Assassins and Bandits are Lords where we Live

Ariosto is considered by many as second only to Dante in the hierarchy of great Italian poets. His epic poem ‘Orlando Furioso’ is one of the longest and most varied of any in western cultural history. Describing the great cycle of stories dating back to the battles between the Moorish invasion of Europe and the fight-back, by Charlemagne’s army, of chivalric paladins, ‘Orlando Furioso’ has been and continues to be one of the most influential of poems, inspiring writers like Cervantes (who somewhat parodied the genre in his fantastic‘Don Quixote’), composers like Vivaldi (who wrote two operatic versions based on the epic) and Handel (who introduced a most unusual quintuple time signature to depict Orlando’s madness – furioso means either furious or mad, madly in love that is)  to modern writers like Salman Rushdie who introduced elements of the story in his ‘The Enchantress of Florence’. Most recently, Ariosto has been the subject of an extraordinary exhibition by the artist Possenti at the Fortress of Mont’Alfonso.

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(Prof Marcello Cherubini introducing Prof Pietro Paolo Angelini at yesterday’s conference at Bagni di Lucca’s Chiesa Inglese)

It was, therefore, quite wonderful to welcome back to Bagni di Lucca’s Chiesa Inglese Pietro Paolo Angelini, a teacher, scholar and educational director from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to introduce the presentation of his new book ‘Ludovico Ariosto Commissario Generale Estense in Garfagnana’ with its subtitle ‘di tutte queste montagne li assassini et omini di mala condizioni sono signori’ (throughout these mountains assassins and low-life men are considered as lords’)

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How did Italy’s second greatest poet finish up in a then Wild West area (some of whose traits certainly still exist today in remoter parts) to attempt to bring law and order in a bandit–infested territory? There are certain facts to be considered.

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(Ariosto’s portrait by Titian in London’s National Gallery)

First is that the Val di Serchio was divided up into a patchwork of territories belonging either to the Luccan Republic (e.g. Bagni di Lucca) or the duchy of Florence (e.g. Barga) or the Estense family from Ferrara – later Modena – (e.g. Castelnuovo di Garfagnana). These partitions provided ample space for wars and feuds but, most of all for bandits who avoided customs dues between the various parts through contraband or smuggling.

Second is the fact that Ariosto worked for Ippolito d’Este who was a mean ruler and didn’t pay the poet’s wages. When the chance came for a salaried job in the Garfagnana Ariosto took it of necessity. The pay, in fact came from the bandits themselves! There was a ‘special understanding between Lodovico and the banditti whereby each tolerated, and sometimes protected, the other – an amnesty in fact. The real scoundrels, according to Ariosto, were the priests who received harsh words (and suggested punishments too cruel to mention here) from the poet.

Third, Ariosto, coming from a princely court with its polite manners and seductive comforts, finding himself in a wild and lonely place with few sophisticated activities and, most importantly, far away from the woman he loved (and whom he secretly married just a few years before his death) Alessandra, became prone to depression and despair. Indeed, Orlando’s love-sick madness, can easily find a parallel in Ariosto’s own state of mind. Moreover, the battles between knights and monsters find a mirror in the conflicts between Governor Ariosto and the almost savage populace he had to bring under some sort of control.

Fourth, Ariosto transferred his unrequited love to the beautiful natural landscape around him. In his fourth satire he mentions the magnificent Pania Della Croce in these words (my translation): ‘the naked Pania between dawn and sunset turns me through her glory into her devotee’. This whole satire should be read for it gives a deep insight into Ariosto’s attitude to the area.

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(The Pania della Croce as seen from near Longoio)

The book is published by that most distinguished of publishers, Maria Pacini Fazzi of Lucca, and is available in Italian only (for the time being) at price twenty euros.

I consider Angelini to be a sort of modern Ariosto. I had my first job as teacher of English at Castelnuovo’s Ipsia (technical college) which was headed by Pietro Paolo. I took my first class under the illusion that country lads would have been tamer than inner London street-wise kids. I was quickly put right and realised that I would have to use all my enthusiasm and interest-keeping tactics to keep a somewhat undisciplined class in some order. These tactics were developed to the full by the great Angelini in his directorship of Garfagnana’s schools and colleges. In his gripping book, I was flattered that this whole-hearted man still remembered me after almost ten years. Pietro Paolo’s dedication to me and Alexandra  was, therefore, particularly touching.

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I also realised that John Harington, an old boy from my university (King’s College, Cambridge), was, at the end of the sixteenth century, England’s first translator of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’; (John also invented the world’s first flush toilet, incidentally, and lived in a house in one of my first work places in London – the former Wages Inspectorate in Red Lion Square).

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(First English Translator of ‘Orlando Furioso’, Sir John Harington, King’s Cambridge)

There is also a close connection between two of Bagni di Lucca’s most distinguished visiting poets, Shelley and Byron, and Ariosto. Shelley read Ariosto while he was here and Byron’s style was closely influenced by Ariosto, to say nothing of at least two plots (‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and The Taming of the Shrew’)

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(The original for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’)

that Shakespeare swiped from Ludovico Ariosto in this, Shakespeare’s four hundredth death anniversary and Ariosto’s five hundredth anniversary of his ‘Orlando Furioso’.

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(Pietro Paolo Angelini yesterday)

Angelini spoke yesterday with lively vigour and truly reawakened our interest in this poet who recently has been restored to his rightful place after some years of neglect.  I am, therefore, truly grateful to the Fondazione Montaigne for having invited him to talk so fervently and captivatingly about Ariosto. I’m off now to re-read the adventures of Orlando, Angelica, Bradamante and Ruggiero, Alcina and Ariodante (two further Handel operas, incidentally!)

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(Ruggiero saving Angelica from the Monster by Paul-Joseph-Blanc)

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