Bradamante’s parents had arranged her marriage to Prince Leon, but she and Charlemagne’s paladins want her to marry Ruggiero. After a series of misadventures Ruggiero, posing as Leon, fought Bradamante to win her hand in marriage not to himself but to the Prince. Marfisa intervened as it looked certain that Ruggiero was going to be locked out, and Charlemagne and Leon agreed that Leon should fight Ruggiero to settle the matter. None of them knows that it was Ruggiero who had earlier posed in combat as Leon, and in any case Ruggiero has gone missing and is in a dark forest contemplating his own death.
Ariosto opens the forty-sixth and last stanza of his epic with the announcement that his ship is finally approaching the port, and offers a long tribute to patrons, supporters and friends who helped him in the journey. He then turns to Melissa the sorceress, who wants to see Bradamante and Ruggiero marry.
Melissa leaves her abode and heads for Ruggiero, who has now resolved to starve himself to death. She meets Leon, who she asks to help her rescue Ruggiero. From her description, Leon guesses this is the same knight who fought at Belgrade and on his behalf against Bradamante. When they reach Ruggiero, the knight’s already too weak to stand. Leon consoles him, and persuades him to reveal the whole story about his love for Bradamante. At this, Leon is left dumbstruck.
Leon stands by Ruggiero, telling the knight that he is far more worthy of Bradamante than he is. Ruggiero is won over, and with Melissa’s magic is quickly eating again. His horse Frontino returns, and once the knight is strong enough to sit in the saddle again, Leon helps him onto his mount. They reach an abbey where they rest for a couple of days for the knight to convalesce.
Just after Leon and Ruggiero have left for Paris, an embassy of Bulgars stops on their way to retrieve Ruggiero from France. Ruggiero’s squire tells them that his knight’s whereabouts are still unknown.
When Leon and Ruggiero reach Paris, they head straight to request an audience with Charlemagne, to whom the Prince admits his previous deceit, and puts Ruggiero – as yet unrecognised as he’s still wearing his helmet – forward as the true victor who won Bradamante’s hand in marriage. At that Charlemagne and his court are astonished.
Marfisa, Ruggiero’s twin sister, objects until the unknown knight’s helmet is removed and she recognises her brother, who’s quickly mobbed by all the paladins. Once order is restored, Ruggiero gives Charlemagne a full account of his misadventures. Duke Aymon is swayed by this to recognise the knight as a worthy son-in-law.
The resulting rejoicing is interrupted when the embassy of Bulgars turns up, offering Ruggiero their crown if he will help them defend their lands against Constantine. Ruggiero agrees, and promises to return to help them within three months. Leon advises that, with him wearing their crown, there will soon be peace between the Bulgars and his father Emperor Constantine, whom he will entreat to settle with them.
The wedding of Bradamante to Ruggiero is arranged, Charlemagne himself taking the lead as if she were his own daughter. Paris is then host to a wide range of people, rich and poor, ambassadors and heads of state, for the wedding celebrations. Melissa prepares the bridal room using a tent which she had magicked away from the shores of Thrace, under the nose of Emperor Constantine. It had been embroidered two millenia ago by the Trojan Cassandra, Hector’s sister, to show the life of Ippolito d’Este (one of Ariosto’s patrons).
On the ninth and final day of the wedding celebrations, in the midst of a grand banquet, a knight in a black surcoat rides up: it is Rodomonte. He had spent a year, a month and a day as a hermit, heard of the events which had passed, and now interrupts the royal banquet to challenge Ruggiero as an apostate. Ruggiero stands and responds robustly to his challenge. Even King Charlemagne helps Ruggiero to prepare to fight, although Bradamante is apprehensive, wishing that it were her life at stake, not her husband’s.
The duel starts, Rodomonte’s lance striking Ruggiero’s shield but weakly, while the latter’s lance hits full force and shatters into fragments. Rodomonte doesn’t have his finest armour, nor his deadly sword, nor his own helmet, and Ruggiero’s sword soon finds weaknesses through which to cut the Saracen’s arms. Rodomonte throws his shield aside and lands a two-handed blow with his sword on his opponent’s magically protective helmet, which holds good. A second and third blow strike the helmet, shattering Rodomonte’s sword.
Ruggiero is still dazed as Rodomonte leaps at him and wrestles him to the ground, where Ruggiero recovers his senses, glimpses Bradamante’s eyes, and turns to face the Saracen. He’s now astride his horse and charging at Ruggiero, who deftly steps aside and catches the bridle. Ruggiero’s sword then cuts into Rodomonte’s thigh and body.
Ruggiero pulls Rodomonte from the saddle, but the Saracen strikes his opponent in the chest and face with the remains of his broken sword. They resort to wrestling, but Rodomonte has now bled so much from his wounds that he is visibly weakening. Ruggiero catches him, and throws him violently to the ground where his wounds spurt blood into the dust.
Ruggiero kneels on Rodomonte’s belly, puts a hand around his opponent’s throat, and his dagger poised in mid-air above his eyes. The Saracen tries to twist his body in vain, but manages to pull his right arm free, which is holding his own dagger. Ruggiero is aware that he has only one option now, and plunges his dagger into Rodomonte’s head not just once but repeatedly, until the Saracen is despatched to Hell.
That concludes the epic of Orlando.
Aymon, Duke, father of Bradamante and Rinaldo.
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.
Leon, Prince of Greece, the son of Emperor Constantine, with whom Bradamante’s marriage is arranged.
Marfisa, Ruggiero’s sister, a valiant and fearsome ‘pagan’ warrior who has converted to Christianity.
Melissa, a pupil and follower of Merlin, and a good sorceress.
Orlando, the hero, Charlemagne’s nephew, a Count, 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.
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.