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December 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1365

Orlando Furioso. Ferrara

Reviewed by Xavier F. Salomon



THE FIVE HUNDREDTH anniversary of the publication of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso has been celebrated in Ferrara with a three-months-long lunar eclipse. Halfway through the exhibition Orlando Furioso 500 anni. Cosa vedeva Ariosto quando chiudeva gli occhi at the Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara (to 8th January), the visitor encounters a mysteriously lit moon in one of the palace’s rooms. The globe is in fact a bronze sphere dating from the first century AD that used to crown the Vatican obelisk and was erroneously said to have contained the ashes of Julius Caesar (cat. no.66). The entire surface of the object is pockmarked by small holes, produced by the harquebuses of Landsknechts during the Sack of Rome in 1527. In Orlando Furioso, Ariosto describes the moon, to which Astolfo has to fly to regain Orlando’s reason, as a ‘steel surface without a blemish’, and in the same years Leonardo da Vinci also referred to the moon as a metal object, similar to those that are placed on top of buildings. This theatrical solution is one of many inspired concepts in this staggering exhibition, curated by Guido Beltramini and Adolfo Tura.

In 1516 Giovanni Mazzocchi published the first edition of Ariosto’s masterpiece in Ferrara (nos.57 and 72).1 Two revised editions followed in 1521 and 1532 (nos.73 and 75). To celebrate the anniversary of the publication of the poem, the most important Italian Renaissance chivalric text, over the past five years several exhibitions and publications have been dedicated to the relationship between Ariosto’s volume and the visual arts.2 All these projects have focused on the fortune of Orlando Furioso in the arts in the centuries that followed its publication up to the present day. The exhibition in Ferrara instead takes as its starting point a more sophisticated and thought-provoking concept: what did Ariosto see when he closed his eyes? If the poet imagined a knight, a monster, a sorceress, a battle, the moon . . . what would they look like in the closed eyes of a sixteenth-century writer? This is not a conventional exhibition, but a profoundly intelligent meditation on the relationship between the written word and visual culture at the Italian Renaissance courts. The display of more than eighty very carefully selected objects brings to life Ariosto’s literary world as no other exhibition or book has done before.

The exhibition begins in the past, with a medieval oliphant (no.5; Fig.71) from Toulouse, which once was one of the great treasures of the basilica of St Sernin. It was believed that this was the magical horn that Roland sounded at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778, which he used with his last breath to summon Charlemagne and his army. Sixteenth-century Ferrara and the Este court were steeped in their chivalric past, and Ariosto produced a poem that was directly inspired by the medieval Chanson de Roland. Manuscripts (no.6) and tapestries (no.4) were the visual evidence that provided the stimulus behind the landscape of battles, duels and tournaments of Renaissance Italy. A more precise starting point for Ariosto was another literary bestseller from his age, Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Innamoramento di Orlando, first published in 1482–83, the earliest existing example of which, dating from 1486 (no.1), opens the exhibition. Boiardo’s volume provided the prequel for Orlando Furioso. The two share extremely complicated plots, in which the heroes constantly face choices and crossroads in a labyrinthine storyline that keeps the reader moving backwards and forwards in the footsteps of the main characters. An extraordinarily well-preserved Milanese suit of armour by Niccolò Silva (no.15) is displayed alone in front of a large scheme of the plot of Ariosto’s poem, drawing attention to the complexities of the narrative.

Based in Ferrara, Ariosto wrote his poem at the time that Michelangelo was at work on the Sistine ceiling and Raphael was frescoing the Vatican Stanze, and he makes constant references to these artists and to Rome during that period. A particularly fascinating section is dedicated to the theatrical world at the papal court, revolving around the figure of Tommaso ‘Fedra’ Inghirami, represented by his portrait by Raphael (no.28).

Most of the plot of Ariosto’s poem is centred on the knights. In sixteenth-century Italy the image of a knight had both secular and religious connotations. It is therefore appropriate to have paintings of St George (nos.35 and 47) corresponding to representations of Mars and Perseus (nos.42 and 53). Magic is particularly important in the poem; most of the heroes possess magical weapons and encounter dragons, fairies and witches, monsters, giants and other marvellous creatures in their adventures. The cult of the fantastic was deeply embedded in the discovery of the New World, and the presence in the exhibition of geographical maps (nos.54 and 55) is a significant feature. Presiding at the end of the main enfilade of rooms is Dosso Dossi’s depiction of the good sorceress in the poem, Melissa (1518; no.69; Fig.73), a particularly precocious witness to the popularity of Ariosto’s book. By an extraordinary ‘coincidence’ it appears that Melissa is absorbed by her supernatural rituals while turning her head towards the lunar eclipse represented by the ancient metal sphere in the previous room.

The exhibition’s organisers should be commended for having assembled an impressive selection of important objects to illustrate their concept. Two loans in particular are remarkable: Mantegna’s Minerva expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue from the Musée du Louvre, Paris (no.19), embodies the sophisticated culture of the Este and Gonzaga courts, with their use of the past as a guideline for present living, while Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (no.81; Fig.72) returns to Ferrara for the first time since it left in 1598. Both the Louvre and the Museo del Prado, Madrid, were enormously generous in their loans, and the importance of the exhibition fully justifies their liberality. 

The exhibition opens with Roland’s oliphant and closes with a weapon from the time of Ariosto. The 1520s and 1530s saw an important historical shift in European politics and society. As Ariosto revised his poem, so the world around him was changing. A large tapestry by Bernard van Orley of the Battle of Pavia (no.78) provides the backdrop to Francis I’s sword (no.79; Fig.74), the weapon that was seized by the Imperial forces when the French king was defeated and captured at Pavia. Although Roland did not hold the Toulouse oliphant in his hands at Roncesvalles, Francis did use this sword at Pavia, a stylish weapon, worthy of a king, with its inscription, derived from the Magnificat prayer – ‘FECIT POTENTIAMIN BRACHIO SVO’ (‘he unfurled the power of his arm’) – which becomes particularly poignant considering Francis’s humiliating defeat. Throughout the exhibition, a mythical and legendary past is always beautifully related to Ariosto’s Renaissance present, and this dialogue between past, present and future makes a visit to the show a surprising experience.

The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition comprises seventeen short essays,3 many focusing on analysis of the literary text of Orlando, others exploring the various aspects of visual culture investigated in the show. Like Ariosto’s text, these essays are all connected to one another and provide stories within stories, giving the reader a nuanced view of the poem’s world. Particularly worthy of praise are Marco Collareta’s beautiful essay on the relationship between Ariosto and the visual arts, Vladimiro Valerio’s on cartography, Daniela Delcorno Branca’s on enchanted weapons and Flora Dennis’s on music and sound in Orlando Furioso.

The design and display, by Antonio Ravalli, cannot be praised enough. The installation is among the most beautiful of any Italian exhibition in the past twenty years. It is a clean, elegant and spectacular display, where beautifully lit objects float in space as if under a supernatural spell. To imagine what Ariosto saw when he closed his eyes and conceived his Orlando Furioso, the visitor has to walk through the rooms of the Palazzo dei Diamanti with eyes wide open: it is a thoroughly worthwhile and enlightening journey.


1 The first edition has been reissued, L. Ariosto:  Or lando Furioso secondo la princeps del 1516, ed. M. Dorigatti, Florence 2006.

2 M. Paoli and M. Preti, eds.: exh. cat. L’Arioste et les Arts, Paris (Musée du Louvre) 2012; F. Caneparo, ed.: ‘Di molte figure adornato’. L’Orlando Furioso nei cicli pittorici tra cinque e seicento, Milan 2015; M. Cogotti, V. Farinella and M. Preti, eds.: exh. cat. I voli dell’Ariosto. L’Orlando Furioso e le arti, Tivoli (Villa d’Este) 2016.

3 Catalogue: Orlando Furioso 500 anni. Cosa vedeva Ariosto quando chiudeva gli occhi. Edited by Guido Beltramini and Adolfo Tura. 367 pp. incl. 179 col. ills. (Ferrara Arte,

Ferrara, 2016), €45. ISBN 978–88–89793–35–0.