A climactic scene from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic romance poem Orlando furioso (1516) is depicted here in The Battle of Orlando and Rodomonte, an oil on canvas painting by Ferrara School painter Battista Dossi (Italian, 1490-1548). Dossi’s colorful and detailed tableau encapsulates the story with whimsy and humor while remaining sensitive to Ariosto’s umanesimo themes.
From lower left to upper right, four distinct architectural plots recede further beyond the viewer, each area a civilized space that defies a wild environment. In the nearest ground, a white marble tower rests at the end of a dirt path in wild green grass. Although the building is still under construction, the partially completed façade is gleaming and ornate. Each cut block is clearly defined by tight thin lines, grey veins streak diagonally along the polished surface. A small watch tower at the top holds a partially-obscured figure on the lookout (the canvas was cut at the top). A dripping-wet, ornately-dressed horse stands at the doorway below, flanked by an attentive page and moor. Just beyond the tower, a small chapel leans against a rocky cliff, mostly entombed behind large brown masonry blocks yet adorned with half a dozen colorful armor suits – trophies from victorious joustings. Behind the chapel, a manicured garden plaza lies embraced by a dense forest from which a pair of deer have wandered out into the open. Ornately manicured shrubbery fronts a village square surrounded by tall leafy trees, a couple of which provide the living support columns of a simple windowless shelter. A port city (Montpellier, France, apparently) stretches out into the horizon beyond the woods. White gothic buildings provide a dense skyline among hills that fade into distant shadows. Ships rest in smooth water along a serene coastline. Although each vignette contains enough detailed content to tell its own story, all the action occurs in the lower right quadrant of the scene where two men are engaged in combat above rocky, rushing rapids.
Here are our subjects, Rodomonte and Orlando, front and off-center. The former is dressed below the neck in full armor, a long red cape billows and blows behind him as if winds were contesting his stance from several different directions. His posture is strong, however, as his gloved right hand holds his enemy’s unadorned left arm and his left boot presses down hard on an opposing bare left foot. Leaning hard into his torso is Orlando: naked, muscular, and determined. His profile is partially obscured as he faces down and surges against his opponent’s chest like a bull spearing a matador. Rodomonte’s face is fully visible, however. His mouth is closed tight – he isn’t exerting enough effort to breathe very hard. His eyes are fixed behind him – he doesn’t need to face forward to fight. He’s fought and won this battle before, as evidenced by the mounted helmets and breastplates of several knights who met their doom earlier. This isn’t a fair fight. Ironically, Orlando will triumph on account of his nakedness. In the story, they both topple into the river below and swim to shore, yet unencumbered Orlando swims faster than the iron-clad Rodomonte.
Romantic idealism reflects contemporary events in this setting with the Christian Orlando engaged in battle with the Saracen (read: Muslim) Rodomonte – a scene from Ariosto’s epic masterpiece set during the era of Charlemagne and Moorish incursions into Europe. Constantinople’s collapse to the Ottomans in 1453 was still very much on the minds of European aristocracy when Ariosto and Dossi were employed by the House of Este (rulers of the culturally prosperous Ferrara in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region). Dossi’s tableau reflects the somewhat dubious legend circulating through the courts then: that the dukes and duchesses of Este were descendants of Ariosto’s heroic Christian figures and were, by default, legitimate rulers; political propaganda here is presented as noble nostalgia.
Although an allegorical conflict between Christians and Muslims, the chivalrous battle depicted in this scene is one of two men in mourning – each man confronting the wounds of lost love, each man responding differently to their injury. Having lost his love to another man, Orlando has gone mad (furioso) and has embarked upon a random continental rampage in the buff, retreating into a primal mental state of constant crazy fight-and-flight like a primal, rabid beast. He signifies the frenzied and impulsive reaction to love typical of so many pagan victims of Cupid’s arrow in classic Greek mythology (an oeuvre that gained renewed popular status when Renaissance scholars rediscovered Ovid). Having accidentally killed his love interest after failing to seduce her, Rodomonte is controlled yet overbearing in his grief, constructing a building as a shrine to his deceased (and an even larger building for himself nearby to keep watch over it); a narrow bridge leads the occasional unfortunate wanderer to his compound, providing Rodomonte a convenient platform upon which to joust anyone who approaches his lair. Rodomonte embodies the hyper-macho chivalry that provided a template prescribed as civilized behavior in times of antiquity:
“Do not use your energy except for a cause more noble than yourself…to preach the truth, to defend womanhood, to repel humiliation which your creator has not imposed upon you…” – Ibn Hazm
Although Rodomonte seems to aspire to meet knightly expectations as a prescription against his burden of grief and humiliation, his gallant exterior proves his undoing. Ironically, protective armor becomes his weighty burden following his fight with the naked Orlando: the chivalrous Super-Ego is outmaneuvered by the beastly Id.
– Frank Gordón-Quiroga, University of Hartford