Orlando Furioso: Biserta sacked, and Orlando set up

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Destruction of Bizerte (Canto 40:33) (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.

King Agramante had withdrawn the battered remains of his forces from Arles, and sailed across the Mediterranean towards North Africa. When he was least expecting further trouble, his fleet came into contact with the many Christian warships which had sailed under the command of Dudone the Dane. In the resulting battle, few of Agramante’s soldiers survived.

At dawn the following morning, Agramante realises how badly outnumbered his forces had been, and boards a ship in which he and a few other survivors including King Sobrino quietly steal away.

Ashore, Orlando decides to raze Biserta to the ground before it can attract help and make it a risk to the security of France. Sansonetto commands a fleet of ships which have been held back from the main force under Dudone, and they lie at anchor a mile off the harbour. After three days of preparations, the Christian forces pray before attacking the city.

Inside Biserta, its terrified citizens prepare for a siege, and man its walls ready to repel Astolfo’s army. At last Orlando blows his whistle to signal the assault. At that, Christian forces shoot at anyone who dares show their face on the battlements, forcing them to take cover. That allows the soldiers outside to pile up wooden beams and rocks, and to fill the moat with rubble.

Soldiers then start scaling the stone walls on the two sides of Biserta facing inland. Battering rams are brought to bear on all points of weakness in an effort to break through the defences. Initially, the hail of missiles hurled down from the battlements gets the better of the Christians, but as the day progresses the tide turns against those inside.

Orlando then gives the order for Sansonetto’s ships to enter the harbour and start their attack on the two sides facing the water. Following that, reserve forces are brought in on the land, and come well-equipped with wooden towers and war elephants. Brandimarte leads his men up an assault ladder to the ramparts above, where he fights the enemy with his sword. Below him, though, the weight of men is too much for the ladder, and it collapses, leaving the knight alone at the top.

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), The Besiegers of Bizerte Take a Tumble, Except For Brandimarte (Canto 40:24) (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.

Seeing that he is now stranded, Brandimarte jumps down into the citadel within and fights on regardless. The other paladins outside mount a rescue mission for him by placing more scaling ladders at the wall, climbing them, and joining him inside the citadel. Soon a thousand ladders are bringing even more in support, and battering rams have opened up more than one hole to let in more Christian forces.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Battering Rams Breach the Walls of Bizerte (Canto 40:30) (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), The Storming of Bizerte (Canto 40:37) (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.

Biserta, the city which was once the pride of North Africa, falls to Astolfo’s army of Nubians. Its dead lie everywhere, and its buildings are on fire. The invaders show no mercy, taking as much booty as they can carry, raping and killing beyond all control of their leaders. Among the many dead are King Bucifar of Algaziers, one of three leaders left here by Agramante to defend the city during his war in France.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Destruction of Bizerte (Canto 40:33) (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.

Watching this from the sea, Agramante laments the destruction of the city to Sobrino, who reassures him that his continuing survival guarantees the Christian success can only be temporary. The Sultan of Egypt and Norandino will provide armies to reverse the situation, although Agramante knows that relying on others in that way is dangerous. They sail to the east, where they encounter a storm which forces them to land on a nearby island. They are soon joined there by Gradasso, to whom they detail their recent misfortunes.

Gradasso offers to engage single-handed with Orlando, and once he has defeated him will lead other Nubian and Arab warriors to expel Astolfo’s army. But Agramante considers it his own right to challenge Orlando. Gradasso proposes that the two of them fight Orlando and a companion of his choice, to which Sobrino adds himself to make three against three. They agree this will take place on the small island of Lampedusa, which lies between the tip of Sicily and the African coast not far from Biserta, and set off to challenge Orlando in the ruins of that city.

Agramante’s messenger finds Orlando sharing out the spoils of war. When the Count hears of this challenge he is so delighted that he rewards the messenger with some of the booty. However, Orlando has already heard that Gradasso is armed with Durindana, Orlando’s own sword. He then chooses his two companions as his brother Oliver and the valiant Brandimarte. They prepare by looking for arms and armour: Orlando had scattered his during his madness, and little was left in Biserta after Agramante had assembled his forces to fight in France, so they have to make do with what they can find. They catch sight of an abandoned ship which conveniently sails unmanned to the shore, for them to board and head for Lampedusa.

When the fight outside Arles between Ruggiero and Rinaldo had been suspended, Ruggiero was left wondering which of the two kings had given that order. In view of his earlier oath to abandon allegiance to Agramante should it have been his command, this weighs on the knight’s mind. Everywhere he hears that it was Agramante, but seeing all the defeated soldiers leaving he feels less convinced that he should keep his vow. After days in a quandary, he decides to stand true to the King of Africa.

Ruggiero first rides back to Arles, where there are only dead Saracens and no ships, then on towards Marseilles, which is packed with Dudone’s victorious fleet. The Dane has already disembarked to pay his respects to Charlemagne, leaving behind many captives including no less than seven kings. Ruggiero cannot bear to see their suffering, so tries to free them by attacking their guards.

Hearing this fracas, Dudone quickly arms and mounts his horse, unaware that Ruggiero is the cause. When the Dane sees that Ruggiero is on foot and without a lance, he chivalrously throws away his lance. Ruggiero recognises this act, and hopes to discover his name before they start to fight. Once each realises who the other is, they proceed to combat. Ruggiero is constrained in the knowledge that Bradamante would never forgive him for killing Dudone, who is a cousin of her mother.

As Dudone tries to strike Ruggiero with his iron club, his opponent has to avoid using the cutting edge of his sword, preferring to strike Dudone with the flat of the blade instead. It turns into a strange duel as a result.

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.

Norandino, the King of Damascus, who marries Lucina.

Oliver, Orlando’s brother and almost as effective in combat as him.

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

Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights.

Ruggiero, son of the King of Reggio, a non-Christian knight who is in love with Bradamante.

Sansonetto, envoy to Jerusalem, son of the King of Persia, who was baptised by Orlando.

Sobrino, an African king, a ‘pagan’.

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.