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Taking the Measure of La Lena: Prostitution, the Community of Debt, and the Idea of the Theater in Ariosto’s Last Play

  • Author(s): Martinez, Ronald Lorenson
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC' version 4.0 license

Abstract: La Lena is Ariosto’s most challenging play, rendering a powerful dystopic vision of Ferrara through an intricately organized poetic text. In Ariosto’s 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 summarizes – along with versified versions of his earlier Cassaria and Suppositi – Ariosto’s experiences as a man of the theatre, and establish him as a modern classic.  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 constitutes the Ferrarese community of citizens.  Plot segments are built around commodities, such as Flavio’s cloak offered for pawn in Acts I-II and the wine-butt (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.   Measurement of the house by Torbido at the center of the play (Act III.8, IV.7) establishes that in Ferrara all things, including human relations, have their exact 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, for example, “il libro de l’ uscita”).  The scene of measurement also stimulates the play’s dénouement, as it necessitates  Flavio’s concealed transportation into Fulvio’s house, where he will encounter Licinia; and it provides a significant metaphor, underlying the whole play, for the prostituted body of Lena herself  (she refers to her “doors” before and behind in the final scene of the expanded 1529/32 version).  The relentelessly economic Ferrarese universe is also part of Ariosto’s self-conscious mirroring in La Lena of his ideas of stagecraft more generally.  For framing the debt-driven money economy of Ferrara in La Lena are Ariosto’s decades of reflection on both the theatrical and urban space of his city: at the theoretical level of Pellegrino Prisciani’s rendition of Alberti’s archological treatise in the Spectacula, in the practical elaboration of stage-sets (“la città ferrarese”), and evoking, through several episodes in the play (III.2, IV.9), the city’s history of rationalized  urban planning, reaching back to the construction at the turn of the century of the Addizione erculea at the behest of Ercole I d’Este.

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