Orlando Furioso is a wonderful epic poem of romantic, chivalric derring-do written by Italian courtier Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535). I have described it in outline in an earlier post. It was scientist Galileo’s favourite poem; it might even have influenced his astronomical thinking.

In the main story the very noble knight Orlando is driven mad by his jealous passion for the beautiful princess Angelica. But there are many other sub-plots – variously racy, romantic, violent, tragic, comic. There is, for example, the ‘love-at-first-sight’ romance of the moderately noble knight Rogero (Roger, Ruggiero) and the invincible warrior maiden Bradamante. This story threads through the whole epic, although much of the time it appears to be a very one-sided affair. Whilst Bradamante ‘long travel and great pain… endured/And rode alone her lover to have found’, Rogero generally has a much jollier time.

Fairly typical is the story of Rogero’s encounter with the mysterious Alcina. (It is this story with which Galileo entertains Pellegrina and Laura at their dissollute Carnival party in Galileo’s Revenge, bk.4.2.)


  • Rogero arrives at Alcina’s palace
  • A lover’s inventory
  • Rogero forgets himself
  • Alcina keeps Rogero waiting
  • Patience rewarded
  • Operatic postscript

Rogero arrives at Alcina’s palace

In canto IV Rogero is (somewhat reluctantly?) rescued from an enchanted castle by Bradamante. No sooner are the lovers reunited, however, than Rogero carelessly allows himself to be carried off by the hippogriff1. In canto VII he lands, ‘a full three thousand mile’ away, on an island where lives the witch Alcina. Despite dire warnings of ‘her wanton, wavering, wily woman’s wit’, Rogero heads straight for her palace. He is warmly welcomed by Alcina as depicted in the featured image above (Alcina Meets Ruggiero, Niccolò dell’Abbate, c. 1550), and in the middle distance of the illustration from canto VII of Orlando Furioso below.

Illustration Canto VII of Orlando Furioso: Rogero vanquishing Erfila and arriving at Alcina’s palace.

It turns out to be a very nice palace, and the occupants

 All were of youth and beauty shining bright.
Yet to confirm this thing I dare be bold:
That fair Alcina passed the rest as far
As doth the Sun any other little star.

A lover’s inventory

To prove his point, Ariosto launches into a detailed auctioneer’s inventory of Alcina’s charms. This was a popular poetic trope, which Olivia parodies in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1.v): ‘I will give out diverse schedules of my beauty, it shall be inventoried… as Item, Two lips, indifferent red; Item, Two grey eyes with lids to them; Item, One neck, one chin, and so forth.’2 Ariosto, after some observations on Alcina’s hair and complexion, quickly gets down to detail:

Caravaggio, Amor vincit omnia (1601-2)
Within two arches of most curious fashion
Stand two black eyes that like two clear suns shined,
Of steady look but apt to take compassion.
Amid which lights the naked boy and blind3
Doth cast his darts that cause so many a passion
And leave a sweet and cureless wound behind.

Touching lightly upon her nose, lips and teeth, the poet arrives at

 Her breasts as milk, her neck as white as snow;
Her neck was round, most plump and large her breast,
Two ivory apples seemed there to grow,
Full tender, smooth, and fittest to be pressed;
They wave like seas when winds most calm do blow.
But Argos4 self might not discern the rest;
Yet by presumption well it might be guessed
That that which was concealed was the best.

Terms and conditions apply.

Rogero forgets himself

Astonishingly, Rogero quite forgets the warnings about Alcina that he had only recently received. But one shouldn’t blame Rogero, says the poet, rather it was down to the ambient music and the excellent food. And after supper things only get worse (or better, depending upon your point of view):

The supper done and tables taken away,
To 'Purposes' and such like toys they went,
Each one to other secretly to say
Some word by which some pretty toy is meant.
This helped the lovers better to betray
Each unto other what was their intent. 
For when the word was hither tossed and thither
Their last 'Conclusion' was to lie together.

According to the OED, ‘Purposes’ was ‘a game consisting of questions and answers’ (1611) – somewhat like ‘Consequences’, I imagine. Also it is worth noting that the original meaning of ‘toy’ is ‘Amorous sport, dallying, toying’, and later (1542) ‘A fantastic or trifling speech or piece of writing; a foolish or idle tale; a jest, joke, pun’ etc . Only later still (1586) does it acquire the concrete sense of ‘A plaything for children’ etc.

But I digress. What happens next?

Alcina keeps Rogero waiting

Well, ‘These pretie kinds of amorous sports once ended,/ With torches to his chamber he was brought… The chamber’s furniture could not be mended,/ It  seemed Arachne had the hangings wrought’. That is to say, the chamber’s furniture could not have been improved. There wasn’t anything broken. Not that Rogero would have much cared.

Now was Rogero couched in his bed
Betweene a pair of cambricke5 sheetes perfumed,
And oft he harkens with his wakefull head
For her whose love his heart and soul consumed.
Each little noise hope of her coming bred,
Which finding false against himself he fumed,
And cursed the cause that did him so much wrong
To cause Alcina tarry thence so long.

Women! What are they like!

But faire Alcina, when with odors sweete
She was perfumd according to her skill,
The time once come she deemed fit and meete
When all the house were now asleepe and still,
With rich embroiderd slippers on her feete,
She goes to give and take of joys her fill

Patience rewarded

At last! And as soon as Rogero sees

 Those earthly stars, her faire and heavenly eyes…
… of a sudden straight he doth arise,
Leapes out of bed and her in arms embraced;
Nor would he stay till she her selfe unlaced.
So utterly impatient of all stay
That, though her mantel was but cypress6 light
And next upon her smocke of lawn7 it lay,
Yet so the champion hasted to the fight
The mantel with his furie fell away.
And now the smock remained alone in sight,
Which smock as plaine her beauties all discloses
As doth a glasse the lillies faire and roses.
Joachim Wtewael, Venus, Mars en Cupid (oil paint on copper, around 1610)
And looke how close the ivy doth embrace
The tree or branch about the which it growes,
So close the lovers couched in that place,
Each drawing in the breath the other blowes.
But how great joyes they found that little space
We well may guess, but none for certaine knows.
Their sport was such, so well their lore they couth8,
That oft they had two tongues within one mouth.

What can I say? Fortunately, at Bradamante’s behest, the good witch Melissa eventually turns up in disguise. By virtue of her magic Ring of Truth, Rogero realizes that Alcina is really quite old. At which

... he was so sore aghast
He wished himself balf buried in the ground
Much rather than in such place once he found.

Delicate cough. Very morning after.

Opearatic postscript

The comic opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s island) was first performed in 1625 in Florence. It is the first opera written by a woman, namely Francesca Caccini (1587-1640?). It had been commissioned by the Regent Grandduchess Maria Maddalena, wife of Galileo’s patron Cosimo II de’ Medici. I like to think that Galileo would have attended the premiere.

Handel’s opera Alcina (1735) is also based on this story.


Orlando Furioso in English heroical verse by John Harington (1591, 1607, 1634). I have also used the handy volume of Selections edited by Rudolf Gottfried (Indiana University Press, 1963). The illustrations are from the 1634 edition.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online https://public.oed.com/about/

  1. A cross between a horse and a griffin.
  2. In Romeo and Juliet (2.i), Mercutio likewise sends up such estate agent’s spiel, and rather more lewdly: ‘I conjure you by Rosaline’s bright eyes,/ By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,/ By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,/ And the demesnes that there adjacent lie.’
  3. i.e Cupid, as Galileo patronizingly tells Laura in Galileo's Revenge.
  4. i.e. the many-eyed watchman of Greek mythology.
  5. OED cambric 1536, (fr Flemish town Kameryk/Cambray) a kind of fine white linen
  6. OED Middle English, fabric originally brought from Cyprus.
  7. and cypress lawn was ‘A light transparent material resembling cobweb lawn’; lawn being a kind of fine linen, fr Laon in France. Fascinating how the names map the medieval textile trade. A bit later (1695) denim is short for 'serge de Nimes' after the French town of that name.
  8. knew