At the end of the sixth canto of Orlando Furioso, the knight Ruggiero had been transported by the hippogriff to Alcina’s island. Despite his determination to avoid her, he was lured into her city by two fine ladies riding unicorns. They have asked him to deal with a woman monster named Erifilla, who guards the bridge on the nearby marsh.
Ariosto warns us that the events in the seventh canto are going to seem unbelievable, in the way that travellers’ tales often are, even when they’re true. Erifilla’s armour shines and sparkles with gems, and she rides a huge wolf. Her crest consists of the image of a poisonous toad, though. As Ruggiero approaches her, she challenges him to stop, but he continues. She prepares to fight, as he throws his spear prematurely and misses her. He’s quick to brandish his sword, but Erifilla is already lying inert on the ground in the midst of flowers and grass.
The two fine ladies call on Ruggiero not to harm her, so he sheathes his sword and accompanies the ladies through a dark wood, up a rough mountain track, and into a park, where he sees a palace. As they approach its gate, Alcina comes out to greet him. She is ravishingly beautiful, and without blemish, and instantly beguiles Ruggiero.
Alcina entertains the knight to a lavish dinner, following which they play a whispering game to pair themselves off as lovers.
They eventually go to their rooms, Ruggiero alone and eagerly anticipating the arrival of Alcina. She keeps him waiting, and when she appears, she is wearing a transparent silk négligé. After their first night of lovemaking, they continue their affair in secret for many nights. They spend all the day together, going fishing out in the park.
While Alcina and Ruggiero are fully occupied with one another’s pleasure, Agramante is laying siege to Charlemagne, and Ruggiero’s love Bradamante pines for him. She had searched hard for him, and continues to ask everyone she meets in case they might know where he has gone, refusing to accept that he is dead. She then resolves to return to Merlin’s tomb in the hope that she might learn of Ruggiero’s fate.
There Bradamante meets Melissa, the good sorceress, again, and learns that Ruggiero was last seen flying off on a hippogriff. Melissa sees that Ruggiero is now wasting his life in the pursuit of pleasure on Alcina’s island, where he is enslaved. Melissa promises to rescue Ruggiero, departing for India first thing in the morning, provided that Bradamante gives her the magic ring which counteracts all spells.
Atlante, the old wizard who flew the hippogriff and imprisoned Ruggiero; Melissa, good sorceress and follower of Merlin; Alcina, who beguiled Ruggiero with her faux beauty.
Within a day, Melissa, the magic ring safely in her purse, reaches Alcina’s island. Once there, she transforms herself to look like Atlante, the evil sorceror who had first imprisoned Ruggiero in his steel castle. She then hides in the gardens around Alcina’s palace, waiting for Ruggiero to be alone. When he walks out to take the air, Melissa challenges him, questioning his un-knightly appearance and reminding him of his destiny. She compares Alcina to a whore, and puts the knight to shame. At this point, Melissa slips the magic ring onto Ruggiero’s little finger, and breaks Alcina’s enchantments.
Melissa explains the situation with Bradamante, and how she has come to rescue him from the clutches of Alcina. Ruggiero quickly develops a deep hatred for Alcina, and thanks to the magic ring he sees her in her true light, not as a bewitching beauty but as the hideous and wizened old crone that she really is. Ruggiero doesn’t let Alcina know that he can see who she is, but goes to the palace armoury to retrieve his sword and shield. He avoids taking either the horse that Alcina had assigned him, or the hippogriff, riding away instead on Astolfo’s horse Rabicano, for the gate through which he can leave Alcina’s land and enter that of the good Logistilla.
Ruggiero has to fight his way through the gate before he can break through it to safety, and head for a wood. He meets one of Logistilla’s servants with his falcon. The servant demands to know where the knight is heading, and when Ruggiero refuses to tell him, threatens to loose his falcon at him. The knight ends up being pursued by the falcon, the servant’s horse, the servant, and his dog – all running like the wind after him. Ruggiero is forced to uncover Atlante’s magic shield and blind his pursuers, who promptly collapse and fall asleep behind him.
Meanwhile Alcina learns of Ruggiero’s escape, and commands her army to stop him. Half are sent after the fleeing knight, and the others to embark on ships to prevent him from leaving by sea. This leaves the palace unmanned, giving Melissa the opportunity to free all the prisoners who Alcina kept spellbound as plants and other objects. Once turned back into people, they hurry away.
When Melissa frees Astolfo from being a myrtle bush, she searches for his lance, which is renowned for its unerring accuracy in striking its target. With that, she rides off with Astolfo to Logistilla’s land. Ruggiero has now entered a hot and arid section of desert.
Back in Scotland, Rinaldo, now held in high esteem by the King of Scotland and his court, after he had saved the king’s daughter from execution, decides that it’s time to put Charlemagne’s request for support to them. His case convinces the king, who puts all his troops at Rinaldo’s disposal, regretting that he is himself too old to join them.
As Scotland mobilises its men, Rinaldo rides to Berwick, where he boards a ship to London to plead with the English court to show the same support. There the Prince of Wales not only honours the King of England’s pledge of support, but adds those from neighbouring islands and appoints a day when they will depart.
Rinaldo also thinks of his love for Angelica. She was last asking an old hermit the way to the coast, so that she could flee not just from France, but from Europe. Much to his surprise, the hermit found himself lusting after the beautiful Angelica, and he tried to keep her with him. When she speeds off on her horse, he tries unsuccessfully to get his donkey to keep up with her. He returns to his cave, where he summons daemons and commands them to put him in possession of her horse.
The hermit then waits until Angelica has been making progress along the coast of Gascony, where he drives the horse out to sea with Angelica still in its saddle. As the horse swims further out, she is unable to turn it round and head back to the land, and weeps in despair. Eventually, towards dusk, the horse heads for a lonely and forbidding section of coast, where, amid rocks and caves, the horse abandons her to the night.
Angelica then laments. As she is speaking of her chastity, the old hermit descends from the cliff top, where he has been brought by his daemons, and stands on the lonely beach beside her. He first consoles her, then produces a bottle of elixir which leaves the damsel deeply asleep on the beach.
The hermit fondles and kisses her limp body, and tries to rape her while she is unconscious. But after all these years of disuse, he remains impotent, and is forced to sleep beside her instead. Fortune hasn’t finished with the old hermit yet, and will play more tricks with him.
Agramante, King of Africa, who is leading the war against Charlemagne in revenge for the killing of his father, Troiano. Non-Christian.
Alcina, sister of Morgana and King Arthur, a treacherous and evil sorceress.
Angelica, beautiful daughter of the ruler of Cathay, who is loved and pursued by innumerable knights both Christian and not.
Astolfo, son of the King of England who is abducted by Alcina then turned into a myrtle bush.
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.
Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.
Erifilla, a huge woman monster who guards a bridge in the marsh of Alcina’s island.
Logistilla, a good sorceress whose lands have been stolen by Alcina and Morgana.
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.
Morgana, sister of Alcina and King Arthur, a treacherous and evil sorceress, ‘Morgan Le Fey’.
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.
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.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was one of the greatest narrative painters of Europe. Flemish by adoption as a child, he trained in Antwerp, becoming a Master by 1598. After eight years in Italy, where he painted for the Mantuan court, he travelled extensively in Europe on both diplomatic missions and to paint for royal courts. From 1621-30, he was engaged by Marie de’ Medici to paint a cycle of works celebrating her and her late husband Henry IV, and it was during that period that Rubens painted the work shown above. He retired outside Antwerp in 1630, and continued to paint masterpieces until his death ten years later.
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872) was a German painter who trained at the Vienna Academy, from where he went to Rome in 1815 to join the Nazarene movement there, with Johann Friedrich Overbeck and others. He was involved in the campaign to re-introduce traditional fresco painting, and in 1822 was commissioned to paint frescoes depicting Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in the entrance hall to the Villa Massimo in Rome. He completed these by 1827, when he returned to Munich to paint frescoes for the new palace there showing scenes from the Nibelungenlied. He later turned to Biblical illustrations and designs for stained glass windows.
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.