Orlando furioso, Ariosto and Ronconi
A play presented to international acclaim in 1969.
Transformed into a mind-blowing TV miniseries in 1974.
Broadcast once, in 1975, and never shown again.
I saw it on the telly as a kid – and it’s the sort of thing that makes me think I was damn lucky. No frigging talent shows, when I was a kid!
But let’s proceed with order.
The Orlando furioso (literally, “Raging Roland”) is a classic of Italian literature – a lengthy, intricate, colorful adventure poem in 46 cantos, first published in 1516 by Ludovico Ariosto (the guy you see portrayed here on the left).
The plot is almost impossible to summarize: during the war between Christians and Saracens, in the time of Charlemagne, a host of characters from both sides cross paths, fighting or falling in love (or indeed, fighting and falling in love). Roland, the bravest champion in Charlemagne’s army, falls in love with a “heathen” and loses his mind. Angelica, the most beautiful Christian woman, makes a runner. Both fronts are in disarray. Strange magic is afoot. Monsters roam the landscape.
Many shenanigans ensue.
The Orlando furioso inspired a lot of later works, including Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing takes its central plot from a single episode in the Ariosto work.
Fantasy fans are familiar with some of the elements of the story as it was used by Fletcher Pratt and Lyon Sprague de Camp for The Castle of Iron, one of their Harold Shea stories.
It can be easily said that, apart from being one of the most influential works in Western literature, the Orlando furioso is also a seminal text of fantasy literature – so much so that Lin carter reprinted it in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line.
Now, in 1969, eccentric and genial director Luca Ronconi created a stage adaptation of Ariosto’s work, basically breaking the fourth wall and bringing the action in the midst of the audience while at the same time playing with time – many of the events in the poem take place simultaneously, and the stage version had them being played out at the same time in different parts of the venue.
Such was the success of the show, that it was picked up by the Italian State television to be transformed in a mini-series.
It was hell, of course – to begin whit, forget the simultaneous bit.
You either use a split screen (but on 1970s TV sets that would have been ugly) or… well, Ronconi had an idea: film two shows, run them at the same time, one on the First Channel and one on the Second, and let the viewers zap from one to the other, trying to follow the sprawling narrative.
The TV execs told him he was crazy.
In the end, Ronconi and his partner in crime Edoardo Sanguineti scripted a 293 minutes “linear” show in five episodes.
And it was incredible.
First of all, of course,it was as faithful an adaptation of the original 16th century poem as possible – the only license being the transformation of third-person narrative into first-person dialogue.
Then, the cast read like a roll-call of the best in theater performers in Italy.
And finally… it was shot entirely in interiors, using incredible Italian Renaissance venues like the Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola, or the Saint Mary in Cosmedin church in Rome.
Rooms were filled with trees to simulate forests, flooded to simulate lakes and seas.
All the machinery was in plain sight, including the mechanical Ippogrifo, a beast half horse/half eagle, giving the performances a surreal, but very “Leonardo da Vinci” sort of look. Actors were set on movable platforms, floating in and out of the scene like ghosts, and yet horses were Renaissance-style statues.
And the music – that sounds incredibly period – was written especially for the show, and was totally haunting.
In retrospect, there was a lot of Terri Gilliam’s mise-en-scene style in the Ronconi version of Ariosto – indeed, it’s impossible for me to watch Gilliam’s Baron Munchhausen without thinking about that show I watched in black and white, so many years ago.
It was literate, cheeky, tongue-in-cheek, at times operatic in tone, and visually stunning.
And I saw it – I was eight, and my teacher told me and my schoolmates to check it out, and tell our parents to let us stay up and see it, because it was a masterpiece.
And indeed it was.
It was also, I am sure, a gateway to a world that many of us never really left behind.
It was a great, glorious fantasy show, probably the highest-budget fantasy show ever produced by the Italian state television.
And then it was gone.
Even finding photographs of the TV show was extremely difficult.
I know the five episodes are now available on some state TV thematic channels, but for the rest Ronconi’s Orlando furioso seems to have vanished from the Italian memory.
I’ve found a few snippets of the show on the Tube – quality is nothing to write home about, some scenes are very dark, but it gives you an idea of the kind of product I’m talking about.
(And yes, I have included a long piece featuring Mariangela Melato, because she’s another of my favorite actresses).
The whole show can also be found on Youtube, in two huge blocks.
It’s in Italian, of course, and very poor quality.
But it’s well worth a look.
The Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto is available online for free on Project Gutenberg.