Academic journal article Italica

Alcina's Island: From Imitation to Innovation in the Orlando Furioso

Academic journal article Italica

Alcina's Island: From Imitation to Innovation in the Orlando Furioso

Article excerpt

Beyond the pillars of Hercules and the Continental landmass, far from the busy central action of the Orlando furioso, lies Alcina's island. In canto VI, Ruggiero, the Furioso's dynastic hero, is carried to the island by the mythical ippogrifo. (1) The enormous distance travelled suggests from the outset that the Alcina episode will be a significant digression from the main plot of the poem. Also, the strong classical echoes in the early stages of the episode indicate that the Arthurian-influenced knightly quest of the central Orlando furioso is about to give way to an epistemological journey set "in an allegorical framework more elaborate than any other in the poem" (Brand 67).

Alcina's island is Ariosto's "Island of the Blest" (Pindar II. 72), his milk-and-honey land of eternal youth and beauty (2) where Ruggiero will follow in the footsteps of Ulysses, Aeneas, and Hercules. His descent from the classical heroes is signalled first by the ippogrifo, who is clearly modelled on Pegasus, and then by Astolfo, Alcina's ex-lover, who has been transmogrified, like the Aeneid's Polydorus, into a myrtle bush (Aeneid III. 22-43). Astolfo greets Ruggiero with an account of the pernicious seductress Alcina who enslaves knights with her beauty, just as Dido had captured Aeneas in Carthage (Aeneid IV. 160-72), and Circe and Calypso had both seduced Odysseus in the islands of Aeaea and Ogygia. (3) He describes his own experience:

   Guardommi Alcina; e subito le piacque
   l'aspetto mio, come mostro ai sembianti:
   e penso con astuzia e con ingegno
   tormi ai compagni; e riusci il disegno. (VI. 38)

Like Carthage, Aeaea and Ogygia, Alcina's island is a place of sensual pleasure and lovemaking, far removed from society and civilian duties: (4)

   Io mi godea le delicate membra:
   pareami aver qui tutto il ben raccolto
   che fra i mortali in piu parti si smembra,
   a chi piu et a chi meno e a nessun molto;
   ne di Francia ne d'altro mi rimembra:
   stavomi sempre a contemplar quel volto:
   ogni pensiero, ogni mio bel disegno
   in lei finia, ne passava oltre il segno. (VI. 47)

Astolfo's experience paves the way for a retelling of the Homeric/ Virgilian story of the amorous adventures of a guileless knight (this time Ruggiero) and a beautiful woman/enchantress in a terrestrial paradise.

There is nothing new in Ariosto's grafting of these classical tales onto his poem of chivalric romance. Boiardo, for example, had done it with Rinaldo and Angelica in the Orlando innamorato, as had Cieco da Ferrara with Rinaldo and Carandina in Mambriano. (5) Indeed, Ariosto scholarship has been anything but blind to the question of intertextuality in the Orlando furioso. Pio Rajna's Le fonti dell'Orlando furioso (1900), for example, is a meticulous catalogue of the multiple literary echoes reverberating through every canto. A more recent study, Albert Ascoli's Bitter Harmony, lists the literary antecedents of Ruggiero on Alcina's island as including Dante, Polydorus, Achilles, Perseus, Ganymede, Hector, Hercules, and Aeneas (150). (6) After tracing Ruggiero's genealogy, Ascoli goes on to examine the character through the critical prism of his literary sources, using the earlier literature to unlock the meaning of the Ariostean episode. He suggests that the Alcina episode, like the original Homeric/Virgilian tale and most of its imitations, is straightforward enough in its concern with the human struggle between duty and pleasure besetting all men at some point, and the pursuit of the latter as dangerously all-consuming unless checked by Reason.

The Alcina episode is not, however, a straightforward reproduction. In one octave, characters, plot, and motifs are imported directly from a dearly recognisable classical subtext. In the next octave, they filter through the lens of a different classical subtext or a later imitation. More confusingly, the subtexts underlying the Alcina episode are rarely present without significant modifications and transformations. …

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