The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A Renaissance best-seller of love and action

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s 26 copies of various editions of Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso attest to its success during the 16th and early 17th centuries (a success that continued for much longer, but that is another story). 1 An epic poem replete with love and action, Orlando Furioso was an international bestseller worth having in one’s library even if one did not read it. It blended the austere literary tradition focused on war that developed around the memory of the medieval French king Charlemagne with the magical elements and love interests found in Arthurian legend—on top of which Ariosto added an ironic tone and humanist outlook. Loosely based on the Chanson of Roland, the epic follows the deeds of the fictive knight Orlando throughout the known world, including a trip to the moon. In it, Europe defends itself against invasion by the King of Africa, and the plot pits Christians against Saracens, with Orlando falling in unrequited love with a pagan. A significant side plot follows the Christian warrior Bradamante and her Muslim lover Ruggiero, who Ariosto presented as the ancestors of his patrons, the d’Este family.

Publishers competed with each other in producing new editions of the Orlando—the Universal Short Catalogue lists close to 200 pre-1601 editions—offering different features to always attract more customers: one could own an Orlando in a pocket or a large-size edition (the majority of the editions were in a quarto format), with editorial commentaries of various length, and with or without illustrations.

Early illustrated editions

Although the first editions were not illustrated (the first edition with the poem in its complete form was printed in 1532), woodcuts were soon added to the text. One of the first publisher to do so was Giolito di Ferrari in 1542. (The Folger does not own a copy of this edition; the woodcut shown below comes from the 1544 reprint [PQ4567.A2 1544 Cage].)

A woodcut from the 1544  illustrated edition of the Orlando Furioso printed by Giolito di Ferrari
a woodcut from Giolito di Ferrari’s 1544 illustrated edition of Orlando Furioso

Vincenzo Valgrisi’s 1556 edition marked a turning point in the history of Orlando’s editions with the introduction of full-page woodcuts illustrating the poem and an edited version of the text by Girolamo Ruscelli (PQ 4567.A2 1556; USTC 810689).

opening pages from the 1558 Valgrisi edition
opening pages from the 1558 Valgrisi edition

Both Ruscelli’s editorial work and the illustrations were intended to clarify the intricacy of the plot. Ruscelli’s use of a clearer Italian, his introduction of arguments (argomenti) with summaries ahead of each chapter, and his editorial comments guided the readers through the text.

argument and summary decorated with a woodcut border
argument and summary decorated with a woodcut border

Likewise the woodcuts used a perspectival technique to depict multiple scenes that one could easily follow.

full-page woodcut decorated with a woodcut border. Several scenes are depicted in perspective.
full-page woodcut decorated with a woodcut border, with several scenes depicted in perspective

In 1584, the publisher Francesco De Franceschi produced an edition with engravings of Girolamo Porro’s drawings, which were based on the Valgrisi woodcuts, and with more paratext, including a 32-page index (PQ 4567.A2 1584; USTC 810794.

full-page engraving from the De Franceschi edition
full-page engraving from the De Franceschi edition

De Franceschi’s publication became the edition of reference and served as a model for John Harington’s first translation of Orlando into English, published by Richard Field in 1591 (STC 746).

Harington's translation of Orlando
Harington’s translation of Orlando

A hybrid copy

The copy of Orlando that is particularly interesting when considering illustrations was printed in 1603 by Felice Valgrisi, son of Vincenzo Valgrisi. This was not the first time he reprinted this title, which had brought great financial benefits to his father’s firm. Felice was involved with printing the 1579 and 1580 editions in collaboration with his brother, editions that always used the same woodblocks but added or changed the editorial content. De Franceschi’s 1584 edition with engravings did not deter Valgrisi from producing yet another edition with the woodblocks in 1587.

the titlepages to De Franceschi's 1587 (left) and 1603 (right) editions
the titlepages to Valgrisi’s 1587 (left) and 1603 (right) editions

The Folger’s copy of the 1603 Valgrisi edition, which was closely related to the 1587 edition, offers some peculiarities worth examining (PQ 4567.A2 1603). While it includes the same title page with a woodcut border as in other copies of this edition, the illustrations throughout the book are a mixture of the Valgrisi woodcuts and the De Franceschi engravings pasted over them.

an engraving pasted over a woodcut
an engraving pasted over a woodcut (note the visible border at the top)
detail showing the edge of the woodcut border, which has not been covered by the pasted engraving
detail showing the edge of the woodcut border, which has not been covered by the pasted engraving

Likewise, the summaries facing the full-page illustrations are sometimes those printed by Valgrisi with a woodcut border and sometimes De Franceschi’s printed within an engraved border pasted over the original Valgrisi ones.

Argument with engraved border pasted over the argument with a woodcut border
Argument with engraved border pasted over the argument with a woodcut border
an opening with both a full-page engraving and the argument decorated with a woodcut
an opening with both a full-page engraving and an argument with a woodcut border

The same pattern applies to the supplemental text following the Orlando Furioso, which, in our copy, has the separate engraved title page with De Franceschi’s name inscribed at the bottom instead of the printer’s name Nicolo Moretti as in other recorded copies the Valgrisi 1603 edition. The final section of the book, a commentary on the poem by Alberto Lavezvola, is found in the De Franceschi edition but not in any of the Valgrisi ones.

The Folger’s book is a genuine hybrid copy of the edition, made up by someone (probably an owner or a bookseller) who had access to some but not all of the De Franceschi engravings. To my knowledge, no album was ever published with De Franceschi intaglio prints alone, which would indicate that the illustrations of Orlando were thought to be best viewed with the text alongside them. It is clear, though, that these prints circulated from one edition of the text to another. In addition to our hybrid copy of the 1603 Valgrisi edition, a copy at the British Library is recorded as having engravings. There is also the engraved plate 34 from the Harington/Field edition of 1591 found pasted in several copies of De Franceschi edition, which had cancelled this plate. 2

Whoever pasted the engravings in the Folger copy thought it better to have a text partially illustrated with engravings than simply with woodcuts. It is a concrete example of the shifting taste in the early 17th century from woodcut to engraving and of the preference for the De Franceschi over the Valgrisi edition. It also shows how early modern owners could view books not as finished products but as raw material which they could shape to reflect their own personal likings.

  1. See for example Exercices furieux: à partir de l’édition de l’Orlando furioso De Franceschi (Venise, 1584), ed. Ilaria Andreoli. (Bern: Peter Lang, 2013).
  2. Harvard College Library Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts Compiled by Ruth Mortimer under the Supervision of Philip Hofer and William A. Jackson. Part II: Italian Sixteenth Century Books (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1974) vol. 1, p. 42.

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