This week, I start Canto 10 of ‘Orlando Furioso’, which contains one of its most popular stories, and has been extensively painted. Because there is another very similar but different story at the start of Canto 11, I provide two articles this week, the second tomorrow, which together cover this section of the epic. This should help us all understand the story more clearly, and be able to read these paintings more easily as a result.
Orlando, on his way to discover the fate of Angelica, undertook a mission for Olimpia. He defeated the Frisian forces singlehanded, reunited her with Bireno, and they got married as the knight sped off in quest of his love.
Ariosto opens Canto Ten with praise of the constancy of Olimpia before casting doubt on the faithfulness of her new husband, the young Bireno. Sure enough, Bireno takes a fancy to the daughter of the King of Frisia, who is only fourteen at the time. His affair with her displaces his love for Olimpia, and he then takes the young woman to Zealand, ostensibly to marry her off to his brother. The ship carrying Olimpia, Bireno and the young woman is caught in a severe storm, and after three days they are cast up on a remote island.
Olimpia and Bireno, exhausted by lack of sleep during the storm, go ashore to rest in a tent. Once she is fast asleep, he quietly gathers his possessions and abandons here there alone. When he returns to the ship, he wakes the crew and tells them to depart, leaving Olimpia stranded on the island.
When she wakes in the morning, Olimpia is shocked and distraught to discover herself abandoned. She waves in vain towards the horizon, and considers drowning herself. She is driven mad by Bireno’s treachery.
Meanwhile, Ruggiero has been making his way through barren and arid land, in his flight from the sorceress Alcina. In front of him, as he sweats from the merciless heat, a castle appears, with three of the ladies from Alcina’s court resting on fine carpets in its shadow, and enjoying the cool that he so desperately needs.
The knight is lured over to them, where they try to tempt him to dismount. Thankfully he reminds himself of Alcina, who must be hot on his heels, and declines. As the three damsels move off in a boat, Ruggiero plods on in the heat until he reaches nearby narrows, where a small ship awaits him.
As this ship carrying the knight makes its way, they see a fleet of ships approaching them. As that fleet bears down towards Ruggiero, the ferryman tells him to remove the cover from his magic shield, and use that in their defence. That does the trick, blinding the crews of Alcina’s fleet, setting alight to their ships, and forcing the sorceress to flee in defeat.
Ruggiero lands by Logistilla’s castle, which has hanging gardens in which the flowers never fade, and other delights. He is made welcome by the queen, and rests there for a couple of days before seeking her assistance.
He needs to travel to the west, to Aquitaine, for which she considers the hippogriff is the best means of transport. To make that feasible she has a bit made for the winged horse so that Ruggiero can control it.
This proves highly successful, and Ruggiero crosses the world to Cathay first, on to the Himalayas, over Prussia, and finally to England, where he approaches the city of London. He arrives there just as the British forces are mustering to go and assist Charlemagne in Paris. Their overall commander is Leonettto, Duke of Lancaster and the king’s nephew. Ruggiero is shown the banners of the many other dukes and earls who lead their forces under Leonetto’s command. There are also Scottish troops under the leadership of Prince Zerbino.
Ruggiero then demonstrates the remarkable powers of the hippogriff, as he flies off to Ireland, thence up to the Outer Hebrides, where he sees Angelica chained to a rock on the Isle of Tears. She had been brought there that morning, to satisfy the vile hunger of the orc. She was left, naked and chained to the rock, like a statue.
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.
Bireno, Duke of Zealand.
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.
Logistilla, a good sorceress whose lands have been stolen by Alcina and Morgana.
Olimpia, daughter of the Count of Holland, and wife of the unfaithful Bireno.
Orlando, the hero, Charlemagne’s nephew and his most outstanding paladin.
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.
Girolamo da Carpi (1501–1556) was an Italian painter who trained in Ferrara, and spent much of his career working in the court of the d’Este family there. He collaborated with Dosso Dossi, and supervised decorative work in the Vatican and Ferrara.
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.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) was probably the greatest French painter of the Rococo period, who was a pupil first of François Boucher, then of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the celebrated still-life painter. He won the Prix de Rome at the age of only 20. Although prolific, his works have since become ignored or reviled. This drawing is one of a series which he made to illustrate 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.