Orlando Furioso: Saracens attack Paris, and a self-healing monster

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Astolfo Riding Away with the Head of Orrilo (c 1873), oil on canvas, 54 × 77 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Agramante, the King of Africa, had decided to launch a major assault on the city of Paris before Charlemagne’s reinforcements arrived from Britain and elsewhere. The day before this, Charlemagne’s prayers had been answered by God, who sent the Archangel Michael to assist. He in turn enabled Rinaldo and his troops to approach Paris in silence, leaving the massed Saracen forces unaware of their presence.

Inside the besieged city, its population are preparing their defences, and readying themselves to slaughter Saracens as they try to enter the city. Culverts drive deep into the ground underneath it, and the River Seine has two huge gates across it, secured by chains.

An early attack by Spanish soldiers meets Christian forces on the wall, who repel them with a hail of fire and stones.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), Orlando Furioso (detail) (1822-27), fresco, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Saracens flee noxious liquids and clouds. Among their leaders is Rodomonte, who is in love with Dorlice, who had been seduced by Mandricardo. Rodomonte’s men scale ladders placed against the wall. Their leader puts himself into danger, crossing the moat and climbing up to fight the defenders with great success.

As more Saracens rush up their ladders, the defending French withdraw to the next layer of their defences to watch their attackers drop into a fearful trench where they are killed en masse. Rodomonte leaps across that obstacle and rushes onward, continuing to kill the French as fast as they come at him. Behind him, the defenders set alight to their defensive trench, burning most of Rodomonte’s troops alive.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), At the Siege of Paris, Rodomonte Leaps Over a Huge Moat (Canto 14:130) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Africans, led by Agramante and his generals, attack one of the city’s gates, which proves more heavily defended than they had expected.

Ariosto then breaks from his account of the attack on Paris to resume the story of Astolfo, who had been captive as a myrtle bush thanks to an evil spell of Alcina. Logistilla, whose lands had been seized by the sorceress, had been restored to her throne, and wanted to send Astolfo back home at last. Logistilla provided Astolfo with a well-found ship and the guidance of Sofròsina and Andrònica. To help him further, she provided a book which would save him from evil magic, and break any spell, and a Magic Horn to blow.

Astolfo sets sail and reaches the coast of India, which the ship then follows on its journey west. Andrònica explains that the continent of Africa blocks their way, so that they cannot sail onward to Europe, and provides a prophecy that the whole world will be united under a future emperor, Charles V. Their ship then reaches a port in the Persian Gulf, where they disembark and start their overland journey.

They travel through strange lands until they reach the mouth of the River Nile. They are approached by a hermit in a boat, who warns them not to travel on alone, preferring instead his safe passage. He tells them that a few miles further on is a giant who has been killing everyone who approaches. He uses a net hidden in the sand to entrap his victims, then eats them.

Astolfo tells the hermit that he must press on for the sake of honour, and tackle the giant, so that others won’t be killed by him.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Monsters in Astolfo’s Path (Canto 15:38) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The knight rides on, and discovers a hut around which are various body parts. The giant, Caligorante, thinks this is his lucky day, so he hurries off to ambush Astolfo near a marsh. Astolfo first blows a long blast on his Magic Horn, which so scares the giant that he falls into his own net, which binds him up ready for the knight to kill.

But Astolfo takes pity on the giant, who is caught up in the same net that Vulcan had made when he caught his wife Venus making love with Mars; it had been stolen by Mercury to catch Chloris, and eventually taken by the giant. The knight puts the giant’s hands into manacles, and renders him helpless before removing the net. He then sets off to parade his prize in the towns for all to see.

Daniel Berger (1744-1824), Plate 5 for Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1772), etching, 9.1 x 5.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Astolfo Leads the Tamed Giant into Cairo (Canto 15:62) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

After reaching the city of Cairo, Astolfo sets off to kill an evil monster Orrilo, who has set himself up at Damietta, and terrorises all those trying to travel. When he reaches the right location, he finds the robber fighting with two well-respected warriors. Orrilo has the advantage of a crocodile, and every wound that the knights inflict heals again instantly: no blow or incision leaves him injured. When his head is cut off, Orrilo bends down, picks it up, replaces it, and carries on fighting as if nothing has happened.

Astolfo and the two warriors recognise one another, and when the sun sets – and the code of chivalry dictates that all combat ceases – two ladies take the three of them off to rest. There they secure the captive Caligorante while they dine and talk. Astolfo reveals that his Magic Book explains that monsters such as Orrilo only die when a specific hair is plucked from their head, and resolves to test that strategy in the morning, if only he can discover which hair he needs to remove.

At first light the following morning, Astolfo faces Orrilo in grim combat. After cutting the monster’s arms off, only for them to reattach and carry on fighting, Astolfo decapitates him and quickly rides off, carrying Orrilo’s head towards the Nile. The monster’s body gropes for his head in the dirt before leaping onto his horse and riding off in pursuit of Astolfo, who by now is frantically searching for the magic hair which will kill Orrilo.

Arnold Böcklin; Astolf reitet mit dem Haupte Orills davon; um 1873
Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Astolfo Riding Away with the Head of Orrilo (c 1873), oil on canvas, 54 × 77 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

The knight shears the hair using his sword, and by chance cuts the critical hair, killing both the head which he holds, and the body which is riding along in pursuit.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Astolfo Shows Grifone, Aquilante and the Two Beneficent Fairies How He Has Slain Orrilo by Removing the Enchanted Hair From His Head (Canto 15:88) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Astolfo parades the dead head of Orrilo, and the other two knights are now duty bound to go to the aid of Charlemagne in Paris. They resolve to visit the Holy Land on their way, and to support their travel across desert they load Caligorante up with all their provisions. By the gate of Jerusalem, the three meet Sansonetto, a knight from Mecca whom they know. He is busy fortifying the city and its holy places, to protect them from the Caliph of Egypt.

Astolfo gives the tamed giant Caligorante and Vulcan’s net to Sansonetto, in return for which he is given a shoulder-belt (baldric) and a pair of golden spurs. They spend some days in penance and contemplation, until they meet a traveller from Greece, who brings bad news for one of the knights. The lady with whom this knight is in love has betrayed him, and gone to Antioch with a lover. The knight therefore decides to secretly go to Antioch to find her and dispose of his rival.

Principal Characters

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.

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

Caligorante, a giant who has been eating anyone who comes within reach of him in Egypt.

Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.

Doralice, daughter of the King of Granada.

Logistilla, a good sorceress whose lands have been stolen by Alcina and Morgana.

Mandricardo, King of Tartary and son of Agricane, an ‘oriental’ pagan knight.

Orrilo, an evil monster who is able to repair himself by reattaching limbs, head, etc.

Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights.

Rodomonte, the African King of Sarza and Algiers, the son of Ulieno.

Sansonetto, son of the King of Persia, based in Mecca.

The artists

Daniel Berger (1744-1825) was a German engraver who was sufficiently eminent to be appointed professor of the Prussian Academy of Arts.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) was a Swiss symbolist and mythological painter who trained at the Düsseldorf Academy, and worked in Italy, Switzerland (Basel and Zurich), and Germany (Munich). I have recently written two articles about his symbolist paintings, and have also looked at his narrative works.

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.

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.


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.