Astolfo retrieves his wits: Orlando Part II

October 4, 2011

Some months ago I put aside Orlando Furioso after completing the first of two volumes in the Barbara Reynolds translation.  Now I have returned to the fray!

As usual, it’s a crazy, exhilarating, bizarre cascade of satire, wit, romance, adventure, and, yes, poetry.  Orlando is furioso because he’s mad.  Since he’s the main man in Charlemagne’s effort to drive the Moslems-Saracens-Africans from France (in the region where I just happened to have been vacationing in August) his mental incapacitation is most inconvenient.  Not to mention the fact that he kills anyone in sight, friend or foe, and all for being jilted by a woman.

His comrade at arms, Astolfo, makes a trip to the moon on a chariot, and finds that it is not made of green cheese, but is an enormous garbage dump of sorts where everything that is lost on earth ends up.  While there, he is given some tips on how to find stuff by Saint John, author of the Book of Revelation.  Sure enough, Orlando lost his wits, and there they are on the moon!  Astolfo gathers up the vial to bring them home and restore Orlando to his fighting best, but not before he notices some of his own  wits – he didn’t know he had lost them, but then, who does? – and snorts them up his nose to restore himself to full mental capacity.

While searching for illustrations of the poem, I came across this wonderful drawing of Astolfo on the lunar dump by Davide Bignotti.  Unfortunately, this is the only picture from Orlando that he has posted.  I think it conveys the wackiness of much of the poem – it reminds me of Italo Calvino too.

Gustave Dore did a set of illustrations for the poem (is there any classic he didn’t illustrate?)  They seem a little stuffy after reading the text.

Here is the poem – Canto XXXIV, 83-84

A liquid, thin and clear, Astolfo sees,
Distilled in many vases, large and small,
Which must (so volatile the fluid is)
Be tightly corked: the largest of them all
Contains the greatest of those essences:
The mind of mad Anglante, of whose fall
You are aware and of his frenzied fits.
And on it the duke read: ‘Orland’s wits’.

On other bottles too the names are shown
To whom the wits belong.  To his surprise,
Astolfo finds a great part of his own;
And more astonished still, before his eyes
He sees the wits of those he thought had none.
But this his first impression verifies:
That little wit they must retain down here
If such a quantity is found up there. 


My kind of Orlando

February 22, 2011

click for summary of poem

From “Taking Liberties,” a review of David R. Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, by David B. Hart in Commonweal. 137.13 (July 16, 2010)

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”–that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular–were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments… once the Carolingian theme had been stated [The Song of Roland], the variations that followed…departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478-83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively–though somehow quite nimbly–from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read … Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

. . .  Exactly what [Orlando Furioso] is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications–and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

click to enlarge

Monty Python? -click for source

Fantasy Land


Galileo Furioso

January 31, 2011

I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is!  Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life.  Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway.  But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor.  No hagiography here!  It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.

One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence.  He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle.  Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science.  (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)

I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.


Hypnerotomachia Poliphili/Santa Maria sopra Minerva

February 13, 2010

The only gothic church in Rome is Santa Maria sopra Minerva, so called because it was erected on top of an ancient Roman temple of the goddess Minerva.  In the plaza in front, there is a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk created by the great baroque artist, Bernini.   Why is it carrying an obelisk?

1999 marked the 500th anniversary of the initial publication of Hypnerototmachia Poliphili and also marked the first complete English translation of the work, in which this woodcut features.   It’s not surprising that Bernini would have been influenced by the book – every other educated European post 1499 was.

The publication of the original book is itself a landmark event, producing one of the most sought after pieces of icunabula, examples of the infancy of book printing, from the Latin for swaddling clothes.  It was printed by Aldus in Venice, and integrated the woodcut illustrations with the text, which itself was often displayed in novel configurations, e.g. pyramidal layouts on the page.

The text itself is written in Italian, despite the author’s preoccupation with the culture of antiquity – such humanists usually wrote their scholarly stuff in Latin.  But this is no scholarly text, and the author was no ivory tower intellectual.  He was a priest of no good repute and the language, according to the translator’s introduction, is arcane, filled with bizarre neologisms, and with words that even educated readers of the day would have found bewildering.

It’s title translates roughly as The strife of love in a dream, and it seems like an extended wet dream of an overheated imagination.  Whether the erotic longing is for a woman or for architecture is not always clear – at least not as far as I have read so far.  No doubt  as I read further in this antique stream of consciousness but that associations with Bomarzo will be present.


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