A Poem Through Images – Illustrating the world of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso

Written by Simone Monti |
A detail of the illustration to canto XV, which shows a (simplified) geographical map of Africa, with the Nile River and Cairo in evidence, Türkiye (labelled ‘Asia’), the Middle East (labelled ‘Arabia’ and ‘Persia’), and part of India, with the Ganges River.

The Venetian printer Vincenzo Valgrisi's edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso contains a number of elaborate and skilful illustrations.

In this blog post, Warburg Graduate Library Trainee, Simone Monti, tells us more about the use and importance of early printed book illustrations through exploring the publishing history of Valgrisi's edition of Furioso.

‘Le donne, i cavallier, l’arme, gli amori, / le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto’ [‘Of loves and ladies, knights and arms, I sing, / of courtesies, and many a daring feat’] (I, 1, 1-2). Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance as well as one of the first bestsellers of European literature. As per these opening lines, this epic-chivalric poem tells the story of the paladins and dames at the court of Charlemagne, weaving together military deeds, love affairs, and fantastical adventures. The title refers to the main episode of the paladin Orlando going mad (furioso) after discovering that his beloved princess Angelica has found another lover in the Saracen foot soldier Medoro; but this is only one thread of Ariosto’s complex, centrifugal (as it has been defined) and multifaceted story. The narration of the Furioso is indeed woven from countless storylines that continuously intersect each other and entertain the reader in a never-ending divertissement of extravagant adventures, whimsical creatures, and magical encounters.

Ariosto’s work quickly became a publishing phenomenon in Renaissance Italy, but one thing also soon appeared clear to sixteenth-century publishers: the variegated world of characters and adventures created by Ariosto’s fantasy was perfectly suited for one of the most fascinating practices of early printed book publishing, that of book illustrations. Conceived of as a new marketing feature for selling more copies to the increasing number of readers, this practice was only emerging in these years, in parallel with the further development of printing technology. The technique used at the time was that of wooden boards carved to leave the lines that would constitute the image (woodcuts) which are inked and impressed on the page. The process was very expensive and usually publishers resorted to using the same woodcut blocks for different books with similar contents. This is the case for the vast production of chivalric poems of the age: the different works are normally accompanied by generic images of knights and duels taken from previous editions of other, similar works.

... the variegated world of characters and adventures created by Ariosto’s fantasy was perfectly suited for one of the most fascinating practices of early printed book publishing, that of book illustrations.

What is remarkable about the publishing history of the Furioso is that Ariosto’s work very soon attracted illustrations specifically commissioned for it. This phenomenon, which started in 1530 with the edition prepared by Niccolò d’Aristotele da Ferrara, also known as Zoppino, and continued with the more refined edition by Gabriele Giolito (1542), is of fundamental importance for the history of the book as well as for Ariosto’s work. Book illustrations became not only a decorative restyling to lure readers into buying a new edition of the work, but entailed a profound interpretative endeavour of visual commentary to the text: the illustrator is an exegete and informs the reader’s experience and interpretation of the poem. The illustrations, indeed, placed at the beginning of each of Furioso’s cantos (chapters) would assume the function, on the one hand, of aiding the reader’s memory and, on the other, of selecting some scenes to represent, hence deciding the meaningful events of Ariosto’s narration.

Book illustrations became not only a decorative restyling to lure readers into buying a new edition of the work, but entailed a profound interpretative endeavour of visual commentary to the text

So it happens in the illustrated edition that we hold at our library (classmark ENH 630), the Orlando furioso di M. Lodovico Ariosto, tutto ricorretto, et di nuove figure adornato (‘Roland furious by Sir Lodovico Ariosto, entirely revised, and adorned with new illustrations’) published by Vincenzo Valgrisi.

A photo of the Valgrisi edition’s titlepage, which represents an arch in Classical style with the portrait of the author in a tondo. Under the arch, the page reads ‘Orlando Furioso / di Messer Lodovico Ariosto / Tutto ricorretto, / et di nuove figure / adornato. // Con le Annotationi, gli Avvertimenti, & le Dichiarationi di Girolamo Ruscelli […]’. In the bottom half of the page we find the emblem of the publisher Valgrisi, a snake-entwined staff held by two shaking hands.
The frontispiece of the Warburg's copy of the Valgrisi edition.

In 1556, Valgrisi – Lyon-born publisher active in Venice between 1540 and 1572 – started preparing his own edition of Ariosto’s Furioso and hired none other than the famous grammarian and scholar Girolamo Ruscelli as an editor. The accompanying apparatus that resulted from this collaboration includes a table of contents, annotations to each canto, explanations of the most important passages, interpretations of the allegorical imagery, and even a glossary of ‘obscure’ terms. But, most importantly, the edition also contains new illustrations to each of Furioso’s cantos. The full-page woodcuts – variously attributed to famous Ferrarese painter Dosso Dossi (1489-1542), his brother Battista Dossi (1490-1548) or to artist and cartographer Donato Bercelli, but most likely the product of the collective work of a studio that worked for Valgrisi’s workshop – became the protagonist of the edition, filling the page with countless amusing events from Ariosto’s story.

The Valgrisi edition is opened at the beginning of the work. The left-side page is entirely covered by a woodcut illustration with different characters from the canto inserted into a natural landscape. On the right-side page, we find the title of the work at the top, in the middle a framed stanza which describes the subject matter of the canto, and at the bottom the first three ottave of the work.
The illustration and beginning of canto I.

By hosting the numerous episodes from the following cantos, these illustrations help to make it easier for the reader to follow the story: given the complexity and multiplicity of storylines and characters in Ariosto’s world, they not only work to please the beholder’s eyes, but also to aid their memory by recapitulating the narrator’s events. The Valgrisi edition in fact brings this function of book illustrations to its full potential. Contrary to the attempts by previous publishers to restrain Ariosto’s ingenuity and multiple storylines, Valgrisi’s images pick up the challenge of the word and follows Ariosto’s original centrifugal narration. These illustrations welcome digressions and second-degree narrations and depict several episodes from each canto, even presenting temporally successive ones ‘simultaneously’ and repeating the same character more than once. This intensive multi-episode representation even shocked some critics of the day. One commentator defined the images ‘sciocchissime figure poste ultimamente nel Furioso’ (‘silliest images recently placed in the Furioso’), and concluded: ‘lasciamo stare quella che, quando Astolfo sale al cielo, e’ te l’ha dipinto a ogni quattropassi una volta’ [‘never mind that one in which when ascending to the sky Astolfo is depicted once every four steps!’] (to be fair, in the illustration in question, that of canto XXXIV, Astolfo appears no less than 11 times!).

The image shows the illustration to canto XXXIV. In the foreground, the paladin Astolfo, accompanied by the initials AST, is depicted with his hippogriff four times, performing different actions. In the middle, he appears again three times flying on his hippogriff within a natural landscape. In the background, it is always him, about to enter a palace in Classical style.
The illustration to canto XXXIV.

And yet, this complex, multi-episodic visual narration works perfectly on the page. This is primarily achieved by organising the different episodes on different perspective planes, according to a helicoidal movement from the foreground to the background. As the editor Ruscelli points out in his introduction to the book, the images are engraved ‘con molta ragione di prospettiva’ (‘with great cognisance of perspective’), that is according to the newly discovered principles of perspective implemented in Renaissance painting. This builds the space of composition, as well as an implicit temporal succession between the episodes depicted, hence ordering the apparent chaos of a multi-episodic, simultaneous representation. To help the reader identify the characters, lastly, the figures are accompanied by abbreviations of their name, which clear any possible doubts on which character is represented.

The image shows the woodcut introducing canto XLIV. The illustration is chaotic and populated by many characters. In the foreground, a group of paladins, among whom two of them, Ruggiero and Rinaldo, are hugging each other. In the middle, smaller in size, there are ships sailing in the sea and a city (Paris) full of characters in and around it. In the background, we find a simplified scenery with several cities and armies marching.
Illustration to canto XLIV.

Finally, another most fascinating feature presented by these illustrations, which contributes to aiding the reader in following the story, is the presence of geographical maps. An absolute novelty in the publishing history of the Furioso, these appear in eight (out of 46) illustrations, accompanied with the indication of respective place names. In the middle of the Age of Exploration and the lively interest connected to new geographical “discoveries”, these maps must have met a growing desire within the public to trace more precisely the footsteps of Ariosto’s characters in their journeys across Europe and beyond. Placed in the background, they indeed provide the reader with a useful visualisation of geographical space covered throughout the story: from Rodomonte and Rinaldo’s journeys through France and Italy, respectively, to Astolfo’s adventures on the hippogriff over Egypt, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and so on.

A detail of the illustration to canto XV, which shows a (simplified) geographical map of Africa, with the Nile River and Cairo in evidence, Türkiye (labelled ‘Asia’), the Middle East (labelled ‘Arabia’ and ‘Persia’), and part of India, with the Ganges River.
Detail of illustration to canto XV.

To conclude this brief survey of the Valgrisi edition’s illustrations, we can note how successful and influential they would be within the Italian publishing landscape. This edition of the Furioso set the new fashion of book illustrations: the full-page size and the multi-episode, detail-riddled representation would encounter enormous success in book illustrations of the period, from Dolce’s Italian translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to architect Giovanni Antonio Rusconi’s Della Architettura (Of Architecture), up to the edition of Giovan Battista Guarini’s pastoral drama Il pastor fido edited by Giovan Battista Ciotti in 1621 (to mention another example from our collection, classmark ENH 940).

The Ciotti edition of Il pastor fido is opened on the beginning of Act III. On the left-hand side page, an illustration occupies the entire folio: the illustration develops from the foreground to the background, representing simultaneously different episodes with the same characters repeated more than once. On the right-hand side page, we find the beginning of the text of the Act III (‘Atto terzo. Scena prima’).
Illustration from the Ciotti edition of Il pastor fido.

The anonymous artist(s) hired by Vincenzo Valgrisi to depict the multiform and fantastical world created by Ariosto’s genius had changed the manner of illustrating early printed books for good. They provided a model of representation to embody the word before the reader’s eyes which proved extremely popular in the Renaissance period; but still today, these illustrations enthral whoever has the luck to find this book on the shelves.