Ariosto: Orlando Furioso

Introduction

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2021, All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations photographed and digitally restored from the Fratelli Treves edition (Milan, 1899) by A. D. Kline.

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Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was trained in law, later joining the household of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, where he shared the patronage of the Cardinal’s elder sister, Isabella d’Este, the ‘First Lady of the Renaissance’, and a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched her portrait. During his time in the Cardinal’s employ, Ariosto wrote the epic poem for which he is famous ‘Orlando Furioso’ (or ‘The Frenzy of Roland’), first published in 1516, a final version being published in 1532. Dismissed by the Cardinal in 1518, Ariosto transferred to the household of the Cardinal’s brother, Alfonso Duke of Ferrara, where he distinguished himself in diplomatic roles.

‘Orlando Furioso’ is Ariosto’s continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s unfinished romance ‘Orlando Innamorato (or ‘Orlando in Love’) which was published posthumously in 1495. Its setting is borrowed from the 11th Century ‘Chanson de Roland’, written in Old French, which tells of the death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux (Roncesvalles). Orlando is here an Italian version of Roland the Christian knight who, in the French epic poem, fights for Charlemagne in a battle between the Christian paladins and the invading Saracens. The historical battle in 778, was actually with the Basques, retaliating after the destruction of Pamplona by Charlemagne’s army. Since Ariosto continued Boiardo’s epic, here follows a brief synopsis of Boiardo’s story:

The beautiful Angelica (daughter to the king of Cathay) and her brother Argalia arrive at Charlemagne’s Court. To win her hand a knight must first defeat Argalia in single-combat.  Orlando and Ranaldo (Rinaldo) are in love with her, but when Argalia is slain by the heathen knight Ferrau, Angelica flees pursued by them. Angelica and Rinaldo drink the waters of enchantment, and Angelica is filled with a burning love for Rinaldo, while Rinaldo is now indifferent to her. Orlando and Rinaldo arrive at Angelica’s castle where the company also includes Agricane, King of Tartary; Sacripante, King of Circassia; Agramante, King of Africa; and Marfisa an Asian warrior-queen.

Meanwhile, France is threatened by heathen invaders led by King Rodomonte of Sarzia, in company with King Gradasso of Sericana whose principal reason for going to war is to win Orlando’s sword Durindana (Durandel in the French epic). Rinaldo leaves the castle and Angelica and Orlando set out for France in search of him.  Rinaldo and Angelica again drink the enchanted waters, reversing their state; she is now in love with him but Rinaldo is indifferent to her. Rinaldo and Orlando fight for her hand, but King Charlemagne intervenes and promises Angelica’s hand to whichever of the two wins most honour in the battle against the heathen. He leaves her in the care of Duke Namus. Orlando and Rinaldo arrive in Paris in time to repulse an attack by Agramante. Namus’ camp is overrun but Angelica escapes, with Rinaldo in pursuit, followed by Ferrau who, having defeated her brother Argalia, considers Angelica his. Ariosto pursues their story at the start of his own epic.

Of Boiardo’s other characters the most important is the female knight Bradamante, Rinaldo’s sister, who loves the heathen knight Ruggiero. Ruggiero, claimed to be a descendent of Alexander the Great and Hector, has also fallen fatally in love with the Christian Bradamante. It is prophesied that they will wed and found the Italian House of Este. Opposed to this outcome is Atlantes, an African wizard who seeks to prevent Ruggiero from converting to Christianity. By the end of Boiardo’s poem, Ruggiero is imprisoned in Atlantes’ castle, however, Bradamante is close by.

Other characters of importance in Boiardo’s work, who also appear in Ariosto’s, are: Astolfo, a friend of Orlando, who is captured by the sorceress Morgana and her sister Alcina; Mandricardo, a heathen; and a young knight named Brandimarte, who is in love with the beautiful Fiordelisa.

Regarding Ariosto’s rhyme scheme, where the clinching couplet of each verse can be used to heighten the wit and reinforce the, often tongue-in-cheek, comments within the rest of the verse, the reader might note that it is the same rhyme-scheme Byron employed to great comic effect in ‘Don Juan’.

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