The cover of the Penguin edition, over to the right, shows a detail from Francesco del Cossa’s April: The Triumph of Venus.
Ariosto’s work, at the time of publication, was not in two volumes, but Penguin, probably because of the bulk, split it into two.
This volume starts with Canto XXIV, after Orlando has gone mad. Ariosto starts off with a warning against love, and then proceeds to a description of Orlando’s madness. From 15-75 we get the story of Zerbino, which culminates in his death. This is followed by Isabella and her problems.
XXV focuses on Ruggiero, or more accurately, it starts off with him. It’s at XXVI that we get Malagigi at Merlin’s fountain. You didn’t know that Merlin built a fountain? Well, the romancers and poets did a lot of stuff with Arthur, his knights, and Merlin that didn’t make it into the movies you and I saw about Arthur, including Camelot. The interpretation of the images on the fountain begins with stanza 38 and concludes in 54. The fountain contains scenes of future history that depict various kings, including Henry VIII (35).
XXVIII brings a story that is reminiscent of Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, or some of Boccaccio’s bawdy stories from The Decameron. (Sidenote: I once bought a copy of Aretino’s Dialogues, expecting them to be, as D. H. Lawrence put it, bawdy Renaissance stories. I was frankly disgusted by it. The Decameron, however, is highly recommended.)
The story in XXVIII contrasts sharply with that in XXIX, and unlike the later story takes up the whole canto. A king, Astolfo is proud of his beauty, and one of his courtiers says he knows a man who is just as handsome. So Astolfo, the king, sends for him. The man is convinced of his wife’s fidelity, and leaves her still believing in the fidelity of women. He realizes that he’s forgotten one of her parting gifts to him, goes back, and finds her in the arms of another man. He leaves, and begins wasting away, and in the process loses his beauty. He stays with Astolfo, and in time catches the queen cheating. He and Astolfo spy on her, and resolve to have no further use for fidelity. They eventually seduce a young maiden, and are sleeping beside her, when she manages to sneak a third man into her bed while they sleep on either side of her. The story ends with a tirade against women.
This is balanced in XXIX by the story of Isabella. Isabella, who lost her protector Zerbino in XXIV, is wooed by Rodomonte, but has resolved to remain faithful to Zerbino. She tells Rodomonte that she can prepare a potion that will make him invulnerable to all weapons for a month. She then tells him that she will put some on herself, and that he can test his sword on her neck. We can imagine the result, but here’s Ariosto’s stanza:
It bounced three time, and from it a clear voice
Was heard to call Zerbino, for whose sake
Unflinchingly she made so rare a choice
And bravely this escape preferred to make.
Heroic soul, who paid so high a price,
Who, with your very life, so young, at stake,
Fulfilled your sacred vow of chastity
(A term unheard-of in our century) (26).
Heads are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to severing them. Mary Stuart’s head took two or three whacks with the axe, as described by Garrett Mattingly in his book Armada, and it was this that lead to the development of the guillotine. The three bounces though seems a bit grotesque. The endnote on this stanza points out that the three bounces are appropriate to this because it points to martyrdom and fidelity. St. Paul’s head was supposed to have bounced thrice, and a fountain sprang up from each spot where it touched the ground. San Paolo alla Tre Fontane is supposed to mark the spot of his martyrdom, and is near San Paolo Fuori le Mura. (For pictures of the latter church see here, here, here, and here.)
Angelica, who has been the cause of Orlando’s suffering, leaves us in XXIX, and Ariosto leaves her fate to other writers.
XXX sees a conflict between Ruggiero and Mandricardo. Needless to say that since Ruggiero is one of the good guys of the poem it doesn’t go too well for Mandricardo.
XXXII has an interesting passage. Bradamante, one of the female warriors in the poem, has sought refuge in a castle. The castle restricts room and board to:
A knight who can defeat one or more of the knights already in the castle.
The lady who is more beautiful.
Bradamante challenges three knights who had accompanied a messenger from the Queen of Iceland, and defeats them all. She is therefore entitled to room and board at the castle. However, when the permanent residents of the castle look at her, they decide that she is fairer than the messenger from Iceland, and they are about to throw the poor girl out into the night and the foul weather.
Now bear in mind that Bradamante entered the castle under rule 1, she defeated the knights in combat. So it would seem logical to object that rule 2 should not apply. Bradamante does so, and in stanza 106 says:
There must be perfect parity between
Competitors; if not, it should be clear
The judgement is invalid; it is seen
That as of right or as a gift to her
A lodging must be granted, and herein
She must remain; if any challenger
His verdict against min would like to test,
I am prepared to show that mine is best.
Maybe a wise Italian bests a wise Latina. The first two and a half lines of the stanza sum up perfectly the entire case against affirmative action. The promotion of the less qualified throws the merit of the entire group, and therefore of the individuals within that group into doubt. We have no way of knowing if someone got into Occidental College, Columbia, and Harvard on the basis of ability, or if they got there on the equivalent of high level social passes.
At XXXIV Astolfo, a different Astolfo than in XXVIII, enters hell. This hell is in a way a parody of Dante’s hell, particularly Canto V, in which Dante encounters Paolo and Francesca. In stanza 12 we get this:
Harsh Anaxarete dwells farther on,
Suffering more torment in a denser fume.
Her body in the world was turned to stone,
Her soul to suffer in this realm has come,
For she could see, unmoved, her lover wan
Hanged at her door, so desperate become;
And, near by, Daphne knows how much at last
She erred to make Apollo run so fast.
When we discussed The Allegory of Love, we gave Lewis’ definition of the courtly love tradition, “Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.” Here we see the operation of that tradition. Those who are unresponsive to their lovers are condemned to hell.
When Astolfo leaves hell, he journeys to the terrestrial paradise where he encounters St. John the Evangelist.
For he ascended to this mountain where
Enoch the patriarch had cometo dwell.
Elijah, the great prophet, too was there
Who had not perished but is living still.
And far beyond our pestilential air
They will enjoy eternal Spring until
The trumpets from on high shall sound aloud
And Christ shall come again on a white cloud. (59)
Dante refutes this belief in John’s assumption in Paradiso XXV, but Giotto, according to the endnotes, in his fresco at Santa Croce in Florence, painted the assumption of St. John.
St. John informs Astolfo that he has another journey to undertake:
Another journey I must take you on,
Leaving the earth beneath us far below,
Until we reach the circle of the moon—
The nearest of the planets as you know.
The only means to cure Orlando soon
Is hidden there and that is why we go.
And when the moon is riding high tonight
We shall set out together on our flight. (67)
This is not the first literary trip to the moon. Lucian, in Hermotimus, imagines a trip to the moon, and Spenser, fifty or sixty years after Ariosto, in the Mutability cantos describes another trip to the moon. In Ariosto’s universe, however, this is where lost objects are stored, and it is here that they must go to find Orlando’s wits.
They find Orlando’s wits, but Ariosto delays Orlando’s recovery till later.
XXXV opens with praise of Ariosto’s patrons, and has a relatively long passage about poets and their patrons. This leads up to this passage in stanza 26:
Not so beneficent Augustus was
As Vergil’s epic clarion proclaimed.
His taste in poetry must be the cause
Why his proscriptions were left uncondemned.
No one would know of Nero’s unjust laws,
Nor would he for his cruelties be famed
(Though he had been by Heaven and earth reviled)
If writers he had wooed and reconciled.
So here we have the writer as flack, or as spin doctor for the politician. Ariosto sees writers, including Vergil, Homer, and others as selling out for their mess of potage.
In a passage in XXXVI Ariosto condemns war crimes.
Cruel Slavonians! Where did you learn
Such soldiering? In what barbaric lands
Are rules of war so merciless and stern
That he who has surrendered and who hands
His weapons to his captors shall thus earn
His death? Its light the sun unjustly lends
To this our age which the vile deeds renews
Of Tantalus, Thyestes, and Atreus.
Cruel barbarians, thus to behead
The bravest youth this century has known!
From pole to pole, or from the Ganges’ bed
To the Far West, he had no paragon.
E’en Anthropophagus, of brutal breed,
And Polyphemus, mercy would have shown
To such fair limbs, but you are worse than all
The Cyclops or any cannibal. (8-9)
Orlando has his wits restored in XL, and will later take part in a battle on the isle of Lampedusa. (Photo of south side of Lampedusa here. Coastline here. Google map view of the island.)
In XLI we have an interesting passage. Ruggiero has been shipwrecked, and repents of having broken his vow to Rinaldo. He comes to shore, and meets a hermit, who, in stanza 55, rebukes him:
The hermit first continued to rebuke
Ruggiero (but consoled him in the end)
For not submitting to the gentle yoke
When Christ had called him to Him as a friend;
That what he spurned in freedom, he now too
With little grace, only prepared to bend
His neck, when he was threatened with a lash
Which, as he feared, upon his back would crash.
In other words Ruggiero had engaged in bargaining. Now this is supposed to be the third of the five stages of dying, but most of us go to it immediately, at least in other contexts. So we have Abraham bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, and other people at other times bargaining with God. I think every freshman I ever gave a test to bargained with God for a good grade. Bargaining is given a comic portrayal in the Burt Reynolds movie The End, in which Burt is constantly bargaining with God over his death.
Later in XLI we have a combat between three pagan (Muslim) kings and three Christian champions. This takes place on the island of Lampedusa. Evidently Ariosto showed this section to Federico Ferguso, who had actually seen Lampedusa, and said it was too rocky and too hilly for the combat described. Ariosto replies to this in XLII, 20-22.
Here Frederic Fulgoso casts some doubt
Upon my tale and wonders if it’s true.
When with his fleet he journeyed round about
The coast of Barbary, this isle he knew:
He landed and explored it all throughout.
He found it mountainous and, in his view,
On all that rough and rocky piece of land
No-one, no single foot, could level stand.
And on that crag (he says) six cavaliers,
The flower of the world though they might be,
Could not have run and jousted with their spears.
To this objection which he puts to me
I answer: at that time (so it appears)
There was a space for tilting, near the sea;
But it was covered when a pinnacle
Of massive rock, dislodged by earthquake, fell.
So, bright Fulgosan splendour, brilliant gleam,
Serene refulgence which for ever glows,
If in the presence, it may be, of him
To whom your land its peace and safety owes,
You have declared that I untruthful seem,
Let us our difference in friendship close:
Do not be slow in telling him that I
Perhaps as elsewhere in this do not lie.
Note the suavity of the closing. Ariosto offers a continuation of friendship and a dismissal of their differences.
Rinaldo, in Italy, comes across a palace that has a fountain with eight statues. The statues are of ladies who are celebrated for their virtue. Among them is a surprising choice:
A first inscription meets Rinaldo’s eyes;
Lucrezia Borgia with all honour named,
Whose loveliness and virture Rome should prize
Above her ancient namesake’s, likewise famed.
The two who raise her statue to the skies,
Strozzi and Tebaldeo, gladly claimed
The glorious burden and will serve her long,
A Linus and an Orpheus in song.
There is a vast folklore about Lucrezia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, and the sister of Cesare Borgia. She was married three times, and there were rumours of incest. As far as we know the incest rumours were never substantiated, and she appears to have been a pawn in her father’s political maneuvering. All of this, however, did not prevent her being portrayed as wicked by the anti-Borgia forces. T. S. Eliot and Mario Puzo have both given protraits of her as someone with a checkered past.
In XLIII Rinaldo is offered wine from a goblet. If he is able to drink it, his wife is faithful; if it spills on his shirt, his wife is unfaithful.
I told you that he wished to think a while
Before he raised the goblet to his lips.
He thought, and then he argued in this style:
‘Foolish it is to rouse a dog which sleeps.
Women are women, easy to beguile.
My wife’s a woman: I will take no steps
(In what way would it make me happier?)
To test the confidence I have in her. (6)
There is a throughout the poem a conflict that is set up between the inconstant, easily adulterous woman, and the pure lover. Angelica, who seems to change loves as easily as some women change dresses, contrasts with Isabella and Bradamante, who are constant in their affections.
Rinaldo’s host launches into a long story that serves as an indictment of the female sex as being easily seduced, particularly by gifts of money. Rinaldo is:
…the only husband wise enough
Not to risk ruining your married life
By measuring the virtue of your wife. (44)
When Rinaldo leaves the palace he travels by boat, and the boatman regales him with a long tale that climaxes in the husband being as willing to have homosexual relations for money just as much as the wife was to have heterosexual relations.
Canto XLV opens with an image that is familiar from much medieval literature:
The higher up on Fortune’s wheel you see
A wretch ascend, the sooner he will fall,
And where his head is now, his feet will be.
Polycrates, for instance, I recall,
Croesus and Dionysius equally,
And many more—I cannot name them all—
Were good examples of such change of fate,
Plunged from supreme renown to low estate.
Croesus we met in Herodotus. He went from king of Lydia to captive, and from captive to adviser to the Persian king.
This meditation on Fortune leads to stanza 7:
He told Ungiardo that the cavalier
Who put the troops of Constantine to flight,
Leaving them tame and cowed for many a year,
Was there that day and would remain that night;
And if he now seized Fortune by the hair,
He’d give his king, without another fight
(If prisoner this guest of his he took),
The chance to bend the Bulgars to the yoke.
We recognize the image of Fortune being seized as being from Machiavelli. Was this a common expression; did Ariosto read Machiavelli, or vice versa; or did the translator insert it?
Poor Ruggiero has gone through all sorts of pain to win the hand of Bradamante, but her parents find him unsuitable because he is, well, poor. So we have a final bit of complicated plot that involves Ruggiero joining up with the Bulgarians to fight against Constantine V, being taken captive, and being rescued by Leon, the son of Constantine V. Bradamante is then offered as a reward to anyone who can outlast her in battle. Needless to say, hijinks ensue.
Bradamante’s father objects to her betrothal to Ruggiero on these grounds:
Such a betrothal is untenable.
This contract is of no concern to me.
She was a Christian, he an infidel:
Their union cannot have validity.
Did Leon put his life at risk for nil?
Has he then lost, despite his victory?
Our Emperor, for something so absurd,
Will not, I think, go back upon his word. (110)
Were marriage contracts between non-Christians and Christians regarded as non-binding, or were contracts in general between two such parties non-binding. There are canon laws governing the marriage of such parties, but I’m not sure of their history, nor am I sure of the civil law during this time period.
Canto XLVI, the final canto, opens with Ariosto being greeted by a crowd of fellow writers. The most notable of those mentiioned is Aretino in stanza 14. Pietro Bembo, whose name pops up from time to time in Renaissance courses, is mentioned in stanza 15.
We have the resolution of the Ruggiero/Leon/Bradamante romance, and the subsequent wedding. We also get this stanza, in praise of Ariosto’s patron:
The first part of the canopy displayed
This godlike progeny’s sublime enfance.
Cassandra on the other had portrayed
His prudence, justice, valour, temperance.
To these four virtues she saw fit to add
A fifth: the virtue of munificence,
Which ever with the other four combines.
With all these radiant attributes he shines. (93)
In this stanza Ariosto combines the four cardinal virtues, and creates a fifth, munificence, that somehow embodies the totality of these virtues. Spenser will do something similar in The Faerie Queen. His announced intention is to portray twelve virtues in the individual knights, such as the Red Cross knight, and are to be summed up in the person of Arthur, who is representative of magnanimity.
Before the resolution of the conflict though Ruggiero has to face Rodomonte, who shows up on the final day of the wedding festivities.
Advancing now to where he could confront
Charles and Ruggiero, angrily he roared:
‘I am the king of Sarza, Rodomont.
I challenge you, Ruggiero; with my sword
E’er sunset I will settle our account,
I’ll prove you a traitor to your lord;
No honour you deserve among these knights;
Apostate, you have forfeited your rights! (105)
Ruggiero’s lord was Agramante, the Saracen king, whom he ceased serving after he became a Christian. He is an apostate either because he switched over to the Christian side, or because he abandoned Islam. The penalty for apostasy from Islam is, of course, death. Whether Ariosto had that in mind, I don’t know.
Rodomonte is finished off in stanza 140:
Raising his arm as high as would suffice,
He plunged his dagger in that awesome brow,
Retrieving it not once, but more than twice.
To Acheron’s sad shores, that spirit now,
Freed from its body, colder far than ice,
Fled cursing from the world, to disavow
The right which all his life he had defied
With insolence and arrogance and pride.
So ends Orlando Furioso.
Next up, I’ll return to the St. John’s reading list with Don Quixote. For the spiritual reading, I’ll be doing bits from The Golden Legend, but I’ll be posting those to coincide with the appropriate feast days. So I’ll also be doing St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.