Jack’s Naughty Bits: Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso

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Jack's Naughty Bits


Ariosto was the most popular Italian writer of the sixteenth century; when you

read the passage below, you’ll see why. While the most popular book of the century in

England, John Lyly’s Euphues, mires you in its logorrheic cesspool, Ariosto’s Orlando

Furioso wins you over with high adventure, poetic charm, daring rescues and

dastardly wit. It’s also pretty saucy, which elicited no small amount of blushing from its first

English translators.


In this particular scene, one of the heroes Ruggiero comes to the castle of the evil

witch Alcina, who disguises herself as a beautiful woman to seduce him. Romantic

encounters are typical in the tradition of courtly literature, but, as with the

Spenser excerpt,

authors couldn’t come right out with the sex and sexuality, but had

to mute it within suggestive, though not explicit, descriptions. Spenser had his woman spill red

wine on her lap; Ariosto resorts to other clever tactics. First breasts that hint at what lies

beyond (there is always a veil, however transparent), then an ingenious explanation of why

he can’t describe the totality of their actions. It’s a great rhetorical turn; would that pens

could always be so pointed.

* * *

From Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto

From the outer gates stepped forth beauteous Alcina . . . so beautifully modeled, no

painter, however much he applied himself, could have achieved anything more perfect . . .

Snow white was her neck, milky her breast; her neck was round, her breast broad and full.

A pair of apples, not yet ripe, fashioned in ivory, rose and fell like the sea-swell at times

when a gentle breeze stirs the ocean. Argus [with his hundred eyes] himself could not see

them entire, but you could easily judge that what lay hidden did not fall short of what was

exposed to view . . .


Little wonder that Ruggiero was ensnared, finding her, as he did, so entrancing.

Little did it profit him to have been warned of her evil, treacherous nature — it did not seem

to him possible for deceit and perfidy to keep company with so charming a smile . . .


Ruggiero was escorted to his downy bed in a little bedroom . . . [he] slipped

between the perfumed sheets, which might well have been the handiwork of Arachne

herself; he strained his ears to listen for the approach of lovely Alcina. At the slightest

movement he heard, he would raise his head, hoping it was she; often he heard sounds

when in fact there was nothing to hear — and then he would realize his mistake and sigh.

Now and then he would jump out of bed, open the door and look outside, but there was

nothing to be seen. Endlessly he cursed weary time for moving so sluggishly. Often he

would tell himself: “Now she has set out” — and he would start counting the steps which

must separate Alcina’s room from the one where he awaited her. These and other vain

fancies occupied him in the interval before she came, and frequently he feared lest some

obstacle be placed between his hand and the fruit. Alcina all the while was steeping herself

in precious perfumes; she put an end to these labors once all was at peace in the household

and there was no need for further delay. Now she slipped out of her room and stole by a

secret passage to where Ruggiero awaited her; in his heart all this time hope and fear fought

many a round.


[Ruggiero] looked up to see the joyful-twinkling suns of Alcina’s eyes, he felt as

though hot sulfur were coursing through his veins . . . He jumped out of bed and gathered

her in his arms, quite unable to wait for her to undress — for she was wearing neither gown

nor petticoat: she had come in a light mantle which she had thrown over a white nightgown

of gossamer texture. The mantle she abandoned to Ruggiero as he embraced her; this left

only the insubstantial gossamer-gown which, before and behind, concealed no more than

would a pane of glass placed before a spray of roses or lilies. Ivy never clung so tightly to

the stem round which it was entwined as did the two lovers cling to each other, drawing

from each other’s lips pollen so fragrant that it will be found on no flower which grows in

the scented Indian or Arabian sands. And I would describe their pleasure, but it would be

more fit for them to do so, for they each often had a second tongue in their mouth.

Translation © Guido Waldman, modified