This is a book from the Dark Ages of the Italian Renaissance. The poem is 38,736 lines long or 4,842 stanzas of ottava rima. So I’ll be doing periodic updates as I go along. Also, rather than giving a plot summary, I’ll simply try to point out the most interesting themes as I go along.
The poem comes from the early 16th century, or as Ariosto would say, the cinquecento. Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, and the West was threatened by an aggressive Islamic force. Ariosto’s epic is set in the time of Charlemagne, another period when the West was threatened by an aggressive Islamic force. He picks up where his predecessor Boiardo had left off in his Orlando Innamorato. (The only English version of Boiardo’s poem that I can find is this one, which is a bit too expensive at the moment. On the other hand, if I ever get to Rome this bed and breakfast may be a good place to stay.)
The first two books introduce the main characters. In Book III we get a prophetic history of the house of Este. Ariosto wishes that the house will endure forever. Unfortunately for the Estes they came to an end with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. (Other great houses that have gone to extinction: Medici in 1743; Tudor in 1603; Stuart in 1807 (though a female line continues in the House of Wittelsbach); the Fuggers, a famous banking family, not to be confused with the 60s rock band, is apparently still an ongoing concern.)
Book IV is interesting because there is a damsel in distress. Ginevra, the damsel, has been sentenced to die unless a knight vanquishes her accuser in an ordeal by combat. So we have a damsel accused of sexual immorality, a crime punishable by death in the Old Testament, and one which serves as the basis for Arthur’s misfortunes, and which is used by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure. Interestingly in the OT there is no record of any woman being put to death for adultery. (Bathsheba is unpunished, Susannah, in the Deuterocanonical section of Daniel, is innocent; Hosea’s wife escapes retribution.) In the New Testament the woman taken in adultery escapes through the intercession of Jesus. Roman history, however, is full of the records of women actually punished or executed for adultery. (The two Julias in the family of Augustus, Messalina, and some others come to mind.) Islam, to this day, punishes female unchastity with death.
So it would not be unusual, at least conceptually, for there to be laws against sexual immorality. Whether there were or not I’ll leave to historians.
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare, if I recall correctly, says that a law once passed by the Duke is irrevocable, so the law, despite its harm, cannot be repealed.
Rinaldo, upon being told of this, is described thus:
Rinaldo thought a while and then he said:
‘A damsel is condemned to death because
She gave her lover solace in her bed
Who with desire for her tormented was?
A curse upon the legislator’s head!
And cursed be all who tolerate such laws!
Death rather to such damsels as refuse,
But not to her who loves and life renews,
‘And in my view it make difference
If the report is false or if it’s true,
For this does not affect her innocence
(I’d praise her anyway, if no one knew);
I know just what to say in her defence,
So now a trusty guide I ask of you
To lead me to the accuser. I’ll not waver
For, as God is my help, I hope to save her.’ (IV, 63-4)
Rinaldo, rather than immediately inquiring as to the damsel’s guilt or innocence, which might very well happen in the Morte d’Arthur, immediately jumps to her defence, even if she has been guilty. Now notice that he urges death to damsels who refuse their lovers, but not to women who love and who renew life. Upon first reading I thought “life renews’ was a reference to pregnancy and fertility. I’m now inclined to think that it refers to renewing life within the beloved, the knight.
Rinaldo thinks that even if she has had relations it doesn’t affect her innocence. Augustine says that rape doesn’t affect a woman’s chastity, but would differentiate pretty sharply, I think, between rape, which is forced, and consensual sex in their effect upon chastity. So Rinaldo’s statement doesn’t really hold much water.
Rinaldo goes on for several more stanzas.
I’m not sure how to regard Rinaldo’s comments. At first they seemed to me to anticipate the 1960s rejection of sexual morality. The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed to me to be a part of the courtly love tradition described by Lewis.
In book VI we have Alcina’s isle. This has some correspondence to other garden spots that we have seen, in The Romance of the Rose, and that we will see later, in The Faerie Queen, especially the Bower of Bliss in Book I. We get the story of her seduction of Astolfo, and this is followed by her seduction of Ruggiero in Book VII. Ariosto presents the seduction in sensuous detail:
Never did ivy press or cling so close,
Rooted beside the plant which it embraced,
As now in love each to the other does;
And on their lips a sweeter flower they tast
Than Ind or Araby e’er knew, or those
Which on the desert air their perfume waste.
To speak of all their bliss to them belongs
Who more than one in one mouth had two tongues. (VII, 29)
When she is finally exposed, she is revealed as ugly:
In truth, Alcina was, without a quibble,
Wrinkled and frail; her hair was sparse and white,
And from her toothless mouth there ran a dribble.
Scarcely six palms did she attain in height.
Older than Hecuba or Cumae’s Sibyl,
She had outlived all other women quite.
By means of artifice unknown to us,
A girl she could appear, and beauteous. (VII, 73)
We get a similar treatment in The Faerie Queen when Duessa is unmasked. Spenser’s is a bit more ghastly than Ariosto’s, but there is a definite echo there.
Ariosto has that Renaissance attitude that conflates all time periods so that anachronisms, such as clocks striking in the Greco-Roman period, or cannons firing during Charlemagne’s reign, don’t bother him.
‘Not only is he powerful and strong—
Few in our age against him can prevail—
But so astute and cunning in the wrong
He perpetrates, no courage will avail
Against his evil practices for long.
All strength, all strategy must surely fall
Before a strange new weapon he possesses:
Along a metal tube he presses,
And a rare powder; next, a flame applies
To a small hole which scarcely can be seen,
As the physician does to cauterize
And seal the severed ending of a vein.
Ejected by explosion, the ball flies
With a loud noise, so that men think there’s been
A mighty tempest in which thunder crashes
And everywhere the lightning burns and flashes. (IX, 28-9)
We’ll see later that Ariosto regards chivalry as dead or dying. He seems to regard the person to person warfare of the pre-Agincourt era as the highpoint of civilized warfare. (Agincourt used artillery, English longbows, against knights, and was a substantial victory for England. But it was all so impersonal, and definitely not glorious.)
A word here about time. Ariosto has set the poem during the time of Charlemagne, the late 8th and early 9th centuries AD, but he seems to use characters from later times, and he has no hesitation in using cannons, which were late medieval/early renaissance weapons in his epic. Artillery in classical and medieval warfare frequently took the form of archers reigning arrows down upon their opponents. The archer, because he fought from a distance, was not as well regarded as those who engaged the enemy in hand to hand combat. When I said that Ariosto preferred the pre-Agincourt era, I was trying to isolate a time before any kind of massed artillery was used in medieval warfare. As far as I know Agincourt, with its use of bowmen against knights, is the first massed artillery attack of its kind.
Ariosto regards cannons and gunpowder as the invention of the devil:
To no avail because that impious foe
Of humankind who first invented it,
Inspired by thuderbolts which crash below,
Tearing theclouds asunder, thensaw fit,
Causing the world an almost equal woe
As by the apple and by Eve’s deceit,
To let a wizard seek it out once more
In our grandfathers’ time, or just before. (XI, 22)
And we see his regard for the lack of glory that adheres to the gunner’s profession:
O hideous invention! By what means
Did you gain access to the human heart?
Because of you all glory’s fled long since;
No honour now attaches to the art
Of soldiering; all valour is pretence;
Not Good but Evil seems the better part;
Gone is all courage, chivalry is gone,
In combat once the only paragon. (XI, 26)
Just as gunnery contrasts with chivalry, so Alcina contrasts with Logistilla. In her name we recognize the connection with the Greek logos, the root of logic, and the various logies, (biology, theology, geology). We also recognize her connection with John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word….” The association is confirmed when we learn that she is attended by the four cardinal virtues. One of these, Prudence, was recognized by Aristotle as part of the appeal to ethos in his Rhetoric. So we have Reason and the virtues associated with Reason as the force contending with Alcina.
“This gracious being”, said he, “inculcates
Such reverence and wonder in the soul,
When first her loveliness it contemplates,
All other joys far short of this must fall.
A lover’s heart, tormented, vacillates
Between despair and longing, as a rule,
But love for Logistilla asks no more
Than to reflect upon her and adore.
“More pleasing aspirations she will teach
Than songs and dances, unguents, baths and food
That newly oriented, you may pitch
Your higher thoughts towards the highest good
(In loftier flight than ever hawk can reach),
Where bill in mortal frame may find abode.”
While speaking thus, the pi;ot sped the boat,
Which from the safer shore was still remote. (X, 46-7)
The beauty of the palace walls is emphasized:
No stronger, no more beautiful, was seen
By mortal eye to present times or past.
The walls more precious are than if they’d been
In diamonds or fiery rubies cast.
To try to speak, in our world, of their sheen
And beauty would be time and labour lost,
For in that magic realm, and only there
(Save, it may be, in Heaven) they appear. (X, 58)
In Canto XIII we get some praise bestowed upon an unusual lady:
“This splendid matriarch, named Eleanor,
Is grafted thus to your life-bearing tree.
What shall I say now of her successor,
Alfonso’s second wife, Lucrezia, she
Whose virtue, fame, and beauty every hour
Increase, whom fortune and prosperity
Combine to favor, like a plant, no less
Which fertile soil and rain and sun all bless.
“As tin to silver or as brass to gold,
The poppy of the cornfield to the rose,
The willow, pale and withered in the cold,
To the green bay which ever greener grows,
As painted glass to jewel, thus I hold,
Compared with her, as yet unborn, all those
Who hitherto for beauty have been famed,
Or models of all excellence are named.
“And by the many who will sing her praise,
Both while she live and after she is dead,
She’ll be esteemed, above all that she’ll raise
Those sons so royally whom she’ll have bred.
Ercole and his brothers will the bays
Of glorious lustre wear upon their head;
For fragrance is not easily dispersed,
Though later vessels equal not the first.” (XIII, 69-71)
This grand lady who was so virtuous is Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Alexander VI, one of my favorite bad popes, and sister of Cesare Borgia.
In XIV God gives instructions to the archangel Michael. There is some satire on monastic life as Michael searches for Silence.
In XVI there is a speech by Rinaldo which recognizes the collective danger to all of Europe that is posed by Islam:
“In ancient times they gave a hero’s crown
To who whosoever saved the life of one
Of Rome’s proud citizens; now what renown
Will you deserve, who’ll save not one alone,
But countless multitudes in this one town?
But if this sacred task remains undone,
If cowardice and sloth now hold you back,
Who will be free from danger of attack?
“I say not Italy, not Germany,
Nor any Christian country I could name.
Think not because you dwell beyond the sea
You will be safe; your fate will be the same.
Your kingdom also is in jeopardy.
If from Gibraltar Moorish pirates came
To raid your islands in marauding bands,
What will they do once they possess our lands?
“But if no honour, no self-interest
Should animate you for this enterprise,
Our duty is to succour when oppressed
Those whom the Church in one cause unifies.
Let no man harbour fear within his breast
That I shall fail to take them by surprise,
For surely I shall rout them easily.
Ill-armed and spiritless they seem to me.” (XVI, 36-8)
The Christian/Muslim opposition is set out clearly here. The West and Christianity is opposed by the East and Islam. The call is to defend both.
Need I add that current elites, particularly the professoriate of the humanistic disciplines, do not seem inclined to defend either.
The theme is repeated again in XVII. In stanzas 76-9 Ariosto urges European unity against the invading Moslem force.
In XVII we also get an episode that involves a cannibalistic land orc. (35 et seq.)
In Canto XVIII we get the story of Medoro and Cloridano. This begins with stanza 165. The two youths attempt to bury their king, Dardinello, Their night passage through the enemy camp is reminiscent of Iliad, X, in which Odysseus and Diomedes pass through the Trojan lines, and slaughter their sleeping enemies. There are also similarities to Aeneid, IX and Thebaid, X as noted by the translator.
At XIX we have a rather bizarre episode beginning around stanza 56. A ship’s voyager enter a port controlled by women. They have a rule that all the men must be put to death, or they can select a champion, and that champion must pass two tests. He must defeat 10 opponents in the joust. If he passes that test he must satisfy 10 women in one night. If he passes the first test, but fails the second, he dies, and the men are taken captive. (XIX, 68). We’ll gently pass over the question of performance anxiety and whether it existed for Renaissance man.
One of the warriors on board is Marfisa, a lady knight, and because she is lacking in certain areas she is at first excluded from consideration. (XIX, 73). She insists, however, and is selected by lot. At this point no doubt the gentle reader is wondering if Ariosto is going to wander off into somewhat pornographic areas. Have no fear. Marfisa defeats the first nine opponents. They break off, and she reveals herself to the 10th. As usual with such things this leads to love, and a swift turn of events.
At the end of XXIII, which is the first volume of the translation. Orlando goes mad.
I started blogging about this at the end of November, and it is now Christmas eve. I’ll probably be reading and watching whatever I get for Christmas this year starting tomorrow. Ariosto will resume after my Christmas reading is done, and then I’ll return to the St. John’s list with Don Quixote.