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THE NEW LEARNING
The Causes of the Awakening
ENAISSANCE means rebirth. The epoch of Euro
pean history that is known as the Renaissance was the
period of the revival of learning, with the consequent impetus to literature and art, that occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For six hundred years after the death of St. Augustine, Europe was enveloped in a mist of intellectual darkness, the ancient classic learning being preserved in only a few monasteries. The dawn came slowly, with the magnificent conception of the wonders of life to be found in Dante; with the joy of living so evident in Chaucer. With the Renaissance, the sun burst forth in fresh glory and revealed itself in the development of ideas and in new-found beauty of expression. The causes of the awakening can be only summarised here. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 was followed by the exodus of Greek scholars to Italy, carrying with them the knowledge of Greek literature that the west of Europe had almost entirely lost. A century earlier the Italians had learned from the Moors to make paper, and, most important of all, the first printing press was set up at Mentz in Germany, ten years before the fall of Constantinople. In 1492 Columbus discovered America, and men began to have an entirely new idea of the world. Social, political, and religious ideas were revolutionised, and the spirit of inquiry and intellectual activity heralded the Reformation. There is no more happy coincidence in the history of the world than that the new learning and the printing press, the new way of propagating learning, came to Europe almost at the same moment.
Because of its nearness to Greece and because of its inheritance of the Roman tradition, the Renaissance began in Italy, and it was there that “man began to turn from the mediæval preoccupation with death, to raise his eyes from long dwelling on the grave, and to rejoice in the dear life of earth and the glory of this beautiful world.” To quote Symonds, “Florence borrowed her light from Athens, as the moon shines with rays reflected from the sun.” The Italian scholars turned their attention to rescuing the classical manuscripts from a mouldering death. Translations were made from the ancient authors of Greece and Rome, whose work had been buried in the monasteries.
The Italian Renaissance was the period of the magnificent Medicis, patrons of poets and artists, and the gorgeously reckless Borgias; of the Orsinis, the Colonnas, and the D'Estes, whose very names suggest ornate raiment, a fine and unmoral culture, and dark and mysterious intrigue; of Michael Angelo and Raphael and Da Vinci; of Ariosto and Machiavelli.
ARIOSTO AND MACHIAVELLI
The Influence of Italian Renaissance Literature
In a brief consideration of Italian Renaissance literature, it is to Machiavelli and Ariosto that we turn in particular, though there were a legion of other writers busy in Italy during this period, whose work has genuine interest and importance. Italian Renaissance literature influenced great English writers like Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Milton. It was, for example, from the stories written by Matteo Bandello that Shakespeare took the plots of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night.
Ariosto’s famous poem “Orlando Furioso” was described by John Addington Symonds as “the purest and most perfect extant example of Renaissance poetry.” It is characteristic of its age in so much as its interest is human and that it has no concern with the deity or with life beyond the grave. The mediæval world was interested in the other world. The Renaissance was interested in this world.
Lodovico Ariosto was born in 1474. When he was nineteen he entered the service of the Cardinal d'Este. He started writing the "Orlando Furioso” in 1505, and finished it ten years later. The poem gave him a great reputation in Italy, and Pope Leo X became one of the poet's patrons. After he had finished his poem, he wrote comedies in the manner of the Latin, Plautus and Terence. Towards the end of his life Ariosto was appointed governor of a province situated on the wildest heights of the Apennines. Like most poets, Ariosto was always impecunious, and the salary attached to the governorship was his reason for accepting what must have been an uncongenial office. His province was overrun with bandits, and on one occasion the poetgovernor himself fell into their hands. When their leader found that his captive was the author of Orlando Furioso, with a fine appreciation for literature he at once apologised for the indignity that had been put on him and set him free.
The “Orlando Furioso” is a romantic poem, describing fierce contests between Christian and Pagan knights, thrilling adventures and chivalrous loves. Its theme is of the same order as the theme of the stories of King Arthur. The poem is written in a series of cantos, each canto having a prelude which acts as a link between the episodes and gives the poet opportunity for moral and patriotic reflection. “Orlando Furioso” was first trans
lated into English by Sir John Harrington, an Elizabethan poet. Perhaps its finest passages are those in which Ariosto describes Orlando's despair and subsequent madness when he finds that Angelica, whom he loves, has been faithless to him and has married Medoro.
I am not I, the man that erst I was,
In another place Ariosto describes the death of a gallant young king with appealing charm.
See how a purple flower doth fade and die
At the beginning of the poem Ariosto declares:
Of ladies and of knights, of arms and love,
And the spirit of the poem is expressed in the lines:
But he that loves indeed remaineth fast,
Although Ariosto lived in comparative poverty, his genius was acclaimed by his fellow-countrymen, to whom he was “the divine Ariosto,” and it is said that his great contemporary Galileo