Introduction to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso
The Orlando Furioso Atlas is an interactive digital mapping project, which aims to translate and represent the the sprawling world of perhaps the greatest literary work of the Italian Renaissance, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532), sometimes known in English as The Frenzy of Orlando.
The Orlando Furioso is a long narrative poem that recounts the stories of dozens of knights, princesses, warriors, wizards, and witches as they zoom around the globe engaging in amorous adventures and daring feats of courage, all set against the background of the war between Christian France and Muslim Spain. The Orlando Furioso belongs to a literary genre known as romance epic, which emerged from humanist circles in fifteenth-century Italy. At that time, scholars were interested in reviving the ancient epic (think, Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid), and some did so by weaving this classical genre with the medieval Romance tradition (for example, the British legends of King Arthur and his knights, and the French chansons de geste, which often featured tales of Charlemagne in his wars against the Moors): thus, put simply: classical epic + medieval romance = romance epic.
The pinnacle achievement of this melding of poetic forms is the Orlando Furioso, written by the Ferrarese poet Ludovico Ariosto over a period of nearly 30 years (circa 1505-1532). Ariosto picked up the narrative of an earlier romance epic, the Orlando Innamorato (i.e. "Orlando in Love"), which its author, Matteo Maria Boiardo, had left unfinished upon his death in 1494.
The Orlando Furioso comprises two main plot lines. The first of these concerns the impossible yet inevitable romance between the Muslim knight Ruggiero and the Christian knight Bradamante. Their eventual union will form the base of the mythical genealogical tree which will give rise to the Este family, the despotic rulers of Ferrara and Ariosto's patrons. The second plot line concerns the greatest of all of Charlemagne's knights, Orlando (Roland in French and English), who will be driven mad by his unrequited love for the irresistible Angelica, princes of Cathay: thus the title, Orlando Furioso (the Italian word furioso shares the double denotation of the English "mad," i.e. both enraged and crazy). Interwoven with these two main plot lines are dozens of minor narrative threads involving many secondary characters, some traditional figures from the romance tradition, others invented out of whole cloth by Boiardo and Ariosto.
The complexity of this rich tapestry of interwoven story strands makes reading the Orlando Furioso both fascinating and bewildering, especially for fist-time readers, since the varied exploits of the characters span the globe, from the wild forests of Northern Scotland to the furthest East Indies, and from the deserts of North Africa to the frozen northern seas.
Why an Atlas?
The Orland Furioso is by no means the great Ferrarese poet's only literary work. Ariosto's trademark wit and lightness of touch shines through in his "Satires," as well. In his "Satire no. 3" Ariosto takes up the theme of traveling, or rather, his aversion to it, writing that he would rather explore the world by map than by ship, and that he much prefers resting idley at home, leafing through his copy of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, to paying innkeepers and braving storms at sea:
the sky flashes, safer aboard my maps
than aboard ships, I'll come coasting.
(Ludovico Ariosto, "Third Satire" vv. 64-6)
It is partly due to these lines that Ariosto owes his reputation (exaggerated, no doubt) as the great sedentary and contemplative poet, Ludovico della tranquillità: a man uninterested in the outside world, in search of a permanent and idyllic otium, which would allow him to do nothing but fantasticate and versify. A man who preferred poetry to life.
We have taken him partially at his word, which is to say that the remarkable geographic and toponymic specificity with which Ariosto constructed the universe of the Orlando Furioso, has convinced us that he did indeed spend a good deal of time perusing his maps, volteggiando in su le carte. Therefore, we have devised this project in order to explore this literary masterpiece through geographic, cartographic, and spatial lenses.
The breadth and variety of the world that Ariosto creates in his romance epic, and the labyrinthine nature of the Furioso’s plot, have made it difficult to investigate the spatial dimensions of the poem in their totality. This project aims to chart the space of the Orlando Furioso as Ariosto and other 16th-century humanists might have imagined it, on a cartographic representation of the world that was entering the European imagination in the very years that the great Ferrarese poet was writing and editing the three editions of his magnum opus (1516, 1521, 1532).
The early 1500s witnessed the explosion of common beliefs about the size and shape of the Earth. Ariosto inlaid his fictional world within this rapidly expanding understanding of the globe, creating a fictional geography that is both accurate and fantastical. Our use of sixteenth-century maps seeks to portray this worldview-in-flux, and it is our hope that by reelaborating Ariosto’s poem in spatial terms, we may better understand the interaction of the real and the imaginary in the poetic text as patterns and meanings emerge which have heretofore gone unnoticed.
The Orlando Furioso Atlas was begun in June 2016. It is very much a work in progress, as we refine through experimentation our technological methodologies. We would like to hear your thoughts and questions about our project. Please write to us via the Contact page.
To view the interactive canto maps, click on The Atlas tab above.
- Daniel Leisawitz