Orlando Furioso: More deception and the talking myrtle

Niccolò dell'Abbate (1509/12-1571), Orlando Furioso (c 1550), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Torfanini, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the fourth canto, Rinaldo was in Scotland, travelling through a wood with an esquire on a knightly adventure to rescue the King of Scotland’s daughter, who has wrongly been sentenced to death. They come across a woman who is about to be killed by two villains; those two promptly flee, leaving the woman to explain how she fell into their clutches.

Ariosto opens the fifth canto by condemning those who are hostile to women, such as the two villains who were about to murder that woman, known as Dalinda. She explains that she had been a companion to the King of Scotland’s daughter Ginevra, but fell in love with Polinesso, The Duke of Albany.

The couple met secretly in a chamber belonging to the princess, Polinesso climbing a rope ladder up to its balcony. They did this for many months until Dalinda realised that he didn’t love her at all, but was using her to gain access to Princess Ginevra, whom he wanted to woo. Dalinda then tried to help Polinesso by making his case to the princess, but she fell in love with the brave Italian knight Ariodante, who was also well received by the King of Scotland.

When Dalinda persuaded Polinesso to abandon his attempts to woo the princess, his quashed love for Ginevra turned to hatred. He therefore set out to make it appear that the princess was behaving most unchastely, by getting Dalinda to dress in Ginevra’s clothes and deceiving Ariodante into thinking that Ginevra had been making love to Polinesso. One evening Ariodante and his brother Lurcanio saw in the moonlight Dalinda dressed as Ginevra, and Polinesso climbed a rope ladder to her balcony, where they made love in full view.

Ariodante was so distraught by this sight that he decided to fall on his sword to kill himself, but his brother Lurcanio stopped him from doing so. The following day Ariodante disappeared. More than a week later came a report that he had flung himself of a cliff and been drowned in the sea below.

Ginevra, who knew nothing of Polinesso’s deception, was beside herself with grief, rending her clothing and tearing her hair. Lurcanio was so deeply affected that he accused Ginevra of being responsible through her affair with Polinesso, and it was that which forced the King of Scotland to condemn his daughter to death. When Dalinda told Polinesso that she might be questioned by the king in connection with the case, Polinesso engaged the two villains to abduct and kill her.

Hearing this, Rinaldo resolves to take Dalinda to the king in his city and challenge the decision to burn Ginevra at the stake. When they arrive at the city gate, they find it barred, as a foreign knight has arrived to fight as the princess’s champion in a joust against Lurcanio. The gate is then opened, and Rinaldo installs Dalinda at an inn before galloping off to the fight.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Rinaldo Making His Way to the Joust (Canto 5:82) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When he arrives at the joust, Rinaldo makes his way through the crowd to address the king, and asks him to call a halt to the contest so that he can listen to his fresh evidence. When the king has heard the knight out, Rinaldo challenges Polinesso to a duel over the matter.

Rinaldo’s first charge is a success, his lance striking Polinesso in the chest with such force that it hurls him far from his horse. The disgraced knight is in no position to argue, and confesses in the moments before he dies.

The king expresses his gratitude and joy at Rinaldo for saving the life of his daughter. The foreign knight who had come to fight on Ginevra’s behalf then reveals himself to be Ariodante, who hadn’t drowned after all. The king agrees that Ariodante should marry Ginevra, and allows Dalinda to become a nun somewhere in Denmark.

Ariosto then returns to Ruggiero, who was last seen flying off into the distance on an uncontrollable hippogriff. After they had flown at breakneck speed, the hippogriff reaches a beautiful island where it decides to land amid meadows and rolling hills, in groves of laurel. On land at last, Ruggiero ties the hippogriff to a myrtle bush, and goes off to find a spring where can drink and cool off after his journey.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Hippogriff, Which Had Flown off with Ruggiero, Finally Lands in Pleasant Region (Canto 6:20) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

While Ruggiero is away, the hippogriff tries unsuccessfully to kick itself free of the myrtle bush. The myrtle speaks to Ruggiero, asking him to remove the winged horse, which surprises the knight. As he unties the hippogriff, he apologises to the bush, which explains that it was once Astolfo, a French paladin who was expected to be next in line for the English throne.

Astolfo had been imprisoned in a cave with Rinaldo and others, before being liberated by Orlando. Fate had taken him to the castle of Alcina, who charmed the fishes and whales in the sea. Alcina took Astolfo aside, separating him from his colleagues. He fell for her guile, crossed over and boarded a large whale, which then transported him away to this island, which Alcina had seized from her sister Logistilla.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Rinaldo is Powerless to Help as the Enchantress Alcina Carries Off Astolfo on a Whale (Canto 6:42) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

There, Alcina kept Astolfo as her lover, growing so obsessed with him that she made him her advisor, and he never left her side. But just as he thought his blissful future was assured, Alcina dropped him for another lover, and turned Astolfo into a myrtle bush. The myrtle warns Ruggiero so that he shouldn’t suffer a similar fate in the clutches of the treacherous Alcina. Ruggiero asks whether there is a route which will avoid Alcina, to which Astolfo replies that there is, but it’s rough, steep and guarded.

Ruggiero leads the hippogriff on foot, rather than risk taking flight on its back, and follows the path to avoid Alcina. As this climbs inland, he sees Alcina’s fortified city, which glitters with gold. He keeps well away from that, but is soon confronted by a band of hideously contorted creatures riding all manner of animals and birds, brandishing a range of improvised weapons. Their leader sits astride a turtle, and appears drunk.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), A Group of Monsters Wants to Compel Ruggiero to Enter Alcina’s City (Canto 6:60) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Ruggiero is drawn into a fight with them, but as they have neither armour nor shields, they can’t defend themselves against his sword. He is outnumbered, though, and making no headway against the creatures, when two elegant ladies ride out of the city’s gate on white unicorns. They ride up to him, bringing the fighting to a halt, and invite him to enter the city through its golden gate. He accepts, and is welcomed into what appears to be paradise.

Niccolò dell’Abbate (1509/12-1571), Orlando Furioso (c 1550), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Torfanini, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), More of the Delights in Alcina’s Realm (Canto 6:74) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

He is given a new horse, and a young lad leads the hippogriff away. The two ladies who rode out to Ruggiero ask him to undertake a task for them. The plain on which the city stands is cut in two by a marsh, in which there’s a monster named Erifilla who defends the bridge, and sometimes runs rampage destroying the city’s gardens. Ruggiero happily agrees to take on the task of removing Erifilla – the story of which Ariosto holds over to the next canto.

Principal Characters

Alcina, sister of Morgana and King Arthur, a treacherous and evil sorceress.

Ariodante, Italian knight and suitor to Ginevra.

Astolfo, son of the King of England who is abducted by Alcina then turned into a myrtle bush.

Dalinda, lady-in-waiting to Ginevra, betrayed by the treacherous Polinesso.

Erifilla, a huge woman monster who guards a bridge in the marsh of Alcina’s island.

Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, wrongfully accused of admitting a lover, and condemned to burn at the stake.

Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother and Earl of Angus.

Morgana, sister of Alcina and King Arthur, a treacherous and evil sorceress, ‘Morgan Le Fey’.

Polinesso, the treachorous Duke of Albany who wants the hand of Ginevra.

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.

The artists

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.

Niccolò dell’Abbate (1509/12-1571) was an Italian Mannerist painter who introduced the Italianate Renaissance to France through the group known as the School of Fontainebleau. He was trained in Modena, and specialised in long narrative friezes. He later moved to Bologna before going to France in 1552, where he painted frescoes, including some in the Château of Fontainebleau. Sadly many of his frescoes have now been lost, and many of his easel paintings were burnt in 1643. He painted two sets of frescoes of Orlando Furioso, one in the ducal palace at Sassuolo near Modena, the other in Bologna itself.


Wikipedia on Ariosto
Wikipedia on Orlando Furioso

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.