The Structure of Orlando Furioso

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The Structure of Orlando Furioso

Radio broadcast, 1974; written on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Lodovico Ariosto.

Orlando Furioso is a poem that refuses to begin and refuses to end. It refuses to begin because it is presented as the continuation of another poem, Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, left unfinished at the author’s death. And it refuses to end because Ariosto never stopped working on it. Having published it in the first edition of forty cantos in 1516, he went on trying to make it grow, at first attempting to give it a sequel which remained incomplete (the so-called Cinque canti, published after his death), and then inserting new episodes in the middle cantos, so that in the third and definitive version, dating from 1532, the number of cantos jumped to forty-six. In between there was a second edition (1521), which bears witness to another aspect of the poem that cannot be considered finished: the polishing, the tuning up of language and versification that Ariosto constantly busied himself over. All his life long, one might say, because to achieve the 1516 edition he worked for twelve years, and then he toiled for another sixteen on the 1532 edition; the next year he died. This process of expanding from the inside, making episodes proliferate from other episodes, creating new symmetries and new contrasts, seems to me to explain Ariosto’s method of construction rather well. And for him it remained the best method of enlarging this poem, with its polycentric and contemporaneous structure, the events of which branch out in every direction, continually intersecting and diverging.

So that one can follow the vicissitudes of such a mass of main and secondary characters, the poem requires a type of “assembly” that enables it to leave one character or theatre of operations and pass on to another. Sometimes these shifts occur without breaking the continuity of the narrative, as when two people meet and the story, which has been following the first, parts from him and follows the second; and at other times by means of clear breaks that interrupt the action right in the middle of a canto. It is usually the last two lines of an ottava (the eight-line stanza used by Ariosto and also, for example, by Spenser in The Faerie Queene) that warn us of the suspension and interruption of the narrative. They are rhymed couplets such as these:

Segue Rinaldo, e d’ira si distrugge:

ma seguiamo Angelica che fugge.

[Rinaldo follows, consumed with rage. But let us follow Angelica, who is fleeing.]

Or else:

Lasciànlo andar, che farà buon cammino,

e torniamo a Rinaldo paladino.

[Let him go, for he will have a safe journey, and let us return to Rinaldo the Paladin.]

Or again:

Ma tempo è omai di ritrovar Ruggiero

che scorre il ciel su l’animal leggiero.

[But now it is time to find Ruggiero again, as he rides through the skies on that fleet animal.]

While these breaks in the action are placed in the middle of the cantos, the end of each individual canto promises us that the story will continue in the next one. Here, too, this informative function is assigned to the rhymed couplet at the end of the ottava:

Come a Parigi appropinquosse, e quanto

Carlo aiutò, vi dirà l’altro canto.

[How they approached Paris, and how much Charles helped them, the next canto will tell you.]

To end the canto Ariosto often pretends to be a bard reciting his lines at a court soirée:

Non più, Signor, non più di questo canto;

ch’io son già rauco, e vo’ posarmi alquanto.

[No more, my lord, no more of this canto; for I am already hoarse, and am inclined to rest.]

Or else he shows himself in the very act of writing:

Poi che da tutti i lati ho pieno il foglio,

finire il canto, e riposar mi voglio.

[Since my paper is full on all sides, I would like to finish the canto and rest.]

The start of the following canto, on the other hand, nearly always involves a widening of the horizon, a detachment from the impetus of the narrative, in the form either of an aphoristic introduction, or of an amorous peroration, or again of an elaborate metaphor, before taking up the story where it left off. It is in fact at the beginning of the cantos that we find those digressions about contemporary Italy, especially plentiful in the last part of the poem. It is as if, by means of these linking passages, the times in which the author lived and wrote made irruptions into the fabled times of the narrative.

To give a brief description of the form of Orlando Furioso is therefore impossible, because we are not confronted with any rigid geometry. We might have recourse to the image of a force field, continually generating new force fields within itself. The movement is always centrifugal: at the outset we are already right in the middle of the action, and this holds good for the poem as a whole as well as for each canto and episode.

The trouble with any preamble to Orlando Furioso is that if one begins by saying, “It is a poem that is a continuation of another poem, which in turn continues a cycle of innumerable other poems,” the reader is at once discouraged. If before he starts reading he has to find out all about its precedents, and the precedents of the precedents, when on earth will he be able to start on Ariosto’s poem? But any preamble is immediately seen to be superfluous. The Furioso is a book unique in its kind, and can be—or should I say, must be?—read without reference to any other book either before or after it. It is a world of its own that one can travel the length and breadth of, going in, coming out again, and losing oneself in it.

That the author would pass off the construction of this world as a continuation, an appendix, or what he called a “gionta” (adjunct) to another man’s work, may be interpreted as a sign of Ariosto’s extraordinary modesty, an extreme example of understatement, of that special spirit of irony vis-à-vis himself that makes a man minimize great and important things. But it may also be viewed as a concept of time and space that rejects the closed configuration of the Ptolemaic cosmos, and opens out limitlessly toward past and future, as indeed toward an incalculable plurality of worlds.

From the very start the Furioso introduces itself as the poem of movement; or, better, it introduces the particular kind of movement that is going to run through it from top to bottom: movement in broken, zigzag lines. We could trace the general pattern of the poem by following the continual intersection and divergence of these lines on a map of Europe and Africa, but to define it we have only to look at the first canto, in which three horsemen are pursuing Angelica, who is fleeing through a wood, in a frenzied dance comprising strayings and chance encounters, blunders and changes of plans.

It is with this zigzag traced by galloping horses and the fitfulness of the human heart that we are introduced to the spirit of the poem. The pleasure of speedy action is mingled at once with a sense of breadth and the availability of time and space. Absent-minded behavior is characteristic not only of Angelica’s pursuers, but also of Ariosto himself. One is tempted to say that the poet, as he starts his narrative, does not yet know the outline of the plot that later on will guide him with such precise premeditation. But one thing he already has perfectly clear in his head: this dash, and at the same time this leisureliness of narration, which—in a word pregnant with meaning—we might describe as the errant movement of Ariosto’s poetry.

Such characteristics of Ariosto’s “space” can be discerned on the scale of the poem as a whole or in single cantos, and even on a minute scale such as that of the stanza or the single line. The ottava is the measure in which we are best able to recognize what is unique about Ariosto. In the ottava he can twist us around his little finger; he is at home. His miracle is above all that of casual ease. This is mainly for two reasons. One is intrinsic to the nature of the ottava, a stanza that lends itself even to long discourses, and to the alternation of sublime and lyrical tones of voice with tones more prosaic and jocular. The other is intrinsic to Ariosto’s way of writing poetry, which is not confined to limitations of any kind; he did not decide (as Dante did) on a rigid division of the material, or a rule of symmetry that would make him adhere to a pre-established number of cantos and a certain number of stanzas in each canto. In the Furioso the shortest canto has seventy-two stanzas, while the longest has 199. The poet could take his time if he wished and use several stanzas to say something that others would say in a line, or he could concentrate in a single line what could well be material for a lengthy peroration.

The secret of the ottava in Ariosto’s hands lies in the way he follows the varied rhythms of the spoken language, in the abundance of what the great nineteenth-century critic De Sanctis called the “inessential accessories of language,” and also in the swiftness of his ironic sallies. But colloquialism is only one of his registers, which extend from the lyrical to the tragic to the aphoristic, and can occur together in the same stanza. Ariosto can write with memorable concision, and many of his lines have become proverbial: “Ecco il giudicio umano come spesso erra!” (“Behold how often human judgment errs!”), or “O gran bontà decavallieri antiqui!” (“Ah, the great courtesy of the knights of old!”). But it is not only with these parentheses that he achieves his changes of pace: the very structure of the ottava is based on the interruption of the rhythm. The six lines linked by two alternating rhymes are followed by the couplet, producing an effect that we would now call an anticlimax, a brusque change not only of rhythm but of psychological and intellectual climate as well, from the cultured to the popular, from the evocative to the comic.

Naturally, Ariosto plays with these “turnarounds” to his stanzas as he sees fit, but the game could become monotonous without the poet’s agility in giving life to the stanza by introducing pauses, making stops in different positions, adapting different syntactical speeds to the metrical scheme, alternating long sentences with short ones, breaking the stanza and in some cases running on into the next, jumping from the past tense to the imperfect to the present to the future—in short, creating a series of planes and perspectives in his story.

The freedom and ease of movement that we have encountered in the versification are still more evident on the level of narrative structures and the composition of the plot. The main themes, let us remember, are two. The first recounts how Orlando, as a rejected lover of Angelica, became a furious madman, and how the Catholic armies, lacking their champion, very nearly lost the whole of France; and how the lost reason of the madman was found by Astolfo on the moon and driven back into the person of its rightful owner, enabling him to regain his place in the ranks. Parallel with this unwinds the second plot, that of the predestined but constantly frustrated love of Ruggiero, champion of the Saracen camp, for the Christian warrior-woman Bradamante, and of all the impediments that stand in the way of their nuptial destiny until the Saracen manages to change sides, receive baptism, and wed his robust beloved. The Ruggiero-Bradamante plot is no less important than that of Orlando and Angelica, because it is from that couple that Ariosto (like Boiardo before him) intends to trace the descent of the Este family, which means not only to justify his poem in the eyes of his patrons, but above all to link the mythical times of chivalry with contemporary events, with his own times in Ferrara and in Italy. The two main themes and their numerous ramifications therefore proceed entwined together, but they in turn are wound around the trunk of the truly epic part of the poem, the events in the war between the Emperor Charlemagne and Agramante, king of Africa. This epic is largely concentrated in a block of cantos dealing with the siege of Paris by the Moors, the Christian counter-offensive, and the quarrels in Agramante’s camp. The siege of Paris is more or less the center of gravity of the poem, just as the city of Paris appears as its geographical heart:

Siede Parigi in una gran pianura

ne l’ombilico a Francia, anzi nel core;

gli passa la riviera entro le mura

e corre et esce in altra parte fuore:

ma fa un’isola prima, e v’assicura

de la città una parte, e la migliore;

l’altre due (ch’in tre parti è la gran terra)

di fuor di fossa, e dentro il fiume serra.

Alla città che molte miglia gira

da molte parti si può dar battaglia;

ma perché sol da un canto assalir mira,

né volontier l’esercito sbarraglia,

oltre il fiume Agramante si ritira

verso ponente, acciò che quindi assaglia;

però che né cittade né campagna

ha dietro (se non sua) fino alla Spagna.

(XIV. 104—105)

[Paris stands in a great plain in the navel of France, or rather, the heart. The river passes within its walls, and flows, and issues forth at the other side. But first it creates an island, and I assure you this is the best part of the city. The other two (for the great town is in three parts) are enclosed on the outside by the moat, and inside by the river. Against the city, which encircles many miles, one can bring battle on many sides. But because he only plans to assault on one side, and is not willing to risk his army, Agramante retires beyond the river toward the west, so that he can attack from there; for there is no town or countryside at his back (except his own) from there to Spain.]

From what I have said it might be thought that the wanderings of all the main characters end by converging at the siege of Paris. But this does not occur. Most of the most famous champions are absent from this collective epic, and only the gigantic bulk of Rodomante towers above the fray. Where are all the others hiding out?

We have to confess at this point that the poem has another center of gravity, a negative center, a trapdoor, or a sort of maelstrom that one by one swallows all the main characters. This is the enchanted palace of Atlante the wizard. Atlante’s magic takes special delight in illusory architecture. As early as canto IV, among the crests of the Pyrenees, he causes a solid steel castle to rise up, and then makes it vanish into thin air. In cantos XII to XXII we see, not far from the English Channel, the rise of a castle that is a kind of abyss, a void in which all the images of the poem are reflected.

Orlando himself, while seeking Angelica, has the misfortune to fall victim to this enchantment, by a process that is repeated almost identically for each of these valiant knights: he sees his beloved being carried off, he pursues the kidnapper, enters a mysterious palace, and wanders around and around in empty halls and corridors. Or, rather, the palace is empty of what is sought, and peopled only by seekers.

These men wandering through the loggias and down the back stairs, groping behind tapestries and canopies, are the most celebrated Christian and Moorish knights. All of them have been drawn to the palace, by the vision of a beloved woman, of an enemy they cannot catch up with, of a stolen horse, of a lost object. And now they can no longer escape from those walls. If one of them makes as if to leave, he hears his name called and turns—and the apparition sought in vain is there, the woman he has to rescue is looking out of a window begging for help. Atlante has given shape and form to the kingdom of illusion. If life is always varied, unexpected, and changing, illusion is monotonous, forever harping on the same string. Desire is a race toward nothingness, and Atlante’s enchantment concentrates all unsatisfied longings in the prison of a labyrinth. But he does not change the rules that govern the movements of men in the open spaces of the poem and of the world.

Astolfo also ends up in the palace, chasing (or thinking he is chasing) a peasant boy who has stolen his horse, Rabicano. But with Astolfo no enchantment holds. Having a magic book that explains all about such palaces, Astolfo goes straight to the marble flagstone at the doorstep and has only to lift it for the whole palace to go up in smoke. At that moment he is joined by a troop of knights. Nearly all of them are friends of his, but instead of greeting him they hurl themselves upon him as if they mean to make mincemeat of him with their swords. What has happened? Atlante the wizard, perceiving himself in trouble, has had recourse to one last enchantment, making Astolfo appear to the many and various prisoners in the palace as the adversary who lured them in. But Astolfo has only to set his lips to his horn to dispel the magic, the wizard, and the victims of wizardry alike. The palace, a spider’s web of dreams and desires and envy, simply melts away. Or, rather, it ceases to be a place outside ourselves, with doors and stairs and walls, and returns to hiding in our minds, in the labyrinth of thought. To those he had captured, Atlante grants freedom to roam the roads of the poem once more. Is this Atlante or Ariosto? The enchanted palace stands revealed as an astute structural stratagem on the part of the narrator, who, given the downright impossibility of developing a great number of parallel events at the same time, felt he had to withdraw certain characters from the action for the space of a few cantos, to lay certain cards aside and get on with his game, and then pull the cards out of his sleeve at the opportune moment. The enchanter who wants to delay the accomplishment of destiny and the poet-strategist who now swells, now thins the ranks of the figures on the stage, first regrouping and then dispersing them, merge until the two are virtually identical.

The word “game” has come up several times in this talk, but we must not forget that games, whether of children or grown-ups, always have a serious basis. First and foremost they are techniques for training the faculties and attitudes that will be required in life. Ariosto’s is the game of a society that feels itself to be the creator and repository of a particular vision of the world, but also feels that it is digging an abyss beneath its feet, to the accompanying rumble of distant earthquakes.

The forty-sixth and last canto opens by listing a whole crowd of people who in fact make up the public for which Ariosto thought he was writing his poem. This is the real dedication of Orlando Furioso, not the compulsory bow made at the beginning of canto I to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, the “munificent offspring of Hercules” to whom the poem is addressed.

The vessel of the poem is sailing into harbor, and waiting to greet it on the quayside it finds the most gracious and beautiful ladies in all the cities of Italy, as well as the knights and the poets and the learned men. What Ariosto does here is make a swift review of names and rapid profiles of his contemporaries and friends. It is a description of his perfect public, and at the same time a picture of his ideal society. By a kind of structural volte-face, the poem steps out of itself and looks at itself through the eyes of its readers, defining itself by means of a census of those to whom it is addressed. And in its turn it is the poem that does duty as a definition or an emblem of a society of readers present or future, of all those people who will take part in his game, and who will recognize themselves in it.