An Ariosto Walk in London

Ariosto, the Orlando Furioso and English Culture, 1516-2016By Professor Jane E Everson and Dr Stefano Jossa

London has been a pole of attraction to European travellers at least since the days of the Tudors. It has even attracted people without their consent or after their death. All sort of objects, money, jewels, artworks, books, furniture, have travelled to London in various ways all through history, to join private collections, museums, libraries, or relatives’ family memories, to such an extent that we can easily find in London traces of a variety of people who were never actually there.

The sixteenth-century Italian poet, Ludovico Ariosto, for example, never travelled to London, and only reluctantly and briefly left his native Ferrara, yet Ariosto has left his traces in many locations in the British capital city, so much so that we feel encouraged to suggest, in this centenary year, an Ariosto walk, to join the many other walks dedicated to key figures of European and non-European culture. His first journey, of course, was in the form of a book: his Orlando Furioso, first published in Ferrara in 1516 and later in an expanded version in Venice in 1532 (with a 1521 edition in the middle). It was translated into English as early as 1591, when Sir John Harington produced the first English version entitled The Frenzy of Orlando: apparently, the story goes that his translation of the tale of Astolfo, Giocondo and Fiammetta from canto 28 of Orlando Furioso made the Queen so furious with him for endangering the virtue of her ladies with so bawdy a selection that, by way of punishment, she ordered him to retire to his seat at Kelston, in Somerset, until he had completed the translation of Ariosto’s poem. Who knows whether the Queen truly wanted to punish him with such a challenging task or rather was curious to read the full story? Be that as it may, the first step on our walk should certainly be the palace of Whitehall where Harington was a courtier at the court of Elizabeth I.

Scholars debate whether it was Harington’s translation, or perhaps the original Italian, which influenced William Shakespeare in his conception of Much Ado About Nothing, the plot of which is clearly inspired from canto 4 of Orlando Furioso – the story of Ginevra and Ariodante, in which Ginevra is accused of infidelity as the result of a night-time trick by a jealous suitor. The second step of our walk might then be to the Globe on the Southbank, the modern reconstruction of the theatre where Lord Chamberlain’s Men, that is, Shakespeare’s company, used to perform, and where the play may have been performed. The tale of Ginevra and Ariodante, and other sections of the Orlando Furioso were later turned into operas by Handel, to be performed first at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket and then at the then Theatre Royal Covent Garden. And so our walk would then take us to the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (now just the Haymarket Theatre) and to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

However, all this would primarily be part of the long story of Ariosto’s literary reception into British culture. Ariosto’s influence can be traced in the works of major authors, including Spencer, Milton, Scott, Byron, up to, in modern times, the playwright and poet Samuel Beckett as well as the novelist and literary critic David Lodge. A more intriguing and perhaps less physically taxing itinerary might instead include objects that relate to and have been inspired by his masterpiece, Orlando Furioso. This itinerary would start with the Orlando Furioso itself, the first edition of which survives in only 12 copies in the world, of which the best preserved and most elegant exemplar is the copy possessed by the British Library. Once the property of the eminent bibliophile Thomas Grenville, this magnificent copy of the Orlando Furioso was acquired for the British Library (then in the British Museum) by Sir Anthony Panizzi, the Italian exile who had risen to become the head of the Library. A stop there is absolutely compulsory for bibliophiles and even for merely curious travellers: the shelfmark is G.11061. This version of the poem has now been critically edited by Marco Dorigatti, an Oxford-based Italian scholar, who will be among the speakers at the Ariosto conference organized by the British Academy. A few steps further into Bloomsbury, the beautiful drawing of Ruggero conducted to Alcina by two of her maidens by William Kent and now owned by the British Museum, is alas not on display.

Ariosto then suddenly appears in another of the great cultural institutions in London: the National Gallery. We are presented with the rare opportunity to see his face there, even though scholars are still uncertain whether Ariosto’s actual appearance can be reconstructed. However, two of the alleged portraits of Ariosto are there, at the National Gallery: Titian’s Man with a Quilted Sleeve, recently retitled Portrait of Girolamo Barbarigo, long considered the only surviving portrait of Ariosto and therefore stereotypically defining his official iconographic afterlife, and Palma il Vecchio’s Portrait of a Poet, only recently reconsidered as a portrait of Ariosto. Neither of them is likely to be Ariosto, but we should not skip the National Gallery in our Ariosto walk. All the more so, because the National Gallery owns the stunning Angelica saved by Ruggiero by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and is now running an exhibition on Delacroix – who also depicted this scene in his Ruggiero rescues Angelica (currently on display in the exhibition), among several he took from Ariosto’s poem. A visit there is a must for both Ariosto fans and art lovers.

A few miles away from the National Gallery, the collection at another of London’s wonderful museums, the V&A, demonstrates the extent to which Orlando Furioso penetrated and permeated daily life through objects in common use such as dishes and watches. Beyond a few print portraits of Ariosto (by H.S. Minasi, Andrea Zucchi, Nicolas de Larmessin, Littret, Charles Eisen after Titian, and including two sixteenth-century bronze medals, made by Domenico Poggini in Florence and by Pastorino de’ Pastorini in Siena), there is some striking sixteenth-century tableware: a maiolica plate by Francesco Xanto Avelli with Astolfo chasing the Harpies, a subject derived from Canto 34 of Ariosto’s poem; another maiolica plate by Giacomo Mancini, representing the magician Atlante flying down on the hippogriff and ready to attack on Bradamante, from canto 4 of Orlando Furioso; and another dish by the same Mancini, representing two characters from canto 16 of the poem, the faithless Orrigille and the all-too faithful Griphon. These plates were for rich people, to be sure, but they testify to the extent of Ariosto’s poem’s popularity and its presence in sixteenth-century daily life, so much so that they were perhaps used at official dinners and receptions. The V&A collections also feature an eighteenth-century watchcase by Robert Cawley decorated with the scene of Angelica and Medoro carving their initials on a tree, taken from Orlando Furioso canto 23. Other Ariosto references are in the exclusive series of 12 plates illustrating Ariosto characters, possibly after Giulio Romano’s drawings, as well as Angelica Kauffmann’s watercolour representing Angelica and Medoro with the shepherd who helped them to fulfil their love. Another must-see for Ariosto aficionados as well as for all those who love art history and beautiful craftsmanship.

The link between London and Ariosto is finally reinforced by means of two very famous quotes: ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, Samuel Johnson said to James Boswell on September 20, 1777, a sentence that has become an advert for tourists and can be read everywhere in London nowadays; ‘when you are tired of Ariosto, you must be tired of this world’, C.S. Lewis notoriously echoed, when commenting on ‘the fertility of his [Ariosto’s] fancy’ in his 1936 critical study The Allegory of Love. The allusion to Johnson was easy to grasp and suggested an implicit comparison between the fullness of London and the fullness of Orlando Furioso.

London has thus, perhaps, become the third or fourth città ariostesca in the world, even though Ariosto was never there and did not know much about the British landscape. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer (1899-1986), presented Ariosto as travelling the roads of Ferrara and, at the same time, walking the moon. Yet Ariosto is now certainly travelling and walking the streets of London too, rubbing shoulders with other perambulating London genii loci –Handel, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf.

Further Readings:
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Ariosto and the Arabs’ (1960).
David Littlejohn, ‘Ariosto and his Children’, in The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and about Opera (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 107-119.
Carmen Ravanelli Guidotti, ‘Ariosto «istoriato» nella maiolica italiana del Cinquecento’, in Jadranka Bentini (ed.), Signore cortese e umanissimo. Viaggio intorno a Ludovico Ariosto (Venice: Marsilio, 1994), pp. 61-73.
Gabriele Pedullà, ‘Paladini d’argilla: Ariosto sulle ceramiche’, in Sergio Luzzatto, Gabriele Pedullà (eds), Atlante della letteratura italiana, vol. 2 (Turin: Einaudi, 2012), pp. 16-27.
Dawn Hoskin, ‘A ‘Tragedie en Musique’ performed on 8th January 1685’ (January 8, 2015), V&A blog

Related Posts:

Ariosto, Harry Potter and Hippogriffs: weaving textual webs

Ariosto and his reception in the Anglo speaking world will be discussed at the British Academy on 28th and 29th April Ariosto, the Orlando furioso and English Culture, 1516-2016.

Prof Jane E. Everson is Emeritus Professor of Italian at Royal Holloway University of London and the author of The Italian Romance Epic in the Age of Humanism: The Matter of Italy and the World of Rome (OUP, 2001). Dr Stefano Jossa is Reader in Italian at Royal Holloway and the author of Ariosto (il Mulino, 2009). They are among the conveners (together with Prof Andrew Hiscock) of Ariosto, the Orlando furioso and English Culture, 1516-2016.

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