This pumpkin illustrates one scene from the epic romance, “Orlando Furioso,” or, roughly translated, “Roland, Driven Mad by Love.” This book, first published in the early 16th century, has been called one of the most influential books in all of European literature. My sense is that 99 out of 100 Americans have never heard of it, which is a shame given its lively and colorful plot and characters. Roland was one of the “Peers” of Charlemagne – his greatest Paladins or heroes, much like King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Roland is not shown on the pumpkin, but one of his colleagues, a knight named Bradamante, is featured.
Bradamante was remarkable in part because she was a beautiful young woman in addition to being a fearless and powerful warrior. To continue the twisting of the usual course of these stories, she had resolved to go to the rescue of the knight whom she loved. Bradamante’s beloved Ruggiero (that is, Roger) was imprisoned in an enchanted castle high in the Pyrenees.
In order to free him, she needed to defeat Atlante, the evil sorcerer who created the castle. Atlante, though old, was a formidable opponent: for one thing, he knew how to cast numerous spells which were contained in his book of magic. For another, instead of a war horse, he fought from the back of hippogriff – a rare offspring of a griffin (half eagle, half lion) and a horse.
Whenever he was closely pressed in a battle, he and the hippogriff could soar into the air to escape, and then swoop down on his enemy. Finally, Atlante carried a magic shield that glowed with a fearsome light. Usually he kept it covered with a silk cloth to hide its brilliance. Then, at a crucial point in a fight, he’d whip the cloth off the shield – and rays “as red as Bohemian Garnet” would shoot out at his adversaries, knocking them senseless. All in all, Atlante was almost impossible to defeat.
Bradamante, though, was not a bit concerned at the prospect of facing Atlante – for she had been talking to the ghost of Merlin, the wizard of the Arthurian legends. Bradamante had, literally, stumbled upon this spirit in a cave in France. Merlin, because he lived backwards, knew everything that was to befall Bradamante, and so was able to counsel her on the best way to defeat Atlante. Merlin advised her to take a magic ring by force from a dwarf named Brunello. Placed in the mouth this ring provided invisibility; on the finger, it protected the bearer from all magic spells.
Thus forewarned and forearmed, Bradamante found and challenged Atlante. For some time, they matched sword with sword, and charger with hippogriff. But now, Atlante decides that he’s played with his quarry long enough, and pulls the silk cover from his shield. As soon as she sees the rays flashing from the shield, Bradamante falls motionless on the field. Atlante dismounts, and creeps cautiously toward her, paging through his book of spells as he debates how best to deal with his manifestly helpless foe.
But Bradamante is keeping one eye open – protected by her magic ring, she is only feigning unconsciousness. She waits until she sees Atlante’s shadow fall over her, and then leaps to her feet and grabs Atlante by the neck. Hurling him to the ground, she raises her sword to strike. Atlante, though, calls out to her: “Go ahead, kill me – I don’t deserve to live. I’m nothing but an old, broken-down sorcerer. But before I die, I want you to know that I love your Ruggiero like a son. The only reason I’m keeping him in my castle is to protect him from the deadly adventures he would face if the two of you ever joined together. I know, through my magic arts, that his life would not be a long one if he married you.”
Bradamante, moved, sheathes her sword. “Very well, then; I will not harm you. But you must let fate take its course: Ruggiero and I have a brilliant future together.”
So the two of them trudge to the top of the mountain where the castle stands. Atlante places a hand on the wall, and speaks a word or two – and he, and the castle, vanishes in an instant. Ruggiero, though, is left behind, blinking in the evening sun, and wondering what happened. Then, he sees Bradamante and runs to her – they fall into each other’s arms – and the story is now in danger of happily-ever-aftering less than two hundred pages into the book! Fortunately, Ruggiero sees the hippogriff, wandering about, quietly browsing in the field. “Oh!” thinks Ruggiero – “I’d love to try riding the hippogriff!” After some effort, Ruggiero catches hold of the creature’s bridle, and swings up into the saddle – not suspecting that Atlante had left his mount behind as a trap. No sooner does it feel Ruggiero’s weight on its back but it vaults into the air, and flies the hapless knight off to a magic island far out in the Atlantic. And now Bradamante has to go rescue him again – in the next cliff-hanging adventure in a book that goes on for another 1,400 fantastic pages.
* * *
Orlando Furioso was the masterpiece of Ludovico Ariosto, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci. To the left of the scene on the pumpkin, I show him telling the story in his way; to the right of the scene I’ve placed my own hand, telling the story my way, by carving it into the pumpkin.
I based the picture of Ariosto on a portrait by Titian. Bradamante’s face and armor are from a statue of Joan of Arc that I found in Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park in Washington, DC – appropriate, I thought, for a female warrior. I myself modeled for Atlante, the broken-down wizard; I even gave him a pair of my “spectacles.”
The hippogriff was a combination of a harpy eagle, the wings of a hawk, and a horse leaping over a wall. Finally, the castle, high in the Pyrenees, is taken from a painting by the 20th century surrealist René Magritte entitled “Castle of the Pyrenees.”