Timing in Orlando Furioso

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.

(For another timing issue in the poem, see here.)

13 thoughts on “Timing in Orlando Furioso

  1. I have been reading the Furioso over the past year and have been trying also to untangle the time strands. For convenience I start the story in 772 (after Charlemagne has become king) and end it in 774 or 775 (before the death of Constantine V). I find the greatest difficulty is aligning everything with Orlando’s timeline. How do you deal with the fact that he leaves the camp in VIII.86 (772) and searches THROUGH THE WINTER (IX.7) for Angelica, then (773) has the adventure with Olimpia, then goes through ANOTHER WINTER (XI.81) before rescuing Issabella in the spring (XI.82 and XII.72) or later (774) and then Zerbino? He does not go mad till after that, so when is the battle after which Medoro and Angelica meet? My only solution was to posit that Orlando’s leaving camp in Canto VIII antedates or coincides with the events of Cantos I-VII.


    1. Great question. I haven’t looked at OF in a few years now so my memories are a bit fuzzy, but I would say you are misreading the narrator’s intent in XI.81. It’s not the time stamp for “another winter” but just Ariosto’s aside that “Orlando had many other adventures that winter which we don’t know about.” It’s both heroic tribute and leaving space for all the other poets’ tales of Orlando’s adventures.

      I think you could also resolve this by accepting that Ariosto is being a little careless with the winter/spring distinction, or by contrasting seasonal winter with military winter. It might also just be an editing seam that Ariosto didn’t perfectly clean up after inserting the Olympian material, but I don’t like to rely to heavily on such explanations for why the text stands as it does. At any rate, I’m pretty confident we don’t need to insert an entire year here.

      Your proposed solution at the end of your comment is correct in my view: the story arcs are all at least roughly contemporaneous. There are several details to clean up there, and I would need to open up my work on the poem again to do it justice.

      (Your comment got caught in moderation probably because of all the parentheticals…thanks for engaging with my old work! I also have another post on timing in OF which I guess I should link to this one to make things easy to find)


      1. I really appreciate your taking the time to reply to my query. In the mean time I’ve decided that Orlando’s departure in Canto VII must come after Rinaldo’s mission to Britain and in the same year as Ruggiero’s vacation on Alcina’s island, which is made explicit in VII.33. I think we must take Orlando’s winters at face value because each one is followed by an adventure. I can get everything to synchronize by accepting that Rinaldo spends more than a year abroad. It means that Issabella is a bit fuzzy on when she and Zerbino first met. It’s not perfect, but I think everything else falls into line. I have it all laid out in a huge Excel spreadsheet, which I am about to post on my website.


      2. Sounds great. Do you have an explanation for what happens to the siege of Paris in the year you’re adding by having another winter? Or do you think this is a time-keeping error by Ariosto?


      3. The way I see it, in the siege of 772 is ended by rain. Then in 773 there is a long unsuccessful siege XII.70 while Rinaldo is gathering reinforecments. The great battles take place in 774, when he returns, ending with the retreat to Arles, the sack of Bizerte, and Agramante’s death on Lampedusa. The episode on the Hermit’s rock take place in late 774, and the heroes return to Paris by the beginning of 775. Ruggiero’s Serbian adventure ensues and ends by mid-775 with the duel with Rodomonte (before the death of Constantine in that year).


  2. I have to continue. `My view of things changes by the minute as I check and recheck the details. Now I have included that no matter when we start with Orlando’s departure and two winters, his timeline cannot be reconciled with the others. The crux is Issabella’s remark that Brandimarte went missing “seven or eight months ago.” Brandimarte left the camp to look for Orlando shortly after the desertion. Issabella meets Orlando more than a year later.

    Everything else can be fudged, if not completely satisfactorily, but not this. So my conclusion is that Ariosto lost track of his story and introduced inconsistencies when he expanded the text between 1521 and 1532. My hypothesis is that if you can remove the Olimpia adventure, a later addition, then the extra year is eliminated and everything falls into place. I have ordered a copy of the 1521 text to see just how the relevant canto(s) read before the revisions. If I’m right, I’ll let you know and make some accommodation on my timeline chart.

    I hope you don’t mind my bending your digital ear with this, but there are understandably few people with whom I can discuss this. Thanks again for your indulgence.


    1. There are two issues here to resolve that I think should be separated.

      There is definitely a continuity lapse with Flordelis/Brandimart. In VIII.90 Ariosto claims she waited in Paris for a month before leaving to find Brandimart, but in XXIV.54 it says (as you note) she waited for him in Paris for 6-8 months before departing. No question, that’s Ariosto losing track of his time-keeping after years of composition and editing. Either that or it’s a slip of the pen and Ariosto means she’s actually been out searching for him for 6-8 months…which is an awfully long time for a defenseless woman to wander through the military camps and survive the winter.

      The second issue is whether those 6-8 months break the time-keeping for the whole poem as you claim in your comment. I would suggest that this is only a problem for your proposed timeline that has Orlando searching for over a year, through 2 complete winters. On my interpretation of the Orlando time references, 6-8 months of waiting in Paris before departing to search for Brandimart is exactly the right amount of time. Orlando leaves Paris in the fall, searches through the winter and has his side-adventures, and then returns to the main action of the war in the spring, at which point he bumps into Flordelis: approximately 6 months.


      1. I see your point, but I’m still not able to conflate the two very clear winter sequences in Orlando’s line. I have now compared the B and C texts on that point, and clearly, the whole Olimpia episode and the second winter are absent from the 1521 edition. Orlando goes right from searching through the first winter to chasing the giant with supposed Bradamante to Atlante’s Palace.
        It’s easier for me, at least for now, to think that when Ariosto added material to Cantos IX, X, and XI, he didn’t realize or care that he had stretched time for all his other story lines. I have to check out the other interpolations as well.


      2. Yeah that’s a fine editorial explanation if you are resolved on your reading of XI.81. I think it’s probably the *only* way to explain it at that point, because actually inserting another year into the story line causes huge problems for the siege of Paris, Rinaldo’s return with reinforcements from Scotland and England, and Angelica’s departure from the cottage. Rogero’s storyline would be ok since his story is frozen in the villa and Bradamante essentially disappears for the entire stretch we’re considering anyway.


  3. I’ve gone back and forth on this in the past weeks, but on the principle that it is unwise to conclude without air-tight proof that Ariosto did not know what he was doing, I went back to the text with a more open mind. After rereading IX.7 and the transition from 1521 to the new material added for 1532, I am relieved to see that your view is much more convincing than what I proposed. While the change of year in XI.81ff is explicit, the seasonal references in IX.7 do not preclude the Olimpia adventure’s taking place during that same fall and winter that ends with the spring of XI.82 and XII.72. That being the case, without that extra year, everything can be pretty much reconciled. After revising my chart I find the only issue is the “few months” the poet allows between Bradamante’s two encounters with Pinabello; I can make the gap less than a year, so I’m content for now.

    I thank you for all this. I’m fortunate to have stumbled on your blog and to have found you such an astute and patient interlocutor. I’ll let you know when I have posted my material.


  4. I got to a point earlier in the year when I decided I had gone as far as I could for the time being. My detailed summary of the Furioso (nearly a prose paraphrase), the chronological chart, and a list of characters is not posted on my website ADDilettante.com. At some future time, as a break from translating opera librettos, I hope to tackle the Innamorato in similar detail, for my own edification, of course. As I near the end of my 80th year I find I can remember things only if I take detailed notes and then reread them.


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