Orlando Furioso: Plot summary and best paintings 1

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Roger (Ruggiero) Rescuing Angelica (1819), oil on canvas, 147 x 190 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In this and the next article, I summarise the multiple interwoven plots of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which starts its story at the end of Orlando in Love, by Matteo Maria Boiardo. Links are to the full accounts of each section, and there’s an index of the main characters and short biographies of the artists at the end.

In Boiardo’s story, Angelica, beautiful daughter of the king of Cathay, attends a tournament at Charlemagne’s court, where she offers herself as the prize for anyone who can defeat her brother Argalia. When he is killed by Ferraù, she flees, with Orlando and Rinaldo in hot pursuit. Angelica falls in love with Rinaldo, but he hates her. She is besieged by another admirer, and Orlando frees her. Rinaldo then tries to persuade Orlando to return with him to fight for Charlemagne.

The Saracen king Agramante has invaded France in order to avenge Orlando killing his father Troiano. In response, Rinaldo returns in haste to help defend France; chasing him is Angelica who is still in love with him, and following her is Orlando who is in love with her. With the two paladins duelling for Angelica, Charlemagne puts her in the care of Duke Namo of Bavaria, while offering her hand to the paladin who fights best for his cause against the Saracens.

At the opening of Ariosto’s epic, Angelica escapes from Duke Namo, meeting Rinaldo (Christian) and Ferraù (Saracen) in a forest. The two knights fight, allowing her to escape. They pursue her unsuccessfully. She meets Sacripante (non-Christian), who lusts after her, but he is floored by the passing Bradamante (Christian woman knight). The two ride off.

Rinaldo now loves Angelica, who hates him – a reversal of emotions resulting from their drinking from enchanted fountains. Rinaldo and Sacripante challenge one another, and fight, causing Angelica to flee again. She then bumps into an old hermit who, despite his years, lusts after her. He is a magician, whose sprite deliberately misinforms the two knights that Orlando is escorting Angelica to Paris. Rinaldo ends up heading for Paris, where he’s instructed to cross the Channel to England to secure reinforcements for Charlemagne’s troops defending the city of Paris.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Hippogriff (c 1860), watercolour and ink wash, 25.3 x 16.1 cm, Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie de Besançon, Besançon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile Bradamante meets Pinabello, who tells her of a castle made of steel and its owner, who rides a hippogriff (winged horse) and blinds knights with his shield. Among the knights who had been captured is Ruggiero (non-Christian), who is in love with her. Although she is then summoned to support Charlemagne, she rides with the treacherous Pinabello to rescue Ruggiero. Pinabello tricks her by entering a cave in a forest, then abandoning Bradamante for dead when he makes her fall into that cave.

Lovers and hippogriffs

Dosso Dossi (c 1489–1542), Melissa (Circe) (c 1518-1531), oil on canvas, 176 × 174 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Bradamante recovers, enters the cave, and there meets Melissa, a good sorceress who summons the ghost of Merlin. Melissa then helps Bradamante rescue Ruggiero, first by capturing a ring which can make her invisible. She reaches the castle of steel, where she manages to overpower its owner and then discovers he is Atlante, an old magician who is trying to prevent Ruggiero from his destiny. He breaks the spell on his castle and releases its captives, including Ruggiero, who flies off on the hippogriff.

Sorcery and Scotland

Rinaldo arrives in Scotland, where he rescues the King’s daughter Ginevra from being burned at the stake. She had been impersonated in a trap set by a former admirer. Rinaldo challenges the admirer to a duel, and his opponent confesses all just before he dies of wounds sustained in that combat. Ginevra then marries another former lover, who everyone thought was dead.

The hippogriff flies Ruggiero to an island, where a myrtle bush tells him that it was once the knight Astolfo (Christian), heir to the English throne, but had been turned into a bush by Alcina, a treacherous and evil sorceress who seized much of that island from her sister Logistilla. Ruggiero tries to avoid Alcina’s golden city, but is attacked by a band of hideous creatures. He’s then rescued and taken into the city. From there, he defeats a monster who has been defending a nearby bridge.

Niccolò dell’Abbate (1509/12-1571), Orlando Furioso (c 1550), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Torfanini, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

More deception and the talking myrtle

Ruggiero is beguiled and seduced by Alcina.

The woman knight he’s in love with, Bradamante, has searched high and low for him, but Melissa is aware of the danger he’s in and promises to rescue him, when Bradamante has given her the magic ring. The sorceress travels to Alcina’s island where she assumes the form of Atlante and warns Ruggiero of Alcina before putting the ring on his finger to break all enchantments. His love for Alcina changes to hatred, and he escapes from the city. Melissa then turns the talking myrtle back to being Astolfo.

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

Atlante, the old wizard who flew the hippogriff and imprisoned Ruggiero; Melissa, good sorceress and follower of Merlin; Alcina, who beguiled Ruggiero with her faux beauty.

In Scotland, Rinaldo appeals for reinforcements for Charlemagne, with great success, and travels on to London where he does the same.

Angelica had tried to give the lustful old hermit the slip, but he uses magic to drive her onto a deserted beach where he gives her a sleeping potion and tries to rape her while she’s unconscious. Thankfully he is now impotent and unable.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Angelica and the Hermit (1626-28), oil on oak panel, 43 x 66 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Enchanted knights and the lecherous hermit

The people of the northern island of Ebuda were cursed to feed their fairest maidens to an orc, and sent their menfolk around the world to kidnap more to satisfy the sea monster’s appetite. The sleeping Angelica is their next victim, and is soon chained at the water’s edge awaiting her fate.

Agramante is laying siege to Charlemagne in Paris. Orlando pines for Angelica, driving him to leave the city in quest of her. His close friend Brandimarte follows him without even saying goodbye to his wife Fiordiligi. Orlando is soon sidetracked to help the King of Ireland wage war against Ebuda, but his ship is first driven by a storm to Antwerp.

There, he is further diverted to help Olimpia free and marry Bireno, which involves Orlando killing the evil King of Friesland.

The orc’s vile appetite, and skewered Frisians

Bireno turns out to be treacherous, and falls in love with a young girl, then abandons Olimpia on an island when they are shipwrecked.

Ruggiero is still trying to escape from Alcina’s island, and finally arrives at her sister Logistilla’s castle. He has a special bit made for the hippogriff, enabling him to control its flight. He then flies west, crossing eastern Asia until he reaches London, where he sees the mass of reinforcements gathering to go to aid Charlemagne in Paris. He flies off to the north, and comes across Angelica chained and awaiting the arrival of the orc.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Roger freeing Angelica (1873), tempera on panel, 46 × 37 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

A wife marooned and Angelica fed to the orc

Shortly after Ruggiero lands by Angelica, the orc appears from the sea, but the knight is unable to wound it. He therefore slips the magic ring onto her finger and uses the magic shield which he took from Atlante to render the orc unconscious.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Roger (Ruggiero) Rescuing Angelica (1819), oil on canvas, 147 x 190 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Ruggiero and Angelica fly away on the hippogriff to Brittany. When they land, Ruggiero is overcome by desire and removes his armour to try his chances with Angelica. She pops the magic ring in her mouth, vanishes, and escapes. The hippogriff flies off, leaving Ruggiero to walk inland into a wood. There he finds a giant about to kill his love Bradamante, but before he can kill the giant, the latter carries her off.

In the meantime, Orlando reaches Ebuda. As he rows to the shore he sees the naked Olimpia tied to a tree and waiting for the orc to come and eat her. He jams an anchor in its mouth and inflicts severe wounds inside, causing it to bleed to death.

Angelica rescued and the orc slain

The King of Ireland, whose troops are razing Ebuda to the ground, marries Olimpia and restores her territory.

The following Spring, Orlando resumes his search for Angelica. He’s lured into a palace where he is trapped. The same happens to Ruggiero in his quest to find Bradamante. Both knights are caught in Atlante’s magic castle, in which they can’t see one another, nor can they escape. Angelica, still wearing the magic ring, discovers this castle and helps them escape. Once they’re free she puts the ring back in her mouth and vanishes again.

Orlando ad Ruggiero become lost, and bump into Ferraù. The latter fights Orlando without result, then they resume pursuit of Angelica. Orlando nears Paris, and has to wipe out two African squadrons making their way to reinforce Agramante’s forces there. He then discovers a cave in which Isabella, daughter of the King of Spain (non-Christian), is being held captive. She had tried to elope with Zerbino, Christian son of the King of Scotland, but had been abandoned to pirates after being shipwrecked. When those pirates turn up at the cave, Orlando wipes them out and rescues Isabella.

Melissa tells Bradamante that she must kill Atlante to safeguard Ruggiero, but that the sorceror will disguise himself as her lover. Soon Bradamante comes across a false Ruggiero in the throes of being crushed by giants, and is lured into Atlante’s magic castle, where she is trapped.

Agramante, laying siege to Paris, hears of Charlemagne’s reinforcements coming from Britain and decides to assault the city before they arrive. Charlemagne’s prayers are answered when God sends the Archangel Michael to assist the Christians. Michael engages Silence to enable Rinaldo and his reinforcements to approach Paris without the Saracens becoming aware.

Magic castles and the vanishing Angelica

Initial attacks by Spanish forces are quickly repelled by those defending the city, but Rodomonte crosses the moat alone and heads towards the citadel.

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

Astolfo, who had been captive on Alcina’s island as a myrtle bush, sets sail to return home, with gifts from Logistilla of a book of spells and a magic horn whose note drives everyone away in terror. He lands in the Persian Gulf and continues overland to reach the mouth of the River Nile. There he comes across a man-eating giant, whom he captures using his horn. From Cairo, Astolfo goes to kill another monster whose wounds heal instantly. The book of spells reveals he needs to pluck a specific hair from the monster’s head in order to kill it. Astolfo beheads the monster and cuts all its hair, including the magic one, with his sword, finally killing it.

Arnold Böcklin; Astolf reitet mit dem Haupte Orills davon; um 1873
Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Astolfo Riding Away with the Head of Orrilo (c 1873), oil on canvas, 54 × 77 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Astolfo’s actions bind two brothers, both knights, to accompany him to serve Charlemagne in Paris, and when they reach Jerusalem, they collect a third, Sansonetto.

Saracens attack Paris, and a self-healing monster

Grifone, one of the two brothers, had fallen in love with a woman who was then unfaithful to him. He sneaks off to try to win her back, only to meet her and the new lover outside Damascus.

Back in Paris, Rodomonte is successfully fighting his way through the city’s defences singlehanded. He brings death and destruction. Outside the walls, though, Rinaldo’s reinforcements have arrived and surprised Agramante thanks to the Silence brought by the Archangel Michael. The English and Scottish forces steadily gain the upper hand, with Rinaldo facing Agramante himself in combat.

Charlemagne is told of Rodomonte’s wave of destruction as the Moor reaches the King’s palace and batters its door. The King of France leads eight of his best warriors to tackle Rodomonte there.

Rinaldo in combat, and Charlemagne’s palace under threat

Grifone is in Damascus, where there’s a monthly jousting contest to celebrate his wife’s rescue from a man-eating orc after her shipwreck.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre (1624), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

His unfaithful lover’s new partner proves a coward when he runs away from combat, and Grifone takes the couple away from the city. Whilst he is asleep, the couple steal Grifone’s horse and clothing and claim his prize as winner of the jousting. Grifone is mistaken for his cowardly rival, though, and paraded through the city in shame.

Escaping another orc, and a cowardly imposter

Grifone regains the upper hand by killing some of his oppressors.

In Paris, Rodomonte is forced to abandon the palace, and he cuts his way to the river and over to the opposite bank, where he walks away. The Archangel Michael has enlisted Discord, Pride and Jealousy to cause trouble among the Saracen forces. Rodomonte departs when he’s told that another Saracen knight has abducted his dear Doralice. Rinaldo seizes the opportunity to counterattack and rout his enemy.

The ruler of Damascus realises that this Grifone is no coward, and recognises how Grifone’s rival had deceived them all. His brother finds Grifone’s former lover and her new partner, still wearing Grifone’s kit, and returns them to Damascus where they are duly punished. Sansonetto and Astolfo meet a woman knight, Marfisa, on their way to Damascus for a tournament in honour of Grifone. Marfisa recognises the arms being offered to the champion as her own, which she had been forced to abandon. After confusion and fighting, Marfisa is able to reclaim her weapons and armour. Sansonetto then wins the tournament, and all five knights depart by ship for France, but are caught in a storm at sea.

Outside the city of Paris, Rinaldo’s successes continue, leaving only a third of Agramante’s forces able to fight. During the night, two of the Moors cross enemy lines to locate the body of one of their leaders to give him an honourable burial. When carrying the corpse back, one of them flees, leaving Medoro trying to carry it alone.

Rodomonte diverted, and a woman regains her armour

Medoro is caught by Christian troops led by Zerbino. He pleads to be allowed to bury the leader’s body, but is badly wounded in the chest and left for dead next to the body of his companion. Later Angelica passes by and discovers that Medoro is still alive. She gives him aid and gets a shepherd to carry him back to his cottage.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), Angelica Cares for Medoro (date not known), oil on canvas, diameter 110.6 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Angelica and the Wounded Medoro (c 1860), oil on canvas, 81 × 65.1 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Wikimedia Commons.

Angelica stays with Medoro, and the shepherd and his wife, to nurse the Moor back to health. During this time, Angelica falls in love with her patient, to the point where she gives up her virginity and they marry.

Mihael Stroj (1803–1871), Angelica and Medoro (1833), oil on canvas, 53 x 69 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Resuscitation and Angelica’s passion

They honeymoon for a month in the shepherd’s humble cottage, carving their names in the bark of nearby trees to mark their union.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734), Angelica and Medoro (c 1716), oil on canvas, 87.5 x 110 cm, Muzeul Naţional Brukenthal, Sibiu, Romania. Wikimedia Commons.

Angelica proposes that they move to India, where she will give her kingdom there to Medoro. When they leave the shepherd and his wife, Angelica presents their hosts with a bracelet which Orlando had given her as a token of his love. They then head for the Pyrenees together.

Carving their names on trees

The ship containing the five knights, including Marfisa, Grifone and Sansonetto, finally puts into a port in a land ruled entirely by women. Men are either put to work as slaves or killed, apart from those able to beat ten of the best warriors in combat, then satisfy ten of the women in bed in the same night.

Marfisa rises to the first part of the challenge, and is the guest of Guidone (Astolfo’s cousin) after her first day of combat, who has been a captive of the women for a year. He tells her that these women are descended from wives of Greek warriors who went to fight at Troy, and resolved to wreak vengeance on men after they had been abducted, seduced and abandoned by young men. Guidone hatches a plot with Marfisa and the others for their escape.

In the morning, Guidone leads them all to try to force their way out of the citadel to the port. When they are blocked, Astolfo starts blowing on his horn, which drives everyone away in terror. Marfisa and the others make their escape by ship to Marseilles, where Bradamante is now governor. But Astolfo is left wondering where they’ve all gone.

Out of the storm into captivity

Principal Characters

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

Alcina, sister of Morgana and King Arthur, a treacherous and evil sorceress.

Angelica, beautiful daughter of the ruler of Cathay, who is loved and pursued by innumerable knights both Christian and not.

Aquilante, son of Oliver, a Christian knight, and brother of Grifone.

Astolfo, son of the King of England who is abducted by Alcina then turned into a myrtle bush.

Atlante, an evil magician who is in fact an old man, but abducts people to keep in his magic steel castle, where he tries to protect Ruggiero from his future.

Aymon, Duke, father of Bradamante and Rinaldo.

Bireno, Duke of Zealand, who marries Olimpia.

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.

Doralice, daughter of the King of Granada.

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

Fiordiligi, daughter of the King of Lizza and wife of Brandimarte.

Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, wrongfully accused of admitting a lover, and condemned to burn at the stake.

Grifone, son of Oliver, a Christian knight.

Guidone Selvaggio, illegitimate son of Count Aymon, a Christian knight.

Isabella, daughter of the King of Spain, who falls in love with Zerbino, son of the King of Scotland, and tries to elope to him.

Leon, Prince of Greece, the son of Emperor Constantine, with whom Bradamante’s marriage is arranged.

Logistilla, a good sorceress whose lands have been stolen by Alcina and Morgana.

Mandricardo, King of Tartary and son of Agricane, an ‘oriental’ pagan knight.

Marfisa, Ruggiero’s sister, a valiant and fearsome ‘pagan’ warrior who converts to Christianity.

Medoro, one of Prince Dardinello’s Moorish soldiers, a ‘pagan’.

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

Merlin, the good sorceror from Arthurian legend, long dead but still active in spirit.

Olimpia, daughter of the Count of Holland, who marries Bireno.

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

Pinabello, son of Count Anselm Altaripa, a treacherous Maganzan who doesn’t follow the laws of chivalry, although a Christian.

Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, one of Charlemagne’s paladins and bravest knights, and commander-in-chief of the Scottish and English forces who come to Charlemagne’s aid.

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.

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

Zerbino, son of the King of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish forces.

The artists

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) was a Swiss symbolist and mythological painter who trained at the Düsseldorf Academy, and worked in Italy, Switzerland (Basel and Zurich), and Germany (Munich). I have recently written two articles about his symbolist paintings, and have also looked at his narrative works.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was a major French painter whose Romantic and painterly style laid the groundwork for the Impressionists. In addition to many fine easel works, he painted murals and was an accomplished lithographer too. Many of his paintings are narrative, and among the most famous is Liberty Leading the People from 1830. This article looks at some of his narrative works.

Niccolò dell’Abbate (1509/12-1571) was an Italian Mannerist painter who introduced the Italianate Renaissance to France through the group known as the School of Fontainebleau. He was trained in Modena, and specialised in long narrative friezes. He later moved to Bologna before going to France in 1552, where he painted frescoes, including some in the Château of Fontainebleau. Sadly many of his frescoes have now been lost, and many of his easel paintings were burnt in 1643. He painted two sets of frescoes of Orlando Furioso, one in the ducal palace at Sassuolo near Modena, the other in Bologna itself.

Dosso Dossi (c 1489–1542) was a major Italian painter of the Renaissance who spent much of his career as court artist to the d’Estes, Ariosto’s patrons, and he and Ariosto were contemporaries. His real name was Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri, and he was a member of the school of Ferrara, influenced by Venetian painting, particularly the work of Giorgione and Titian. He is now mainly known for his mythological works and enigmatic allegories.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) was a major French painter in Neoclassical style, best known for his history and other narrative paintings. He was a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, and continued much in his tradition, and in opposition to the more Romantic painting of Eugène Delacroix. His work extended from portraits to Orientalism. He painted a group of works centred on this section of Orlando Furioso, at least two showing Angelica chained naked to a rock, and another two or more showing her rescue.

Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647) was an Italian painter who was a contemporary of Rubens. He was apprenticed to the Carraccis, whose workshop in Rome he continued to work in after their deaths. He became the leading painter for Pope Paul V, then working mainly in fresco, although he also made many easel paintings. His masterpiece is the fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin in the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) was an Italian painter, who was a contemporary of Tiepolo in Venice, and trained in Venice before moving to Bologna. He painted many well known frescoes in Venice, and in Florence where he decorated rooms in the Pitti Palace. He painted commissions in Britain for several years, afterwards working in Paris for two years, which he became rich. He was particularly successful in painting mythological and other narratives.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was one of the greatest narrative painters of Europe. Flemish by adoption as a child, he trained in Antwerp, becoming a Master by 1598. After eight years in Italy, where he painted for the Mantuan court, he travelled extensively in Europe on both diplomatic missions and to paint for royal courts. From 1621-30, he was engaged by Marie de’ Medici to paint a cycle of works celebrating her and her late husband Henry IV, and it was during that period that Rubens painted the work shown above. He retired outside Antwerp in 1630, and continued to paint masterpieces until his death ten years later.

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.

Mihael Stroj (1803–1871) was a Slovenian painter, who was born in Ljubno but soon moved to Ljubljana with his family. He trained locally before moving to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He specialised in portraits and religious works, working almost entirely in oils. He spent periods in Zagreb, and is now considered one of the most important Slovenian artists of the nineteenth century.


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.