A typical reaction of the Arthurian fiend after finishing massive tome after massive tome of the interlaced adventures of any famous or obscure Round Table knight is to ask for more. But then, comes a point at which one feels like one has reached the end of the buffet, and can only scrape the bottom of plates. The Middle Ages have ended, and now there is only the Modern stuff left to read.
Enters the Italian tradition. While in 1500s France the poets are trying to sound like resuscitated Virgil or Ovid (with more or less success, depending on the case), in Italy there remains a strong, active, and inventive tradition of chivalric literature. It is not strictly Arthurian, but it honours many of its themes and techniques with a new spirit. In Italy, the literary tradition of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew (known from the Chanson de Roland and innumerable subsequent chansons de gestes and romance, almost as numerous as those of the Round Table) is the carrier of this new spirit.
But the real innovation of the Italians was not to perpetuate the already rich Carolingian literature tradition: it was rather to merge it with the magic and love themes of the Arthurian tradition. The key work is Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorento. Reading it in parallel with the prose Lancelot is a startling discovery. Like the Lancelot, the Innamorento is a strongly interlaced tale: thread after thread of narrative is spun, interrupted, left aside for a moment, then caught up with a few cantos later. However, where the Lancelot gives us a superbly organized tapestry of contrasting motifs, the Innamorento gives us instead the modern thrilling story built on suspended actions and cliffhangers. It’s all in the manner of interlacing. In the Lancelot, the story blocks most often have an inner coherence: each bit of the story is complete for the most part before the narration brings us to another one. For example, if Lancelot is fighting for a damsel, the narration will only switch story after he has defeated the giant holding the lady captive. In the Innamorento, Boiardo is leaving us hanging: when Roland is in the thick of his fight with an ugly monster, and that he’s about to lose the day, is the best time to flip channels and catch up on the latest developments of Charlemagne’s battle with Gradasso!
This is a completely different way of seeing storytelling. In the Lancelot, the story is a bit like a tragedy: it’s already known how it will end, and the narrator often refers the reader to the ending. The narrative tapestry is woven for clarity, contrast, and totalizing perfection: we can see both past, present, and future at once, and the reader is presented with the story as accomplished fact. In contrast, Boiardo introduces a very strong sense of temporality in reading. The narration knows the reader’s expectations, and plays carefully with them. The story is in progress before the reader’s eyes, and it is not known where it will end, since anything can happen. What’s more, each division of the story (canto) functions like a mini-episode, beginning with a recap of the story so far (“previously on Orlando…”), and ends with incomplete flash-forwards (“Next week…”). This is all too familiar to us TV viewers, but you will never find it in medieval cyclical literature.
And boy is the story rollicking! It’s a crazy run, a rollercoaster ride of damsels, dragons, treacheries, villains, valiant barons, evil invaders, elephants, and giraffes! The whole world is now the stage for Orlando’s adventures, not just Britain and environs as was the case for Arthur. This is also where we start feeling a break from the tradition: whereas the later Arthurian stories tend to accumulate echoes from the previous stories, Boiardo’s Innamorento goes straight for plot and action, instead of piling up on top of tradition. Yet he remains rigorously close to the standard set by chivalric literature, and that is the reason why he can extend the pleasure of romances’ fans. It gives it that “New Generation” feeling, both energizing and sacrilegious, more exciting but less “true” to the tradition.
No wonder it was left incomplete and followed by an even more ambitious sequel, L’Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, whose critical fortunes have been better to this day, and to which we must add Luigi Pulci’s Morgante to complete the triumvirate. The influence of this model has been far-reaching, to Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and of course all the way down to Cervantés’s great liquidation of chivalric literature, Don Quixote.