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Ronald Martinez

Taking the Measure of La Lena: The Economy of Debt and the Idea of Theater in Ariosto’s Last Play

Monday, September 30, 2013, 6:00pm

Walnut Room, Indiana Memorial Union

The Department of French & Italian presents
a lecture by

Ronald Martinez
Brown University

Taking the Measure of La Lena:
The Economy of Debt and the Idea of Theater in Ariosto’s Last Play

6:00 pm, Monday, September 30, 2013
Walnut Room, Indiana Memorial Union
Lecture will be in English, followed by refreshments.

Abstract:  Ariosto’s La Lena, rendering of a powerfully dystopic vision of Ferrara through an intricately organized poetic text, is Ariosto’s most ambitious and ethically complex play. In a bid to outstrip rivals Bibbiena, Machiavelli and Aretino (the former two dead by 1528, the year of the staging of the first version of La Lena), the play was intended to summarize – along with versified versions of the early comedies La Cassaria and I Suppositi – Ariosto’s experiences as a man of the theatre, and establish his work as the norm for Cinquecento comedy.  As Paul Larivaille has shown, the organizing principle of the play is a network of interrelated debts that in their embrace of various social ranks, ducal officials, and groups such as the Jewish moneylenders of the Riva in effect constitutes the Ferrarese community.  Plot segments are built around commodities, such as Flavio’s cloak offered for pawn in Acts I-II and the wine-cask lent to Pacifico in Act IV; the most important such object is Fazio’s house, on loan to Lena, referred to in Acts II-IV, but implicitly involved in Acts I and V as well.  Fazio’s order at the center of the play (III.8, IV.7) that the house be measured and priced for sale by Torbido — a ruse to spite and alarm Lena — establishes that in Ferrara all things, including human relations, have their exact monetary valuation. The Torbido scenes are the axis of the play’s linguistic emphasis on inventories, pricing, exploited labor, and financial record-keeping (explicit in references to account books, such as “il libro de l’uscita”).  The scene of measurement also stimulates the play’s dénouement, as it necessitates Flavio’s transportation, concealed in the wine-cask, into Fulvio’s house, where he encounters Licinia.  Most important, the scene brings to the fore the house as the significant metaphor, underlying the whole play, for the prostituted body of Lena herself  (she refers to her “doors,” one in front and one behind, in the final scene of the expanded 1529/32 version).

The relentlessly fiscal Ferrarese universe is also part of Ariosto’s self-conscious mirroring in La Lena of his ideas of stagecraft more generally. For it can be shown that the debt-driven money economy of Ferrara in La Lena is framed by Ariosto’s longstanding reflections on the theatrical and urban space of his city, reflections likely informed at the theoretical level by Pellegrino Prisciani’s rendition of Alberti’s architectural treatise in the Spectacula, and at the practical level by the experience of devising stage-sets (“la città ferrarese”).  Most suggestively, several episodes in the play (III.2, IV.9) allude to the city’s history of rationalized urban planning, reaching back at least to the construction at the turn of the century of the Addizione erculea at the behest of Ercole I d’Este.  When Guido Davico Bonino writes of the plot of La Lena that “si potrebbe matematizzare questa gara nell’inganno,” he also points, I think, to the far-reaching importance of numeracy, measure, and book-keeping in Ariosto’s final conception of Ferrara and its theatre.

Ronald Martinez is Professor of Italian Studies at Brown University.

Sponsored by the Mary-Margaret Barr Koon Fund of the Department of French & Italian and the Renaissance Studies Program.