CRITICS

Title: A Book of Doubles: Ariosto and Bolognesi
Author: Alberto Manguel
Year: 2014

On 15 September 1815, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem about the leaf of the gingko biloba tree in his garden at Weimar. The poem reads:

La foglia di quest’albero,

  affidato dall’Oriente al mio giardino,

sensi segreti fa gustare

al sapiente e lo conforta.

È una cosa viva che

in se stessa si è divisa?

  O sono due, che hanno scelto

  le si conosca in una?

In risposta alla domanda,

il senso giusto l’ho trovato;

non avverti nei miei canti

che sono duplice e sono uno?

Three centuries earlier (give or take a year) Ariosto published his Orlando Furioso in Ferrara, unwittingly answering Goethe’s final question. Because, as Ariosto makes it clear, Orlando Furioso is in every sense a double book. It is the work of Ariosto, but built on the interrupted work by Boiardo. It is double-ended, because it has no definite beginning and lacks a clear conclusion. The motivations of its characters are ambivalent, their actions are both realistic and fantastic, their aims illusory and concrete, their stories contradictory. Each event is depicted in its obverse and its reverse (the siege of Paris, for instance, is a mirrored event, inside and out, besiegers and besieged, and even Paris is double: after the first wall comes another moat and another wall.) Each character is echoed in his opposite: Orlando in Medoro, his Moorish rival, the fickle Angelica in the faithful Isabella, lovesick Renaldo in his equally lovesick competition Ferrous, brave Cloridano and in his friend Medoro, Carlo Magno, the great and good Charles, (though this notion is abominable) in the great and wicked Rodomonte. And Rodomonte himself is a double man, king of Algeria and Sarza, a fierce warrior and a tender lover. His flag is an emblem of his duplicity: it depicts a lion who is Rodomonte himself, and a maiden who is his lady Doralice. Even death comes to the characters in double form: Arnolfo is cut in half by the Sarracen fiend, il maganzese Orghetto has his belly split in two, il provenzal Luigi is split down the middle. The examples are countless.
Ariosto’s characters of flesh and blood must compete with others that are allegories, but this distinction doesn’t separate them entirely into singularities: the historical characters have something of an emblem (Carlo Magno, Ariosto’s patrons of the Casa d’Este), the allegorical Silence and Discord possess features of real men and women.  Satan and the angels are real in their particulars, the throngs of fighting soldiers on both sides are blurred crowds of battling ants in their generalities. Even our earth is reflected in a fantastical world imagined on the moon, and the moon reflects the lost reality of earth.
Every book possesses a double nature because the version put down by its author must compete with the version rebuilt by its reader: as two sides of the page, the text multiplies itself infinitely in a geometric progression of mirrors that makes every book a universal volume whose scattered leaves Dante saw bound in his last vision and Mallarmé believed was the raison d’être of the world. The Orlando Furioso is explicitly two books and many more.
The models of Orlando Furioso are not the straightforward narratives of his past, the linear epics of the chansons de geste and the prose epics of Andrea da Barberino. Rather, he reaches back into prehistory, to the devious and obstacle-ridden narrative of the Odyssey or forward, the yet-to-come novels of Count Potocki and Italo Calvino. Ariosto side-steps his story, shatters it into fragments, assembles them, pulls them apart again, braids them and also follows different strands simultaneously, cuts one off, knots together two others, and in the end presents to the reader a kaleidoscopic tapestry in which nothing appears singly to the forefront, in which no one story is privileged, not even that of the hero who lends his name to the poem. A multiplicity of creatures, locations, times, events, in fact everything in the universe (even the moon), all have their place in the poem.
The readers are led by the nose through the tortuous labyrinths of the story (or stories) by the narrator Ariosto who shares with them the surprise, the horror, the delight that each situation elicits, including the traditional prerogative of the author Ariosto of directing the narrative one way or another. Ariosto the author asks the readers to share with him the decisions, whether to cut a story short in order to pursue another, whether to give a wealth of details that will complicate and deepen the circumstances of the story, or whether to introduce an separate event thereby infinitely delaying the conclusion of the story being told. Duplicity is not only in the elements of the narrative: it is also in the intention. We are told the poem as if it were recited (it is not), as if we were collaborating with the author (we are not), as if the tone were elevated and noble, never ironic (it is ironic, which lends it a peculiar nobility and loftiness.) All this, the twofold Ariosto reads with us, sitting by our side.
Now, to all these double readings, Marco Bolognesi has suggested yet two more: that of the camera and that of the draughtsman. Photography is in itself the art of the double: the eye of the lens and that of the observer. In photography, the first person singular is always plural, and the object captured by the camera is both its tangible form and its inverted appearance. Marco Bolognesi goes further. To the double existence of the object photographed, he adds a third (and fourth, and fifth) identity, so that the objects — the sitters– acquire a plural identity and a new kind of singularity. Like monstrous trinities, they are three (or two, or four) in one. Together with the photographs, Bolognesi’s drawings can be read in two different ways, according to the chronology assumed by the viewer. If we consider that the sketches were drawn before the photographs were taken, they become early drafts of a project that begins in a medium that presupposes no verisimilitude in its portrayals and ends with one that vaunts its strict adherence to a conventional truth: the pencil draws what we dream is there, the camera portrays what is factually there. If we assume that the photographs to have been taken before the sketches were made, then a prefiguration of reality is transformed by the artist’s hand into a dreamscape, a fantasy, an invention. In the first permutation, Bolognesi can say that his monsters, later portrayed in his photographs, are artifices, made-up creatures. In the second he can affirm, as Ariosto did about the hippogriff, “Non è finto il destrier, ma naturale.” In the first, the poetic lie is admitted; in the second it is not. This is what Dante called “non falsi errori.”
Bolognesi’s characters (both the sketches and the photographs) are created by accumulation. Doubling leads to transformation, transformation to division, division to imitation and uncertain reproduction. A face becomes a mask, but still remains a face. Parts of a body turn into other parts and yet remain the same. Objects of the outside world –goggles, hats, pots and pans, bits of machinery– gather and antropomorphize and divde back again in the viewer’s eye into its component parts.
In the Seventh bolgia of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Dante meets the souls of the thieves who, following the law of contrapasso, are transformed into clawed serpents that attack the human shapes into which they become transformed again, in an endless cycle of metamorphoses. Because in life the thieves took what was not theirs, after death they lose everything that they could legitimately claim, including the appearance of their bodies. To Dante,

nè l’un nè l’altro già parea quel ch’era:

come procede innanze dall’ ardore

per lo papiro suso un color bruno,

che non è nero ancora, e il bianco more.”

This cycle of transformations, refined, multiplied and extended by Ariosto to the entirety of his world, is depicted by Bolognesi in single instances, all stages of the endless process but all portrayed at once. We see the characters in the act of becoming, never parendo quel ch’era. To describe this state of constant becoming, the French use the expression “en train de”.

The illusions created by a work of art are more powerful than the tangible creatures we meet every day in the street, and in the mirror, even if these inspire them. Orlando is more real to us than Ariosto, and the oblivious moon of Astolfo more certain than the throng of things and thoughts and images that oblivion collects from us with every passing year.
In Bolognesi’s art, as in Ariosto’s, the poetic truth is more evident to the creatures in the fiction that to us, we who stand conceitedly outside the frame of the portrait or the margins of the page. They know of their unreality; we merely employ labels to boost our lack of faith.
Somewhere in the middle of the poem, Orlando himself declares that knowledge:

“Non son, non sono io quel che paio in viso:

quel ch’era Orlando è morto et è sotterra.”

This is what Rimbaud meant when he said of himself “Je est un autre.” And these are the unspoken words of Bolognesi’s characters, staring at us from the other side.

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Design by Veronesi Namioka