Rinaldo, his band of knights and private army of around seven hundred had attacked the Saracens besieging Paris by night, killed many, and put the survivors to rout. King Agramante had fled to Arles, in the south of France, where he regrouped those still fit to fight, including the wounded Ruggiero. The only exception to this was Gradasso, who challenged Rinaldo to combat now that he had Orlando’s sword Durindana: if Gradasso defeats Rinaldo, then the former will take the latter’s horse, Baiardo; if it is Rinaldo who triumphs, then Gradasso will give him Durindana.
King Agramante calls for reinforcements, and sends a messenger to Rodomonte, who is still keeping his lonely vigil at the mausoleum he had constructed for Isabella and Zerbino, but refuses to leave. Marfisa, though, rushes to lend the king her support, and takes with her the captive thief Brunello, who is promptly hung from the gallows for his crimes.
Bradamante is growing increasingly anxious for the return of Ruggiero, who is now long overdue. She starts to doubt him, but has still received no news of his fate. For a while, she finds hope in the memory of his face and voice, then one day she comes across a knight who had been a prisoner of the Africans until he was freed during Rinaldo’s assault. He’s able to tell Bradamante of the duel between Mandricardo and Ruggiero, which buoys her spirits until he tells her a rumour that Marfisa is betrothed to Ruggiero, and that they will marry once he has recovered.
At this, Bradamante is overwhelmed with jealousy, and throws herself on her bed and accuses Ruggiero of infidelity, ingratitude, and theft of her heart. She decides that she must die, but that it would be even more appropriate if it were Ruggiero who was to kill her, and before that she exacts her revenge on Marfisa too. Taking with her the golden lance of Astolfo, she rides off alone on the horse he used to ride, heading for Paris.
As she draws close to Montferrand and Clermont, she’s joined by a gracious lady on a horse escorted by three knights. Bradamante discovers that the lady is a messenger sent from the King of Iceland to find the King of the Franks, and give him a golden shield to be awarded to his most chivalrous knight. She also hopes to give that successful knight her hand in marriage. Her escorts are the kings of Sweden, Gothland and Norway.
At this, Bradamante only sees problems which will arise among the knights who compete for the award, then grows morose again over Ruggiero. She’s so distracted by her thoughts that she doesn’t notice it growing dark. Wondering if she’s going to have to sleep rough that night, she’s cheered to hear from a shepherd of Tristan’s castle nearby. Then he warns her that she will only be admitted if she wins that right in combat. If others arrive at the same time, she should be allowed in.
As she’s keen to spend the night under a roof, she hurries to the gate, which is barred. The guard tells her that all places are taken by a group of knights and their ladies who are now waiting for dinner to be served. Bradamante tells the gatekeeper to announce her as a knight, who will follow the custom to prove their right to a room.
Inside the castle, the challenge is not welcomed, as it’s already dark, cold and wet outside. The same three knights that had been riding with Bradamante earlier emerge across the lowered drawbridge to answer her challenge. Her magic lance first strikes the King of Sweden on the head, next it dumps the King of Gothland into the mud, as it does to the third, the King of Norway.
Bradamante gallops back to the castle and claims her bed, which she’s given on condition that she will, if called, fight any further challenger who might turn up at its gate. She goes to the fireplace, where she removes her helmet and astonishes everyone that she’s a woman. The keeper of the castle recognises her, and pays respect to her beauty and skills of chivalry as they talk beside the roaring fire.
The keeper explains that the castle’s strange tradition dates back to a prince who fell in love with a maid. The king had given him this castle, where he lived with the young woman, with ten knights to defend the site. One day Tristan arrived at dusk, but was refused entry by the prince. Tristan therefore challenged him, knocked the prince from his horse, and ejected both the prince and his knights so that he could spend the night inside the castle. There he met the prince’s lovely lady, and threatened the prince that he’d spend the night with her unless the prince remained outside. To this the prince could only acquiesce, and spent the night outside in the wind and rain.
As they sit down to dine, the keeper of the castle realises that there are two ladies present, although by tradition one should be outside sleeping rough. He calls on the servants and maids to decide which of Bradamante and the messenger from the King of Iceland shall be ejected. After careful scrutiny of both, they pronounce that it’s Bradamante who will stay in the castle. At this, Bradamante defends the messenger, and it’s agreed that both ladies will remain. They then enjoy the meal, except for Bradamante who descends into sadness and jealousy over Ruggiero.
Ariosto opens Canto thirty-three in praise of painters from the ancient Greeks onwards to Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. This leads into the revelation that the paintings in the Great Hall in which Bradamante and the others are dining had been made by Merlin as prophecy. The keeper then explains to his guests the events of the past and future which are depicted there.
These trace through Clovis, Pepin and Charlemagne and their relationships with the Popes of the day. This provides a summary of the history of France and Italy to the Battle of Ravenna in 1512, and the siege of Naples in 1528. And so they retire to bed.
Bradamante can’t sleep, until just before dawn when she finally dozes, only to see Ruggiero in a dream. He tells her that what she has heard is false, and seems to promise to come to her that day to be baptised and married. When she awakes, she doesn’t believe her dream. She thanks her host, and gets on her way again, meeting the three kings who had suffered the elements during the stormy night.
Seeing Bradamante in her armour, they immediately challenge her, unaware that she is a woman. Although she tries to gallop off, they give chase, so she turns, unseats each of them a second time, then resumes her journey to Paris. The messenger from Iceland meanwhile breaks the news to the kings that they have just been defeated twice by a woman. They are so embarrassed that they remove their armour and dump it in the moat, swearing that they’ll not wear any for a year, and will walk on foot instead of riding, as their punishment.
Outside Paris, where Bradamante is heading, Gradasso and Rinaldo are just about to start combat. There are no spectators, seconds, or assistants as they prepare to engage. Rinaldo dodges Durindana’s invincible blade, and tests Gradasso’s impenetrable armour with his sword. They continue through the afternoon, when they hear the great noise of a giant black bird attacking Baiardo, Rinaldo’s horse which Gradasso wanted. Rinaldo suspects this is a demon sent by Malagigi, as the bird comes in again with its talons ready. The horse breaks free to hide in a nearby wood, where it finds a cave to shelter.
The two knights suspend their fight to rescue the horse, but Gradasso gallops off in pursuit leaving Rinaldo on foot, so he returns to a fountain to wait for his opponent’s return. When Gradasso reaches Rinaldo’s horse, he decides to abandon the duel and head back home to Sericana, where Rinaldo can go to try to win back his horse and Orlando’s sword.
Meanwhile, Astolfo has been flying on the hippogriff, covering much of France and down to Spain and Portugal. He flies on over North Africa to the Red Sea, then south to Ethiopia, and Coalle where the Christian Emperor Senapo (Prester John) is the ruler. His palace is encrusted with gold and precious stones.
Despite his great wealth, the emperor is blind and condemned to hunger. For whenever he tries to eat or drink, he is attacked by harpies who consume all they can and leave only spoilt remains. This is his punishment for pride, which led him to wage war against God by taking his army towards what he thought was the Garden of Eden: for this, he was punished by being blinded, and forever plagued by these harpies.
The emperor welcomes Astolfo, and, recognising that he can’t restore his sight, begs him to drive the harpies away. He promises Astolfo a marble shrine in honour if he will do this for him. They go to eat inside the palace, which brings seven harpies out before they can take a bite themselves. Astolfo attacks them with his sword, but fails to even wound them.
Astolfo comes up with a plan. He has the emperor seal his ears with wax, then calls for more food and drink to be brought. As soon as the harpies appear, Astolfo blows his magic horn, driving them away.
He flies after them on his hippogriff, blasting away on the fearsome horn until the harpies reach the source of the River Nile, where there’s an entrance to Hell. Astolfo pursues the harpies into the opening in the rock.
Agramante, King of Africa, who is leading the war against Charlemagne in revenge for the killing of his father, Troiano. Non-Christian.
Astolfo, son of the King of England who is abducted by Alcina, turned into a myrtle bush, then released when Alcina’s magic is undone.
Bradamante, Rinaldo’s sister, “the celebrated Maid”, a brave Christian knight who is the equal of her brother. She is loved by Ruggiero.
Brunello, a non-Christian knight who was made King of Tangier by Agramante.
Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.
Gradasso, King of Sericana, an ‘oriental’ and non-Christian.
Mandricardo, King of Tartary and son of Agricane, an ‘oriental’ pagan knight, killed in a duel against Ruggiero.
Marfisa, Ruggiero’s sister, a valiant and fearsome ‘pagan’ warrior.
Merlin, the good sorceror from Arthurian legend, long dead but still active in spirit.
Orlando, the hero, Charlemagne’s nephew and his most outstanding paladin.
Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights.
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.
Senapo, Emperor of Ethiopia, also known as Prester John. Although a Christian, punished by blindness and harpies for sins as a young man.
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.
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.