Bradamante had convinced herself that her lover Ruggiero had been unfaithful to her, and was going to marry Marfisa instead, so left in quest of him. After she defeated Rodomonte and liberated those he had been holding captive, she travelled with Fiordiligi to the Saracens at Arles, where Ruggiero had been recovering from his injuries. There Bradamante issued a challenge, in the hope of drawing her lover into combat.
She first has to defeat three knights sent out by the Saracens, but the third was Ferraù, who told Ruggiero that this unidentified knight wanted to fight him. That news delights him, so he dons his armour ready to face her.
Ariosto opens Canto 36 with a lament over the cruelties of modern warfare, citing the example of Ercole Cantelmo, a hero of the war between Ferrara and Venice in 1509, who had been beheaded by Slavonian mercenaries in front of his father.
As Ruggiero prepares to do battle, he asks Ferraù who he thinks this knight is, and is shocked when the latter concludes that it might be the sister of Ricciardetto, Bradamante. Ruggiero’s passion for her is rekindled, and he doesn’t know what to do. By chance, Marfisa is also in Arles; hearing of this knight’s challenge, she decides to go out and engage them before Ruggiero is ready.
Bradamante sees Marfisa and immediately knows this is not her Ruggiero. She asks the name of the other knight, and Marfisa identifies herself. This delights Bradamante, who still thinks that her Ruggiero is about to marry Marfisa and betray her love for him. Bradamante therefore aims her lance not to throw her opponent from her mount, but to pierce her through the chest and satisfy her bitter jealousy at last.
When Bradamante’s lance knocks Marfisa to the ground, the rival is so annoyed that she draws her sword. Bradamante points out that Marfisa is now her prisoner, but that prisoner next attacks Bradamante’s horse. A second blow with the golden lance knocks Marfisa over again, but she’s quickly back up on her feet and on the attack. Bradamante strikes her a third time with her lance, bowling Marfisa onto the grass.
By this time a crowd is gathering to watch the fight, among them Ruggiero, still wrestling with his emotions and not knowing what to do. Just then a trumpet clarion is sounded calling all to arms for a fierce skirmish, and the two knights have to abandon their bitter brawl. Bradamante is left angry at not being allowed to kill her opponent in both love and battle. She goes off in search of Ruggiero, to confront him over his unfaithfulness.
As soon as Bradamante finds her lover she lets fly with bitter reproach over his behaviour, demands her revenge, then spurs her horse to charge at Ruggiero, her lance at the ready. As he braces himself for an almighty blow, Bradamante stops short: she cannot bring herself to harm him. Ruggiero asks to talk with her, to discover what he has done to upset her so.
They ride into a nearby valley, where there’s a glade of cypress trees surrounding a newly-built marble tomb. As the two lovers reach one another there, Marfisa catches up with the couple. Bradamante is livid, and drives her lance straight at Marfisa, striking her so hard that she falls head first to the ground. This time it is Bradamante who dismounts, draws her sword, and approaches Marfisa in a bid to kill her rival.
Ruggiero pleads with the two women to stop, but they fight bitterly, now with daggers. He tries to separate them, removing the daggers from their hands, but they continue punching and kicking one another. As he tries again to separate them, Marfisa turns on him instead. Ruggiero has to exercise great restraint for fear of killing her with his sword, but she isn’t as constrained. Marfisa then lands a mighty blow which she intended to cleave his head; he takes this on his shield, but the impact leaves his arm paralysed, and unable to bear his defence. That forces him to retaliate and drive his weapon straight at her.
Somehow, Ruggiero’s weapon strikes one of the cypress trees. With that, the earth shakes and a mighty voice orders them to stop fighting. This disembodied voice reveals to Ruggiero and Marfisa that they are twins. Their mother’s brothers killed their father and cast their pregnant mother into a tiny boat, expecting her to die at sea. But fortune took that vessel to the shores of Libya, where the twins were born and their mother died. The infants were suckled by a lioness, but Marfisa was later abducted by a passing group of Arabs.
The voice is that of Atlante, who tried to protect Ruggiero, but had pined away and died. His soul had stayed in wait at his tomb, where he knew the twins would one day come and fight one another. When he stops speaking, his spirit is finally released to travel in Charon’s boat across to the Underworld.
With that, the twins embrace one another, and Ruggiero tells his sister of their descent from Trojan ancestors, from Hector through Astyanax, who became King of Messina. This reveals that King Agramante is a direct descendant of those who had killed their father, and tried to kill their mother too. At this news, Marfisa vows to be a Christian and to fight the Saracens in revenge. For Ruggiero, though, the choice isn’t so easy, as it was Agramante who made him a knight, and he couldn’t betray him.
Marfisa tells Bradamante that she’ll find a way to free her brother from his allegiance to Agramante. With that, he prepares to rejoin the Saracens. As he is starting off, though, they hear the sound of women wailing. They ride towards that, and find three women seated on the ground, their skirts cut short to the waist, making it impossible for them to stand up and preserve their modesty.
Bradamante recognises them as Ullania, the messenger from Iceland, and her two companions. The messenger tells Bradamante that this had been done to them at a nearby castle, where they had also been beaten. The three knights give the women their surcoats with which to cover themselves, then take them up onto their horses to ride up into the mountains towards that castle.
With the sun setting, they reach a small hamlet high on a crag, where they decide to stop for the night. At supper in their lodgings they notice that everyone else there is a woman, and there’s not a man to be seen. Ruggiero asks why this is, and the locals tell him that they have been separated from their menfolk and banished there by the local tyrant Marganorre, who is a cruel misogynist who behaves even worse towards women visitors, as shown by his treatment of Ullania and her companions.
The local women explain that Marganorre had always been cruel, but this had been suppressed while his two sons were alive. Then the first son fell in love with the wife of a Byzantine knight. When that son tried to kill the knight and take his lady by force, he was killed. The second son fell in love with the wife of a baron, so he ambushed the husband and had him killed, then took his wife captive. The son intended to marry this widow, but she hated him. She decided to have her revenge by deception, and told the son that before she could marry him, she had to placate the spirit of her late husband, following which they would take part in a marriage ceremony involving both of them drinking from a chalice.
The widow then had her maid prepare strong poison to put in the chalice. The couple went through the ceremony with Marganorre present and full of joy again. There the woman drank her share from the chalice, and handed the rest to the son to finish off. She then turned on him, revealing her true feelings of hatred for him. The couple died in front of all those attending their wedding, Marganorre’s son in his father’s arms.
Marganorre tried to descrate the woman’s corpse in his anger, and ever since the death of both his sons, he has been a tyrannical misogynist, putting all the women in his lands into permanent exile away from their men. Those women who are escorted by knights he has taken to his sons’ tombs and he personally sacrifices them there.
Bradamante and Marfisa are by this time ready to ride off to attack Marganorre. They hear horses’ hooves, and the old maid who had prepared the poison that killed Marganorre’s second son is brought captive by the tyrant’s armed men, ready for execution by the tyrant’s own hands. The knights attack the men and quickly put them to flight, releasing the maid.
Taking the maid with them as a witness, Ruggiero, Bradamante and Marfisa ride on to Marganorre’s castle. They enter, and make their way straight to him. Surrounded by his bodyguard, he openly admits his crimes to them from the saddle of his horse. At this, Marfisa charges at him and lands her fist on his helmet, knocking him insensible. The other knights quickly despatch the bodyguard while Marfisa ties up Marganorre with the maid’s help.
Marfisa announces that unless Marganorre’s cruel laws are immediately revoked, they will raze his town to the ground. The tyrant’s former subjects – all men, their womenfolk having been killed or exiled – agree. Marganorre is trussed up naked and given to the maid, Ullania and her companions, and anyone else to torment as much as they like. The knights then sack his castle, and recover the golden shield which had been taken from Ullania, releasing the three Nordic kings too.
Before the three knights depart, they make the locals swear that their womenfolk will be in charge, and the men their loyal subjects. Furthermore, they will make visitors swear to help all women in adversity. Their work done, they ride off together until they reach a fork in the road, where Ruggiero returns to the Saracen forces at Arles, and the two women knights head for the Christian camp. Bradamante’s arrival brings out an escort of honour, and Marfisa’s reputation as a warrior ensures that she is made welcome too.
The two come before Charlemagne, to whom Marfisa kneels in obeisance and pays her respects by explaining how she comes to serve him. She tells how intent she had been on killing Christians, also of her struggles earlier in life, when as a slave she killed a king who tried to rape her, then seized his kingdom. She was barely eighteen years old when she held seven kingdoms. Having now learned of those who had killed her parents, she had decided to convert to Christianity and serve Charlemagne. When Agramante has been defeated and killed, she will then make all her subjects convert too. Charlemagne welcomes her among his paladins, and her baptism is arranged for the following day.
Meanwhile Astolfo has returned from his trip to the moon in a chariot, carrying with him Orlando’s lost wits. Saint John shows Astolfo a herb which will restore Senapo’s sight, so Astolfo flies off to Ethiopia to take that to the emperor. In return, Senapo gives troops to fight in the desert. Astolfo prepares to lead them in a campaign against King Agramante’s allies in north Africa.
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.
Atlante, an evil magician who is in fact an old man, but keeps abducting people 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.
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.
Marfisa, Ruggiero’s sister, a valiant and fearsome ‘pagan’ warrior.
Marganorre, a tyrannical lord who is a cruel misogynist.
Orlando, the hero, Charlemagne’s nephew and his most outstanding paladin.
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.
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.
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.