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The outstanding nineteenth-century French book illustrator Gustave Doré (1832-1883) wanted his name to be associated with the greatest possible number of classics of world literature. To mention just high points, his Perrault appeared in 1861, his Don Quixote in 1863, his Paradise Lost and Bible in 1866, his La Fontaine in 1867, his complete Divine Comedy in 1868, his definitive Rabelais in 1873 and his Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1875.
Doré's last major undertaking was the 618, illustrations for Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the major epic poem of the Italian Renaissance, which was to be endlessly influential in form and content (Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, Spenser's Faerie Queene and Byron's Don Juan are just three of the works indebted to Ariosto). Always intrigued by medieval settings, battles, amorous escapades, monsters and sorcerers, Doré must have welcomed the challenges offered by Ariosto's unbridled imagination and sly humor, and by the world-ranging adventures contained in the great poem.
Lodovico (or Ludovico) Ariosto, born at Reggio Emilia in 1474, moved to the duchy of Ferrara when he was ten, and spent his life—as courtier, diplomat, travel companion, military governor—in the service of the Ferrarese ruling family. His master from 1503 to 1517 was Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, brother of the Duke of Ferrara; from 1518 on, Ariosto served the Duke himself. Author of several other poems and of significant plays, Ariosto is best known for his huge epic (46 cantos, each containing from 72 to 199 eight-line stanzas in ottava rima), of which the first edition appeared in 1516 and the third (last in the author's lifetime) in 1532.
Like all Renaissance literature, Orlando Furioso borrows many themes and details directly from Greek and Roman sources, but its large-scale structure is basically a clever intermingling of two epic strands that had been strongly developed in medieval literature. One of these strands was the Charlemagne legend, in which the historical Frankish king Charles the Great (742-814) was elevated to the position of sacred defender of European soil against Islam, with his nephew Roland as his doughtiest champion. The other chief strand was the vast Arthurian cycle, in which knights errant, living up to an intricate code of love and honor, roamed the world in search of magical, mystical and romantic adventures.
The first poet to combine these strands was Ariosto's predecessor Matteo Boiardo (1434-1494), whose never-completed Orlando Innamorato appeared in 1483. As the title indicates, Orlando (= Roland) here falls in love—as do many other heroes, both Christian and Moorish—with Angelica, an exquisite virgin princess from India who rebuffs them all. Ariosto's poem was actually a continuation of Boiardo's, with many of the same characters. Even though Orlando is not the central figure, Ariosto chose a title that made clear the connection between the two works (Furioso indicates that Orlando goes raving mad—over his thwarted love). Ariosto's poem, however, is far superior to Boiardo's in every way.
Because the plot of Orlando Furioso is incredibly complex—with an impressive array of characters, with numerous interweaving subplots that continually submerge and reemerge, sometimes after a considerable hiatus, and with many interpolated tales—it would take pages merely to give an outline of the events in their original sequence. Here, only a few of the major plot elements can be discussed.
The basic situation is the confrontation of Christians and Moors in Europe. When Orlando Furioso begins, the Moors are masters of Provence and are capable of besieging Paris. The personal derring-do of Rodomonte, king of Algiers (whose braggadocio has given us the English word rodomontade) almost makes this siege successful, but Rodomonte's own romantic problems, and the opportune arrival of troops enlisted in Britain by the Christian hero Rinaldo, foil Moorish plans. The Mohammedans are driven out of France in southward-moving thrusts. Meanwhile, another Christian warrior, Astolfo, has led a pincers movement across the Sahara from Ethiopia. Moorish strongholds in North Africa are successfully besieged, and then the Moorish refugee fleet is wiped out. A total Christian victory—but not the end of the poem.
Another basic strand, as we have already seen, is the enormous sexual attraction exerted by the aloof Angelica. The poem begins with several knights in pursuit of her. Eluding them all, she falls into the deceitful hands of a pious-looking hermit who proves to be a lustful sorcerer. His unwanted attentions finally cause Angelica to be exposed on a sea cliff as a morsel for an insatiable marine monster. She is rescued by the Moorish knight Ruggiero. (Orlando eventually kills the monster on a later occasion.) Angelica keeps escaping from men until she herself is suddenly smitten by the handsome Moorish boy Medoro. During their tender honeymoon as the guests of some shepherds, the couple scratch their entwined names onto every rock and tree in the neighborhood; after a few more adventures, Angelica makes it back safely to India and reigns there with Medoro.
On his wanderings, the enormously strong Orlando (who does something noble and magnificent every time he appears, but rarely anything that moves the plot along) comes across the commemorative trees and rocks that prove that Angelica is no longer a virgin. He immediately goes mad and rips off his clothes. For most of the rest of the poem he is a menace to society, killing people indiscriminately, uprooting trees, etc. Finally, the same Astolfo who conquers Africa for Christianity is escorted by St. John the Evangelist to the moon, which is a repository for all things lost on earth; he bottles Orlando's lost reason in the form of a vapor and makes Orlando inhale it when their paths cross. (Rinaldo also needs a special cure, in the form of a religious retreat, to get Angelica off his mind.)
Although the poem is almost too fragmented to have a single heroine and a single hero, the couple who come closest to filling those roles are Bradamante and Ruggiero (rescuer of Angelica). Bradamante, sister of Rinaldo, usually wears armor and is more than a match for any adversary, even the redoubtable Rodomonte, but never sacrifices her womanliness; toward the end of the poem, when her wedding day approaches, she becomes more and more passive and demure. Ruggiero fights on the Islamic side; he would gladly convert for Bradamante's sake, but cannot desert his old comrades in wartime—until a technicality finally allows him to do so with honor.
Many of the events in the poem also take place because of Ruggiero. The solicitous sorcerer Atlante fears for the young man's life and is constantly whisking him away out of danger. First Atlante imprisons Ruggiero, then, when Bradamante releases him, has Ruggiero carried off by the hippogriff (a horse-griffin hybrid) to Alcina's never-never-land of love play. When Bradamante's right-hand sorceress, Melissa, gets him out of that entanglement, Atlante constructs a palace of illusions to entrap him; and so on. But Ruggiero gets to do his share of hard fighting and eventually, against enormous odds, wins Bradamante's hand. Thus, all the prophecies made in the poem can be fulfilled, and Ruggiero and Bradamante can become the ancestors of the Este family, Ariosto's patrons. At the very end of the poem, Rodomonte reappears and Ruggiero must undergo a final combat with that most valiant of all the Moors.
Doré's illustrations for Ariosto were first published in a single folio volume by the Librairie Hachette in Paris in 1879 (some bibliographical works give 1878) with the title Arioste. Roland furieux, poème héroïque, traduit par A.-J. du Pays et illustré par Gustave Doré. Besides the frontispiece and the 81 full-page plates, there were 536 (some sources give 550) text illustrations of all sizes. In the case of many of the smaller pictures, Doré was able here for the first time to present his wiry and exuberant pen style directly to the public without recourse to the intermediate services of his team of wooden-gravers. The reproductive process used for the pictures in question was gillotage, a zinc-engraving technique invented by Firmin Gillot (1820-1872).
Several foreign editions quickly followed the French first edition. The extremely well printed source of the reproductions in the present volume is the Breslau edition published by S. Schottlaender, Ariost's Rasender Roland. Illustrirt von Gustave Doré. Metrisch übersetzt von Hermann Kurz, durchgesehen und herausgegeben von Paul Heyse. The two folio volumes of this edition, which lack a printed date, were issued in 1880 and 1881.
The present volume includes the full-page frontispiece (the castle depicted is said to represent Warwick Castle, where Doré had been a guest of the Earl of Warwick), all the original full-page plates, a number of illustrations that originally appeared along with text but here fill a page alone, and a generous sampling of the smaller, zinc-engraved pictures.
Some severe critics have felt that this last major work by Doré adds nothing new to his creative production, and that in this case the artist's imagination did not soar as high as his author's. Doré devotees will nevertheless find much to enjoy and admire. An incomparable feeling of metaphysical gloom pervades many of the scenes. The settings, both interior and exterior, often seem to overwhelm the tiny human figures, who thus appear to be helpless pawns of destiny. The actual events sometimes occur in the middle ground or background of a spacious outdoor setting. Architecture and architectural ornament, both Neo-Gothic and Neo-Moorish, fascinate the artist here. Some of his best draftsmanship and most interesting compositions for Orlando Furioso occur in the L-shaped headpieces to the cantos (the opening of the text originally filled the missing corner); the challenge of the unusual shape was obviously a salutary one. Doré's early talent for cartooning still has echoes in this late work in such studies as Drusilla's servant (page 118, top left, in the present volume) and Anselmo's astrologer friend (page 139, top left).
A few of the illustrations are not only memorable but haunting. The use of deep perspective and mirrored action in the palace of illusions scene (page 39) creates a highly effective image of existential bewilderment; the long corridor and the woman mysteriously seated on the low wall call to mind the passage to the underworld in Cocteau's film version of Orphée. The scene at Rodomonte's narrow bridge (page 92) is a chilling nightmare full of Freudian overtones. All in all, this group of illustrations is well worth careful attention and repeated revisits.
Excerpted from Doré's Illustrations for Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso" by GUSTAVE DORÉ. Copyright © 1980 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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