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Louvre Launches Journey into the Imaginative World of the Illustrious Italian Poet Ariosto
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (Montauban, 1780 - Paris, 1867), Roger délivrant Angélique , 1819, musée du Louvre, département des Peintures © RMN / Gérard Blot.

PARIS.- In February 2009, with a view to exploring fertile confrontations between art forms, the Louvre launches an unprecedented journey into the imaginative world of the illustrious Italian poet Ariosto. Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), a writer in service of the dukes of Este, published the first edition of Orlando furioso in Ferrara in 1516. This massive glorification of chivalry in all of its elements (nearly 40,000 verses) amply conveys the exuberance, grace and intellectual curiosity of the Italian Renaissance. With its magicians and enchanted forests, its fabulous battles, its extravagant knights and its troubling heroines, this work is a mother lode of images. Ariosto draws inspiration from traditions of courtly love and medieval romance, which he combines with other themes derived from Antiquity as well as literary and visual influences stemming from the culture of his time. Orlando furioso was an immediate success upon its publication, prompting an outpouring of interpretations in the figurative arts as well as in theater and opera. This exhibition invites visitors on a voyage of discovery through the imagined universe of Ariosto’s Orlando, encompassing both its
sources and its echoes, from the Renaissance to some of its later developments in France of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ariosto drew his inspiration from the visual and literary culture of his time, reinterpreting its themes, images and codes. The universe he reveals in Orlando furioso, published for the first time in Ferrara in 1516, therefore opens up an imaginative space, impregnated with the elements of chivalry and courtly love, which would be taken up in the works of many artists of the Italian Renaissance, from Pisanello to Nicoló dell’Abate. But while appropriating a heritage of legends and images, Ariosto reshaped its landscape with his poetic verve and his own ideals. For example, the episodes of Saint George slaying the dragon or of Perseus delivering Andromeda are significantly reinterpreted by the poet, and remain among the most celebrated adventures in this epic work. Ariosto’s freedom of invention, his exploration of the ambiguity of the human condition, and the beauty and expressiveness of his language were to nourish the creativity of visual artists, notably in nineteenth-century France. Through the romances, battles and travels of the knights of Orlando furioso, this exhibition offers a reflection on the mutual interplay of influences between images and text in artistic and literary creation. The concept of the exhibition, essentially composed of works from the Louvre’s collections, is also conveyed through a number of exceptional items loaned by the Musée National Gustave Moreau and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The main Italian editions of Orlando furioso appearing in the 16th century, including the editio princeps of 1516, will be on view, together with a rare surviving copy of a French edition of the poem illustrated with original drawings by Gustave Doré.

The itinerary of the exhibition, spanning two rooms, reflects the articulation of its title—Ariosto’s Imaginative World, Ariosto Imagined. The selection of works presented in these two rooms, one devoted to the Renaissance, the other to nineteenth-century France, is not limited to purely illustrative works. The first is organized into three sections, evoking in turn the central couple of the poem, knights errant and their ladies, then the themes of Ariosto’s very own alta fantasia, and finally his treatment of female characters. The second room brings together, on the theme of Ruggiero and Angelica, works by Delacroix, Ingres, Barye, Moreau and Doré. Some of Fragonard’s drawings inspired by his reading of Ariosto provide a transition between the two rooms, as they are at once faithful illustrations of the poem and remarkable exploits of creative improvisation.

Knights errant

The universe of chivalry and courtly love originating in the Middle Ages, certainly no longer holding sway in the time of Ariosto, was already waning for an artist like Antonio Pisanello (1394?–c. 1450), active in Ferrara and Mantua, and whose works could not possibly have been unknown to the poet. The confrontation between the images wrought by the first and the descriptions penned by the second underscores the complexity of Ariosto’s relationship with this heritage, which blends yearning for the past with irony, the cataloguing of ancient traditions with the irreverence of playful caricature. The central figure of the knight, with his values and attributes, is key to this confrontation.

Ariosto’s alta fantasia
The dense pattern of allusions that will characterize the entirety of Orlando furioso is already apparent from the very first canto, as is the subtlety of the poet’s narrative pathways. Ariosto’s narrative choice—unity in diversity, with the narrator himself in complete control of the pace and direction of narrative development—offers an astonishing comparison with the penchant for the grotesque, which characterized the visual arts during his time. In the last years of the 15th century, humanists eager to explore Rome’s archaeological record uncovered frescoes beneath the city, in which figurative motifs are enmeshed with ornamentation giving free rein to graceful symmetry. Associated with the Renaissance predilection for interwoven themes, metamorphosis and monsters, we gain insight into the overriding tension in Ariosto’s work between the riotous effusions of an apparently chaotic imagination and the classical mastery of the structure and components of his narrative.

Treatment of women.-
From the very opening words of the poem, female heroines also figure prominently in Orlando furioso. Their diversity reflects the wide scope of Ariosto’s sources of inspiration. Whether sacrificial victims like Andromeda or warriors against which any Amazon would pale in comparison, Ariosto’s heroines emerge from a polymorphous imagination, largely influenced by Antiquity as well as the codes of chivalry and courtly love. The poet also draws inspiration from the illustrious women of the Este court, giving rise to a multiplicity of representations of women and feminine models, which resonate with those portrayed by many of the artists of the period, such as Nicolò dell’Abate.

Romantic artists drew inspiration from the major poetic works of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance—Dante, Tasso, Shakespeare. Ariosto had many followers in France, and his fame endured throughout the entire Romantic period. Salons regularly exhibited painted works, drawings or sculptures taking themes from Orlando furioso as their subjects. The works of artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, Barye and Moreau depicted episodes from this epic poem, which was published in numerous editions. In 1879, Hachette published a French translation of Orlando furioso illustrated by Gustave Doré. A rare surviving copy of this edition, encased in a sumptuous neo-Renaissance binding, will be presented alongside a precious collection of 36 original pen-and-ink drawings used to prepare this publication. The episode of Ruggiero and Angelica was particularly favored by these artists: rendered as a heroic battle by Delacroix, interpreted as a symbol of complete and utter abandonment to desire by Moreau, for Ingres it becomes the pretext for an erotic staging of a female nude as sacrificial victim. This imaginative world is the wellspring of dreams and new interpretations in which eroticism, heroism and allegory intermingle.

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