Orlando Furioso through the eyes of an early reader

Hippogriffs in flight, with St Andrews, home of the Scottish court and Ginevra beneath. Detail from woodcut for canto 4 (Sp Coll q2)

Hippogriffs in flight, with St Andrews, home of Ginevra and the Scottish court, beneath. Detail from woodcut for canto 4 (Sp Coll q2)

Titlepage of the 1558 Furioso, with early (17th century?) autograph "T.(?) Coke". (Sp Coll q2)

Titlepage of the 1558 Furioso, with early (17th century?) autograph “T.(?) Coke”. (Sp Coll q2)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the first publication of Ariosto’s epic chivalric fantasy poem, Orlando Furioso. In this guest blogpost Simona Nisticò, a Language and Literature Master’s student from the University of Perugia on Erasmus placement at the University of Glasgow Library, discusses a particularly interesting sixteenth-century copy of the work held by Special Collections.

“The Furioso is a unique book, and can be – or should I say, must be? – read without reference to any other book either before it or after. It is a universe of its own that one can travel the length and breadth of, going in, coming out again, and losing oneself in.” Italo Calvino1

At the time of the First Crusade, Europe was pervaded by the spirit of holy war that, in France, gave birth to an epic poem by an unknown author titled La Chanson de Roland – The Song of Roland – a tale of chivalry, treachery, ambush, slaughter and the heroic death of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s most trusted knights. Narratives of the heroic deeds of Charlemagne’s paladins (his foremost warriors) subsequently took on a life of their own, becoming adapted and reimagined in various ways. These tales, or Canzoni di gesta (canzoni meaning “songs” as they would traditionally have been sung), were particularly popular with pilgrims and were spread far and wide, achieving success not only in France, but also in Spain and Italy. In Italy, they took on a specific character: Orlando (Roland), evoked in the French tradition only for his last battle and death, found in Italy all that was missing in his life – love. By the fifteenth century chivalric romances became popular across society from the streets and squares to the cultured circles of the most refined courts in Italy, the Medicis in Florence and the Estes in Ferrara.

Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto’s continuation of Boiardo’s unfinished romance Orlando Innamorato comes from this tradition. Love is at the centre of the story. In it Orlando, traditionally chaste and inaccessible to love’s temptations, falls furiously in love with Angelica, at the worst possible time for the Christian army, which without their champion risk losing France to the Saracens. Angelica’s failure to return his affections sends him mad and only the knight Astolfo can save him, flying around the world on the back of a hippogriff (a mythical creature – half griffin, half horse) in search of a cure before eventually locating Orlando’s lost wits in a jar, on the moon! Beside this sits a tale of a love thwarted: between Saracen warrior Ruggiero and Bradamante, a beautiful and strong female Christian warrior. Countless secondary stories of fairies, giants and spells then continuously branch out in every direction from the main events, creating symmetries and contrasts, making Orlando Furioso an extremely dynamic and adventurous work, although full of ironic detachment and absolutely modern, in the way it reflects the somewhat freer society of the Renaissance, investigating love in all sort of aspects and showing a relative emancipation of women from their usual angel/devil roles.

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The University of Glasgow Library Special Collections possesses a precious, beautifully illustrated 1558 Italian edition of the poem with an interesting history. It had at least three past owners dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries identifiable through different autographs on the volume. Its lavish gold-tooled goatskin binding in the “fanfare” style suggests it may have resided in France in the later sixteenth or early seventeenth century2. But, if the burn marks on the rear cover are anything to go by, it is also perhaps fortunate to have survived a fire. Besides the numerous illustrations, another remarkable feature – testament to the ongoing popularity and success of the work during the sixteenth century – is the number of printed annexes and reader aides which augment it: a biography of Ariosto, plenty of notes on characters, places, stories and fables involved in the work, not to mention an examination of the orthography used, of the linguistic adjustments produced by the author over the years, and a glossary of words that might not be comprehensible to people unfamiliar with Latin or the Tuscan dialect. However, evidently unsatisfied with all of the various printed reader aides provided, one past reader of this particular copy has left us with one of the most interesting and tantalising features of this unusual book: a list of characters and themes from Orlando Furioso handwritten on a flyleaf, in an early (perhaps late seventeenth century) hand. So what features of the Furioso interested a seventeenth-century reader?

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In the foreground, right, Astolfo meets Lidia at the entrance to hell; at the top of the image, Astolfo sets off for the moon in a chariot. Woodcut for canto 34 (Sp Coll q2)

In the foreground, right, Astolfo meets Lidia at the entrance to hell; at the top of the image, Astolfo sets off for the moon in a chariot. Woodcut for canto 34 (Sp Coll q2)

Well first up on the list3 is “Genevra” – Ginevra, a woman of solid virtue, daughter of the King of Scotland, who risks her life after being falsely accused of having slept with a man; later in the list appears Isabella, who, in order to stay faithful to her now dead fiancé, prefers to be killed rather than sleep with a suitor. She’ll be found in a cave and rescued by Orlando. Yet further down the list appears Lucina and her lover Norandino, who, after she’s been imprisoned by an ogre, tries everything to save her. The list contains beautiful women, such as Olympia, tied naked by the shore to be food for a killer whale, and whose attractive body drives the King of Ireland to fall in love with and marry her; and Orrigille, who’s nonetheless responsible for several acts of fraud and betrayal. Our reader remarked other examples of evil women: Gabrina, an old woman with a dark past, eventually hanged by a former criminal partner of hers, and the Amazons, warriors who enslave or kill every man they cross paths with, unless the man is able to defeat ten of them and satisfy ten the very next night. The last woman on the list is Lidia, a damned soul met by Astolfo at the entrance of Hell. Daughter of a King, she made the knight who loved her fight for her own benefit and lose everything he had only to refuse him, and is now being punished for her ingratitude.

Another interesting focus of the list is men’s vicious behaviour towards women. Astolfo and Giocondo had both been cheated on by their wives, and decide to go on a journey to seduce other women, in the hope of proving that cheating is a typical feminine trait. Tristano, on a journey with a woman, asked to be let in a castle for the night, but was rejected by the prince, jealous of his lover. Reacting to the lack of courtesy Tristano challenges and defeats the prince taking possession of the castle, including the prince’s lover. In the end though, realizing that jealousy had caused the problem in the first place, he leaves and lets the girl return to prince. Also making the list are Cavalier Mantuano, another jealous husband, and King Marganorre who had his sons killed for pursuing women who didn’t love them back and so banned all women from his kingdom.

The list contains terrible monsters, like Caligorante e Orrilo; pagan divinities, such as Proteo, who lives in the sea; the Christian King Senapo; and important religious references. For example Della Discordia e Silenzio ritrovati concerns God answering Charlemagne’s prayers by sending an angel to locate Discord and Silence to dispatch against the Saracens. When the Archangel Michael eventually tracks down Discord, he finds him not with the enemy but in a Christian monastery, a veiled criticism of corruption within the Church.

Orlando is blown off course by a hurricane to where he will meet Olympia. Woodcut for Canto 9. (Sp Coll q2)

Orlando is blown off course by a hurricane to Friesland (the Low Countries) where he will meet Olympia. Woodcut for Canto 9. (Sp Coll q2)

So, adventure, magic, sensual love and religion. Why, one wonders, were these characters and themes singled out for attention? Well one small clue is perhaps offered by the last addition to the list La cortesia di Leone a Ruggiero, the title of a comedy by Silvio Fiorillo, an Italian interpreter of the Commedia dell’Arte, which deals with the events taking place in the Furioso’s last three cantos. The comedy was first published in 1624, which suggests the list can’t have been added before this date. Ariosto composed this work before the political, spiritual and social upheaval of the Reformation and arguably consequently took certain liberties – namely a fairly supernatural component and the controversial references to the Church. Approaching this work more than a century later, with the various conservative social changes which emerged in Counter Reformation Europe, our reader may have been surprised by Ariosto’s tone. Was our reader possibly shocked by these particular stories or characters, so moved to make the list? Sadly we just can’t know for sure.

Readers may be interested to learn about Furious Metapmorphoses, a project being undertaken by our colleagues at the University of St Andrews, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Orlando Furioso (remember that St Andrews features in the Furioso!). A programme of events is running throughout 2016 incorporating talks, performances and workshops and a call for papers will shortly be announced on their website ahead of an autumn symposium. A census of surviving sixteenth-century copies of the work (which will include this copy) will also appear on their website as an open-access resource by the end of 2016.


1 Italo Calvino, Orlando Furioso di Ludovico Ariosto raccontato da Italo Calvino (Milan: Mondadori Editore, c. 2002), p.3
2 Thanks to Anna Gialdini (@remboitage on Twitter), book and binding historian at University of the Arts London, Ligatus Research Centre, for her corroborating opinion on the date and origin of this binding
3 Thanks to Shanti Graheli (@shantigraheli on Twitter), book historian at St Andrews University for helping with the transcription, approximate dating and identification of characters and themes on this list

Categories: Special Collections

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