500th anniversary of one of world’s most influential poems, Orlando Furioso

Monday 15 February 2016


The University of St Andrews will mark the 500th anniversary of epic Italian poem Orlando Furioso – one of the longest poems in European literature and one of the most influential works in Western culture – with a programme of public events, beginning on 16 February and running throughout 2016.

First published in 1516, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto became an instant bestseller, with translations quickly produced across Europe. The poem has since inspired great works of literature by Shakespeare (As You Like It), Sir Walter Scott (Kenilworth), Lord Byron (Don Juan) and Virginia Woolf (Orlando), alongside notable works of art, like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (1819, now at the Louvre), opera and theatre.

At 40,000 lines long, each of the poem’s 46 episode-style verses – known as a canto – were devoured by audiences in the 16th century, rendering the poem something of a precursor to the addictive box sets enjoyed today.

Orlando Furioso tells the dramatic and chivalric tale of Orlando, whose unrequited love sends him mad, only to be cured after an English knight, Astolfo, flies around the world in search of a remedy – including a trip to the Moon where all things lost on Earth can be found. After locating Orlando’s lost wits on the Moon, Astolfo returns them to Orlando, curing him of his broken heart. Meanwhile, other knights go on escapades – Rinaldo, for example, ends up in St Andrews itself to rescue a princess from defamation and death.

The poem’s inspiration extends to the present day, with authors such as Stephen King ( the Dark Tower series) influenced by it. The lunar store of lost things could be compared to Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which contains anything and everything that a wizard might need at any given time. And hippogriffs – the mythical half-horse, half-griffin which feature in Orlando Furioso – also appear in Harry Potter as a popular mode of transportation.

Dr Jane Pettegree, Director of Teaching in the Department of Music at the University of St Andrews, who teaches about the influence of Ariosto on English stage drama in the 1590s, said: “Ariosto’s great work was the Renaissance equivalent of the epic/fantasy DVD box set: it brims over with subplots and fascinating characters. For 500 years, Orlando and his friends have run amok in books, on stage, in music and in visual art… You find him in all sorts of familiar places, if you know where to look.

“We hope the events planned will help people to recognise some of the most popular stories and characters, and although we haven’t yet sourced live hippogriffs, we have at least found an image of them flying in the sky over St Andrews Cathedral.”

Dr Claudia Rossignoli, Lecturer in Italian at the University of St Andrews and one of the organisers of the anniversary celebrations, said: “Orlando Furioso experiments wildly with tradition, stretching the chivalric world to its very limits, undoing its heroes, demolishing their beliefs, mocking their shortcomings.

“All its characters are uncharacteristically fallible and surprisingly human. And even if these heroes remain firmly embedded in a dazzlingly fantastic and chronologically remote dimension, Ariosto uses them to talk frankly to us, his readers, about our own desires and obsessions, our own failures and flaws, our own humanity.”

The University’s programme of anniversary events includes a free performance by Scottish Opera, a display of rare prints, and a series of talks.

On 19 February, singers from Scottish Opera will give a free performance in St Andrews of excerpts from their current production of Ariodante, as well as Orlando and Alcina – a trilogy of operas by Handel whose storylines are influenced by the plot of Orlando Furioso. They will be joined by Harry Fehr, Director of Ariodante, and Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark, who will give a public talk about the productions and the legacy of the epic poem.

An exhibition of striking illustrations and engravings depicting the outlandish adventures of Orlando, taken from early editions of the poem in the University’s Special Collections, will be on show to the public on Friday 19 February, prior to Scottish Opera’s performance.

The public events programme also includes an evening of readings in Italian and discussion led by University of St Andrews experts about the literature influenced by the poem on 16 February. On 20 April, vocal students from the University will give a free performance of opera arias and songs from Shakespeare plays, which incorporated and transformed the original storyline from Orlando Furioso.

The celebration of Orlando Furioso is being led by the University’s School of Modern Languages, School of History and Department of Music. As well as raising awareness of the poem amongst the general public, a series of academic events and projects are planned to advance research into the poem.

These include the creation by St Andrews researchers of a new census of early printed editions of Orlando Furioso to provide new insights into the fortunes of the poem during the Renaissance period. An academic workshop, also on 19 February, will launch the scholarly activities.

Dr Shanti Graheli, Researcher at the School of History and expert in the study of the early printed book, said: “The relationship between the poem and printing in Renaissance Europe is critical to understand its fortune. When Ariosto was still alive, various pirated editions had already started to appear, a sign of the great and immediate popularity of Orlando Furioso amongst readers. This is why we have decided to undertake a new systematic census of the poem’s 16th-century editions, to better trace how it was produced and consumed.”

Find out more information about the events programme.

Notes to picture editors

Images are available to download.

  • 16th century illustration of the hippogriff flying over St Andrews
  • Beautiful illustrations by Gustave Doré, inspired by Orlando Furioso
  • Angelica saved by Ruggiero (1819-39) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicts a scene inspired by Orlando Furioso: Ruggiero, riding on a hippogriff, rescues Angelica from a sea monster.


The public events programme currently includes:

Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516): 500 Years of Storytelling
16 February, 7.30pm to 9pm
Topping & Co. Bookstore, St Andrews
Ticket: £15 (redeemable on purchases in Topping & Co.)

This workshop will discuss the origins of Ariosto’s poem and untangle the great web of writing it has influenced through the centuries and will feature readings from Ariosto’s work in Italian. Dr Jane Pettegree (Director of Teaching, Department of Music) and Dr Claudia Rossignoli (Department of Italian) from the University of St Andrews will lead the discussion.

Exhibition: the Italian Renaissance in St Andrews
19 February, 4.30pm to 6pm
Younger Hall, St Andrews

An exhibition of rare books and manuscripts from the University of St Andrews Special Collections tracing the impact of Orlando Furioso on literature.

Scottish Opera: Handel’s Ariosto – Passions and Performance
19 February, 6pm to 7.30pm
Younger Hall, St Andrews

Scottish Opera will perform excerpts from three Handel works – Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina. The beautiful music will be accompanied by lively discussion led by Harry Fehr, Director of Scottish Opera’s production Ariodante, and Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark.

Orlando Furioso 1516-2016: One source, many stories
20 April, 2.30pm to 4pm
Byre Theatre, St Andrews
Free, with tea/coffee and scones served

A celebration of the epic poem in words and music. Dr Claudia Rossignoli (Department of Italian) will introduce Orlando Furioso, which has inspired many playwrights, opera composers, poets and novelists since it first appeared. Vocal students from the University of St Andrews will then perform opera aria by Handel, Vivaldi and Haydn, and songs from Shakespeare plays which incorporated and transformed the original story.

Issued by the Press Office. For information and images, contact Ruth Mackie on 07912 789 468 or email [email protected].

Category Research

Related topics

Share this story