by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fantasy, Fights and Love: 500 Years of 'Orlando Furioso'

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA 21 October 2016
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Melissa by Dosso Dossi, c.1518



This city, once presided over by the Este dynasty, became one of the most brilliant of all the European courts and artistic centers of the Renaissance. It was an environment that spurred a richness in the visual arts and inspired such epic poems as 'Orlando Furioso' (The Madness of Orlando), a fantastical mingling of medieval chivalric romance, classical literary elements and contemporary events.

The work, by one of the great literary figures of that age, the Ferrarese Ludovico Ariosto, was first published here in 1516 and is now the subject of the exhibition 'Orlando Furioso: 500 Years,' which brings together more than 80 paintings, drawings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, arms and armor.

The show in the Palazzo dei Diamanti, one of the city's finest Renaissance palazzi, offers an array of suggestive works by leading artists of the time, including Botticelli, Cosmè Tura, Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Piero di Cosimo, Raphael and Titian. It is curated by Guido Beltramini and Adolfo Tura and continues through Jan. 8.

Chivalric romances, harking back to the age of Charlemagne in the eighth century, and Arthurian legends, many of them translated from French, became very popular in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Influenced by these, Matteo Maria Boiardo of the court at Ferrara wrote 'Orlando Innamorato' (Orlando in Love). The central figure is the Roland of French Romances (Orlando, in Italy), killed heroically, according to legend, during a rear-guard action at Roncevaux Pass as Charlemagne withdrew across the Pyrenees from Spain. But Boiardo also introduced a host of other characters and stories into his poem, among them the knight Ruggiero and his eventual consort, Bradamante, the mythical founders of the Este dynasty.

The exhibition opens with the only known copy of the 1486 second edition of Boiardo's 'Orlando Innamorato,' first published in 1482-83 (there are no known copies of the first edition).

Boiardo died in 1494 without finishing the story. The Ferrarese court was left wanting more of the adventures of Orlando, his elusive beloved Angelica, Ruggiero and Bradamante, and the hundreds of other characters that Boiardo had brought together in his poem.

Around 1505, Ariosto began to conceive of a new version, using many of the same characters, but his was more sophisticated in conception, language, variety of tone and point of view. The first version of his 'Orlando Furioso' — in which Orlando's madness is brought on by his unrequited love of Angelica — was finally printed a decade later.

The theme of the second section of the exhibition, 'Jousts and Battles,' is the contemporary artistic equivalent of the countless battle scenes in 'Orlando Furioso.' It includes an enormous late-15th-century French tapestry, still strongly medieval in flavor, of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, as well as a Roman sarcophagus from the second or third century of the kind that inspired the graphic works featuring naked combatants by Ercole de' Roberti and Antonio del Pollaiolo, also on show, along with a bronze frieze in the classical style by Bertoldo di Giovanni, from around 1480.

There is also a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a martial melee, 'A Battle Scene With Men, Horses and Elephants,' from the Royal Collection at Windsor.

A letter of 1507 on display here from the connoisseur and collector Isabella d'Este to Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, her brother and Ariosto's patron, is the first news that Ariosto was working on the poem. The cardinal had sent Ariosto to visit Isabella in Mantua. She wrote that she had derived 'the greatest satisfaction from the recitation of the work that he is composing, which made the last two days pass not only without tedium, but with the greatest of pleasure.'

Whether on this or another visit to Mantua, Ariosto evidently saw Mantegna's 'Minerva Expelling the Vices From the Garden of Virtue,' the monstrous figures Ariosto used in his description of the wicked sorceress Alcina's grotesque minions, who attack Ruggiero when he arrives on her island. The painting is on loan here from the Louvre.

A magnificent navigation map of around 1501-2 shows all the latest geographical discoveries in Africa, the Indies and the New World (where the shores of Brazil are exotically adorned with jungles and parrots). This exhibit was extensively used as a source by Ariosto when he sent Astolfo, Orlando's faithful friend, on a voyage around the world in Book 15 of the poem.

The first known canvas illustrating a scene from 'Orlando Furioso' (dating from about 1518 and on loan from Villa Borghese in Rome) is Dosso Dossi's 'Melissa,' the good enchantress who restores to their proper form sundry knights who have been metamorphosed into animals, birds, trees and stone by the wicked sorceress Alcina. But it is typical of Dossi's wit that, as X-rays have revealed, having depicted a knight standing beside the enchantress, Dossi repainted this part of the picture replacing the warrior with a large, mournful dog and an empty suit of armor.

The final sections of the show provide a picture of how the poem evolved in two subsequent revised and expanded editions — of 1521 and 1532 — taking into account current events and contemporary artistic developments. The revisions extended the epic from 40 to 46 Books with the addition of 700 octaves.

Among the insertions and expansions that Ariosto made to the 1532 edition was a verse praising contemporary artists, naming da Vinci, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, the brothers Dosso and Battista Dossi, Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael and Titian.

Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara had hopes of obtaining works by these artists for his private art gallery. He failed in respect of Michelangelo and Raphael, but managed to commission a spectacular cycle of works, based on classical mythology, by Bellini and Titian (which are scattered in collections on both sides of the Atlantic).

One of these, Titian's 'Bacchanal of the Andrians,' has returned here for the first time since it was sold in 1598. Now on loan from the Prado, it is highly suggestive of how Venetian developments in the painting of the nude, led by Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, affected Ariosto's description of female beauty.

In the 1516 edition, Ariosto gives a conventionally idealized description of the nude Angelica, envisioned as 'a statue fashioned of alabaster or some other lustrous marble,' with 'her unripe apple-breasts, and her golden hair winnowed by the wind' — very much like a graceful 'Venus pudica' by Botticelli and studio, shown earlier in the exhibition.

But for the 1532 edition the poet introduced elsewhere an entirely new scene in which Olimpia, a beautiful and misfortune-prone damsel, is described at much greater length and in a markedly more erotic fashion, inescapably bringing to mind the great nudes of the early 16th-century Venetian masters.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024