Orlando furioso is the continuation of an earlier, unfinished, epic poem, Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love), written in the late fifteenth century by another Ferrarese courtier, Matteo Maria Boiardo, both texts drawn from a wild mix of popular tales and cultivated literature that had developed over almost seven centuries in several linguistic and cultural traditions, encompassing both the Arthurian legends of Britain and the stories which had grown up around the figure of Hrolandus (Roland in French, Orlando in Italian), an obscure eighth-century French warrior.
The principal narrative axes of Ariosto’s poem are two. In the first, Orlando – chief among the Emperor Charlemagne’s Christian knights in the fight against the Saracen Agramante, King of Africa – is rejected by Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay (China), goes mad, and in the process all but loses France to invading Islamic forces. Orlando’s tortuous return to sanity is only achieved late in the poem, after his English cousin and comrade-in-arms, Astolfo, travels to the moon where the wits of the insane are preserved in jars, watched over there by St. John the Evangelist. The second narrative crux concerns the ever-frustrated love of Ruggiero – Saracen champion and Orlando’s nemesis – for the Christian lady-warrior Bradamante, and the apparently countless impediments blocking their destiny – foretold early in the poem by the magician Merlin – to establish the Este dynasty.
The poem thus links the medieval struggle of Christians and Muslims, refracted through a complex web of history and mythology, with the contemporary reality of early sixteenth-century Italy, itself suffering at the time from a devastating succession of foreign incursions.
Prints by Gustave Dore.