Noblesse oblige

Written by  Roberto Pazzi
A cautionary historical tale of the artist and the state: examining Lodovico' s fraught relationship with the Este nobility.
What was Lodovico Ariosto's relationship with the Este Court? How did the Ferrarese poet's dependency on his work affect him, this work which was assigned to him purely on the basis of his fame as a poet, and the ability to create works which were elevated to the canon of the age, bringing fame and glory to the house of Este? I am greatly interested in these complicated and often ambivalent relationships between service and servility, between expressive liberty and systematic control, between Power and Culture; I need to understand why this problem so often emerges in a country like Italy, where the deep-seated and all-pervasive unease which persists between politicians and intellectuals can seem almost endemic.
We know little of Ariosto's private life. In the 1930s Michele Catalano wrote a biography of him, but even he fell short of being able to cast any real light upon the life of this evasive character who created a deliberate smokescreen around himself, and who vanished into his own works.
Towards the end of the 1980s I became obsessed with writing a novel on Lodovico Ariosto, feeling acutely the influence of the life of this great man who, five centuries ago, walked the streets of my own Ferrara. The little I knew of his life could be summarised in a few snippets of information: his son Virginio, born of his relationship with Orsolina Sassomarino; his clandestine relationship with Alessandra Benucci, whom he secretly married in 1527 so as not to lose the ecclesiastical benefits of Saint Agatha; his children with her; his fatherly support of his brothers and sisters; his difficult and dangerous job as governor of the Garfagnana between 1521 and 1524; and h
is refusal to follow the choleric Cardinal Ippolito to Budapest, where he was made archbishop in 1517.
So, one day I phoned Lanfranco Caretti, the great Ferraese critic [who taught at Firenze]. I can still hear him booming down the phone to me ?Don't do it Pazzi, you'll see, you'll never succeed, you'll get sucked into the Furioso trying to write the life of this man? you'll never succeed, you'll get lost in the poem.? He was right of course. I never managed to write it, I always got stuck on some detail of his life at court; his relationship with Cardinal Ippolito continued to work on my imagination, before I was forced to recognise that I was on a wild goose chase. Perhaps I got too caught up in it, for I found, in this cold indifference to Poetry, something was revealed which continued to stir in the minds of men, five hundred years on. I am not alone in this line of thinking, for, before me, Sigmund Freud was so struck by the episode with Ippolito d'Este in conversation with his poet, as to quote his words in the epigraph to the essay on Jensen's Gradiva. This essay was an attempt to discover the genesis of a work of art, relating to man's primal fear of the imagination as a destabilising influence.
The story goes as follows. Ariosto, between one appointment and another, finally completed Orlando Furioso in 1504. Two or three years later, he decided to read a few passages to his master, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, brother to the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II. Who was this man? The son of Duke Ercole I and Eleonora d'Aragona. A man little suited to a career in the church, more disposed to fight than to pray, and who lived in an age when becoming a cardinal or even Pope had little or nothing to do with one's religious faith.

Hence, this none too spiritual cardinal, having listened to him recite several verses of Orlando Furioso in the comfort of his opulent rooms in the Castello Estense, exited merely with the preposterous question ?Lodovico, how on earth did you come up with such a load of tripe?? The Cardinal rather preferred Lodovico the personal assistant to Lodovico the poet: he wanted someone to take his boots off for him at night, get him ready for bed, take his cloak off, and write his letters. However, his brutal remark in fact had a fateful timeliness. For the Cardinal proved to be like all those who react with resentful defensiveness before the arts: wondering where did all these words come from, this wealth of verses? From what source did they spring? His impertinent question clearly reveals his terrible desire to control the treacherous domain of the imagination. It shows the unbearable unease of those who insist in living with reality, as Freud illustrated with his essay on Jensen's Gradiva, which deals with the terrible power of literature to destroy the foundations of reality, revealing creativity which Power does not know how to control. However, I see within this a valuable lesson, which is worth repeating, especially for the young, if we are to feed their passion for writing. Like the cold insensitivity of the Ferrarese cardinal, the boorish deafness of the environment in which we live could make an extraordinary contribution to defending and nurturing a literary career, an exclusive passion for writing. Ariosto continued to write, and completed his masterpiece, undeterred by this reaction, which I don't know whether to define as fear or stupidity. A declaration of faith can only be made before genuine persecution, when one's own moral code is in conflict with that of our cultural environment. We should distrust an atmosphere which favours and accommodates our own fundamental obsessions. The plant will wilt, too over-watered and over-fertilised to stretch out towards the sun, and to raise itself upright by its own efforts. An analogy might be drawn with Recanati and another great poet of a later age. Notwithstanding all of Leopardi's complaints, without the deafness, hostility and provincialism of Recanati his own modernity would never have sprung forth, the extraordinary harmony of his poetry combining with Europe's most exalted voices.