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Jane Everson, Andrew Hiscock and Stefano Jossa, eds., Ariosto: The 'Orlando Furioso' and English Culture
by Selene Scarsi

Jane Everson, Andrew Hiscock and Stefano Jossa, eds., Ariosto: The ‘Orlando Furioso’ and English Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xv + 355pp. ISBN: 9780197266502. £75 hardback.

 This volume of essays stems from a British Academy conference held in 2016 to celebrate half a millennium since the publication of the first edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516). The collection examines the extent of Ariosto’s influence on and relevance in English-language culture from the sixteenth century to the present day, bringing together articles, built upon the conference discussions, on reception, critical editions, translations and adaptations across different media, including the textual, visual, dramatic and operatic.

The volume consists of four parts: the first focuses on the influence of this highly pictorial poem on the visual arts, an important trend in recent Ariosto criticism (‘Before Reading: The Image’); the second and third investigate the reception of the poem in England between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries (‘From the Elizabethans to the Enlightenment’ and ‘Gothic and Romantic Ariosto’); finally, the fourth looks at editions and translations in the modern day, as well as at Ariostean presences in contemporary novels (‘Text and Translation in the Modern Era’). The essays are roughly chronological, and often complementary, with many forming natural clusters not only within but also across the four sections (such as the five chapters on translation, by Hiscock, Mac Carthy, Everson, McCue and McLaughlin). While thorough, the collection does not pretend to be comprehensive, offering instead detailed essays on particular topics by some of the leading scholars in Ariostean studies.

In the introductory chapter, the editors offer an admirably concise yet informative survey of Ariosto through the centuries, from the early editions onwards. They acknowledge the relevance of the 1516 princeps—whose cinquecentenary was the occasion for the British Academy conference—and the importance of studying it as an autonomous poem in itself, whilst recognising that, in an analysis of the Furioso in England, the emphasis inevitably falls on the more frequently studied 1532 edition. They then proceed to give a succinct overview of the reception of the poem in the British Isles, providing useful, general background that fills any gaps left by the individual chapters.

The section on the visual arts places equal importance on verbal and non-verbal transmissions of the poem, and Lina Bolzoni’s opening contribution on visual imagery associated with the Furioso commences with a discussion of the woodcut engraving accompanying the 1516 edition as well as the engraved portrait of the poet in the 1532 edition, both interpreted as the author’s denunciation of human ingratitude. The chapter then moves on to a survey of illustrated editions, where the visual paratexts reflect editorial rather than authorial decisions, thus entering the realm of reception; the emphasis here is on the crucial contribution that the early illustrators made to the canonisation of the text, but the excursus stretches through the centuries, covering editions as recent as a decade ago (including Grazia Nidasio’s illustrations for Italo Calvino’s reading of the poem). Bolzoni then moves on to a captivating discussion of decorations on majolica pottery: scenes and episodes from the Furioso were appearing on pots and jars quite consistently in the sixteenth century, allowing the poem to penetrate into the daily life of the general public, and reaching people who would be otherwise unfamiliar with its contents. This is followed by a brief analysis of fresco cycles featuring Ariostean subjects, in some cases, such as Tiepolo’s, through the mediating influence of opera: a fascinating subject that leaves the reader wanting more. Overall, the chapter is a packed collection of examples of the Furioso’s figurative fortune, richly annotated with plenty of bibliographical suggestions for further reading.

The following chapter by Luca Degl’Innocenti builds on the first, focusing on the illustrations in Sir John Harington’s 1591 translation of the poem, the first complete translation to appear in English, and, until 1773, the only translation of the Furioso to offer a visual paratext. In particular, this essay concentrates on the plate for Canto 28, the bawdy tale translated first by Harington and whose circulation at court, according to a legendary (and probably true) anecdote, irritated Queen Elizabeth so much that the courtier was forced to complete a translation of the whole poem as penance. Whereas the engravings in Harington’s Furioso normally derive from Italian editions with little to no variation, for Canto 28 the pattern differs: the Englished version presents a plate which emphasises the wantonness of the episode and which, Degl’Innocenti convincingly argues, bears an interesting resemblance to Pietro Aretino’s pornographic sonnets and the illustrative woodcuts accompanying them. The section concludes with an essay by Eleonora Stoppino on Ariosto’s enhancement of chivalric seascapes, transformed by him into active participants in the poem, with specific focus on those episodes in the Furioso—in its 1516 and 1532 iterations—set in and around the British Isles.

The central part of the volume opens with Andrew Hiscock’s analysis of the Elizabethan and Jacobean engagement with Ariosto. The Ariostean presence in Early Modern culture was felt across a broad spectrum of artistic production, and Hiscock briefly surveys translations and adaptations of the poem, looking at references to the Furioso in the theatre and in other artistic forms, from madrigals to tapestries. In Chapter 6, Tobias Gregory draws a connection between Ariosto and Milton, building on their use of space in their respective epics. Paradise Lost follows the Furioso’s precedent as a poem characterised by restless movement and a seemingly limitless spatial range: the two works are unique in having action ‘all over the map—and above and below it’ (117). The epics share both these dramatic spatial shifts, which are so unlike anything seen in Dante or Tasso, and a tendency to see such movement as vanity, or folly. The two poets, Gregory suggests, also share a distinctive lack of anxiety about their relationship with their literary precursors: in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Milton could borrow from the Furioso selectively, ‘without having to fight free of it’ (123). Following this, Ita Mac Carthy’s beautiful chapter on ‘Fiordispina’s English Afterlives’ is, for me, the highlight of the volume. It investigates the treatment of the homoerotic Fiordispina/Bradamante episode, itself a re-writing of Ovid’s myth of Iphis and Ianthe, in subsequent English works. Harington sobers it up and straightens it out; John Gay, in his sympathetic translation of the episode in the 1720s, restores Boiardo’s ‘ardent complicity’ between the two female characters and entertains the possibility of lesbian love even more openly than Ariosto. The chapter starts and finishes with Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, another re-writing of the Ovidian myth which reverberates with (unacknowledged) Ariostean echoes.

In Chapter 8, Jane Everson investigates the reception of Ariosto in England in the eighteenth century. Following a century-long neglect of (if not hostility to) the poem, she argues that the formation of a truly ‘English’ literary canon and the rediscovery of Spenser leads to a renewed interest in the latter’s models, including Ariosto—an interest that works in both directions: ‘Ariosto may be necessary for reassessing Spenser, but Spenser becomes the means of validating Ariosto for an English public’ (149). After an analysis of Richard Hurd’s prolonged ambivalence towards Ariosto, Everson ably assesses William Huggins’s and John Hoole’s translations, which differ in choice of metre, intended readership and interpretative paratexts, and concludes with a brief discussion of the engravings attached to Hoole’s edition. Tim Carter’s ensuing essay treats Ariostean material in opera, mostly looking at the late seventeenth/eighteenth century: between 1619 and 1924, as many as 107 operas based on the Furioso appeared, testament to the fact that some of the episodes in the poem, like many in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, lend themselves particularly well to operatic adaptation. This is followed by Susan Oliver’s analysis of Walter Scott’s fascination with the Orlando Furioso. The novelist considered a daily dose of the Furioso as the best cure for the feverishness caused by spending time in London, and Oliver looks at Ariosto’s structural and thematic influence on Scott’s poetry and prose. Maureen McCue’s ‘Authorising Ariosto’ studies the engagement with Ariosto in the context of the Pisa circle, whose poets invoked ‘chivalric and erotically-charged’ Ariosto to legitimise their own values (220). The essay includes a comparison of the contrasting, even contradictory, versions of Ariosto presented in the Pisa circle’s The Liberal and in the conservative Blackwoods Magazine. This latter publication, McCue posits, used the poem to define its literary aesthetics through its championing of William Stewart Rose’s anglicisation of Ariosto’s work and its recreation, via his translation, as a ‘native classic’.

The third and final section of the volume looks at the modern era. Marco Dorigatti traces Antonio Panizzi’s meteoric rise from political refugee to Principal Librarian of the British Museum (and an eventual knighthood). Central to his fortune was a joint edition of Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato and Ariosto’s Furioso which, to this day, remains the only joint edition of the two poems—considered by Panizzi to form one single indivisible narrative—and which was of fundamental importance for restoring Boiardo’s original text after three centuries of rifacimenti and neglect. Dorigatti concludes with brilliant close analyses of some of Panizzi’s philological choices. Chapter 13 is then a highly perceptive appraisal of two modern translations of Orlando Furioso by Barbara Reynolds (1973-77) and Guido Waldman (1974) respectively. This chapter, by Martin McLaughlin, is the first comparative study of the two main options currently available to English-speaking readers of Ariosto, and, as such, is much needed. Through side-by-side analyses of selected passages, we see how Reynolds occasionally shows Harington’s mediating influence in her verse translation, whereas Waldman’s prose rendition, free of the constraints of ottava rima, is largely faithful; while Waldman is closer to the ideal of the translator’s invisibility, Reynolds adds intertextual allusions, such as echoes of Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare, obviously independently of Ariosto but always intelligently and appropriately. This is shown by McLaughlin to counterbalance her occasional misunderstandings, her omissions of superfluous details, as well as her tendency to add ‘padding’, which results in the inevitable loss of Ariosto’s distinctive rapidity and lightness. Both translators occasionally commit errors, and both—but especially Reynolds—tone down the eroticism of some of Ariosto’s octaves, so much so that McLaughlin jokingly dubs one section of the essay ‘No sex, please, we’re British (translators)’. Nicola Gardini’s subsequent chapter investigates the poem’s moral preoccupation with truth, which is inextricably linked with writing, and identified as the backbone of Ariosto’s poetics. It includes a perceptive close reading of the conclusion of canto 23, the moment of Orlando’s madness. The concluding chapter in the volume, by Stefano Jossa, firstly revisits C. S. Lewis’s and Samuel Beckett’s appreciation (and appropriation) of Ariosto, and then scans a significant number of contemporary works which include varying degrees of Ariostean material, from David Lodge’s Small World to the Angelica-themed novels authored by Russell Hoban.

The volume strikes a good balance between overviews of specific sub-fields, and articles furthering scholarship with new and original research. Overall, this is a highly readable and very valuable contribution to the field of Ariostean studies.


Selene Scarsi

Kingston University London


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Cite as:

Selene Scarsi, "Jane Everson, Andrew Hiscock and Stefano Jossa, eds., Ariosto: The 'Orlando Furioso' and English Culture," Spenser Review 50.2.9 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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