Thursday, September 8, 2016

Birthday: All he wanted was to be a writer


Ludovico Ariosto (1747-1533)
Poet, civil servant

The eldest child of the military commander of the one of the innumerable city-states of 15th century Italy, Ariosto’s career was determined first by his father, then by happenstance.

His father wanted him to read law, so the boy did, for five long dull years. He extracted a concession for an equivalent period of study of letters, and happily settled into the new routine. At his father’s death in 1500, he had to take up his large family’s leadership and manage its parlous finances. This led him to service in the court of the city's ruler, a cardinal of the church who, with a fondness for diplomatic intrigue, was constantly on the go from one dodgy, conflict-ridden spot to another. In all of this, he expected Ariosto to attend him.

In 1516 Ariosto published a long cycle of poems, Orlando Furioso. Picking up the threads of an earlier work by Boiardo, the epic poem drew on various epics, romances and heroic poems, in which Charlemagne battled the Saracens, damsels were in distress, and derring was done. His style won immense popularity for the work, and it was common reading into the early 19th century.

Ariosto’s boss, the cardinal, was unimpressed by being the work’s dedicatee, its literary merit, and it’s author’s disinclination to travel. Cut loose, he found a new post with the cardinal’s brother, a duke. His family’s endless financial needs forced him to accept appointment as governor of a distant, mountain province where brigands ruled; he won praise for his administration and found time to write a series of comic plays and satires.

After three years Ariosto made enough money to retire. He bought a small house in his home town, settled down with his longtime mistress (they married secretly, to protect “certain ecclesiastical benefices” that supplemented his income). He gardened, and- like Whitman with Leaves of Grass three centuries later- tinkered with Orlando until he pronounced it perfect, shortly before his death.

Today, Ariosto is remembered mainly for coining the term “humanism” to describe the emerging world view that celebrated man, his achievements, and potential, as an evolution in its own right. This departure from the idea that all things flowed from the plans and interventions of God, is now called Secular Liberal Humanism, and is considered a Very Bad Thing in some American political/academic circles.

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