At the end of the second canto of Ariosto’s Orland Furioso, Pinabello and Bradamante have left in their quest for Ruggiero, the knight who loves the latter, who has been taken prisoner in a remote steel castle. The treacherous Pinabello has tried to abandon Bradamante, and just let her fall into a cavern. Fortunately, her impact was broken by the branch of an elm tree, and she has quickly recovered consciousness.
Pinabello leaves Bradamante for dead, even taking her horse with him. But she enters the next chamber in the cave through a door, and finds herself inside a space as big as a church, at the centre of which is an altar where a bright lamp burns. She kneels and prays.
As she is praying, a door creaks open and another woman enters the chamber. Her hair unbound and her feet bare, Melissa greets Bradamante by name, and tells her that it isn’t chance that brought her there. She explains that Merlin had foreseen their meeting: he had made that cave, and the Lady of the Lake betrayed him there. After that, Merlin laid down in his tomb within the cavern and died.
The two then enter Merlin’s tomb, where his disembodied voice prophesies that she will have a son by Ruggiero who will bring great honour to Italy, and her descendants will be nobles who will restore greatness to the country in the future, bringing a new golden age. Merlin then falls silent, and Melissa makes a Magic Circle on the floor of the cavern, opens a book, and summons spirits.
The sorceress parades the descendants of Bradamante and Ruggiero, starting with their son, identifying each with their achievements in a potted history of northern Italy. She also warns Bradamante of two who will plot her undoing.
Melissa next tells Bradamante that at dawn the following day they will travel together towards the castle of steel where Ruggiero is imprisoned.
After talking with the spirit of Merlin all night, the two women leave as intended, and cross difficult terrain as they converse. Melissa tells her companion that King Agramante had stolen an enchanted ring, which is now being worn by Brunello, who is travelling the same road and not far ahead of them. The sorceress explains to Bradamante how she can obtain that ring, which will render her immune from evil spells. This involves some deception, and killing the ring bearer. The two women reach the sea near Bordeaux, where they part company, leaving Bradamante to complete her mission to obtain the ring and proceed to the castle of steel.
Ariosto opens the fourth canto in praise of deceit, which he informs us is important for Bradamante’s success.
She has now reached an inn, when suddenly there’s a great roar from outside. Rushing out, she sees a knight in armour flying on a huge horse with wings, heading towards the west. Brunello tells her about this knight and his castle made from steel, to which he takes people who are never seen again. Bradamante asks him for a guide to take her to the castle, and he volunteers to take her, knowing that he has the magic ring. She buys a horse from the innkeeper, and at dawn the following day sets off with Brunello.
The two ride their horses into the Pyrenees, where they locate the steel castle towering above an isolated valley. Bradamante knows that she must now kill her companion to obtain the ring from him, but instead overcomes him and ties him to a fir tree so that she can get it. She leaves him there and descends into the valley, from where she calls out a challenge on her horn to the knight in his steel castle.
The knight flies down to Bradamante on his winged horse. She is surprised that he appears unarmed, bearing a shield covered in red cloth, and an open book, which he can transform into weapons. His horse is a cross between a griffin and a mare – a hippogriff.
Bradamante and the knight on the hippogriff fight first on horseback, then she dismounts as Melissa had advised. The knight fights slowly to enjoy playing with his opponent, like a cat with a mouse. When he removes the cloth from his shield, she closes her eyes and lies down, luring the knight to dismount at last. She quickly ambushes him, separating him from his book of magic. Just as she has him bound and ready to behead, she looks at him and sees that he is an old man of seventy or more.
The old knight-magician, named Atlante, asks her to finish him off, but she gets him to explain his purpose, which is to save a gentle knight, who the stars foretold would die at the hands of a traitor. He names this knight as Ruggiero, and the castle of steel is there to keep him safe from this fate. He pleads with her to let him keep Ruggiero, but she tells him that she has come to free him instead. She then drives the bound Atlante towards the castle, where they find a hidden stairway which takes them up sheer cliffs to its gate.
When Atlante reaches the castle, he moves a block to break its spell. The castle then vanishes, as does Atlante. Its many captives, including her beloved Ruggiero, are thereby released. Back down in the valley, Bradamante tries to capture the hippogriff, but it keeps flying away from her. Eventually, it lands near Ruggiero, who dismounts from his own horse and mounts the hippogriff, which promptly flies off, as if abducting Ruggiero to Atlante again.
Meanwhile, you will recall that Rinaldo had been trying to cross the Channel to Britain on his mission to raise reinforcements for Charlemagne back in Paris. After several stormy days and nights, he lands on the Scottish coast, where British knights have joined forces with others from across Europe in a new Round Table, a successor to that of King Arthur.
Rinaldo lands with his horse and weapons and gallops off in search of adventure. For his first night ashore he is well looked after by the abbot and monks of an abbey. They advise him of a worthy quest to help the King of Scotland’s daughter, Ginevra, who is being threatened by the evil Lurcanio, who wants her to die shamefully, burned at the stake for admitting a secret lover to her chamber. The reward for saving her is her hand in marriage, but if no one saves her within a month, she must die.
Rinaldo considers that her innocence is of no matter, as a law which would put her to death for the sake of her lover is unjust, and asserts that laws must be fair to women. The following morning, in the company of an esquire, he rides away through the forest towards the city where Ginevra is being held.
As they travel through the wood, they hear the cries of a woman in distress, and discover her in the company of two villains who are preparing to kill her with their knives. When the villains see Rinaldo and his esquire approach, they flee. The esquire takes her up onto his horse, and they ride on towards the city. Rinaldo asks her how she came to fall into the clutches of those villains, a story which Ariosto holds over to the next canto. Suspense!
Agramante, King of Africa, who is leading the war against Charlemagne in revenge for the killing of his father, Troiano. Non-Christian.
Atlante, an evil magician who is in fact an old man, but abducts people to keep in his magic steel castle, where he tries to protect Ruggiero from his future.
Bradamante, Rinaldo’s sister, “the celebrated Maid”, a brave Christian knight who is the equal of her brother. She is loved by Ruggiero.
Brunello, a non-Christian knight.
Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.
Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, wrongfully accused of admitting a lover, and condemned to burn at the stake.
Melissa, a pupil and follower of Merlin, and a good sorceress.
Merlin, the good sorceror from Arthurian legend, long dead but still active in spirit.
Pinabello, son of Count Anselm Altaripa, a treacherous Maganzan who doesn’t follow the laws of chivalry, although a Christian.
Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights.
Ruggiero, son of the King of Reggio, a non-Christian knight who is in love with Bradamante.
Dosso Dossi (c 1489–1542) was a major Italian painter of the Renaissance who spent much of his career as court artist to the d’Estes, Ariosto’s patrons, and he and Ariosto were contemporaries. His real name was Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri, and he was a member of the school of Ferrara, influenced by Venetian painting, particularly the work of Giorgione and Titian. He is now mainly known for his mythological works and enigmatic allegories.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Having produced large sets of illustrations for classics such as Dante’s Divine Comedy earlier in his career, he started work on a set for Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in the late 1870s, for publication in 1879. These are the last major illustrations which he made. This article looks at his paintings.
Barbara Reynolds (translator) (1975, 1977) Orlando Furioso, parts 1 and 2, Penguin. ISBNs 978 0 140 44311 0, 978 0 140 44310 3. Verse translation with extensive introduction and notes.
Guido Waldman (translator) (1974) Orlando Furioso, Oxford World’s Classics. ISBN 978 0 19 954038 9. Prose translation.