Ludovico Ariosto and the people of Garfagnana

Valle del Serchio. Più vicino a te

Ludovico Ariosto was born in 1474 in Reggio Emilia to Count Niccolò Ariosto and Daria Malaguzzi Valeri. On the death of his father, he had to take care of the family, accepting the post of Captain of the Fortress of Canossa in 1501. A position with the Papal Curia having come to nothing, he moved to Florence where he fell in love with Alessandra Benucci who, in 1515, moved to Ferrara, to which Ariosto had returned, and began a secret relationship with the writer that led to their wedding in 1522. 

When Ippolito d’Este became Bishop of Agria, Ariosto passed into the service of Duke Alfonso. In addition to a difficult relationship with his liege, the decision was influenced by the desire to remain in his own city and his love for Alessandra, reasons that also dictated a sojourn in Garfagnana. However, the many wars fought by Ferrara had led to a financial crisis that forced Duke Alfonso d’Este to impose cuts to the earnings of courtiers, including Ariosto. The poet was forced to accept the post of Commissioner of Garfagnana, a land of impenetrable thickets, populated by “uncultured folk, like the place they were born and raised” and rife with thieves and assassins who would not tolerate political subjugation.

It was a difficult land to govern, offering little opportunities to shine and many risks, and in sore need of a strong leader. The difficulty in controlling the territory, the commitment in battles to protect the common folk, the distance from Ferrara and his companion all made the relationship with Garfagnana more than a little difficult.

In 1522, Ariosto left for the Fortress of Castelnuovo, where he immediately had to tackle the problem of public order, which was threatened by the many bandits who enjoyed the protection of local potentates. To defend the people from criminality, he launched a policy of alliances with neighbouring states in order to prevent criminals avoiding capture by passing from one territory to another. These alliances did not solve the problem but Ariosto demonstrated a great ability in establishing understanding between states that had long been sworn enemies.

The honest folk were the ones who paid the price for this situation, “the common folk”. Arisoto stood as guarantor of the rights of these subjects, demonstrating solidarity with those who stood on the side of right. Defending the rights of the country people, however, also meant going against neighbouring states, such as when Ariosto appealed to the Council of Elders of Lucca concerning a group of subjects who, on going into the woods in search of chestnuts, had been seized by the forces of order. 

In any event, the Estense ducal province was never administered so conscientiously, legal questions were tackled decisively and subjects realised that the state organisation was a presence in the land and that the armed strongholds backed by the local potentates, who until then had governed undisturbed, had something to fear.