One of the really funny, sneaky moves of Orlando Furioso comes here, at the onset of the siege of Paris, but to see it we have to talk context both literary and historical. After delivering his opening exhortation, Ariosto rehearses a Catalog of Ships: a listing of all the Spanish and African forces that have rallied to the banner of Agramant in his war against Charlemagne.
Where have we heard this before…?
Level One: H/T Homer
The simplest allusion here is the classical one. Homer gives the archetypal “Catalogue of Ships” in Book II of Iliad, detailing all the factions that sail to Troy to teach those sneaky wife-stealers a lesson. The Catalogue is legend among reluctant school boys for its nauseating detail and arcane epithets. For historians it is ammunition for the composition and authorship debates, and potentially a rare look into Bronze Age geopolitics. For the Real Classicist, it’s Just Plain Cool.
Naturally Vergil can’t just ignore this major feature of the Father of Them All, so he lines up his own Catalogue of feisty Italians come to teach some sneaky Trojan wife-stealers a lesson. Of sea-faring ships they have none, but an endless parade of wildlife defenders trained in the arts of war? Check! Time to lay siege to a war camp of the people that will found The Most Important City In The World!
Back to Ariosto’s Furioso. On this Low-Hanging Fruit Level, Agramant’s besieging army corresponds to the Italian forces under Turnus and Camilla (aka Bad Guys). Charlemagne and his Franks, along with their united European allies, correspond with Aeneas and the noble survivors of Troy (aka Good Guys). We’re once again assaulting the Most Important City In The World, and the good guys and bad guys line up basically the same way: good guys in, bad guys out. (Since Ariosto wants to link modern Italians to Troy, he glosses over the sneaky wife-stealer part)
Level Two: Current Events, c. 1512
But now it gets interesting. Ariosto’s siege of Paris has a historical referent as well: the 1512 Siege of Ravenna. As I’ve mentioned before, the tropes are about to get carved up and redistributed in surprising ways. To get it, we have to talk current events.
Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and brother of Ariosto’s cardinalatial patron, commissioned Ariosto to compose Orlando Furioso. The poem is repeatedly interrupted by paeans to the d’Este family, and the love story of Bradamante and Rogero is the founding myth of their tribe.
Duke Alfonso has the distinction of being both the loyal ally and bitter victim of the land-rapacious Pope Julius II. 1512 would be the watershed year for this: after Pope Julius betrayed and excommunicated him to acquire Ferrara for the Papal States, d’Este and the French marched on Spaniard-defended Ravenna, besieged it, and sacked the ever-loving daylights out of it…just three years after Alfonso had taken Ravenna from Venice for Pope Julius.
Ariosto explicitly links the siege of Paris to this battle in XIV.1-9 with just a simple reversal: like the classical antecedent, the good guys (Italian-French) are the besieged and the bad guys (Papal-Spaniard) are banging on the door. The correspondence of the poem’s tribes with the real life actors is pretty clear and there’s the subversive part–the role of Pope Julius is played by Agramant and his Muslim army attempting to destroy Christendom!
Catholic Flexibility Cuts Both Ways
It takes some chutzpah to lampoon–in Italy, no less–the Supreme Pontiff as a rampaging Muslim warlord. Not that Pope Julius didn’t deserve it: he took his regnal name because he saw himself as another Julius Caesar (!). I guess be careful what you wish for when you say “Anything but another Borgia.”
The Medici successor to Pope Julius, Leo X, probably didn’t make it very difficult for Ariosto to run down a della Rovere post mortem. And at any rate, criticism of popes is the chief Italian hobby–Catholic too, for that matter. While not a sentiment universally shared, we harp on our popes because we love our Church and our Papacy. There’s an unmistakable difference in tone when someone attacks popes with a different motive, and an unbearable sadness to hear it. Sadness and perhaps some anger, much like how I might speak of my mother’s faults and kill anyone who dares do the same.
But if Ariosto has no fear of putting a corrupt della Rovere in his place and running down a Supreme Pontiff, he’s not going to pull punches anywhere. And that brings us to another interesting subversion about this element of the poem: Ariosto explicitly speaks of the siege of Ravenna as a sad thing. He’s saying that in the room with the guy who did it.
It’s important when reading the poem to consider it as a live performance in a room full of d’Este lords and ladies. It makes so many features more interesting: his sly asides about men and women, his self-deprecating pick-up lines, his effusive praise of the d’Este line. The room comes to life so vividly it’s like composition of place.
How did Duke Alfonso react to these lines? Was he angry? Did his court snicker and laugh? What about all his subjects who fought in it? Or has Ariosto captured how Alfonso himself felt about the whole affair? Sad, perhaps necessary, but only through the fault of another?
One of the immortal contributions of epic is a reflection on the ugliness of war. Every youthful “This is awesome!” scene carries a penetrating lesson on loss and grief. The epic teaches the brilliance and horror of war; it trains a people to wage it fiercely and avoid it when possible. No one has ever come close to touching Homer’s treatment of rage and sorrow, but everyone who pens an epic tries.
I imagine d’Este and his family knew that well when they listened to Ariosto’s glorious, sobering morality tale.