A Noble Copy of Orlando Furioso

Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533), Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse, translated by John Harington. London: Richard Field, 1591. Purchased at the Robert S Pirie Sale, Sotheby’s, 2 December 2015, as the gift of Katharine J. Rayner in memory of S. Parker Gilbert.

Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso is one of the great masterworks of English literature. It made this sprawling epic poem easily accessible in court circles where there was a constant demand for Ariosto’s stories of sieges, battles, quests, enchantments, damsels in distress, and feats of chivalry. Harington dedicated it to Queen Elizabeth, who is said to have commanded him to perform the task of translating nearly forty thousand lines of Italian verse as a punishment for having shown one of the ribald episodes to the ladies of the court. The proud author commissioned artists to illustrate his text with forty-six full-page illustrations and arranged for the production of luxury copies suitable for presentation to friends and patrons.

This copy is one of a few printed on large paper with the illustrations colored by hand. It belonged to the high-born lady-in-waiting Arabella Stuart, famed for her intelligence, beauty, and political ambitions. A redoubtable scholar, she studied the learned languages Latin, Greek and Hebrew; she picked up French for fun as well as Spanish and Italian. She was given ample time to read this book in the Tower of London, where she was imprisoned for having married without royal permission. At the Morgan it joins the first edition of 1516 and two copies of the 1584 edition with engravings by Girolamo Porro, whose designs were the basis of Harington’s illustrations.

Here is the engraved portion of the title-page with portraits of the author on top and the translator at the bottom. The architectural composition of the title-age is derived from the 1584 edition, but Harington could not resist adding some personal touches, not just his portrait but also his motto, his family arms on the cover of the watch, and a portrait of his spaniel Bungey. In his notes to the poem, he remarked that his friends will make merry at his expense for this tribute to his dog, but he defended his decision on the grounds that he had translated Ariosto for the merriment of all concerned. For that matter, Bungey could dance about and perform tricks to please “the best Ladies of England.” Perhaps Lady Arabella Stuart was one of his admirers.

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