Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando)

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Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando)

by Lodovico Ariosto


A chivalric epic poem set in France, England, Spain, and the Middle East during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne (r. 768-814); published in Italian in 1516 (revised 1521; revised and expanded 1532), in English in 1597.


Roland (Orlando, in Italian), greatest peer in the realm of Charlemagne, deserts his post while Arab Muslims besiege Paris to pursue his beloved. Princess Angelica of Cathay.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The Poem in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

For More Information

Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was a minor nobleman and courtier in the northern Italian duchy of Ferrara. His family’s fortunes were made by their connection to his distant cousin Lippa degli Ariosti, mistress of Obizzo III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, who on her deathbed became his wife. Her son Alberto (legitimated by his father) was the great grandfather of Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara when Lodovico was born. Lodovico’s own father, Count Niccolo, served in many high offices during the duke’s reign, which made it possible for Lodovico to enjoy a carefree youth. Lodovico’s greatest concern seems to have been persuading his father to let him abandon an apprenticeship in law for the university and a degree in the humanities. His father relented but then died suddenly, leaving his oldest son, 26-year-old Lodovico, to fend for his four younger brothers and five sisters. Becoming chief breadwinner for the family’s, Lodovico, like his father, sought employment as a retainer in the Este household, first for the old duke and later for his third son, Ippolito. Twenty years later Ippolito’s older brother, who by then had inherited the title of Duke Alfonso, took Lodovico into his service. Lodovico was thus in the thick of the affairs of the Este brothers for most of his life. His intellectual soulmate, however, was their sister Isabella (also born in 1474), who encouraged him in his literary endeavours and advised him to take up an unfinished chivalric epic poem— Orlando Innamorato (Roland in Love)—begun by another Ferrarese courtier, Matteo Maria Boiardo. Boiardo had died in 1494, before completing the poem, which wove together popular legends of France’s most famous knight. Named Roland (in Italian, Orlando), his adventures were a favorite subject of the oral storytellers who wandered northern Italy. Heeding Isabella’s advice, Lodovico Ariosto wrote a sequel called Orlando Furioso. The sequel links love to madness; exploring obsession and the resulting betrayal of political alliances and personal friendships. The poem takes place seven centuries before it was written yet raises issues of great relevance to the troubled times in which Ariosto lived.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The matter of Britain and the matter of France

In 604c.e., Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) died in Rome after a reign of nearly 14 years. A prolific author, the pope was also an inspiring leader to the Christian community in Europe (at a time when Christianity had not yet completely triumphed over paganism). After he died, however, intellectual activity in this region drastically diminished. Hardly any written documents were produced on the Continent for nearly 200 years, until the coming of Charlemagne, monarch of the Franks, the Germanic people whose territory embraced most of modernday France and Germany. Charlemagne gathered a group of intellectuals around him in the Germanic town of Aachen in the 790s and there resulted a brief flowering of manuscripts, which by modern standards was small. And even that brief flowering would fade under Charlemagne’s successors, as invasions from the east (by Magyars and Avars) and from the north (by Vikings) took their toll. Not until the late eleventh or early twelfth century, roughly around the time of the crusades, would medieval Europe see a resurgence in record-keeping. In one respect, this hiatus may have been beneficial: it would have allowed folk legends to flourish. Two important cycles of tales that may stem back to such origins dominated the literary landscape by the crusades.

The first cycle, commonly known as “the matter of Britain,” concerns events at the court of King Arthur and his queen Guinevere, focusing especially on his knights, members of the order of the Round Table. The chief of these knights, Lancelot, falls in love with Guinevere despite his friendship with Arthur, and their adulterous love sets in motion a train of events that culminates in an apocalyptic battle between Arthur and his nephew (some sources say bastard son) Mordred, in which Mordred is killed. Arthur, also mortally wounded, is borne off to the otherworldly isle of Avalon, to await a summons from the British when they have need of him at some future date.

Certain features became characteristic of the Arthur stories. Subsidiary tales, including the romance of Tristan and Iseult, were attached to the main narrative. These tales often parallel the episode of Lancelot and Guinevere in recounting an adulterous love in which desire goes forever unfulfilled; the affair refines the lovers’ characters as it leads to suffering and tragedy. Out of these arose a new concept of love, “courtly love,” which thus became associated with the “matter of Britain.” The stories also use magic as a major impetus for plot development. Arthur is raised by the wizard Merlin, and his half-sister Morgana is a witch who, in some versions, seduces Arthur and tricks him into siring Mordred, her son. Moreover, the setting is generally marvelous, full of objects and creatures that violate lifelike characterization and realistic plot development.

The Arthur tales were first recounted in detail by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britaniae (History of the British Kings), composed in the 1130s, when the Crusades were transforming European society. Taken by many of Geoffrey’s contemporaries as true and unvarnished history, this chronicle inspired a whole series of literary works produced in the twelfth century, mainly in French by the somewhat shadowy figure known as Chretien de Troyes. His romances (socalled because they were produced in the vernacular Romance languages, not Latin) became enormously popular throughout Europe, especially in northern Italy, where French was highly regarded and widely used among the ruling classes. A century before Ariosto’s day, in the early 1400s, the Este family’s of Ferrara (Ariosto’s future patrons) owned a copy of Tristan and Iseult as well as other romances set down by various writers (Gundersheimer, p. 87).

Parallel to the “matter of Britain” in medieval histories was the “matter of France.” Unlike the Arthurean material, the matter of France comprises tales woven around the court of Charlemagne, a verifiable historical personage, and the tales contain no magical elements. Charlemagne reigned over the Frankish kingdom for nearly half a century (742-814). His grandfather, Charles Mattel, had established the dynasty, and during his tenure had blocked the Arab advance northward from Spain (which the Arabs had begun to conquer in 711c.e.) through his victory at the Battle of Poitiers in southern France. The Arab troops in Spain were few and thinly spread so it is unlikely that they viewed this military defeat as very important—at least it does not appear in any of the major Arab chronicles of the period. But in French annals, it was magnified into a major victory. Its glory was reflected onto Charles Mattel’s grandson, Charlemagne, who became the champion of Christianity against Islam for later generations, especially for the crusaders of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. This image of Charlemagne as the most Christian king was enhanced by his being crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800c.e. The reality, though, shows him to be less militantly Christian than legend suggests. According to a reliable biography by his friend and clerk Einhard— Vita Caroli Magna—we know Charlemagne mostly fought not Muslims but pagan enemies to the east (the Saxons and Avars) and rival Christian dynasties to the south (the Lombards and dukes of Aquitaine).

One incident early in the king’s reign involved him in the political struggles of the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula. In 750 a new Arab dynasty, the Abbasids, displaced the former rulers of the Islamic empire, the Umayyads. In the aftermath of their takeover, the Abbasids hunted down all male members of the Umayyad clan, killing them to consolidate Abbasid rule. One of the Umayyads, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape westward to North Africa, where he rallied his kinsmen around him. Together they invaded Spain and defeated the small army of the newly installed Abbasid governor there, taking control of cities in the southern part of the land. But in the northeast, close to the border with France, there remained some adherents of the Abbasids. In 777, one of these, the governor of Barcelona, Sulayman ibn Yaqdhan al A’rabi, petitioned the newly enthroned Charlemagne for help. Charlemagne agreed. His father had already started establishing friendly ties with the Abbasids as fellow enemies of his rivals to the east, the Byzantines. In brief, the Franks, the Pope (the strongest authority in Italian lands), and the Abbasids banded together against the Byzantines in the East and the Umayyads in Spain.

Having amassed a large army, Charlemagne advanced southward to join the Arab governor Sulayman in the siege of the Umayyad-held city of Saragossa in Spain. His alliance with the Arab governor collapsed, however, after a period of inconclusive fighting. Charlemagne had begun a retreat when the historical incident transpired in which his lieutenant Roland supposedly distinguished himself. At the pass of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains, the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army was ambushed by raiders of the Basques; a people of the Iberian peninsula, they reneged on an earlier promise to let Charlemagne’s troops pass unmolested. Einhard recounts the incident:

The lightness of their armor and the nature of the battle ground stood the Gascons [Basques] in good stead on this occasion, whereas the Franks fought at a disadvantage in every respect, because of the weight of their armor and the unevenness of the ground. Eggihard, the King’s steward; Anselm, Count Palatine; and Roland, Governor of the March of Brittany, with very many others, fell in this engagement. This ill turn could not be avenged for the nonce, because the enemy scattered so widely after carrying out their plan that not the least clue could be had to their whereabouts.

(Einhard, p. 34)

This is the sole mention of the otherwise unknown Count Roland in the historical records of Charlemagne’s reign.

Saracens, Moors, And Turks

Ariosto, following his sources, frequently refers to Orlando’s Arab enemies as Saracens, Moors, or Turks. These words reflect different historical phases in the encounters between the West and the Muslim world. Saracen is a term derived from the Greek “Sarakenoi,” the name of a tribe whom the Greeks encountered on the Arabian peninsula in classical times. Moor stems back to the Latin geographical term Mauretania, which the Romans used for northwestern Africa. Mauri or Moors became the term for the inhabitants of this region, who were ethnically mostly Berbers, The term Turks reflects the political and military reality of Ariosfo’s own time, when the major force in the Islamic world was the Ottoman Empire, whose ruling dynasty traced their ancestry back to nomadic Turkish tribes.

In the 1120s, in the midst of the Crusades, a Latin chronicle surfaced that gave a vastly expanded account of the story of Roland. This chronicle was supposedly written by a bishop named Turpin of Rheims who had accompanied Charlemagne into Spain, fought in the ambush, and witnessed Roland’s death. Because it was composed several hundred years after Turpin’s death and thus was not written by him, it has become known to posterity as the “Pseudo-Turpin.”

In the Pseudo-Turpin, Charlemagne is summoned in a dream to enter Spain to save the shrine of St. James of Compostela from the “Saracen menace” (Smyser, p. 18). He remains three years in Galicia and northern Spain winning victory after victory and pacifying the country. After his return to France, Charlemagne hears that the African king Aigolandus has invaded the recently liberated territory. So, supported by his second-in-command, Duke Milo de Angulariis, he reenters Spain where he meets the African king in a series of inconclusive battles. In one of the battles, Roland, the son of Duke Milo and Charlemagne’s sister Bertha, defeats the Arab giant Ferractus in single combat. As a result of this battle, and other engagements recounted in the Pseudo-Turpin, the Franks emerge victorious and “nobody dares challenge [Charlemagne’s] power in Spain” (Smyser, p. 36). On the way back to France, Charlemagne hears that two Arab kings who have pledged loyalty to him plan to rebel. He sends Count Ganelon to the Arabs with the order that they must accept baptism or pay tribute. But, accepting a bribe, Ganelon betrays his sovereign. He reveals the return route of the Frankish army; they will retreat through the pass at Roncesvalles, guarded by a small contingent of France’s greatest knights under the command of Roland. The Arab kings, with a huge army in tow, sweep down upon the rearguard and massacre them. Roland, who survives the initial attack, hunts down one of the Arab kings and kills him, but is “gravely wounded” in the process (Smyser, p. 41). Only then does he blow his great ivory horn, summoning Charlemagne and the main army to the rescue. Charlemagne prepares to respond but is dissuaded by the traitorous Ganelon (who in later versions is Roland’s stepfather and harbors a grudge against him), who dismisses the sound: “Roland is always blowing his horn without cause and … is probably merely hunting” (Smyser, p. 41).

Finally Bishop Turpin brings King Charlemagne news of the ambush. By the time the king does retrace his route and rush to the rescue, however, he finds Roland dead. Swearing revenge, Charlemagne pursues the Arabs to Saragossa and kills 4,000. He then hears of Ganelon’s treachery and orders him to submit to judgement in an ordeal by combat, which he loses. Following standard practice, Ganelon’s arms and legs are tied to four horses that run in the four directions of the compass and Ganelon is torn to pieces.

As with the matter of Britain, the historical account of Roland’s death gave rise to dozens of literary works, mostly in French, and all using the same material. Generically these stories were called the chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”). The most famous of these today, Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), was actually not well known in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, having been deposited in an English monastery in the late 1200s. It would not be rediscovered until the midnineteenth century; by this time around 60 other chansons de geste had been catalogued in old manuscripts by scholars. These 60 or so chansons had been widely disseminated throughout Europe, spreading along with French cultural influence (which penetrated into England, Italy, Germany, and more). Whether historical or literary, the various versions share a key feature—the transformation of the actual episode, which saw Charlemagne form an alliance with the Arab Abbasids and his deputy Roland suffer death at the hands of Basque (Christian) fighters. In every version, the facts are rejected in favor of a story that features a crusading zeal against Muslims, elevates the role of religious issues, and mistakenly identifies Roland’s killers as Arabs rather than Basques.

The Italian Roland

The story of Roland entered Italy very early, through French literary versions as well as the Pseudo-Turpin, perhaps by the mid-1100s. The major additions to the story that Ariosto would have known appear in I Reaii di Francia (The Nobles of France), a prose chronicle by the Florentine writer Andrea Da Barberino (c. 1370-1431/3) that provided Orlando with an Italian childhood. In Andrea’s version, King Charlemagne’s second-in-command, Duke Milo, seduces Bertha, the king’s sister, after entering her quarters disguised as a woman. When Charlemagne discovers their affair and imprisons them, the couple escapes to Italy, where Roland is born in a stable (like Jesus) and grows up in complete poverty. He is reunited with his uncle when the latter comes to Italy to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Roland and his parents are reconciled to Charlemagne, and the four return as a family’s to France. Thus, in adapting the Matter of France into the Italian milieu, Italian writers saw Roland—or Orlando as he was known to them—as peculiarly their own, a home-grown hero, rather than an alien figure imported from afar.

The Poem in Focus

Contents overview

Orlando Furioso is divided into 46 cantos, whose action has been described as a “crisscrossing of [various] narratives” (As coli, p. 7). But the poem does in fact exhibit a core architecture, with certain sections, or cantos, marking important transition points in the narrative. In Canto 23, exactly halfway through the poem, Orlando descends into madness after his discovery that Angelica loves another. Halfway between the beginning of the work and Canto 23, in Canto 12, the crisis of 23 is foreshadowed when Angelica meets her new love, the Saracen youth Medoro, and suddenly disappears from the action. Likewise, halfway between Canto 23 and the poem’s end, in Canto 34, the English knight Astolfo visits the moon by way of the Earthly Paradise, where he recovers Orlando’s lost wits, and takes them back to earth in a glass flask. Once Orlando is restored to sanity, he and Astolfo collaborate against the armies of Agramant, the Saracen leader. In the final canto, 46, they and the entire royal court witness the wedding of Bradamant and Ruggerio (in Italian, Ruggiero), founders of the Este dynasty.

The poem in detail

The first canto catapults the reader into the middle of the historical action, the Saracen siege of Paris. In a few informative stanzas, Ariosto fills in the background of the story presented in the poem his work is continuing, the Innamorato. Ariosto’s poem reunites the characters left scattered at the end of the former poem. Orlando triumphantly returns Angelica, the superlatively beautiful princess of the central Asian land of Cathay, back to Charlemagne’s control. At the outset of the Innamorato, Angelica had challenged all the knights around Paris (both Christian and Saracen) to defeat her champion and thus obtain her favor. Her purpose had been to incite discord among the soldiers in both armies while her father’s troops seized as much territory as possible. Her champion was finally defeated, after which she led the French knights on a merry chase all over Europe. In the Furioso, Angelica again escapes from Charlemagne’s custody, and all the knights abandon their military duties to collaborate, if only temporarily, in pursuing the elusive princess. This allows the poem to introduce the major male characters and focus on them one by one.

Next the poem introduces two new storylines, interweaving their exposition with the pursuit of the Princess of Cathay. The first set of stories concerns Charlemagne’s decision to send Rinaldo, Orlando’s friend and sometime rival, to England (home of the Arthurian legends) to seek help from the knights there. Rinaldo quickly becomes embroiled in the affairs of various pairs of noble lovers at the English and Scottish courts. The second set of stories concerns Bradamant, the Christian female warrior who is Rinaldo’s sister. When Orlando Furioso opens, Bradamant has already fallen in love with Ruggerio, a rising star of the Saracen armies, whose ancestry on one side of the family’s harks back to Hector of Troy. Once Bradamant and Ruggerio overcome the obstacles that separate them, they will marry and go on to found the House of Este, the family’s of Ariosto’s patrons.

This amalgam of stories about Bradamant and Ruggerio, supplemented by Rinaldo’s encounters, rather than the more straightforward account of the battles between the forces of Charlemagne and Agramant, monopolizes the first third or so of the Orlando Furioso. In fact, only in Canto 14 does the confrontation between the armies begin in earnest.

The first two cantos follow Bradamant as she searches steadfastly for Ruggerio, distinguishing herself as the only one able to remain impervious to Angelica’s charms. Unlike the male warriors, distracted by losing their tempers—and control of their horses—as they pursue the princess, Bradamant (contrary to a Renaissance stereotype of the woman as overemotional) is able to singlemindedly pursue her quest. But Bradamant herself is eventually led astray by the deceitful knight Pinabello, nephew of Ganelon. After getting them both lost in the mountains, he pushes her down the hole leading to Merlin’s cave in an effort to dispose of her (end of Canto 2).

Meanwhile, Charlemagne has decided to send Rinaldo to England for help. Ariosto’s reporting on the progress of Rinaldo’s mission becomes a vehicle for introducing several pairs of lovers whose adventures recall the pattern set by the heroes and heroines of Arthurian romances. The most important of these is probably Zerbino, Prince of Scotland, and Isabella, Princess of Galicia (in Spain), a chaste pair of lovers whose story—ending in their deaths at the hands of Saracen warriors—forms a kind of tragic counterpoint to the more fortunate fates of Orlando and Angelica and especially of Bradamant and Ruggerio.

Next, the first third of the Orlando Furioso turns to Bradamant’s lover, Ruggerio, concentrating on his rescue from the clutches first of his tutor, the magician Atlas, and later of the powerful enchantress Alcina, who seduces Ruggerio with her dazzling beauty, just as she once bewitched the English knight Astolfo. Freed by Ruggerio, Astolfo learns to handle the hippogriff, a fantastical creature, half-horse, half-bird, on which he will ascend (in Canto 34) to the Earthly Paradise and, aided by the Apostle John, retrieve a flask containing Orlando’s wits, that is, his ability to reason.

The last two-thirds of the poem (roughly Cantos 14-45) pays greater attention to the siege of Paris than the earlier cantos. The English troops have already arrived in France to aid Charlemagne (Canto 10), and now (in Canto 14) the Saracen warriors, Agramant and his allies, send south for reinforcements. These troop movements and maneuverings on the battlefield are intercut with Astolfo’s adventures in the Eastern Mediterranean as he flies far and wide on the hippogriff, landing in Damascus, where he rescues the French knight Grifon from false imprisonment and in the process encounters Ruggerio’s sister, the warrior maiden Marfisa, who is seeking to recover her lost armor. The group returns to France, where Ruggerio’s beloved Bradamant, mistaking the reason for the affection between Ruggerio and Marfisa, becomes wildly jealous and even tries to kill herself, which she finds impossible to accomplish, since she is at the time wearing a coat of mail (Canto 32). She then seeks refuge at the castle of Lord Tristram, where the applicants for shelter must either (if they are male) defeat all the other knights present in single combat, or (if they are female) triumph over all the other women in a contest of beauty. Bradamant succeeds in both categories and elects to be admitted to the castle because of her prowess in battle. Following these adventures, she seeks the Saracen camp, intending to challenge Ruggerio to a fight, hoping that this will soothe her suffering from his unfaithfulness to her. But, in the midst of their combat, the voice of Ruggerio’s tutor (Atlas) is heard, rising from his tomb to explain the truth about Ruggerio and Marfisa, and the misunderstanding is resolved. Marfisa and Bradamant become fast friends and depart for Charlemagne’s camp (where Marfisa is baptized a Christian), while Ruggerio remains behind in support of the Saracen leader Agramant.

The last third of the poem focuses ever more narrowly on uniting the Saracen warrior Ruggerio and the Christian warrior maiden Bradamant in their foreordained dynastic marriage, without which the Este family’s will not come into being. Now this storyline is linked to the resolution of the conflict between Agramant and Charlemagne: the former proposes deciding the issues between them by single combat, and Ruggerio is chosen as his champion, to be opposed by the French peer Rinaldo, brother of Bradamant. Once the duel begins, Ruggerio is reluctant to injure his beloved’s brother, and Agramant, seeing his champion losing, is persuaded to launch a general attack, which is defeated. The Saracen armies flee, and Ruggerio stays behind to protect the rear, ending up lost at sea when his ship over-turns (Canto 41). In exchange for his life, he promises God he will become a Christian and makes good on the promise when he lands on an island and is baptized by a hermit there. Orlando and Rinaldo, reunited and magically cured of their passion for Angelica, rescue Ruggerio from the island and he promises to wed Bradamant. Her father, Amon, however, has betrothed her to the Byzantine emperor Leon. Elected King of the Bulgars (which makes him worthy of Bradamant’s hand), Ruggerio defeats Leon and his forces in battle. Amon nevertheless refuses to dissolve the engagement and Ruggerio decides to kill himself, whereupon Leon renounces Bradamant and the path is opened for the lovers to be married, which they prepare to do in Canto 46. At the last minute Rodomont, a formidable Saracen warrior, interrupts the wedding feast and challenges Ruggerio to single combat, accusing him of abandoning his oath of fealty to his king. They fight, and the poem ends as abruptly as it began, with Ruggerio stabbing his enemy fatally in the heart.

Dipping into Arabic story—Canto 28

The Italians, with their long history of contact and trade with other cultures, were sharply attuned to the idea that new lessons could be learned from foreigners, and Ariosto, in his choice of material for the Orlando Furioso, was no exception to this trend. We find his tolerance and open-mindedness illustrated in many places in the poem, but nowhere more pointedly than in his recounting of the story that serves as the focal point for Canto 28. The tale, about the affairs in a minor Italian princedom very like Ariosto’s Ferrara, is in fact an adaptation of the frame tale of the Arabic classic The Arabian Nights.

In Canto 27 the Saracen warrior Rodomont is rejected by his beloved Doralice for his rival Mandricardo. This rejection causes Rodomont to complain bitterly of the faithlessness of women, and in a rage he gallops away from camp. South-east of Paris, heading for the Marseille coast, he stops at an inn in the Saone River Valley. Here, the innkeeper tells him a story in support of Rodomont’s new guiding principle “that chaste women were never to be found, whether poor or of rank; and if one seemed more chaste than another, it was because she was smarter in hiding herself” (Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, 27.132).

The story consists of three separate, mutually reinforcing episodes. Fausto, a knight at the court of Astolfo, king of the Lombards, boasts that his brother Jocondo is the most beautiful man in the world. The king, naturally curious (because he had considered himself unsurpassed in beauty) commands Fausto to bring his brother to court, where all might judge the truth of his claim. Jocondo is reluctant to leave his young and beautiful wife, who loves him dearly, but finally agrees to go. Upon his departure, his tearful wife unfastens the pilgrim’s cross around her neck and gives it to him “to wear … for love of her, so that every hour he might remember her” (Or lando Furioso, 28.16). But in the excitement of departure Jocondo forgets the cross. When he returns home to retrieve it, he finds his wife in the arms of one of his own servants. Although he contemplates killing them both, he masters his impulse and rides off as fast as he can.

His torment leaves its traces on his face and form and naturally the king has difficulty accepting Fausto’s claim that this wretch should be considered more beautiful than any other man, especially himself. Jocondo spends most of his time wandering alone through Astolfo’s palace, lamenting. One day, while the men are out hunting, he spies the queen having intercourse with a dwarf. The king, it seems, is an even worse cuckold than he. Drawing strength from this new knowledge, Jocondo’s health improves immeasurably, and his beauty begins to return. The king notices the change and asks Jocondo the cause. Jocondo, fearing to tell this powerful ruler the truth, makes Astolfo swear not to harm him and then reveals all.

These two episodes parallel almost exactly the frame-tale of the The Arabian Nights. There, the king Shahzaman decides to visit his older brother Shahriyar, ruler of the neighboring kingdom. On the eve of his departure, he leaves and then returns to finds his wife in their bedchamber, in the embrace of a kitchen boy. Enraged, he kills them both, unlike Jocondo. But like Jocondo, he begins to waste away from grief and humiliation once he arrives at his brother’s palace. When Shahriyar goes out hunting one day, Shahzaman spies his brother’s wife and all her ladies cavorting in the palace gardens with a platoon of black slaves. The sight causes an improvement in his health, but he fears to reveal the cause, and he exacts an oath from Shahriyar identical to that which Jocondo demanded from Astolfo.

Up to this point in the narrative, the major difference between the two stories consists in the fact that Ariosto, in the first episode, has given the faithless wife at least a symbolic motivation for her betrayal. The night before they parted, she gave Jocondo a cross that she said was an emblem of their love. Jocondo forgot the cross, just, one might say, as he forgot his obligations to his wife in order to seek rewards and a potential position at court. If he undervalues her in such a way, is it such a surprise that she, in turn, deserts him for another? The story can thus be interpreted in a way that is more charitable to women than the original The Arabian Nights frame tale. Certainly Ariosto’s version belies the innkeeper’s claim (echoing Rodomont’s prejudice) that women are naturally disloyal and treacherous to those they love.

Adultory And Death Among The Este

Among members of the court assembled at Ferrara, the initial audience for the Orlando Furioso, the recitation of Canto 28 probably aroused an ominous undercurrent of anxiety. In the reign of Alfonso’s grandfather, Niccolo, an eerily similar incident had occurred within the Este family’s, Niccolo, a widower, took a second wife much younger than himself, named Parisina. She was something of an intellectual, fond of romances like that of Tristan and Iseult. Parisina fell in love with Niccolo’s eldest son, Ugo. When their adultery was exposed, Niccolo executed the two young lovers. Thus, in bringing up a tale that dealt with the issue of faithful wives, Ariosto did something very daring in reminding the Este family’s of an uncomfortable episode in the not-too-distant past.

Ariosto will maintain his more charitable stance in the third episode of his tale, which diverges considerably from The Arabian Nights. In the Arabic version, the two kings travel the world, searching for a man who can actually enforce the faithfulness of his consort. After a humiliating encounter with a woman imprisoned by a jinni, or demon, who forces them to have sex with her while the jinni sleeps next to them, they ultimately decide there is no way to keep a woman faithful. So Shahriyar, upon returning to his kingdom, decides to take a new wife every evening and execute her in the morning. He is only interrupted in this disastrous course when his chief minister’s daughter, Shahrazad, volunteers to marry her lord and tricks him into keeping her alive by telling him a story whose conclusion she will only reveal the following night. For a thousand and one nights, Shahrazad keeps up this stratagem, until Shahriyar realizes she has been faithful to him all along and he loves her, along with the children she has borne with him in the interim. Before this ending, however, the tale seems to bear out the supposition that no woman will be true to her lover.

Ariosto follows a different path in Orlando Furioso. King Astolfo and Jocondo likewise wander the world. Growing weary of this, they both fall in love with Fiametta, the daughter of an innkeeper in Valencia, and then coerce her father “to give his daughter into their power” for a hand-some sum (Orlando Furioso, 28.53). Next they hit upon the stratagem of having her always sleep between them so she cannot be unfaithful. But, unbeknownst to them, Fiametta has long been in love with Greco, a servant of her father. Greco follows her, and they devise a plan whereby he crawls up from the foot of the bed and they make love, while Jocondo and Astolfo both think her partner is the other one of them. When the deception is discovered, the king decides immediately that Fiametta’s faithfulness to her first love should be rewarded and gives her in marriage to Greco along with a handsome dowry. The story, unlike The Arabian Nights, features a woman so steadfast that under duress she refuses to abandon her soul mate. At the conclusion of the episode, Ariosto further reinforces the lesson by having an old man in the audience say “Those who have left their husbands have in most cases reason for it’” (Orlando Furioso, 28.81).

Sources and literary context

The most important source for the Orlando Furioso seems obviously to be the poem it continues, Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato. Yet critical opinion remains curiously divided on this. Clearly, it is helpful to know something of the plot from the earlier poem. But Ariosto’s work quickly establishes an independent identity, and—as generations of readers have proved, since the Innamorato became a book rarely read after the mid-fifteenth century—it is not necessary to know the first poem to enjoy the second.

Ariosto’s sources far exceed Orlando Innamorato. He drew on many other works produced in northern Italy in the years preceding his birth, from Latin treatises to Italian folktales, as recounted by the great nineteenth-century Italian scholar Pio Rajna in his monumental catalogue of Ariosto’s sources, Le Fonti dell’Orlando Furioso (The Sources of the Orlando). Of all the inspirations for the Furioso, none is perhaps less obvious from a casual reading of it, or more important than Virgil’s epic The Aeneid.

Both stories concern the founding of a dynasty and city: in Virgil’s case of Rome and its Caesars; in Ariosto’s case, of the Este family’s and Ferrara. Virgil had begun his poem by announcing he would sing of “arms and the man” (Aeneid, 1:1). The Aeneid contains 12 books that divide neatly into two halves with Aeneas’s descent into the underworld marking the transition from Part 1 to Part 2. Ariosto’s poem too divides neatly in half, when Orlando goes mad in Canto 23. Ariosto’s female warrior Bradamant owes something to a female warrior in Virgil’s poem, Camilla (who, in turn, has her antecedents in Homer’s Amazon queen Penthesilea). Other examples of the Aeneigd ‘s influence on the Furioso occur in nearly every canto.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

Age of invasions

In 1494, when Ariosto was 20, King Charles VIII of France invaded northern Italy, shattering nearly half a century of relative calm and growing prosperity in that part of the Italian peninsula. Though Charles only temporarily occupied Naples and quickly withdrew, the military weakness of the Italian city-states had been revealed and for the next 35 or 40 years, virtually until the end of Ariosto’s life, northern Italy was rent by a series of wars, battles, and intrigues among the European powers that caused this period of Italian history to be known as the “Age of Invasions.” Ariosto was himself deeply involved in many of these events. The most notable was probably in the summer of 1512, the year of the battle of Ravenna (described in Cantos 14 and 15 of the Furioso). After this battle, Ariosto helped Duke Alfonso escape in disguise from imprisonment by Pope Julius in Rome (where they had been, incidentally, viewing the newly completed frescoes by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel). Though a party to these intrigues, Ariosto lamented them and the suffering they caused in the Orlando Furioso, implicitly contrasting the lofty ideals of medieval chivalry with the avarice and brutality of his own day. Most poignantly, at the start of Canto 34, he compares the outside forces gathering around Italy to a flock of harpies—evil creatures from Greek mythology with the bodies and faces of women, the wings of vultures, and eagles’ claws, who attack and steal the food of unfortunate victims:

O foul Harpias, greedy, hunger-starved,
Whom wrath divine for just revenge hath sent
To blinded Italy, that hath deserved
For sins both old and late to be so shent [broken up]
The sustenance that should for food have served,
For widows poor and orphans innocent,
These filthy monsters do consume and waste it,
Oft at one meal, before the owners taste it.

He doubtless guilty is of grievous sin
That first set open that long-closed cave
From which all filth and greediness came in
To Italy and it infected have;
Then ended good, then did bad days begin,
And discord foul so far off all peace drave
That now in wars, in poverty and pain
It long hath tarried and shall long remain.
          (Ariosto in Gottfried, p. 275; Orlando Furioso, 34.1)

Elsewhere (particularly in Cantos 14, 15, 26 and 33), Ariosto praises his Este patrons for their victories as allies of the French invaders, but here he seems to step back and give voice to the same opinions traditionally ascribed to his predecessor Boiardo, who is said to have broken off the Orlando Innamorato in dismay over the invasion of Charles VIII, though the historical record is not entirely clear on this point.


When Ariosto published the final edition of the Orlando Furioso in 1532, he sent a copy to Isabella d’Este in Mantua. “Most excellent M. Lodovico,” she responded, “your book … is in every respect most welcome by me … I can only expect to take new pleasure and delight in reading it” (Isabella d’Este in Beechers, p. 75). On the other hand, her brother, Ippolito, casually dismissed it: “Messer Lodovico, where ever did you pick up so much trash?” (Ippolito in Gardner, pp. 122-23). History has borne out Isabella’s praise rather than Ippolito’s disapproval. The Furioso became one of the first bestsellers in the Renaissance; scholars estimate that by 1601 more than 200,000 copies were in circulation (Ariosto, p. xi). Even more significantly, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Furioso was on the list of required texts for many schools. As one author of the day (1589) enthused, “if you find yourself in salons, if you enter academies, you never hear anything but Ariosto being read and recited. Indeed, why do I say courts and academies when in private homes, in country houses, even in hovels and huts one also finds the Furioso continually recited” (Javitch, p. 14). It even inspired a reworking of the same material on which Ariosto drew into another epic poem. This second epic, Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, became a masterpiece in its own right (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Nor was the Furioso’s popularity limited to Italy. Before the sixteenth century ended, more than 40 printings of translations appeared in Spanish, English, and French. In England, the poem became the chief source for the most influential epic of the age, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen.

—Terri DeYoung

For More Information

Ariosto, Lodovico. Orlando Furioso: An English Translation with Introduction, Notes and Index, 2 vols. Trans. Allan Gilbert. New York: S. F. Vanni, 1954.

Ascoli, Albert. Ariosto’s Bitter Harmony. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Beechers, Donald, Massimo Ciavolella, and Roberto Fedi, eds. Ariosto Today: Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Buckler, F. W. Harunu’l-Rashid and Charles the Great. Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1931.

Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Trans. Sidney Painter. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.

Gardner, Edmund G. The King of Court Poets: A Study of the Life and Times of Lodovico Ariosto. London: Archibald Constable, 1906.

Gottfried, Rudolf, ed. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: Selections from the Translation of Sir John Harington. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Gundersheimer, Werner L. Ferrara: The Style of a Renaissance Despotism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Javitch, Daniel. Proclaiming a Classic: The Canonization of Orlando Furioso. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Rajna, Pio. Le Fonti Dell’Orlando Furioso: Ricerche e Studi. Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1900.

Smyser, H. M., ed. Pseudo-Turpin. Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1937.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Ed. R. D. Williams. London: Macmillan, 1973.

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Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando)

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