Orlando Furioso: Duel and disaster

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

After Astolfo had recovered Orlando’s wits from the moon, he took a magic herb to Senapo, Emperor of Ethiopia, which restored the ruler’s sight. The emperor rewarded Astolfo with many troops with which to fight King Agramante’s allies in North Africa.

Astolfo’s new army is huge, but has no horses, just a few elephants and camels. When the knight flies over them on the hippogriff there’s a strong southerly wind, which he captures in an empty wineskin. Next day, Astolfo leads this army to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and onwards to the coastal plain beyond. There he goes up a hill and prays, and many stones start tumbling down the slopes; as they roll, they transform into horses, which turns his army of infantry into cavalry.

This great army then moves against Agramante’s allies who have been looking after his realms while he has been away in Europe fighting Charlemagne. When word reaches the King of Africa at Arles, he’s unsure what to do to defend his territories. He asks the opinion of King Marsilio, his second in command, who considers that the reports from Africa are exaggerated, and advises Agramante to send a few ships to show his flag, but to seize the moment and attack the Christians while Orlando is still absent.

King Sobrino, though, urges Agramante to abandon his war, saying that of the thirty-two kings who had set out in the beginning barely a third now remain, the others having been killed in fighting. He warns that, although Orlando’s absence is a help, there are still other paladins like Rinaldo and Brandimarte who remain, and the Saracen forces have lost most of theirs. In short, they are now outnumbered, and their only hope is in Ruggiero. Sobrino proposes that Agramante offers to settle the matter in a duel between Ruggiero and a Christian knight of Charlemagne’s choice.

When that proposal is put to Charlemagne, he accepts and nominates Rinaldo as his representative in combat. This delights both the opposing armies, who are now decidedly battle-weary and keen to avoid further bloodshed.

The response of the two paladins is contrasting: Rinaldo is honoured to be so elevated, and fancies his chances, but Ruggiero is unhappy given his promise to marry Bradamante, who is distraught at the prospect of a duel. Fortunately, Melissa, the good sorceress, comes to Bradamante’s aid and promises to disrupt that event.

The two paladins start preparing themselves. A site is chosen just outside Arles, and at dawn the surrounding plain starts to fill with the opposing armies who are to watch the battle, complete with their leaders. They assemble on each side of the no-man’s-land in which the contest is to be held. Charlemagne then prays for Rinaldo’s victory, and Agramante for Ruggiero’s. The two combatants swear that if their own leader should remove them from the duel, then they would owe their allegiance to the other side.

The formalities now complete, Rinaldo and Ruggiero step out to fight on foot, swinging their axes and swords cautiously at first. For Ruggiero, it can only end in greater grief, as he has no way out. Rinaldo, on the other hand, has everything to gain. As a consequence, the Christian knight fights ferociously, but Ruggiero is constrained, almost timid, and Agramante starts to question the wisdom of Sobrino’s advice.

Meanwhile Melissa has assumed the appearance of Rodomonte, and rides up to King Agramante insisting that he should end the duel forthwith and unleash his army on the Christians to settle the matter. This the king orders, and the false Rodomonte vanishes again. So instructed, the two paladins stop fighting, awaiting news of which of their leaders has ordered their truce. At this, the opposing armies break into chaos, some running away, others attacking.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Ruggiero and Rinaldo Stand Aside as Their Planned Duel Turns into a Free-for-all (Canto 39:9) (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.

Marfisa and Bradamante have been watching, and see their opportunity to wreak havoc among their enemies. They enter the mêlée and start impaling Moors on their lances, several at a time.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Warrior Maidens Bradamante and Marfisa Slay Many Moors (Canto 39:15) (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.

Sobrino and Marsilio have already fled back into Arles, leaving Agramante to face Charlemagne on his own.

Across the Mediterranean in North Africa, opposition to Astolfo’s army is being hastily organised from among the few who haven’t been taken over to fight in France. Astolfo captures Bucifar, and as his army heads for Biserta, he agrees to exchange this prisoner for Dudone, who joins Astolfo in the campaign to free the people of Africa from Agramante’s rule.

Astolfo gathers a great many leaves and casts them into the sea, where they are transformed into a fleet of ships. Selecting sailors from among his army, these vessels are quickly crewed and ready to sail under Dudone’s command. As they wait to put to sea, a ship carrying captive Christian knights arrives in port. These are some of the men taken prisoner earlier by Rodomonte on his bridge, including Orlando’s brother, Brandimarte and Sansonet. They are freed, and eat at a banquet in their honour.

Suddenly men are calling everyone to arms. Astolfo and others go to investigate and discover a naked madman swinging a club with which he is steadily wiping out averyone around him. As they approach him, Fiordiligi rides up and embraces Brandimarte at last. She had hitched a ride on board a ship which sailed from Marseilles.

They identify the man running amok as Orlando, although in his current state he’s scarcely recognisable. Astolfo announces that he has the medicine that will cure Orlando’s madness, and the others try to overpower him. After he has knocked a couple of them out, Oliver manages to lassoo and bind Orlando with strong ropes. Trussed up, he’s carried on Dudone’s back, and washed in the sea seven times to remove his grime, before Astolfo gets him to inhale the wits which he had brought back from the moon.

Daniel Berger (1744-1824), Plate 11 for Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1772), etching, 9.1 x 5.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s just as if Orlando has awoken from a dream: he recovers his senses and stares at those about him in amazement. His ropes are removed and he is given some clothes, as the others console him.

The following day, Dudone’s grand armada sails for the south of France, as Astolfo brings Orlando up to date with events in the war. The army then starts to lay siege to Biserta.

Back in Arles, King Agramante’s allies have abandoned him, many sailing away with their leaders. But the King of Africa cannot give up so easily. He gallops to the city gate, with Bradamante and Marfisa in hot pursuit. He manages to give them the slip, and sneaks through the gate to an awaiting ship. The two women knights are left frustrated, venting their wrath on the remains of his routed army, caught in their retreat by the loss of all the bridges across the River Rhône.

Agramante’s ships set sail for the Mediterranean, where they wait at anchor for two days before sailing for north Africa, his fleet weak and short of manpower. Meanwhile King Marsilio returns to Valencia to strengthen his own defences in Spain.

Hearing that Astolfo has control of the coast around Biserta, Agramante’s ships sail on in search of a friendly port. But he is unaware of Dudone’s fleet heading for France, so doesn’t set lookouts, and that evening the two fleets come into contact. As soon as Dudone recognises the other ships as Moorish, he has his sailors prepare for battle. The Christian navy then rains down fire and missiles on Agramante’s retreating ships.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Clash of the Two Enemy Fleets (Canto 39:81) (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.
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), Orlando Furioso (detail) (1822-27), fresco, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Agramante’s ships are destroyed. His men try to dive overboard to save themselves from the swords of their enemies, only to drown. There are few survivors that night among the forces retreating to Africa.

Principal Characters

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.

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

Bucifar, King of Algaziers, a North African ‘pagan’.

Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Christian King of France.

Dudone, son of Ugier the Dane and a 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.

Marsilio, the King of Spain, a Moor.

Melissa, a pupil and follower of Merlin, and a good sorceress.

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.

Sobrino, an African king, a ‘pagan’.

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.

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.