Vika Zafrin

title.none: Cavallo, Romance Epics (Vika Zafrin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0603.005 06.03.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Vika Zafrin, Brown University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Cavallo, Jo Ann. The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: From Public Duty to Private Pleasure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 294. $70.00 0-8020-8915-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.03.05

Cavallo, Jo Ann. The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: From Public Duty to Private Pleasure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 294. $70.00 0-8020-8915-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Vika Zafrin
Brown University

In the late 15th-early 16th century, city-states flourished. Along with them flourished the court cultures of famous families and diplomatic relations among those courts. Western cultures seem to thrive on the pleasure of the good old times, and so Renaissance Italian poets looked to their classical predecessors, and to the epic and romance genres, for inspiration.

The Carolingian legendary cycle had been circling the Italian peninsula for centuries by then. Three major poets and some of their peers, all working within the same hundred-year span, wrote new stories based on old themes, taking cues not only from the past but from each other as well. In The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: From Public Duty to Private Pleasure, Jo Ann Cavallo explores the interplay of themes among works written by the three poets (and more besides). Cavallo's study addresses the poet's socio-political and didactic role in the Italian society of the period, and takes some surprising and thought-provoking statements in addressing previous scholarship on the topic.

The book is both a delight to the scholarly reader and a fascinating read to the interested general public. Cavallo's language is accessible and engaging. The extensive endnotes take up thirty pages and provide deeper contextual asides but do not get in the way of the tightly constructed close readings of which the book largely consists. Bibliographical references are assembled into two groups (pre- and post- 1800), and the index is systematic and thorough. Despite the presence of this full scholarly apparatus, little prior knowledge of the primary sources is necessary in order to enjoy Cavallo's reading of them. Hers is a work that, like its subjects, appeals on several levels.

Aside from the usual general introduction and conclusion, the argument is broken up into three parts, each of which in turn begins with a running summary of the arguments in the chapters that follow. This helps guide the reader throughout, transparently weaving the argument and taking care not to lose the audience in the details. Each of the texts under discussion becomes richer enveloped in Cavallo's analysis. She lifts the veil of (admittedly excellent) entertainment and probes at the moral lessons. The author points to where these have been executed masterfully: intended for the patrons to whom the books were addressed, the lessons are still accessible to the general audience capable of picking up sharp but subtle criticisms of ruling families.

From the table of contents, the definitions of "public duty" and "private pleasure" are not readily apparent, but the text itself quickly makes it obvious that the former is politics and the latter is love. These are, of course, further unpacked: politics includes loyalty (or not) to one's lord, while love can be marital or sexual (not the same thing). Both involve decision-making based on a moral code that one does not inherently possess but acquires through learning and practice.

Part I, "An Ethics of Action", revolves around Matteo Maria Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, an epic romance he wrote between 1482 and 1495 and which was left unfinished at the time of his death. Boiardo's patrons, the Este family, had lessons to learn from his poem: he implicitly criticised their practice of robbing travellers passing through their lands, contrasting such behavior with honorable deeds by pagans and Christians alike. Boiardo's narrative patterns revolved, circulated until his characters learned their lessons: they were his pupils, Cavallo maintains.

In her discussion of the Innamorato, stanza by stanza Cavallo correlates historical facts to Boiardo's fiction; but a reader not intimately familiar with classical mythology and Renaissance history is compelled to make a map of real-life political alliances or else be hopelessly lost. At times it is difficult to distinguish the borders between historically based and entirely fictional narrative, and between those and Cavallo's commentary.

Part II, "Creative Imitation", makes a short detour to Cieco da Ferrara's 1509 Il Mambriano, highlighting its heavily intertextual nature. For the rest of this section Cavallo analyzes the works of Ludovico Ariosto--the two published versions of his Orlando Furioso as well as the Cinque Canti, all of which built upon the Innamorato. Cavallo reaffirms recent developments in relevant criticism that dispel the impression of Ariosto as "apolitical and escapist" (99) by tracing the themes of "didactic allegory and civic engagement" (72) through the record of Ariosto's developing stance throughout the three works.

Although Ariosto imitates Boiardo with a trilogy of stories, and borrows much from classical mythology as well, in the 1516 edition he repurposes everything--up to changing key plot elements--to make his points. "In Boiardo's poem," Cavallo writes, "private actions carry immense public consequences. Like pebbles dropped into a pool of still water, simple acts of either good or evil reverberate across the expanse of the poem. [...] Ariosto also illustrates the chain between actions and their consequences. In the world of the Furioso, however, a good action can also trigger an evil response, as Ariosto's motto, 'pro bono malum,' warns." Thematic reversals are not gratuitous, however; both Boiardo and Ariosto agree that disorder in one's actions leads to undoing or even carnage. (114)

The text proceeds to trace Ariosto's evolving thoughts on matters of good and evil. He starts off cynical: living in a time of turbulent change and increasingly centralized power, he "not only casts doubt on the Innamorato's essentially humanist belief in the ability of literature and history to promote justice in the civic arena, but also questions the power of good actions to make a difference for the better... [In Ariosto] justice no longer entails combatting evil, but simply proving to our neighbour (or spouse) that he is more degenerate than we are." (120-1) By the poem's 1532 edition, however, Ariosto gets much closer to Boiardo ideologically, down to "embrac[ing] the humanist vision of literature and its relation to society found in Boiardo's poem." (134) Regarding the relationship between the two, Cavallo goes on to "suggest that here the conditional independence of the 1516 edition gives way to a sense of shared commitment in the 1532 additions." (152)

Ariosto's works seem to function in this analysis as thought experiments, reflecting at times conflicting opinions regarding collective vs. sole resopnsibility for evil deeds, which ties directly into the discourse of where a knight's (person's) responsibility to his lord (society) ends and allowance for getting lost in "private pleasure" begins.

Surprising at first is the fact that Part III ("The Triumph of Romance") concerns itself for the most part with the Tasso family, adding in Giangiorgio Trissino for variety. Trissino is portrayed as a rebel: his L'Italia liberata dai Goti states unequivocally that public duty has nothing to do with taking orders from authority figures. (168) Cavallo also, however, presents Trissino's pessimistic side: "for better or for worse, it seems clear that the demands of the state will inexorably prevail over the aspirations of the individual." (169)

Fear not, romance triumphs anyway as Bernardo Tasso and his son Torquato rush to love's aid. The former's love poem L'Amadigi celebrates sexual love as natural. In this frankness Bernardo is rare among his contemporaries. Cavallo's argument here, however, contradicts itself. On one hand, "Bernardo... describes the conclusion of [an] amorous encounter without any moralizing comments"; but the citation supporting this statement seems to contain no less than a theological approval of the lovers' actions: "'After two thousand kisses, they rose from bed happy and blessed'" (176, emphasis mine). The very next quote Cavallo cites from L'Amadigi supports the impression of approval: "'Go, gracious souls, go ahead where Love calls you, since it is very worthy that you feed your desires.'" (177) The point of separation between morality and worthiness is unclear here.

Nevertheless, Bernardo seems to thoroughly approve of all love's aspects, including equally favorable treatment both genders, and Torquato Tasso re-emphasizes this approval in his work. Torquato was a feminist: in the hero-seductress relationship that is mapped onto public duty and private pleasure throughout the book, his Il Rinaldo portrays the seductress as a virtuous woman.

Perhaps the most surprising statement Cavallo makes in her book is the assertion that Torquato was less political than is commonly thought. The assertion is surprising but not unfounded: citations from his personal letters as well as his public writing support this. He is also shown to be more individualist than his predecessors, "replacing [their] civic-minded ethic with a covert program of how the individual can seek happiness in an increasingly repressive society." (157) His overt moral rebelliousness, which got him into such trouble with the authorities, only went so far: "It is...likely...that Tasso was downplaying erotic desire and pleasure in the context of a Christian marriage according to the prescriptions of his own time." (185) Cavallo's treatment of Torquato Tasso gives the reader an impression of a public figure of strong personal convictions who, at a certain point, just wants to be left alone.

As always in such cases, ambiguities abound. Love is politics; writing is political. "[L] envisioned as a corrective to the brutality of slaughter." (218) Despite Tasso's "stated indifference to political questions", the fact that he effectively ignores conflicts between East and West, Islam and Christianity, and "distances himself from the machinations of the rulers on both sides" (219), is a political stance itself.

The works discussed by Cavallo range from Machiavellian-didactic to defiantly poetic. In this book she treats the issues of duty, pleasure and the allegory through which they are examined (or not) with sensitivity to the subtleties of the human condition as a social animal. The Romance Epics comes highly recommended.