Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Orlando: Opening canto

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About the scene and clip:
In this clip, the Italian performer Paolo Panaro recites much of the first canto of Orlando Innamorato, in which we meet many of the central characters—Charlemagne, Roland (Orlando), Angelica, and others—and the fast-paced story begins. Panaro makes dramatic use of a few props: a chair, crown, sword, and book.

About the work:
Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, published in 1483, tells of Roland, the great hero of La Chanson de Roland. But in this work, Roland (Orlando, in Italian) is not just a warrior; he also takes on the characteristics of the famous lover Lancelot, falling madly in love with the beautiful Angelica. In this great work of passion and magic themes usually associated with Arthurian romance, Boiardo refigures chivalric romance along epic lines, combining love and war to create the new form of the romance epic.

About the genre:
Boiardo’s Orlando—like a number of other major works of the Italian Renaissance—represents a blend of epic and romance traditions.

The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

Medieval romances are typically long narratives of love and adventure in which an aristocratic hero (or occasionally a heroine) proves himself in combat and courtship. Medieval romance arose in France and Anglo-Norman England in the 12th century and spread through Western and even Eastern Europe. Many early romances tell the stories of knights and ladies at King Arthur’s court. In the 12th and 13th centuries, romances are composed in verse (typically octosyllabic rhymed couplets), and are commonly performed aloud from memory by minstrels; romances are also sometimes read aloud. In the 13th century, some romances begin to be written in prose; public and private readings become more frequent.

About the edition/translation:
Opere di Matteo Maria Boiardo, ed. Ferruccio Ulivi, Milano, Mursia, 1986. English translation: Orlando Innamorato, trans. Charles Stanley Ross, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989 (rpt. West Lafayette, IN, Parlor Press).

About the performer/ensemble:
Paolo Panaro is an Italian actor who performs widely in Europe and the United States. His repertory includes Italian works from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as from the modern period.

About the production:
This performance was filmed at a studio at Purdue University in 1996; technical assistance was provided by John Strathman. We wish to thank Paolo Panaro for giving us permission to use this wonderful clip, and Prof. Charles Ross of Purdue University for making the video available to us; copies are available through Prof. Ross.