When does anything happen in Orlando Furioso?
In terms of setting, there’s really no answer to that question. Charlemagne is the emperor of Europe…so after 800 AD? But it’s before Roland dies at Roncevaux, so it’s before 778 AD…except of course for the amazing anachronisms with technology and the trans-historical alliance of Moors, Turks, Saracens, and Arabs.
Ok, so it’s all times and never. But what about the internal chronology of the poem?
Up until the Battle of Paris in Canto 14, the timing is vague enough that the strands of contemporaneous action don’t have to be calculated carefully. Basically, the events of the poem start in late summer and all the early adventures get put on hiatus by winter.
Once spring comes and the Battle of Paris gets underway, however, the timing becomes much more precise and complicated. Now it’s necessary to count days and make a crazy story-board to track all the interactions of the various story threads.
Unfortunately Ariosto is no Tom Clancy and not every time lapse is clearly recorded. Sometimes it’s unclear if a trip takes more than a day, other times longer trips are “days and days” which is not the most helpful timekeeping. But it does appear that, at least for the key nexus of events around the Battle of Paris, the timing across all the many intersecting story lines is sound.
The two major events of the poem, the Battle of Paris and Orlando going furioso, are separated by four days. All the characters weave through those two sign posts in a tight ballet that lends itself well to operatic adaptation. The sober baseline to all the ins and outs? That would be Zerbino, brother of Genevra and lover of Isabel, whose action unfolds day-by-day from the Battle of Paris to his death over the arms of recently furioso Orlando.
There is, however, an interesting discrepancy in the timekeeping with Zerbino, which is one of the main reasons I started charting all the timelines of the poem. I’ve gone back-and-forth on possible explanations for the discrepancy–did Ariosto screw up? did he just not care about timekeeping? did he do something clever?–and for now I’ve settled on the idea that the problem is deliberate. The rest of the story intersections work very neatly in this part of the poem, so I hesitate to accuse Ariosto of nodding off.
And what is this discrepancy? I’m glad you asked!
The Battle of Paris lasts exactly one day and ends at nightfall with the two armies encamped opposite each other outside of the city. That night, Zerbino crosses paths with Medoro, who is gravely wounded and left for dead. Call that their fixed, shared starting point.
Other than one minor ambiguity that would not solve what comes next anyway, Zerbino’s time is clearly accounted for over the next five days. He searches through the night for the Scot who wounded Medoro, meets Marphisa the next morning and gets saddled with Gabrina, then stumbles upon Pinabel’s corpse that same day. He is imprisoned for Pinabel’s death that night and rescued by Orlando the following day. He witnesses Orlando’s duel with Mandricardo that day and then spends three days (inclusive, I think) trying to help find the missing Mandricardo. On that third day he encounters the scene of Orlando’s madness, gathers up his scattered arms, and then dies at the hands of Mandricardo.
There may be standard “n+1” counting errors in there, but once you weave in the other actors coming in and out of the story it holds up pretty well. Nice, solid base for the timing.
The problem is that Orlando only goes furioso because he comes upon the love nest of Medoro and Angelica created during their courtship and honeymoon. If we track Medoro’s whereabouts from the night Zerbino crosses paths with him until the time he marries and departs with Angelica, things get a little funny.
Angelica finds Medoro presumably, but not explicitly, the morning after he is wounded. She uses her medical knowledge (a twist on her earlier life as a sorceress in the previous poem) to restore Medoro to health quite quickly. Days pass, although it not clear how many. In that time the two fall in love, get married, and have a one month honeymoon before departing for Cathay. It’s the evidence of that honeymoon that Orlando finds a mere handful of days after the Battle of Paris which drives him furioso.
So the two characters that met on the night after the Battle of Paris experience two very different timelines before re-converging at Orlando’s madness. For one it was a pedestrian four or five days; for the other it was well over a month! What gives?
For now I’ll take the stance that Ariosto is doing something with “magic time” here in a way akin to the three days of romantic bliss that Odysseus enjoys with Penelope at the end of the Odyssey. If you drop the reference to a month-long honeymoon, you could neatly fit the rest of the events (healing, marriage, departure) into the time-frame set by Zerbino.
Once I’ve finished charting all time shifts in the poem, I’ll revisit this idea. There are a few other question marks on timing that have popped up…more on them in the future.