Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.16

Dennis Looney, D. Mark Possanza, Ludovico Ariosto. Latin Poetry. I Tatti Renaissance Library, 84.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxvii, 258.  ISBN 9780674977174.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Paul Gwynne, The American University of Rome (

Eclipsed by his vernacular epic, Orlando Furioso, and omitted entirely from the (otherwise impressive) anthologies of neo-Latin verse by McFarlane1 and Nichols2 and dismissed by Sparrow and Perosa as a literary curiosity ‘interesting for the light they throw on his development as a writer’,3 the Latin poems written by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535) have long been ignored (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) and are badly in need of reappraisal. Dennis Looney and D. Mark Possanza have risen admirably to the challenge by presenting the first edition with an English translation of the notoriously corrupt text of Ariosto’s Latin lyrics. Sixty-seven poems are included, plus five poems of dubious attribution and three more apocryphal poems. The inclusion of the working drafts, meticulously edited from the (autograph?) manuscript preserved in the Biblioteca Comunale Ariostea at Ferrara (ms. cart. Sec. XVI. Classe I C) is an additional boon and a new departure for the I Tatti Renaissance Library series from Harvard University Press, of which this is number 84. While the reliability of the text, the translations and the (virtually non-existent) commentaries of the early I Tatti volumes was often erratic, the quality of recent volumes seems now to have evened out. Looney and Possanza’s edition of Ariosto’s Latin poetry does not buck this trend, but offers instead a model for subsequent volumes. Although the authors claim that this ‘is not a critical edition’ (p. 137), their work in collating the manuscript and early printed editions and offering conjectures of various readings and correcting metrical mistakes is a novelty for the apparatus criticus of the I Tatti series and must be applauded.

As this work clearly demonstrates, Ariosto continued to write Latin verse throughout his career, and this verse is not, as is generally believed, merely the product of his youth. It is a substantial body of work, totalling approximately one thousand lines of verse in a variety of meters, and its subject matter is wide-ranging. Like his models Catullus and Horace (and to a lesser extent Martial and Statius), his oeuvre includes ‘love lyrics, poems on politics and war, and poems to and about Ariosto’s friends, relatives, patrons, and famous contemporaries’ (p. ix). In the last category is the long epithalamium written to celebrate the marriage of Alfonso d’Este to Lucrezia Borgia and perhaps even performed during the festivities to welcome the pope’s daughter to Ferrara in February 1502. Here sets of sad Roman youths and happy Ferrarese citizens compete in amoebaean song, alternating praise of the future duchess with light-hearted rivalry between ancient Rome and modern Ferrara. Yet, as the editors note,

Ariosto has cleverly orchestrated the contest heavily in favour of Ferrara: the Roman youth devote their poetic talents to lamenting the decline of their city with an impressive portrait of abandoned ruins; that portrait allows the young men of Ferrara to launch into an enthusiastic panegyric of their vibrant and growing city. (p. 208).

At the promiscuous end of the spectrum there is the poet’s semi-autobiographical De diversis amoribus (poem 54), where Catullus’s ‘thousand kisses, then a hundred, then a further thousand’ are shared among a catalogue of lovers past and present. The poem begins: ‘Glycere is now my passion, now it’s Lycoris, one minute Lyda is my love, the next it’s Phyllis’ (p. 97). Hailed by one major Italian critic as Ariosto’s most important poem, it was wittily characterized by Luke Houghton as ‘probably the closest neo-Latin literature gets to Mambo No.5’.4

This range of subject matter and meter reveals a competent versifier whose skill rises far above the average and whose own voice can be heard distinctly. Particularly touching are the poems composed towards the end of his life upon his house (poem 65) and garden (poems 64, 66, 67). Despite the fact that the themes can be traced to the Greek Anthology, one gets a real sense from these simple lines that the world-weary courtier has finally found contentment in this tranquil setting. This humility is echoed in the epitaph intended for his tomb (poem 58) and contrasts dramatically with the trite platitudes trotted out in the lines on the death of Raphael (poem 59).

I do not want to suggest, however, that this new edition is flawless. The punctuation of Renaissance texts is notoriously difficult to systematize. Ariosto’s manuscript and early editions are no exception. The editors are largely successful, but a few inconsistencies remain. I take Ariosto’s famous address to Pietro Bembo (poem 7) as an example. Renaissance printers made no distinction between the interrogative (?) and exclamation marks (!), with a simple ? standing for both. At the end of the first two lines of the Latin text, the editors have retained the ?, but in the English translation offer an exclamation mark !, while at lines 23-24 they have added an exclamation mark at the end of each verse of the Latin, but have omitted it in the English! A similar discrepancy occurs at 14.43. In the same poem the editors could have avoided the awkward parentheses at lines 27-28 by adding a question mark after nostris (as they have done in the English translation). Likewise, the transposition of the comma after the intensifier ipse (linking ipse now with Iuppiter instead of negem) interrupts a natural break in the line after a dactyl and contradicts Ariosto’s own practice at 6.40 (p. 147).

In a text of this kind, which requires close historical contextualization, there are constant snares for the unwary. For example, at the first line of their new edition: Quid Galliarum navibus aut equis, the editors note ‘an allusion to Hor. Carm. 1.6.3, navibus et equis, despite the fact that Charles descended into Italy by land’ (p. 159). This is not quite true. Although most of the French army travelled overland, a large fleet was needed to carry the heavier guns and supplies to Italy to avoid hauling them across the Alps. Louis, duc d’Orléans (later King Louis XII), was given command of a small armada at Genoa to launch an attack on a second front against Naples. A minor quibble perhaps; yet, the allusion is closer to Horace’s recusatio than our editors would have us believe. First, Hor. Carm. 1.6.3 reads navibus aut equis (not et). In Horace this poetical variant for ‘by land and sea’ is used to magnify the Roman forces under Agrippa. Ariosto is thus comparing the invading French army with the might of Rome and thereby increasing the fear it evokes among contemporary Italians. The poet’s own nonchalant recusatio in the face of this impending catastrophe is all the more remarkable. In addition, the Horatian allusion (omitted from the previous version of the poem ([1a]) helps date the revision more securely to the events of late 1494 when Orléans secured his small fleet.

The notes in the commentary are generally reliable, but some factual errors remain: Lucrezia Borgia entered Ferrara on 2 February, not 2 January (p. 207). Examples could be multiplied. The note at poem 9.17 (p. 175) repeats verbatim the note on p. 148, which suggests sloppy proof-reading. However, this is not entirely the fault of the editors, but a persistent flaw in the I Tatti series where the commentary is regrettably of secondary importance.

The translations are accurate but uneven and range from the scrupulously literal to the literary. For example, the translation ‘pixie of a Dryad’ (p. 15) is a curious rendition of Dryadum lasciva (‘a wanton wood nymph’) and strange blend of folklores. In the final analysis, however, the editors are to be commended for making Ariosto’s Latin verse accessible to a modern audience. An anecdote in the correspondence of the humanist and Este courtier Bartolomeo Ricci (1490-1569) records the importance of Ariosto for two budding young neo-Latin poets of the next generation: Lorenzo Frizolio (c. 1530-97) and (later Cardinal) Silvio Antoniano (1540-1603). To pay homage to the great poet, the two friends made a holiday pilgrimage to the mausoleum, currently under construction, by Ariosto’s son, Virginio, in the garden of the house Ariosto acquired towards the end of his life (now Via Ariosto, 67). Ricci explains:

It would have been unworthy of both Silvio and Frizolio if these two renowned poets had departed without first offering a poetic greeting to such a great poet. When Silvio uttered this verse: ‘Everlasting greetings, blessed ashes and shades’, Frizolio completed the distich by adding this line: ‘With which the house of Ariosto will always flourish’. Silvio scratched these lines onto a stone in the weathered wall with a metal stylus; I immediately erased this with another stone, both men promising, when the building is finished and Ariosto’s body transferred thither, to make amends with better verse.5

Frizolio, at least, made good on his promise. When the monks of San Benedetto refused to release the poet’s remains, Ariosto’s friend Agostino Mosti erected a magnificent monument in the church (1573) for which Frizolio supplied the verse epitaph that awards Ariosto a triple garland for his poetic achievements in comedy, satire, and epic (all composed in Italian). Ariosto’s bones were finally transported amid great pomp to a new mausoleum in the Palazzo Paradiso (now the Biblioteca Ariostea) in 1801. Curiously, this monument is adorned with a Latin inscription by Battista Guarini (1538-1612), the author of Il pastor fido, at the expense of Ariosto’s own epitaph (poem 58), a sad indictment indeed of the neglect into which the bard’sLatin verse had fallen in the intervening centuries and which this admirable volume seeks to rectify. ​


1.   Ian MacFarlane, Renaissance Latin Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980).
2.   Fred J. Nichols, An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979).
3.   Alessandro Perosa and John Sparrow, Renaissance Latin Verse. An Anthology (London: Duckworth, 1979), p. 174.
4.   L.B.T. Houghton, ‘Elegy’ in Victoria Moul (ed.), A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 101.
5.   To Vincenzo Madio, 3 February 1557; Bartolomeo Ricci, Epistolarum Familiarium Libri VIII (Bologna, 1560), 78r-79v.

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