Orlando Furioso: Insatiable women and the ultimate self-sacrifice

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Rodomonte Has Erected a Mausoleum for Isabella and Zerbino; Near it, on a Narrow Bridge Over a River He Combats All Wayfaring Knights (Canto 29:36) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When Doralice had rejected him, Rodomonte stormed off from the siege of Paris and headed home. Having reached the River Saône, he stayed in an inn whose landlord proved talkative at dinner that night, and offered to tell Rodomonte one of the most remarkable stories about the fidelity of women, which he had been told by a Venetian ‘man of the world’.

Ariosto opens Canto 28 with a caution for women not to read this story, because it will offend them – a clear inducement for all readers to continue.

After his older brother died, Astolfo inherited the throne of Lombardy. He was a handsome man, but his friend at court, Fausto Latini, told him that his brother Giocondo was even more handsome. Astolfo found this hard to believe, so asked Fausto to bring his brother to him, to which his friend replied that Giocondo had never left Rome, and wouldn’t leave his wife either.

Fausto visited his brother at the behest of the king, and persuaded him to return with him to court. He and his wife grieved before they had even parted, but Giocondo promised that he would return as soon as he could. His wife had worn a precious crucifix hung from a chain around her neck, which her father had given her, and she gave that to Giocondo as a keepsake during their separation. During their final night together before his departure, they stayed awake most of the night in one another’s arms, so once her husband had left, his wife went back to bed.

Soon after his departure, Giocondo realised that he’d forgotten the crucifix, having left it under his pillow. He therefore returned home alone to collect it, promising to catch up his brother’s party later. When he drew the curtains of their bed back, Giocondo discovered his wife in the arms of one of their servants. He intended to draw his sword and kill them both, but couldn’t murder his wife, so left the couple asleep and caught up with his brother again.

Giocondo’s demeanour was understandably changed by this, but his brother Fausto couldn’t understand why, presuming it was because his sister-in-law was alone, when it was in fact the exact opposite. That assumption led Fausto to make his brother’s mood worse, by talking about Giocondo’s wife. This affected Fausto’s brother so much that his face became drawn and distressed, and far from as handsome as he had been.

Fausto thought it best to prepare the king for the changed appearance of his brother, so wrote him a letter which he sent ahead of them as they travelled to his court. When they arrived, the king was delighted that there was no question as to who was the more handsome, and welcomed them. Astolfo tried to help Giocondo to convalesce from his illness, but he just languished and shunned all company, brooding darkly on his wife’s infidelity.

Giocondo then discovered something which triggered his recovery: in the wall of one of the rooms in his suite in the palace was a crack through which he could see into a room in which the queen secretly met with her most intimate friends, including a dwarf who made love to her. Giocondo thus realised that he couldn’t blame his wife, who at least hadn’t been unfaithful with an ugly old dwarf: this insatiability wasn’t her fault at all, but characteristic of women.

He watched the couple making love day after day, until the dwarf failed to appear. When the queen sent a maid to discover why he hadn’t come to her, she learned that it was because he’d been losing at a game of cards, and wouldn’t leave the game until he had got even.

At this, Giocondo was a changed man, and made a remarkable recovery. When the king enquired how this had come about, Giocondo made him swear first that no harm would come to his wife as a result of his revelations. Giocondo then explained the cause of his earlier grief, and took the king to look through the hole in the wall, to see the dwarf making love to his queen.

King Astolfo was beside himself with anger, but bound by his oath, so he asked Giocondo what he could do. The latter replied that they should see how many wives would be as adulterous with them as their wives had been with others. He suggested to the king that they should travel abroad in their quest to have sex with a thousand wives, so curing their broken hearts.

The king wasted no time, and the pair set out with two squires on their quest for unlimited adultery. They travelled through Italy, France, Flanders and England meeting with great success. Wherever they went, none of the women proved chaste, and when they moved on they left a trail of husbands baying for their blood.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), King Astolfo of the Langobards and Iocondo Latini Travel All Over Europe Incognito, Making Love to Beautiful Women (Canto 28:48) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Amorous Adventures in Women’s Chambers (Canto 28:49) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

They finally decided to find one woman who would be unfaithful with them both, to see if that would satisfy her. After a search, they found the daughter of a humble Spanish innkeeper by the name of Fiammetta, who enjoyed them both in succession. They took her on a tour of North Africa, and while they were out seeing the sights she was left to help the staff lay out their next meal. She was chatted up by one of the kitchen boys named Greco, who wanted to make love to Fiammetta. She explained her predicament in being shared every night by the king and Giocondo, but suggested that he could creep up the stairs once the men had fallen asleep exhausted.

Later that night, when the king and Giocondo had tired themselves out making love to Fiammetta, Greco slipped between the sheets and took over until dawn. The two men had been aware of her continued lovemaking, but each assumed it had been the other, and neither suspected that she’d been entertaining a third partner. The following morning, Astolfo and Giocondo got irritated with one another over this, and summoned Fiammetta. When they asked her who had had the pleasure, she begged their forgiveness and explained what had happened.

Astolfo and Giocondo laughed until they cried, and asked how they could possibly ensure that their wives were faithful when they couldn’t even prevent Fiammetta taking a third lover in the same bed. They concluded that their own wives were no more lecherous and no less chaste than any of the thousand or more whom they had taken in adultery. They blessed Fiammetta and Greco’s marriage and gave them a substantial dowry before returning to their wives. And they never again found any fault in their wives’ behaviour.

So the innkeeper ends his story for Rodomonte, who sits silent for a while before agreeing its conclusion. An older man, though, suggests that the story is untrue, and falsely generalises from just a few instances of adultery. He asks those present if there’s one man there who hasn’t been unfaithful to his wife, and would refuse the offer of extra-marital sex? He goes on to state that the few wives who are unfaithful have surely had good reason, usually because their own husbands have been similarly unfaithful.

Rodomonte doesn’t seek truth, though, and cuts the old man short before going to bed, where his grief over Doralice only continues. The following morning, he loads his stolen horse onto a ship and they travel down the river. His grief grows as he travels further, to the bridge at Avignon, which is now in territory occupied by the Saracens. Near Aiguesmortes he finds a town with a newly built church, now abandoned, the people and priests having fled. He stops there a while.

One day as he is again wallowing in his pain a woman approaches, accompanied by a bearded monk. They bring with them a horse which is bearing Zerbino’s body, draped in black. This is the grieving Isabella, who despite her mournful mission still shows her great beauty. As soon as Rodomonte sets eyes on her, he decides that she could be his second lover. He talks with her, and discovers that she is looking for a convent where she can hide from the world and do good works.

Rodomonte tells her that she is mistaken, and should enjoy her beauty. On overhearing this, the monk preaches of the Day of Judgement. Rodomonte tries to interrupt him unsuccessfully, and grows angry. He pulls at the monk’s beard, then grasps his neck, swings him round in the air, and throws him towards the sea, where he is presumed to have died of his injuries.

The knight then turns to Isabella, and tries to seduce her with his words. She has decided to die rather than succumb to him, and offers him a herbal potion which, when he covers himself with it three times, will make him invulnerable to all wounds for a whole month. In return for that, she asks that he doesn’t touch her. Rodomonte, who respects neither God nor prophets, agrees to this, knowing that he’ll break his word as quickly as he made it.

Isabella then gathers the herbs to make her potion, and later that night she starts brewing them together, with Rodomonte watching avidly. During the night, he and the lady’s servants become exceedingly thirsty, and drink copious amounts of stolen Greek wine. As the Saracen is unused to alcohol, he readily becomes drunk.

With her work complete, Isabella sets out to convince the knight of the efficacy and safety of her potion. She covers her head, neck and breast with it, and tells him to test it out by trying to cut her head off with his sword. He is tricked, and in one stroke of his sword beheads her. Her head bounces three times, calling Zerbino’s name, as she keeps her vow of chastity.

Rodomonte blames the wine for his confusion and Isabella’s death. He decides to make amends by converting the little church into a mausoleum to her. He summons stone masons and thousands of labourers to construct a huge stone edifice around the church in which Isabella and Zerbino’s bodies are laid to rest. He then lives in the great building as its guard.

Rodomonte decides that the small bridge over the river nearby isn’t wide enough, and has it enlarged, with a toll charged for its use. With construction of the mausoleum still in progress, Rodomonte posts a watch on its top, to blow his horn when a rider approaches the bridge. This allows the knight to challenge each intruder, and fight them, one false step dropping them into the deep and fast-flowing river beneath. The Saracen reasons that, should he fail to defeat a challenger, he would drink the river water, and it would wash away his sin of drinking wine.

It turns out that his bridge is well-used by many travelling to Italy or Spain, and a great many fall from it, some drowning. Non-Christians whom he defeats are stripped and their weapons hung in his mausoleum, but he keeps Christians as prisoners there, intending to send them to Algiers.

One day, along comes Orlando, still at the height of his madness. He leaps over the gate, and runs across the bridge. Rodomonte tells him to go back, but Orlando doesn’t hear him and continues. Just as the Saracen is trying to westle Orlando into the river, the beautiful Fiordiligi arrives in quest of her missing husband Brandimarte. The two men, one naked, the other armed, struggle with one another as Fiordiligi watches.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Rodomonte Has Erected a Mausoleum for Isabella and Zerbino; Near it, on a Narrow Bridge Over a River He Combats All Wayfaring Knights (Canto 29:36) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Daniel Berger (1744-1824), Plate 9 for Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1772), etching, 9.1 x 5.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Both Orlando and Rodomonte fall from the bridge, still locked hand-to-hand. They separate instantly in the water, Orlando swimming like a fish to reach the bank, where he rushes off in his madness. Rodomonte is weighed down by his armour, and has a struggle to surface, breathless. While he is sorting himself out, Fiordiligi searches the mausoleum, where she finds no sign of her husband or his arms.

Orlando races on in his fury. Two young woodcutters call on him to give way to them, but Orlando simply kicks their donkey half a mile through the air. One of the young men leaps down and escapes, the other is caught and torn in two. Eventually, Orlando travels down to Tarragon in Spain, where he intends making himself a shelter in the sand to avoid the sun. Out of sight, he sees Angelica and her new husband Medoro riding together.

By now, Orlando is unrecognisable, his skin almost black from exposure, and his face gaunt and thin. When Angelica sees him, she rides away screaming, making Orlando rush at her with desire. Medoro sees them, and tries vainly to cut Orlando down. The madman strikes Medoro’s horse, shattering its head. Angelica pops her magic ring in her mouth and promptly vanishes from sight, just as she falls from her horse onto the sand.

Orlando misses her invisible body and chases her mount. When he catches the mare, he mounts the saddle and rides in a frenzy, day and night. Eventually the horse falls into a ditch and dislocates a shoulder, so Orlando carries her on his shoulders until he tires. When she finally dies of injuries and exhaustion, Orlando drags her carcass behind him, as he carves his way through the country in his murderous frenzy.

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.

Astolfo, king of Lombardy, and renowned for his good looks.

Doralice, daughter of the King of Granada, and Mandricardo’s damsel.

Fausto Latini, a Roman at the Lombard court, best friend of King Astolfo.

Fiammetta, daughter of a humble Spanish innkeeper, who becomes simultaneous lover to Astolfo, Giocondo, and her boyfriend.

Fiordiligi, daughter of the King of Lizza and wife of Brandimarte, who has gone missing.

Giocondo, Fausto Latini’s brother, who lives in Rome and has never travelled beyond that city.

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.

Medoro, one of Prince Dardinello’s Moorish soldiers, a ‘pagan’, who has married Angelica after she nursed him to recovery from his wounds.

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

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

Zerbino, son of the King of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish forces, only to die of his wounds sustained in a fight with Mandricardo.

The artists

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

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.