A Tale of Knights and Love

Title Page, Orlando Furioso (1516). Spencer 12194
Title Page, Orlando Furioso (1516). Spencer 12194

On Saturday 25 January I had the wonderful opportunity to present the object of my PhD research to the general public by leading a collection encounter on illustrated editions of the Italian Renaissance epic poem Orlando furioso by the humanist Ludovico Ariosto. The poem was first published in 1516 with 42 cantos and then in 1521 and 1532 in 46 cantos. For this event I chose a variety of editions, in Italian, English and Spanish. This multilingual selection of editions reflects on the one hand the complex publishing history of the poem, but also the breath and scope of the collections.

The Orlando furioso is certainly a complex poem both for its plot and for the themes it includes. It is essentially a tale of knights and love, in the sense that love governs a lot of the action of the characters. Love leads the protagonist Orlando to go mad after discovering that the woman he loved, Angelica princess of Catai, has fallen in love and married a shepherd, Medoro.

Angelica e Medoro, Orlando Furioso (1787). Spencer 3062
Angelica e Medoro, Orlando Furioso (1787). Spencer 3062

The poem is based on legends from the time of Charlemagne, but unlike the Carolingian knights, these knights are ‘human’ with weaknesses and flaws. The complexity of the Furioso lays primarily in the convoluted design of its plot, with each section of the poem containing several episodes. Each episode is then interrupted by the author to pass to another event, and then resumed several cantos later, with a technique called entrelacement.

Two editions have illustrations that portray particularly well this complex narrative plot. The Italian 1584 edition is the first Italian edition to be illustrated with copper plates, one placed at the beginning of each canto. Each plate shows various characters from the poem and illustrates each of them in their several actions through the canto. This results in a character being portrayed several times within the same plate, with the visual effect of them moving within the illustration and within the canto. These plates were copied in the 1591 English translation of the poem, to confer prestige to the edition, in a time when England was adopting a significant amount of printing conventions from the continent.

Illustration to Canto I, Orlando Furioso (1584). Spencer 7699.
Illustration to Canto I, Orlando Furioso (1584). Spencer 7699.

The 1553 Spanish translation by Jeronimo de Urrea feature woodcut illustrations for each canto. Their size and format is very different from the engraved copper plates in the Italian edition. Each woodcut precedes the beginning of the cantos and is surrounded by a frame on the left and right hand-side, giving each illustration the character of a little window on the canto. This illustration layout is particularly suitable to portray the uneven development of the plot, as each sub-episode within the macro-sections that are the cantos is like a snapshot for a specific character and moment in the poem.

At the beginning the attendees were very reserved and not really engaging with me or with the books on display in front of them as they were sitting far from the tables. Once I started pointing at the illustrations and encouraged them to come and see the little details they stood up and the discussion became much more lively. Their engagement with the books and their curiosity led to a varied discussion that ranged from printing devices used to produce frames surrounding plot summaries and illustrated initials to the provenance and meaning of creatures in the illustrations, allowing me to explain the role and significance of the fantastic in the poem. As the session progressed, people were also providing their interpretation of the illustrations and this generated more questions and contributed to an interactive discussion.

Veronica Pizzarotti (Phd Candidate and Special Collections intern)

1 comment on “A Tale of Knights and Love

  1. Elisabetta Cecconi

    i canti della prima e seconda edizione sono 40, non 42.

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