Daniel Javitch. Proclaiming a Classic: The Canonization of Orlando Furioso. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. x, 205 p.

Daniel Javitch's study of Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso is less a work of criticism (loving or otherwise) than a dispassionately historical study of how Ariosto's poem attained the status of a canonical work of literature. Two major concerns dominate this book. First of all, Javitch wants to speak about the ways in which Ariosto's poem was initially received and how its initial reception influenced the ways in which it quickly attained canonical stature. Second, and despite occasional protests to the contrary, he also wants to ask broader questions about what "canonical status" means generally, hoping that the instance of Ariosto will help him to argue that the "attributes of texts that become canonical . . . are not inborn but are conferred upon them" (p. 9). Orlando Furioso is a particularly interesting case study. Its canonicity and its popularity are complexly intertwined, although these matters do not always co-exist easily. Javitch reminds us that the Furioso was not only "a best-seller from the 1540s to the 1580s" (p. 19) but also that even its second version was "reissued at least fifteen times" (after 1521; the first version had appeared in 1516). Moreover, its third and final version (1532) was reprinted sixteen times before 1540 and enjoyed press runs considerably larger--sometimes three times larger--than the thousand or so copies that a work of nondevotional literature might ordinarily attain (p. 10).

Javitch's brief "Introduction" lays out the issues. He begins by posing the question of whether canonical status for literary works rests on factors essential to, or inherent in, the canonized works themselves or is instead created and asserted by cultures for specific reasons. He states at the outset that he concurs with the second point of view. But he wants to historicize, specify, and corroborate that point of view with a real example. In this book, therefore, he will proceed "by investigating how a particular poem [the Furioso] first entered the European poetic canon" (p. 3). "Reception" and "perception" are equally at issue here (p. 4).

Javitch then cites several factors at work in the process of canonization, at least during the early modern period from which his example comes. Most important of the "strategies of legitimization" he discusses is the affiliation of a work--here the Furioso--"to the 'great' poems of antiquity" (p. 5). Other strategies include: moral allegorization, which insured a work's congruence with the prevailing standards of a Christian culture; domestication, or "the ways in which a poem's objectionable or problematic aspects are suppressed or ignored so that it can be shown to conform not only to conventional ethical and religious values, but to artistic ones as well," thus "stabilizing" the work by "reducing the complexity and ambivalence of its meanings"; adoption in educational curricula, a criterion that both students and teachers will immediately understand; and a work's assumption of an institutional physiognomy as a book, that is, the importance to its reception of the physical form(s) in which its publishers presented it to its public(s) (pp. 5-6).

To these matters of process, Javitch adds two "signs" of the acquisition of canonical status. First, "the text becomes a model," not only ethically but also linguistically, rhetorically, and prosodically, and "its form and themes become the object of repeated imitations." Second, a "poem's cultural function as a site onto which readers could project quite opposing values and ideologies . . . offers perhaps the most noticeable sign" of a work's canonicity (p. 7). What makes the Furioso so useful an exemplar of these processes and signs is that it was "the first modern work of European poetry whose canonical eligibility became an issue of extensive debate" (pp. 8-9). As a result, discussions of the poem provide contemporary evidence of how literary and popular cultures at once resisted and accepted Ariosto's poem.

The intertwined issues of popularity, bestsellerdom, and canonicity come together first in Javitch's first chapter. "The Success of Orlando Furioso in the Sixteenth Century" is a title that does not indicate how much attention this chapter pays to publishing and packaging issues, but these are Javitch's concerns here. He begins by noticing "how frequently the work was reprinted" and his numbers are high: for instance, thirty-four editions between 1550 and 1560, thirty editions in the next decade. Petrarch's Canzoniere, an already canonical work of vernacular literature, appeared in thirty-three editions during the 1550s, essentially no different from Ariosto's thirty-four editions. But in the 1560s Petrarch appeared in only thirteen editions, Ariosto in thirty. Javitch counts "at least 113" editions of the Furioso between 1540 and 1580 (p. 10). He also shows us the various ways in which the book was packaged:

The rest of the first chapter is devoted to an examination of how the poem satisfied a perceived need for a modern vernacular equivalent to ancient canonical epics at a time when that need was particularly intense. The idea of a "contemporary classic" was still new: Petrarch, Boccaccio, and (to a much lesser extent) Dante were newly canonical authors in the early sixteenth century but, while they provided models for Italian lyric and prose, they provided none for narrative poetry (epic). By the 1540s, the Furioso began to be seen as filling that gap. Simultaneously, however, this was the period when Italian poetics was absorbing Aristotle's Poetics as well as Horace's Ars poetica. Since Ariosto's poem did not actually meet Aristotle's criteria for narrative poetry, its popularity and the felt need for a canonical Italian epic ran up against a growing neoclassicism to place the Furioso squarely at the center of contemporary critical polemics.

In his second chapter, Javitch considers how several contemporary critics set out to "justify" romance, using Ariosto as their main example--in one instance, indeed, citing it as "the exemplary poem of modern times" (p. 26). Some critics took a modern approach, differentiating Ariosto from his classical forebears; but the more common route was to assimilate his work to classical models, especially to Virgil and to Homer. The publishers participated in the process of legitimization through the vast number of editions they printed: these effectively "presented the poem as the new classic of the age" (p. 29). Gabriel Giolito initiated this process and "was largely responsible for its success" (p. 31); Valvassori and Valgrisi followed his example. Emphasizing the work's moral utility and providing allegories throughout, indicating relationships to recognized classical epics, adding a "Life" of Ariosto: all this, as well as embedding the work in commentary and providing illustrations for it, connected the physical appearance and the experience of reading the Furioso to the appearance and experience of classically canonical texts. Neo-Aristotelians, however, could not agree that the poem was genuinely affiliated to classical epic. Their arguments to counter the canonical status it had begun to assume was itself evidence of the extent to which the poem had arrived at such a status.

Javitch's third chapter considers commentaries on how Ariosto imitates classical models, providing considerably more detail about the point with which the previous chapter concluded. It discusses three major commentaries, Fausto de Longiano's, Lodovico Dolce's (both from 1542; Dolce's, plagiarized by Ruscelli in 1556 and amplified in 1566, was the most frequently reprinted sixteenth-century commentary), and Alberto Lavezuola's (1584). The fourth chapter looks at how, facing neo-Aristotelian objections to the epic affinities of the Furioso, its affiliation with Ovid's Metamorphoses offered an alternative able to maintain a classical and canonical precedent in relation to which the Furioso's own status could continue to be positively viewed. That Dolce, whose commentary on Ariosto was so often reprinted, was also one of the two major sixteenth-century Italian translators of Ovid (1533), was important in this respect; so was the fact that both Dolce's translation and the later (1561) translation by Giovanni dell'Anguillara turned Ovid's Latin hexameters into Ariostian ottava rima. Publishers cooperated by printing these translations of Ovid after the style already developed for Ariosto. (They also tried--but here misjudged their markets and failed--to produce ottava rima translations of Virgil, Homer, Statius, and other classics. Ovid could be assimilated to such a style [a critical fact important for the way in which readers could therefore think about Ariosto, Ovid, and the norms of canonical narrative forms]. These other, more normatively "epic poets," could not, and such editions did not do at all as well as the Ovidian translations based on Ariosto's verse form.) The reciprocal relationship between Ariosto and Ovidian translations signifies how major was the place Ariosto had won in the literary system of the later sixteenth century (p. 80).

Javitch goes on to look at how critics responded to the odd structure of Ariosto, particularly to the narrative discontinuities that are so striking a feature of the Furioso. Multiple plots and interlacing of narrative lines, with abrupt switches between plot lines that are managed, apparently heavy-handedly, by an intrusive authorial persona--"I shall now leave X and turn to Y"; introductory remarks at the beginning of each canto--caused critics many problems. This was not the way that most canonical classics seemed to work, and appeals to variety and pleasure as justificatory principles were not always effective. In a critical atmosphere increasingly dominated by Aristotle's Poetics, the difficulty of defending Ariosto also increased. Yet "the neo-Aristotelians were unable to marginalize Orlando Furioso" (p. 104).

Javitch's chapters six and seven show how various critical defenders of the Furioso brought both "ancient" and "modern" literary points of view to bear on Ariosto's poem. Ancients defended its adherence to established literary precedent. Moderns celebrated its expansion beyond established precedents to account for new literary needs. His discussion demonstrates how the poem thus "increasingly function[ed] . . . as a model or a 'site' upon which various and often conflicting poetic ideologies could be projected" (p. 133). Javitch's eighth chapter brings Ariosto to England. There Sir John Harington's translation (1591) gave the Italian poem to English readers with a commentary that recapitulated many of the critical battles that had been fought in Italy. He ultimately presented Orlando furioso as a sober, moralized, somewhat domesticated or "tamed" work. His efforts (as well as the physical form in which the book was presented to its English readers, although Javitch does not emphasize this point) made clear, even in England, that this was a modern classic.

In his conclusion, Javitch shows how, by the end of the sixteenth century, Ariosto's poem was so thoroughly entrenched in the position of a classic that even committed neo-Aristotelians and Tassisti had to admit the unlikelihood of removing it from its canonical state. The Furioso managed to satisfy a sort of "linguistic nationalism." (Javitch is careful about actually using such language--there was, of course, no "Italy" at this time to serve as the focus for any sort of nationalism--but this, I take it, is what he really means.) It satisfied also that sense of emulation that "moderns" felt for the "ancients," the literary giants of the past. In this way, Javitch explains what critical and literary needs the creation of a vernacular epic of canonical stature satisfied and recalls just how successfully Ariosto's poem seemed to meet those needs.

In his use of the physical evidence of publication and appearance as well as of the remains of contemporary critical debate, Javitch catches nicely the need to balance several different kinds of evidence about so complex a topic. In looking at the way in which popularity moved, in this case with amazing speed, to canonicity, Javitch may not have demonstrated quite so conclusively as he had hoped that canonical status is constructed, that is, imposed on a work from without. I agree with that thesis in general, but here Javitch's own evidence also suggests that there was something about Ariosto's poem that, from the start, attracted readers to it. Critics and publishers obviously did not hurt or hinder its success, as both have done on many occasions with other books. It is at least worth asking whether they promoted its success quite so significantly as Javitch's thesis requires. Ariosto may have been, in some sense, his own best advocate.

That small criticism to the contrary notwithstanding, Javitch has written what is surely among the most important, because most specific, studies of the constituents of canonicity I know. With the additional advantages of being an extremely well-written, clear, and concise book, it raises important issues about an important book. Javitch illuminates both.

5 February 1997