature ever written. It is also, for those who are still able and willing to enter it, one of the most captivating. Lost in its dark forests, stormy seas, desert islands, and enchanted castles; entangled in its bloody combats, its passionate love affairs, and its vile and heroic deeds; guided throughout by one of the most engaging narrators in all literature, I find myself wanting the book never to end.

Over three hundred years, Orlando furioso spawned an extraordinary progeny of other works in literature, music, and art. But (with the possible exception of Cervantes's Don Quixote ), I think it remains richer, more humane, and more valuable than any of the paintings, poems, plays, novels, songs, and operas it engendered.

The first version of Orlando (or the Furioso , as Italians familiarly call it) was published in 1516 in an edition of 1,200 copies partly subsidized by Cardinal Ippolito I D'Este of Ferrara, to whom it was dedicated. Ariosto (born in 1474) had served in the worldly cardinal's household as a courtier/diplomat from 1503 to 1517; he had traveled for the cardinal on missions to King Louis XII of France and Pope Julius II. Although Ariosto had worked steadily on the poem since about 1505, it was only after he quit the cardinal's service and went to work for his


brother Alfonso I D'Este, duke of Ferrara, that the poet was able to devote most of his time to his writing. He published a second and enlarged version of the Furioso in 1521 and (after a three years' break governing an unruly province of the duke's) the final version eleven years later. In October 1531, he was granted a pension of 100 gold ducats a year for the rest of his life—which, unfortunately, ended twenty-one months later.

By 1600, Orlando furioso had gone through 154 editions, some quite elegant and costly, others "popular" and relatively inexpensive, and had been translated into all of the major European languages. Some of the translations, like John Harington's into English of 1591, were regarded as important creative accomplishments in their own right. It has been estimated that 25,000 copies were printed during the century—more than any other work of its time. Ariosto was the first writer in history to will an international reputation during his lifetime through published versions of his work.

Books have been written about the influence of Orlando furioso in Spain, France, England, and Germany. Scholars have tried to measure its impact in Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Latin America. After the translators came the imitators, the sequels, the parodies. The most notable successor in Italy was Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata of 1581, a more orderly, moralistic, and quasi-historical work of some 15,000 lines, whose author—another courtier of the Duke of Ferrara—very specifically set out to rival the "Ferrarese Homer." Spanish writers kept turning out Orlando III s and IV s and V s, inventing new adventures for Ariosto's characters in order to cash in on the "knight errant" craze. This phenomenon was in turn seized on, and turned into an even more popular and enduring masterpiece, by Miguel de Cervantes in 1604.

The influence on other writers of so comprehensive, so multiplex, so richly imagined a work as the Furioso is, in the long run, impossible to trace. But for three hundred years, scores of important authors all over Europe acknowledged their admiration and affection for Ariosto's poem. Many eighteenth-century writers and critics were dismayed by his paganism and profanity, his "irregularity" and love of the fantastic. But even Voltaire, who started out hostile, ended up regarding Ariosto as one of the consummate masters. Revising an carher negative opinion, Voltaire called the poem in 1764 "so extensive, so full of variety, so fruitful in every kind of beauty that after having perused it, I have, more than once found my appetite excited to begin it again. . . . The Orlando Furioso is at once the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Don Quixote." "For God's sake," the British statesman Charles James Fox wrote to a friend, "learn Italian as fast as you can in order to read Ariosto."

Historians of the novel (the growing popularity of which, in the end, helped kill the audience for poetic epics) frequently begin with Don Quixote; but Don Quixote


depends crucially on Orlando furioso . Cervantes refers to Ariosto and his characters eighty-three times in his text. Readers of Cervantes will recall Don Quixote's christening a barber's basin "Mambrino's helmet"—the enchanted helmet, in Ariosto, that Rinaldo wears. Examining the demented knight's library, his rational friends discover a copy of Ariosto and decide to save it from the bonfire. At one point, concerned that his Lady Dulcinea will think him insufficiently in love, Don Quixote decides to strip himself naked and cut a few capers in the manner of Orlando-gone-mad, so that Sancho can report back to her his master's amorous antics.

With that, slipping off his Breeches and stripping himself naked to the Waist, he gave two or three Frisks in the Air, and then pitching on his Hands, he fetch'd his Heels over his Head twice together; and as he tumbled with his Legs aloft, discover'd such Rarities, that Sancho e'en made Haste to turn his Horse's Head, that he might no longer see 'em, and rode away full satisfy'd, that he might swear his Master was mad.

Another landmark of Western literature that could not have existed without Ariosto's is The Faerie Queene of 1596—a suave, stately, allegorical (and utterly humorless) 35,000-line poem. Edmund Spenser acknowledged in his letter-preface to Sir Walter Raleigh that he had intentionally "followed" Ariosto. In another letter, he confessed his hope to "outgo" his Italian master. He did not.

Tasso, Cervantes, and Spenser are the major authors most directly and obviously indebted to Ariosto's poem. But the nationalist-romantic epics of Portugal and France (Camões's Os Lusíadas and Ronsard's La Franciade ) also clearly depend on the Furioso . The French poets Du Bellay and La Fontaine, both great admirers, borrowed from it considerably. Sidney, Jonson, and Marlowe made use of or reference to it. Molière collaborated with the composer Lully on an extravagant three-day spectacle at Versailles in 1664 based very freely on the episodes of Alcina's enchanted island, in which young Louis XIV himself played Ruggiero and noblemen of his court the other paladins of France. Milton, a great fan of Italian literature, referred frequently to Ariosto in his early works and notebooks and (to Dr. Johnson's dismay) borrowed Ariosto's "depraved" and manic style for the portrait of Limbo in Paradise Lost . Part of the serious plot of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing was derived (perhaps at second hand) from the inset Ginevra/Ariodante story of Cantos IV–VI. Orlando in As You Like It (though in no way comparable to his heroic namesake), carving his lady-love's name on the bark of every tree in the Forest of Arden, probably owes something to the notorious tree carving of Angelica and Medoro—the discovery of which, in fact, drove the original Orlando furioso .


Run, run Orlando, carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste, and inexpressive she.

Several Italian playwrights staged adaptations of episodes from the Furioso during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not unlike those set to music as operas. Byron's Don Juan is demonstrably ariostesco . He praised the Italian poet in his own works ("His fancy like a rainbow, and his Fire / Like that of Heaven, immortal"), as did Goethe in a play he wrote based on the tragic life of Tasso. Pushkin very clearly followed Ariosto's model in his own romantic epic Ruslan and Ludmilla (1820), the source of Glinka's opera. Sir Walter Scott (once called the "Scottish Ariosto") was a fanatic devotee of the Italian poet.

Although "people stopped reading" Ariosto, we are told, more than a century ago, substantial chunks of Orlando furioso are still required reading in most Italian schools, which explains why most Italian editions in print are considerably shorter than the original, and are equipped with explanatory footnotes and introductions. The ever-growing, ever-thirsty international literary-academic establishment has absorbed Ariosto like a sponge, and squeezed out thousands of articles and books analyzing and explaining his great work. One American professor, who is trying to get Orlando furioso onto college reading lists in his own country, compares it to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings , and cites episodes from "Star Trek" that sound to him like borrowings from Ariosto.

More interesting to me than all of these are the responses of two of the most wonderfully imaginative fiction writers of our time, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges and the Italian Italo Calvino. Borges, a self-proclaimed "reader and rereader of Dante and Ariosto," wrote a poem entitled "Ariosto and the Arabs." Calvino, who published his own witty condensation of Orlando furioso in 1970, frequently credited Ariosto as a major influence on his work. Three of his marvelous novels—The Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount , and The Castle of Crossed Destinies —come very close to modern-day versions of Ariosto. Both Borges and Calvino have tried to recapture for our time the absolute, unbound freedom of the Furioso by creating magical other worlds in which anything can happen.

Partly because of the time and place at which he wrote, Ariosto and his epic were from the start identified with the visual arts. The poem itself is full of elaborate descriptions of architecture—mostly enchanted palaces of a fantastic, superluxurious sort. Sculpture and painting are called on to offer prophetic tributes to Ariosto's patrons, the D'Este family of Ferrara. (The spectacular water gardens of the Villa D'Este at Tivoli outside of Rome were built by Cardinal Ippolito II, the nephew of Ariosto's first patron.)

Working at a sophisticated early-sixteenth-century Italian court, moreover—one with close family ties to the no less sophisticated courts of Mantua, Milan, and


Urbino, a dynamic rivalry with Venice, and a nagging dependence on Rome (all of which places Ariosto knew)—the poet could not help but meet and become acquainted with celebrated Renaissance painters. Many of them, like him, lived as courtier-dependents, and devoted much of their creative effort to the commissions or the celebration of their noble or clerical patrons. Ariosto knew Titian personally, and praised him (along with Leonardo, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, and the two Dossi brothers of Ferrara) at the start of Canto XXXII. Dosso Dossi, Giovanni Bellini, and Titian were all commissioned by Duke Alfonso to do Ovidian paintings for his palace in Ferrara, at the same time that Ariosto was working on his second edition. Titian painted a portrait of the poet—a bearded, balding, hook-nosed, tired-eyed gentleman in profile—reproduced in an engraving for the 1532 edition.

The first works of visual art "inspired" by Orlando furioso in fact were the woodcuts that were printed—one for each of the forty-six cantos—in the Venetian editions of 1542, 1553, 1556, and 1584. In the latter two editions, the engravers packed extensive stretches of geography with agitated little figures (helpfully captioned by their names) fighting or weeping or making love or dying or going mad in overlapping, picturesque, and crudely drawn settings. Most of them show several episodes of a canto taking place within the same frame, in a sort of comic-strip fashion. For his 1591 English translation, Sir John Harington's publishers had the Venetian engravings redrawn (adding, in one case, pornographic details) and cut on copper.

Although it never achieved the popularity in this respect of Ovid or the Bible, Ariosto's poem was drawn on frequently after 1532 as a sourcebook for visual artists. Before 1600, Nicolò dell'Abate had decorated a palace in Bologna with a whole series of dramatic frescoes depicting Ruggiero's adventures on Alcina's island. In the seventeenth century, several painters of the Bolognese school (Guido Reni, Albani, Domenichino, Guercino) rendered episodes from the Furioso —mainly the love idyll of Angelica and Medoro. In 1641, Duke Francesco I D'Este had his villa at Sassuolo decorated with a series of self-celebrating frescoes from the book. Rubens painted a particularly salacious view of a dirty-minded old hermit (the story is from Canto VIII) staring at a sleeping, nude, and remarkably fleshy Angelica. In 1757, G. B. Tiepolo did a wonderfully "operatic" series of frescoes on the walls of Palladio's Villa Valmarana outside of Vicenza, including four rich and sensuous scenes from Ariosto; his son G. D. drew many episodes out of the Furioso . In a recent book devoted entirely to renderings of the Angelica-Medoro tree-carving motif, the author describes and illustrates twenty-five different versions of this one scene made between 1577 and 1825.

Boucher executed some ripely erotic scenes from the poem. Fragonard, working toward an edition de luxe that was never published, made a total of 150 drawings after Ariosto, which include some of his most deft and evocative work. At the


Paris salons between 1806 and 1827, twenty-one scenes from Orlando furioso (mostly Angelicas and Medoros) were displayed—more decorous and sentimental than erotic, with the one wild exception of Ingres's Ruggiero Saving Angelica of 1819, a voluptuous subject he painted several times. In 1826, a German artist named Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (the father of Wagner's first Tristan) covered the walls and ceiling of the Ariosto Room of the Cassino Massimi in Rome with ten scenes from the poem. Between 1830 and 1920, forty more Ariostan subjects were displayed at the Paris salons, including one painting and three sketches by Delacroix. By midcentury, Ruggieros in full armor saving chained and naked Angelicas had displaced the tree-carving idyll for first place, which may say something about Second Empire tastes.

With very few exceptions, these painted, drawn, engraved, and sculpted versions concentrate on two episodes, out of the hundreds in the poem: the love affair between Angelica and Medoro (usually showing one or the other inscribing their names on a tree, as they loll naked in a verdant landscape) and Ruggiero on his winged horse saving poor Angelica from the horrible orc. This process of selection, in which one artist tended to repeat the motifs chosen by his predecessors, resulted in a considerable shrinking of the bounty of the Furioso . In the hands of four centuries of visual artists, the poem was all too often reduced to one vaguely sadomasochistic male fantasy scene (once he has saved Angelica, Ruggiero is eager to rape her), and to an image taken from the one idyllic romance in the whole book, which occupies twenty stanzas (of 4,844) in the middle of Canto XIX.

To a substantial degree, the same process of sentimental reductionism took place in the music that drew on Ariosto's great poem. Non-Italians today are likely to know of the Furioso only by way of a handful of eighteenth-century operas more or less based on it, operas that are still occasionally performed: Handel's Orlando, Alcina , and Ariodante; Vivaldi's Orlando furioso; Haydn's Orlando paladino; and Donizetti's Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo .

Ariosto's first translation into music, however, took place a century or two earlier, when individual eight-line stanzas of Orlando furioso , or groups and "cycles" of stanzas, were converted into two- to six-voice madrigals for performance before aristocratic gatherings. Parts of the poem were also recited, to stock guitar accompaniments, by traveling minstrels or cantastorie (story-singers) before working-class crowds in piazzas all over Italy. "It is sung not only by the people in taverns and in barber shops," wrote Giovanni de' Bardi in 1583, "but also by noblemen and men of great learning. It is so full of harmony and rhythm that everyone learns its verses with great facility."

The emotionally expressive, musically sophisticated madrigal form was one more of the artistic triumphs of the D'Este court of Ferrara, primarily in the


generation after Ariosto's death. Bartolomeo Tromboncino first set to music a portion of the Furioso (still unpublished at the time) in 1512 for Isabella D'Este Gonzaga, marchesa of Mantua, patron of Mantegna and Perugino, sister of Ariosto's cardinal-padrone, and "probably the most learned woman of her time." Between then and 1623—primarily between 1540 and 1580—a total of 226 different stanzas of the Furioso served as texts for at least 730 published madrigals, composed by people such as Orlando [!] di Lasso, Andrea Gabrieli, William Byrd, and Palestrina. In 1561, a Flemish composer named Jaquet de Berchem published a cycle of ninety-one stanzas of the Furioso set to music, with connecting plot summaries, forming a deft condensation of its more passionate and famous episodes. This was dedicated to (and commissioned by) Alfonso II D'Este, the son and successor of Ariosto's second patron.

"One of the reasons for the immense popularity of Ariosto's epic poem," James Haar writes, "was that it not only read well, but 'sang well'—with favorite stanzas or preferred episodes (formed of several stanzas) declaimed or sung—sung as madrigals, naturally." By studying these favorite stanzas or preferred episodes, one can learn what image of its almost infinitely varied whole Renaissance composers chose to harmonize and thus to pass on. Of the twenty-one stanzas set to music ten times or more, eight were taken from the longing outbursts of Bradamante (a tender-hearted woman warrior) for her unusually errant knight-lover, Ruggiero. Three are similar expressions of anxious longing by two of Angelica's many spurned lovers. In all eleven of these, the speaker is tormented by jealousy of a possible rival—the very emotion that drove Orlando mad. The stanza in which Orlando first begins to crack, XVIII, 127, was set to music sixteen times, making it third in popularity after VIII, 26 (Orlando longing for his lost Angelica) and I, 42. With nineteen musical settings, I, 42—which forms part of another of Angelica's suitors' laments—was the all-time hit musical stanza:

La verginella èsimile alla rosa
ch'in bel giardin su la nativa spina
mentre sola e sicura si riposa,
né gregge népastor se le avicina;
l'aura soave e l'alba rugiadosa,
l'acqua, la terra a suo favor s'inchina:
gioveni vaghi e donne inamorate
amano averne e seni e tempie ornate.

A virgin is like a rose: while she reposes on her native thorns, alone and safe in
a lovely garden, neither flocks nor shepherd comes near. The gentle breeze and
the morning dew, the rain, the earth, bend to do her homage. Young lovers
like to wear her on their breasts and brows.


In the next stanza, the speaker goes on—like most male lovers in the poem—to express his mortal terror that someone else has "plucked his rose" (i.e., deflowered the virginal Angelica) before he has had the chance. A kind of rabid lust and sexual possessiveness permeates the poem, if not the stanzas favored by composers.

Four of the twenty-one most popular stanzas are taken from the opening lines, or proemi , of cantos. In three of these, the poet is declaiming passionately, in his own voice, against love—personalized as the cruel god Amor—for the wretched things it does to males and females alike, but mostly to males. One stanza is from a long letter of Bradamante's to her wandering lover, insisting on her rocklike fidelity.

Of the remaining four stanzas most favored by Renaissance composers, two are pure (and magnificent) pieces of landscape painting: one of Alcina's enchanted island, as seen from the back of a flying horse; the other of the earthly Garden of Paradise. A third is a famous portrait in words of the beauties of the naked virgin Olimpia, who has just been saved from being devoured by another horrible monster. Fifteen composers set to music Ariosto's splendid image of her face smiling through tears after her recovery. Five of them went on to musick the next stanza as well, in which the poet describes the impact made by her eyes and hair on a young man standing nearby. No composer took on the challenge of the next three stanzas, in which Ariosto describes in tactile, glowing detail Olimpia's bare breasts, her hips, her belly, her thighs, and her private parts. In Italian, on the printed page, these three stanzas are art and music already, thanks to the sheer beauty of their images and sounds.

Not all of the love affairs in the Furioso end in maddening frustration, like Orlando's. Stanza XXV, 68 gives a hint of the joyful, Mediterranean eroticism with which the poem is packed, like a green plant in spring full of sap. In this instance, Ricciardetto has cleverly tricked Fiordespina into bed by pretending to be his twin sister Bradamante (whom she adores)—but a Bradamante suddenly enchanted into male shape to satisfy the surprised girl's needs. "She could not believe her eyes, or her fingers. . . . She needed solid proof to convince her that what she was actually feeling was what she thought she felt."

Non rumor di tamburi o suon di trombe
furon principio all'amoroso assalto,
ma baci ch'imitavan le colombe,
devan segno or di gire, or di far alto.
Usammo alti'armi che saette o frombe.
Io senza scale in su la ròcca salto
e lo stendardo piantovi di botto,
e la nimica mia mi caccio sotto.

No roll of drums, no trumpets' peal gave warning of the amorous assault.
[Sixteenth-century madrigalists, like Handel later on, loved setting line like


that to music.] Instead, dovelike kisses gave the signal whether to advance or
stand firm. We used other weapons than arrows and catapults. I leapt on the
battlements without a ladder and planted my standard there at one jab, and
buried my enemy beneath me.

In the hands of the madrigalists, the immense and tangled world of Ariosto's Orlando furioso was reduced to a sequence of songs of sad love-longing, fearful jealousy, lust thwarted or (more rarely) satisfied, gorgeous spring gardens, and voluptuous nudes. The longer sequences that were most often turned into song cycles were the extended longing-laments of Bradamante for Ruggiero and of Orlando for Angelica, the heartbreaking plaints of Olimpia left alone on a desert island by her faithless spouse, the piteous grieving of Isabella as her lover dies in her arms, and the wild outburst of Orlando when he realizes that Angelica has fallen in love with Medoro.

As converted into opera, Orlando furioso emerges no less dominated by Amor , no less tender-pathetic, no less a poem almost exclusively about the sweet sadness and cruel suffering of love—which represents perhaps one-fifth of the poem that Ariosto wrote. Because opera libretti in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were frequently recycled from composer to composer, even from performance to performance, and were rather liberally revised; and because only a small fraction of the many operas performed during those centuries have survived, it's impossible to estimate how many different operas using the characters and events of Ariosto's epic were actually composed. Scanning several sources, I turned up a total of forty produced between 1619 and 1801. Almost all of them take their titles from one of the characters. Orlando, Angelica, Medoro, Bradamante, Ruggiero, Alcina, Ginevra, Ariodante, Atlante, Olimpia, and Rodomonte all turn up, alone or in pairs, as titular heroes of their own operas, which gives some idea of what a huge department store full of plots composers and librettists found in the Furioso .

The original poem is obviously much too long, too cosmic, too busy, and too multiple in its effects and intentions to be reduced to one evening of opera. Something along the lines of the Barraults' circuslike Rabelais , or Ariane Mnouchkine's wild French Revolutionary pageant-dramas might suit it better. The Italian director Luca Ronconi staged a successful nonmusical Orlando furioso of this sort in 1970, and produced a film version in 1974.

In his preface to the 1713 version of Orlando furioso , Vivaldi's librettist Grazio Braccioli wrote, "The numerous exploits of the vast epic involve half the world, so to speak. Such actions have been limited by us in this drama to one. At its beginning, middle, and end are the love, madness, and recovery of Orlando." The operatic versions of Orlando furioso tend to concentrate on one of three broad areas of action.


1. Most often (like Braccioli's), they focus on Orlando's passionate love for Angelica, the madness to which it leads him, and (sometimes) his eventual cure; along with the love of Angelica for his rival Medoro. This is essentially the substance of Handel's Orlando . Some "pastoral" versions concentrate almost exclusively on Angelica and Medoro—even on what happens to them after they disappear from Ariosto's plot.

2. Several of the Furioso operas are set entirely on the enchanted, lotusland island of Alcina, a sorcerer who (in Cantos VI–VII) tempts brave knights to become her lovers, then discards them and turns them into rocks or trees. Ruggiero, the Saracen superhero, is the most notable of her conquests. In some operatic versions (like Vivaldi's Orlando furioso or Handel's Alcina ), his beloved Bradamante goes to the island to save him; in the original, this was accomplished by the "good witch" Melissa. Librettists like Braccioli sometimes tried to combine a number of Ariosto's plots by setting them all on Alcina's island or by conflating her enchanted castle with Atlante's.

3. Canto V and parts of Cantos IV and VI (Ariosto skips around a lot) tell the wholly independent story of Ginevra and Ariodante, a tale of lust, romance, and chivalry in Arthurian Scotland, which became a popular opera plot in its own right. The best known of these is Handel's Ariodante of 1735.

After selecting one of these three basic areas of action, most opera librettists proceeded to "improve" on the original by adding new magical scenes, comic characters, or pathetic events of their own.

Wandering through Ariosto's epic are about twenty major and twenty significant minor characters, along with several thousand extras. There are at least as many separate stories, or fresh adventures, as there are cantos, many of which Ariosto keeps moving simultaneously. When any one of these—beyond the basic three situations—is introduced into an opera, it is usually in glancing, comic, or irrelevant ways. The Saracen giant Rodomonte, for example, a magnificent opponent for Charlemagne's forces, slaughters hundreds of people with a few swipes of his sword, and comes near to destroying all of Paris single-handedly. In Haydn's Orlando paladino , Rodomonte is simply a great oversized clown who frightens people by talking (or singing) in the style his name has given to the English language ("rodomontade: vainglorious boasting or bragging; pretentious, blustering talk").

I do not mean to belittle the achievements of the many writers, artists, and musicians who have drawn their characters, ideas, and incidents from the bottom-


HANDEL Orlando , Jeffrey Gall and Valerie Masterson, San Francisco Opera, 1985.
Photograph by Marty Sohl.


less well of Ariosto's epic. But it is important to remember—especially at a time when people are likely to know the children better than the parent—how vastly much more there is in the poem than in any of the works it inspired.

All of the sex and violence are gone, for one thing: great, wholehearted Boccaccian sex (Ariosto drops lust from his list of the Seven Deadly Sins, and writes two eloquent defenses of fornication) and spectacular violence, by which heads and limbs are lopped off right and left. All of the Handelian stage machinery in the world, the most lavish sets money can buy, can never duplicate the mind-boggling magic, the fluid geography, the warm sensuality of the original. Nothing is left of the grim and vicious world of early sixteenth-century Italy (this is the age of Machiavelli as well as of Castiglione), which forms so constant and so oppressive a presence in the book.

And all of Ariosto's theatrical "adaptors" have had to cut out the most appealing, most sympathetic character in the epic—the narrator. There is no place for Ariosto's alter ego in an eighteenth-century opera. But in taking him out, they have surgically extracted the generous, worldly-wise, pretension-deflating intelligence through which we observe all of these adventures, all of the cosmological travel, the killer-women and man-eating monsters, the bloody battle scenes and hand-to-hand combats, the impossible marvels and derring-do.

His skeptical, tolerant, self-implicating perspective aligns him with contemporaries like Erasmus and successors like Montaigne. According to Thomas M. Greene, "In his [the narrator's] critical sense, his artistic independence, his freedom from any tradition, Ariosto stands as a more modern figure than any of the men who attempted after him to write epic poetry. . . . In his sensibility we encounter, astonishingly early, the blurred edge of consciousness, the reflexive irony, the unwillingness to see quite whole and clear, the capacity to entertain simultaneously more than one thought."

Before he became president of Yale, before he became commissioner of baseball, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti was best known as an eminent scholar and eloquent defender of Ludovico Ariosto. No doubt Giamatti's Italian heritage had something to do with this. But his deep-lying affection for Orlando furioso was also a good indication that this latter-day "Renaissance man" had his priorities straight, as can be seen in this passage from Giamatti's introduction to a 1968 edition of the poem:

There is more to an epic than simply length. It must also define a world; it must communicate the immensity of the universe both without and within its characters. Nobility, bravery, a sense of high purpose, the love of ideals and objects worth the highest devotion of man—all these, through careful accumulation of detail and incident, must be part of the world of a poem if it is to deserve the name epic. But, above all . . . there must be space and there must be energy; the epic hero must have horizons at his disposal, and he must have the strength and the will to conquer them. . . .


The Orlando Furioso contains far more than a shimmering, translucent vision of the chivalric world; it also conveys a clear, acute sense of the shortcomings, the limitations, the horrors, and the follies of that world. Within the harmonious, ordered universe of the poem—perpetual in its perfection—Ariosto gives us an image of a world which is changing and in decay. We are exposed to the beautiful surface, and also to the brutal realities of life. . . . In the solitary figure of Orlando, we see the extremes to which a man's folly can bring him, and we have an insight into all the power latent in the delightful world of the poem, and into all the despair.

Whatever the pleasures I may derive from Spenser or Calvino, from Tiepolo or Fragonard, from Handel or Vivaldi, I would rather live in a world without their imitations of and derivations from Ariosto than in a world that did not contain the original poem. "When you are tired of Ariosto," C. S. Lewis once wrote, "you must be tired of this world."



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