Ludovico Ariosto was pressured by a practical-minded father into studying law before he was able to pursue his true interests, literature and classical learning. The need to support his family, however, forced him to take service under Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, and later under Alphonso, duke of Ferrara. Meanwhile, Ariosto found time to write a number of works of varying literary merit, none of them well known outside Italy except for Orlando Furioso. The 1521 version adds numerous revisions, and much polishing, but no major additions. The 1532 version polishes and revises further, as well as extends the poem from forty cantos to forty-six.
Orlando Furioso is not an entirely new conception; it continues and partially retells the story of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato (1483-1495; English translation, 1823). This highly innovative romance combines Carolingian and Arthurian tradition with the classical tastes of the Italian Renaissance. The work has the feel of a classical epic, but the numerous, complexly interwoven plot lines are a feature of many medieval knightly romances. The values and worldview that lay behind the medieval romance were becoming anachronistic by the time the poem was written, and the knightly values the poem expresses are often undercut by literary distance and flashes of irony.
Ariosto follows Boiardo closely in many respects. His huge poem (38,736 lines) has an even greater variety of incidents, and an even more complex interweaving of storylines. Drama, wonder, and high adventure are seasoned everywhere with humor and irony. Ariosto even retains Boiardo’s stanza form, ottava rima, a form familiar to many English readers from Lord Byron’s book-length poem, Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826). The form is useful to both poets in that the couplet that ends each eight-line stanza is ideally suited for a witty, ironic, or humorous commentary or counterpoint.
The plot of Orlando Furioso cannot be called loose in that the huge number of incidents, both original and drawn from medieval or classical sources, are all elaborately connected. The story does, however, have a number of centers of interest, and Orlando’s temporary madness is not an adequate frame to hold them all. The Saracen invasion of France, culminating in the siege of Paris, would seem to provide a larger frame for the action, and to a degree it does, but much of the time the story is so caught up in the loves, hates, and rivalries...
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