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Case 6 - Italian Heroic Romance

Knights, ladies, and battles were the subjects of popular romances in prose or verse that were largely directed to a female audience. Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516) and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) were two Italian romances that had wide influence at home and abroad. Drawing on stories of King Arthur, Charlemagne, and other historical events, both works inspired Italian women writers to engage with the romance tradition in different ways. Following Ariosto, Laura Terracina wrote a moral commentary on Orlando Furioso, while Moderata Fonte created a female knight in her own poetic romance. Inspired by Tasso, Margherita Sarrocchi and Lucrezia Marinella wrote heroic epics drawing on historical figures from the Ottoman wars in the thirteenth and fifeenth centuries.

Lodovico Ariosto. Orlando Furioso. Venice, 1544

Margherita Sarrocchi. La Scanderbeide: poema heroico. Rome, 1606

Laura Terracina. La prima-seconda parte de’discorsi sopra... de’canti d’Orlando furioso. Venice, 1584

Moderata Fonte. Tredici canti del Floridoro. Venice, 1581


First published in 1581, Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Liberated is an epic poem in twenty cantos. It celebrates the feats of Godfrey of Bouillon, who led the First Crusade in which Christians defeated the Turks at Jerusalem in 1099. The struggle between east and west was a “hot” topic in Tasso’s time when the Ottoman Empire was threatening Europe. Over half a century earlier, Ludovico Ariosto penned his famous poetic romance about the chivalric knight Orlando (or Roland) in 1516. While detailing the knight’s futile search for his lady-love Angelica, the poem also recounts the medieval struggle between Christians and Muslims. The Folger copy is special edition printed on blue paper with gold decoration is illustrated with fine woodcuts.


These two heroic romances serve as the basis for several works on view, including the first heroic epic by a woman, written by Margherita Sarrocchi. It tells of the feats of an Albanian warrior, George Scanderbeg, against the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. It is dedicated to Giulia d’Este, daughter of the duke of Modena. One of the most learned women of her time, Sarrocchi corresponded with Galileo and Tasso, wrote Latin poems and lectured on philosophy. Her decision to write an heroic epic in the style of Tasso’s Gerusalemme, considered the highest example of that poetic form, shows her intellectual self-confidence.


Using the same heroic romance tradition, Laura Terracina produced a 42-canto poem linked to Ariosto’s epic. A prolific Neapolitan poet, and member of an elite literary academy, Terracina's work was especially popular. Rather than telling a discrete story, it provides moral commentary, using the first octave of each canto in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Terracina strongly encourages women to make their own voices heard by reading and writing. Addressing male writers she says:
Oh if only women would give up the needle,
the thread and cloth, and take on the burden of study
I think they would give you writers great difficulties.


Also following the tradition of Ariosto’s chivalric romance is Moderata Fonte’s Thirteen Songs. It follows the adventures of the beautiful female knight, Risamante, who searches for her inheritance. Fonte argues for the equality of women and men:
Women of every age have been endowed by Nature
with great judgment and spirit
nor are they less apt in revealing with attentive study
the same wisdom and courage with which men are born.


Canto 37, Translation
†† Translation by Irma Jaffe and Gernan

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