Orlando Furioso: Treachery, reunion, and madness

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Orlando Furioso (1901), oil and tempera on wood, 103 x 150 cm, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany. Image by sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the last episode of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, just before Christmas, we left the woman knight Marfisa and her colleagues, who had just escaped the fearsome tribe of women who had held them captive, and sailed to the French port of Marseilles. All that is apart from Astolfo, who had been blowing his magic horn to terrify the population, and was left behind wondering where Marfisa and the others had gone.

After arriving in Marseilles Marfisa goes her own way, leaving the other four knights to travel on together to a castle which fills them with unease. Marfisa travels on and comes across a sad old woman, who used to be the servant of the robbers who had earlier been killed and dispersed by Orlando. The old woman asks Marfisa to carry her across marshy land, which she is happy to do. There they meet Pinabello, who had previously betrayed Bradamante; the damsel accompanying him mocks the old woman riding pillion with Marfisa, who is upset by this, and challenges Pinabello to fight for dress and horse.

Marfisa promptly knocks Pinabello from his horse with her lance, and leaves him stunned on the ground. So Marfisa makes the damsel strip and hand over her fine clothing and mount, which she gives to the old woman.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Marfisa (1852), oil on canvas, 82 x 101 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Four days later, Marfisa comes across Prince Zerbino, who is pursuing a knight who broke the code of chivalry. He too mocks the old woman, now dressed in the damsel’s fine clothes, and (being unaware that Marfisa is a woman) he assumes that she is the knight’s ugly and withered wife. They too end up fighting, and again Marfisa’s lance unseats another knight and leaves him stunned on the ground. Marfisa then exacts her prize, leaving the old woman with Zerbino as she gallops off into the wood, after revealing that she is a woman, to the prince’s mortification.

Zerbino then laments the loss of his fair and beloved Isabella, and his presumption that she must now be dead. The old woman, though, knows the truth, and teases him with the fact that she knows Isabella’s fate. All she then reveals is that she’s not dead, but longs for death’s release. They continue to travel together as the old woman wishes, according to the code of chivalry, but now in a frosty silence.

They meet Ermonide of Holland, a knight known to the old woman, who challenges Zerbino with a threat against the old woman’s life. Despite his dislike for the old woman, Zerbino fights, wounds Ermonide in the shoulder and unseats him. Lying there wounded, Ermonide reveals that Zerbino’s companion is evil, as she tried to seduce his wounded brother Filandro, who attempted to escape from her. The old woman then told her husband that it was Filandro who had tried to seduce her, and her husband fought and defeated him, but spared his life.

Filandro was then confined in prison, where the old woman tried to seduce him again. The old woman’s husband, who was still holding Filandro captive, then pretended to go away to Jerusalem, to trick his enemy into making a move against him. The old woman used this as a ploy to get Filandro to kill her husband, which he did, thinking he was the husband’s enemy instead. She then threatened to have him executed for that crime, leaving him no option but to submit to her desire before being freed and allowed to return home in great grief.

The old woman then decided to have Filandro killed by poison administered by a doctor. To ensure that the only witness would also be dead, she first made the doctor swallow some of the poison before it was given to Filandro; both were left dead as a result of her evil.

Zerbino is naturally moved by this, and makes the wounded Ermonide as comfortable as he can before moving off cursing the old woman. Towards dusk, they hear the sounds of combat, and head towards them. When they reach the gully in which there had been fighting, they find a dead knight.

Meanwhile Astolfo had been left behind after scaring all the women away, and the departure of Marfisa and the other kinghts for Marseilles. He travels through Anatolia then takes a boat up the River Danube through Hungary, crosses the Rhine and enters France. From its north coast, he takes another ship to England, and rides on to London. He discovers that his father Otto and all the other nobles have gone to France to support Charlemagne, so takes a ship to return to Calais. Due to unfavourable winds, he ends up in Rouen instead.

Still carrying his magic horn that drives so many away, he heads toward Paris. Reaching a wood, he rests near a spring. As he is wetting his lips, a peasant steals his horse and rides off on it. Astolfo gives chase on foot, and the horsethief keeps him in sight until they reach Atlante’s enchanted palace being used to imprison many by magic. There the thief and horse suddenly vanish, and all Astolfo can find are its many deserted rooms.

Suspecting this is the result of a spell, Astolfo refers to the book of counter-spells which had been given to him by Logistilla. He finds many to deal with such illusory buildings, and as he starts trying them out the evil magician Atlante makes Astolfo appear in different forms to the other knights he has trapped in the palace. Just as they’re about to attack him, Astolfo blows his magic horn and they all run for cover, including Atlante himself.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Sorcerer Flees the Destruction of his Palace (Canto 22:61) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

At this, Astolfo breaks the spell of the palace, which vanishes into thin air. He then discovers the hippogriff, which had been brought to the palace after it flew away from Ruggiero. As he is already familiar with how to control the hippogriff using its bridle, Astolfo decides to fly away on it once he has found someone to entrust his own charger to.

Among the others who scattered when the magic horn was blown are Ruggiero and Bradamante, who at last are able to see one another, now that Atlante’s magic is undone. They embrace in joy, and agree to marry once Ruggiero has been baptised. They make their way to an abbey in Vallombrosa, but Bradamante is in tears. When Ruggiero asks her why, she replies that the lover of King Marsilio’s daughter is to be burned at the stake by morning. Ruggiero resolves to rescue the young man.

The pair have two routes to reach the condemned man: the direct one will get them there in time, but passes by a castle from which Pinabello has been putting all passing by through a shameful ordeal in which they must lose their clothes and horses. The other and safer route simply won’t get them there in time.

Apparently Pinabello is exacting this penalty because it happened to him recently, when he met Marfisa and the old woman. This has already been forced on Grifone, Sansonetto, Aquilante and a younger knight-errant, who had not long arrived in the country. Worse still, each of those knights is now bound by their word to exact the same penalty on others whom they meet, in turn.

Ruggiero and Bradamante choose the shorter route, and as they reach the castle they hear a bell ring twice. An old man riding a nag comes rushing out and tells them the custom of the castle, as they had feared. He advises them not to engage in combat, but for Bradamante to undress, and surrender their weapons and horses there and then. Ruggiero refuses to give in, and accepts the challenge to combat, although Bradamante wants him to let her fight in his place.

Sansonetto is first to fight, and is immediately wounded and unhorsed by Ruggiero’s lance. Pinabello then comes out to see who has succeeded in this first fight, and is riding the same horse that he stole from Bradamante eight months earlier, when he had thrown her down Merlin’s cave and abandoned her for dead. She recognises him and her horse, draws her sword and challenges him to right the wrong that he did her. Pinabello turns and rides off for his life, with Bradamante in hot pursuit.

The occupants of the castle stay to watch Ruggiero now take on the other three knights, who are reminded by Pinabello’s damsel of their solemn promise to fight him. Those knights are in deep shame, as they are duty-bound to fight Ruggiero. He recalls the three previous times that he has used the magic shield which he is carrying to render his foes unconscious, but decides not to deploy its power here.

Grifone’s weapon makes a small tear in the silken cover which proves sufficient for its blinding ray to collapse him from his mount. Next, Aquilante tears the rest of the cover from the shield, and both Ruggiero’s remaining opponents are made senseless and fall to the ground. When he turns his charger round to face further combat, he sees that everyone, even the horses, has succumbed to the magic ray from his shield, and is lying on the ground incapable.

Ruggiero rides off in search of Bradamante, once he has restored a cover for his shield using the mantle taken from Pinabello’s damsel. But the knight is embarrassed that his victory had been the result of magic, not his skill at arms. As he reaches a deep well, he ties a heavy stone to the shield, and casts it into the water so that it sinks immediately to the bottom. This story travels quickly through France and Spain, and others set off in quest for this magic shield.

While this is taking place, Bradamante catches Pinabello and kills him with her sword. She then rides back but can’t find Ruggiero, and goes deeper into a wood, where she is forced to spend the night in tears for separation from her beloved knight.

At dawn she quickly finds her way out of the wood, where Atlante’s magic palace had stood until its recent destruction, and she had been held captive. There she finds her cousin Astolfo, who is still seeking someone to look after his charger so he can fly off on the hippogriff. He entrusts his horse to her, and asks that she transfers his weapons to Montalbano for him, enabling him to travel light.

As Astolfo flies off, Bradamante is unsure what to do. Should she return to the abbey to meet Ruggiero? As she is wrestling with this, a peasant appears, and she hands the horses (Astolfo’s, and hers recovered from Pinabello) over to him, securing her cousin’s weapons to them for transportation. She then picks a route at random, from where she can soon see the castle at Montalbano where her mother lives. But she changes her mind and decides to head for the abbey instead, and Ruggiero.

She soon meets her brother Alardo, who has been finding billets for the soldiers and horses recruited for Charlemagne’s forces, and turns back to ride to Montalbano with him. Her mother is greatly relieved at her return, and they send a damsel to the abbey at Vallombrosa to explain her delay in getting there for her wedding to Ruggiero.

As this damsel is on her journey, she meets Rodomonte, led by a dwarf, who had sworn that he would take the first horse that he came across. Assuming that the damsel’s horse is not her own, he asks her whose it is. She replies that it is Ruggiero’s, so Rodomonte takes the horse, telling the damsel that Ruggiero is welcome to charge him for its use if he so wishes. The damsel is left walking, hurling curses at Rodomonte as he rides away.

Shortly after Bradamante had killed the treacherous Pinabello, Zerbino happened to pass, still stuck with the old woman in tow. Not knowing what had happened, Zerbino sets off in search of the killer, leaving the old woman behind. He returns shortly, after the woman had robbed the corpse of a jewelled belt. As it will soon get dark, Zerbino and the woman head for the castle of Altaripa, where they are given beds for the night. There they learn that Count Anselmo has just been told that his son has been found murdered in a nearby mountain pass.

Later that night, Pinabello’s body is brought into the castle, and his father announces a bounty for anyone who knows who killed his son. The old woman seizes the chance, and tells the Count that it was Zerbino, providing the belt as evidence. Zerbino is immediately thrown into heavy shackles and jailed, and later sentenced to be dismembered at the place that Pinabello was killed.

The following morning, Zerbino is tied to an old nag ready to take away to be executed. But as that is happening, Orlando arrives, accompanied by Isabella, whom he had rescued from being held captive by pirates. Isabella is also Zerbino’s beloved, you will recall, and as soon as she sees who is being taken away to his death, Orlando hears her vouch for Zerbino. Orlando instructs the rabble from the castle to untie their victim immediately. When one of them challenges this, Orlando breaks his neck with his lance, runs another through the chest, and kills a total of at least eighty.

When Zerbino sees Isabella, he wants to embrace her, as he had thought her long drowned, but assumes that she is now Orlando’s lover, which hurts him more than if she were dead. The three ride in tense silence to a spring, where the two men remove their helmets. Isabella runs straight to Zerbino to embrace him, and reassure him that she loves no one else.

This celebration is cut short by sudden noise from a nearby wood, as Mandricardo emerges with a damsel. He had set out to avenge the deaths of Manilardo and Azirdo on Orlando, and quickly recognises him. The pagan knight explains that he swore he’d not wear a sword unless it was Orlando’s Durindana, won from him in combat. He accuses Orlando of killing Agrican by vile treachery, which Orlando denies, saying that Agrican’s fate was just and fair. They then fight for Durindana, which Orlando hangs from a tree.

Their contest is evenly matched, and both survive the first charges. They wrestle together, hand to hand, and Orlando ends up on the ground, taking the reins from his opponent’s horse with him. That makes Mandricardo’s horse bolt uncontrollably into the wood, and his damsel Doralice rides after him. Mandricardo’s horse meets a ditch, into which both horse and rider fall. The old woman who had falsely accused Zerbino of Pinabello’s killing then arrives on the scene, making Mandricardo and Doralice laugh at her inappropriate dress and horse. The Saracen takes the reins from the old woman’s horse for his own mount, and makes her horse gallop off into the distance.

Orlando has taken this time to remount his charger, but seeing no sign of Mandricardo’s return, he rides off with his sword Durindana, looking for his opponent in vain. Two days later, Orlando reaches a stream where he notices names inscribed in the bark of a tree, and recognises Angelica’s writing, paired with the name of Medoro. He sees them again and again on trees, each time his grief growing. He first tries to build false hope that his love might have been referring to him as Medoro.

Orlando then rests in a small grotto, where Medoro had written on the wall verses in Arabic describing how they had made love there. He reads these again and again, as his heart grows more pained by their meaning. He is overcome with sorrow, and for a while wonders how he can prove them to be forged. He rides to a nearby shepherd’s cottage, where the couple had stayed, and asks for a bed for the night. But he can hardly sleep, his grief and pain tormenting him all the more.

The shepherd tells Orlando of the couple and their sojourn in his cottage, and at the end of his account shows the bracelet which Angelica had given him on their departure. That is the final blow, proof to Orlando that his beloved Angelica is now married to another man. Tears well up, he sighs and groans in despair, and he realises that the bed that he is lying on is that in which the couple made love. Orlando jumps up and rushes out, wanting to escape the place, and rides around sobbing in grief all day and all night. He returns to their cave to slash at the poem on the wall with his sword, and at every tree where they had inscribed their names.

His grief only grows into madness: he tears his armour off, then his clothes, even abandoning his precious sword. He starts uprooting whole trees, tearing up forests in his despair.

Orlando furioso!

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Orlando, Totally Furious, Uproots Trees and Destroys Animals (Canto 24:13) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Orlando Furioso (1901), oil and tempera on wood, 103 x 150 cm, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany. Image by sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Principal Characters

Angelica, beautiful daughter of the ruler of Cathay, who is loved and pursued by innumerable knights both Christian and not, and marries Medoro.

Aquilante, son of Oliver, a Christian knight, and brother of Grifone.

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 palace, 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.

Ermonide of Holland, Filandro’s brother, wounded by Zerbino.

Filandro, Ermonide’s brother, killed by the treachery of the old woman Gabrina.

Grifone, son of Oliver, a Christian knight, and brother of Aquilante.

Guidone Selvaggio, illegitimate son of Count Aymon, a Christian knight.

Isabella, daughter of the King of Spain, who falls in love with Zerbino, son of the King of Scotland, and tries to elope to him.

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

Marfisa, Ruggiero’s sister, a valiant and fearsome ‘pagan’ warrior.

Medoro, one of Prince Dardinello’s Moorish soldiers, a ‘pagan’, who marries Angelica.

Orlando, the hero, Charlemagne’s nephew and his most outstanding paladin.

Pinabello, son of Count Anselm Altaripa, a treacherous Maganzan who doesn’t follow the laws of chivalry, although a Christian.

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

Ruggiero, son of the King of Reggio, a non-Christian knight who is in love with Bradamante.

Sansonetto, envoy to Jerusalem, son of the King of Persia, who was baptised by Orlando.

Zerbino, son of the King of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish forces.

The artists

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.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was a major French painter whose Romantic and painterly style laid the groundwork for the Impressionists. In addition to many fine easel works, he painted murals and was an accomplished lithographer too. Many of his paintings are narrative, and among the most famous is Liberty Leading the People from 1830. This article looks at some of 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.


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.