Orlando Furioso: To the moon and back, and settling scores

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

Astolfo flew on the hippogriff to Senapo, the Emperor of Ethiopia, who begged the prince to rid him of a flock of harpies who had been preventing the emperor from eating. Astolfo’s magic horn quickly put them to flight, and he gave chase on the hippogriff to the point where the harpies disappeared into an opening in rocks which is thought to be a gateway to Hell.

Astolfo listens at the entrance and can hear the cries of the damned below, and decides to enter, using his horn to deter any evil. He tethers the hippogriff to a bush, and enters the cavern. Undeterred by the stench of Hell, he starts to descend. When he sees an object hanging in the gloom he swings at it with his sword.

A voice then asks him to leave the damned undisturbed, and introduces herself as Princess Lydia. She tells him of some of the spirits there, of women who had spurned their lovers. She had been beautiful and proud, and a Thracian knight named Alcestes had served her father, king of Lydia, well. When Alcestes asked her father for her hand in marriage, the king rejected him, so the knight went to that monarch’s enemy and got him to wage war against Lydia’s father.

Alcestes was victorious, forcing Lydia’s father to take refuge in his last fortress, then laying siege to that. Lydia was sent to strike a deal with the knight, but realised that he was driven by his love for her. She took advantage of that, and led him on to restore her father’s kingdom and try to win her hand by devotion rather than war.

Alcestes returned to the king’s enemy and pleaded with him to end the war and leave Lydia’s father alone. That was refused, so Alcestes murdered the enemy king, raised an army of Thracian mercenaries, and paid them to defeat Lydia’s enemies. The princess then sent Alcestes on a series of dangerous missions, in which she hoped for him to be killed. When that failed, she encouraged others to conspire against Alcestes. Eventually, Lydia broke his spirit, he died of grief, and she went to Hell for her sins.

After hearing this, Astolfo decides to return to the surface. Once back outside the cave, he blocks its entrance with rocks and builds a wall around that. He then washes the grime of Hell from his body before mounting the hippogriff. They fly up the mountain until they reach its lofty summit, where they land and Astolfo gazes at the exquisite flowers and trees, and hears the songbirds. Further along the grassy plateau is a vast and glowing palace, to which they ride.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Illustration for Orlando Furioso (Canto 34:54) (c 1878), engraving in book published by Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1879, dimensions not known, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica collection. Via the Internet Archive.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Astolfo Arrives at a Magnificent Palace Atop a Lofty Mountain (Canto 34:52) (c 1878), engraving in book published by Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1879, dimensions not known, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica collection. Via the Internet Archive.

When he reaches the palace, he realises that its glow comes from a single gemstone which had been cut by Daedalus. At the entrance to the palace is a silver-haired figure wearing pure white robes with a red cloak. This is Earthly Paradise, and he is being welcomed by Saint John the Evangelist. The saint tells Astolfo that he has been expected, as he is to save Christendom and Charlemagne from the Saracens and Moors.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Astolfo is Received at the Palace by Saint John the Evangelist, the Patriarch Enoch and the Prophet Elijah (Canto 34:60) (c 1878), engraving in book published by Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1879, dimensions not known, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica collection. Via the Internet Archive.

Astolfo is taken in for refreshments, where he meets Enoch, Elijah, and others. After a good night’s rest, Astolfo’s mission is explained by Saint John. Orlando has taken the wrong direction in his blind love for a pagan woman, and his madness is his punishment from God. It is Astolfo who will rescue Orlando’s mind, first by travelling to the moon that night and obtaining the means to cure Orlando of his madness.

That evening Saint John harnesses four chestnut horses to the chariot which is to take them to the moon and back. He sits next to Astolfo, takes the reins and drives the chariot up through the sphere of fire and on to the moon.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), Orlando Furioso (detail) (1822-27), fresco, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), In Elijah’s Chariot, Saint John and Astolfo Travel to the Moon in Search of Orlando’s Lost Reason (Canto 34:70) (c 1878), engraving in book published by Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1879, dimensions not known, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica collection. Via the Internet Archive.

Once on the moon, they travel onwards to a deep valley between two high mountains. There they find everything that has been lost on earth: the remnants of fame, prayers, vows, tears of lovers, time lost in games of chance, and unfulfilled wishes. Amidst great riches they find bottles containing the wits of the mad Anglante, and one labelled Orlando’s Wits. Astolfo even discovers some of his own wits among those of many others. Saint John allows him to sniff those in to make himself the wiser. They then take those of Orlando, return to their chariot and fly back down to earth.

Saint John takes him to a river, and invites him into a palace beside it, where he sees the Fates. There are bales and fleeces everywhere, and one old woman sits spinning among them, another crone busy nearby separating the threads into skeins. The saint explains that humans only live as long as their skein of wool lasts. An old man rushes around keeping the women supplied with spindles.

Ariosto opens Canto thirty-five with flattery for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, brother of Duke Alfonso I, who he says has a golden skein assigned by the Fates. Returning to his story, he describes the old man who handles the spindles and skeins of fate. The man fills his lap with the labels for all the people who have skeins assigned them, then drops those nameplates into the River Lethe. Most of them sink into the silt of the riverbed, and those people don’t endure.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Spun Destinies, with Metal Nameplates, Are Carried by an Old Man to the River Lethe (Canto 35:13) (c 1878), engraving in book published by Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1879, dimensions not known, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica collection. Via the Internet Archive.

Other nameplates are taken from the water by flocks of vultures and crows, who then drop them into oblivion. Just a few are taken by two silver swans, who secure their fame, when they are taken from the swans’ beaks by a nymph. Saint John explains to Astolfo how this mirrors what happens on earth. Thugs, liars and other sinners may do well at court, but will be lost to oblivion, while the few true poets in life will become eternally great, even when they’re neglected by their patrons.

Meanwhile Bradamante is on her way to Paris in search of Ruggiero, having just defeated three Nordic kings twice over.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Illustration for Orlando Furioso (Canto 35:31) (c 1878), engraving in book published by Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1879, dimensions not known, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica collection. Via the Internet Archive.

That evening, she reaches a small fort where she hears of the retreat of King Agramante and his troops to Arles. The following morning she heads for Provence in her quest for Ruggiero. She soon meets Fiordiligi, whose lover is being held captive by Rodomonte, and is looking for a knight to release him. Fiordiligi pleads with Bradamante for the help she needs, not realising that she is a woman in armour. Bradamante, seeing the opportunity for her own death, accepts.

The two women reach Rodomonte, who still guards the bridge outside the mausoleum he had built for the dead Isabella and Zerbino. On the way, Fiordiligi tells Bradamante the story of the mausoleum and its bridge, so she is well prepared when Rodomonte challenges her. Bradamante counters by accusing Rodomonte of killing Isabella, and says that he should own the guilt for her death. She then tells him that she’ll avenge the death by killing him, also revealing that she’s a woman.

Rodomonte agrees to free all those he’s captured, including those he has sent to slavery in Africa, should she defeat him, but proposes that she submit to his lust for her if he is the victor. Bradamante ignores his insolence and prepares to charge. She strikes him square with her golden lance and knocks him to the ground. Rodomonte is astonished, and takes his time to get up. He instructs his esquire to free the captives and those in slavery, strips off his helmet and armour and throws them against the rocks in abject defeat. He walks away to find refuge in a cave.

Among the prisoners that Bradamante frees are Sansonet and Oliver, who had come in search of Orlando. Several Saracens leave quietly without their weapons, apart from Sacripante, who can’t return because he’d be held in such scorn by others.

Bradamante leaves an inscription in the mausoleum recording what she had done, and asks Fiordiligi what she’ll do. The damsel replies that she’ll take a ship from the Saracen-held territory in the south of France to locate her Brandimarte. Bradamante offers to escort her as far as Arles, where she asks Fiordiligi to find Ruggiero, return his horse, and challenge him over his faithfulness.

They ride off together, and when they near Arles, Bradamante stops to wait outside its citadel, leaving Fiordiligi to enter the gate alone. She quickly locates Ruggiero, delivers the horse and message, and gallops away in quest of her own knight. Ruggiero is bewildered, and can’t imagine who sent that message.

Outside, Bradamante blows her horn to announce her challenge. Inside, Serpentino the King of Galicia asks to be allowed to accept this, and swiftly rides out to meet her in combat. Her golden lance promptly knocks him to the ground, and his horse bolts. She gallops off to rescue his mount, returning it to him with the message to send someone better out to fight her.

The proudest knight in Spain then goes out to face Bradamante. They trade insults before charging at one another and her lance throwing him to the ground. She gives him the same message, for the Saracens to send someone who is her equal, rather than a novice. So the next knight, Ferraù, goes to take on her challenge. Rather than insult her, he pays his compliments and she informs him that she’d rather face Ruggiero.

Ferraù can see her eyes through her raised visor, and is already smitten by her beauty. He succumbs immediately to her lance, just like all the others, and as he turns to leave in disgrace she reminds him of her request.

When Ferraù tells Ruggiero that this unidentified knight wants to fight him, he is delighted, and dons his armour ready for combat.

Principal Characters

Agramante, King of Africa, who is leading the war against Charlemagne in revenge for the killing of his father, Troiano. Non-Christian.

Alcestes, a knight from Thrace who falls love with the daughter of the King of Lydia.

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.

Brandimarte, knight and close friend of Orlando, husband of Fiordiligi.

Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.

Ferraù, nephew to Marsilio, King of Spain, and a non-Christian.

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

Gradasso, King of Sericana, an ‘oriental’ and non-Christian.

Lydia, the daughter of the King of Lydia, who spurns the love of Alcestes.

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

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.

Sacripante, King of Circassia, an ‘oriental’ and non-Christian.

Senapo, Emperor of Ethiopia, also known as Prester John. Although a Christian, punished by blindness and harpies for sins as a young man.

The artists

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.