From Shakespeare to Harry Potter: a 16th-century poem has inspired Western culture for centuries

Illustration of the hippogriff of the knight Rinaldo flying on the hippogriff over St Andrews where he rescues a princess from defamation and death.  The illustration is from a 16th-century edition of Orlando Furioso ' an early illustrated edition ' held
Illustration of the hippogriff of the knight Rinaldo flying on the hippogriff over St Andrews where he rescues a princess from defamation and death. The illustration is from a 16th-century edition of Orlando Furioso ' an early illustrated edition ' held
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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 Furiosotells 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.

The poem’s inspiration extends to the present day, with authors such as Stephen King (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 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.”

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 February 19, 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 Orlando Furioso.

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 February 16. On April 20, 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 Orlando Furioso.

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.

For more information about the events programme, visit https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/orlando-furioso/