115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Indefinable Nature of an Ironic Simulacrum: The Character of Alcina between the Orlando Furioso and the Cinque Canti 

Leonardo Giorgetti, University of California, Davis

This paper will investigate the narrative development of the character of Alcina between the Orlando Furioso and the Cinque Canti from both the intra- and inter-textuality perspectives. The elements of parody and ambivalence suggested by Alcina’s aesthetical realm epitomize the concordia discors typical of Ariosto’s poetic interlace and recall the binary opposition illusion/reality structural to the fictitious nature of poetry.


Since canto VI of the Orlando Furioso, when it is introduced to the reader, the character of the fairy Alcina seems to convey a specific and meta-literary meaning; her moral and aesthetical ambiguity, in fact, recalls the ambivalent nature of both love and poetic fiction. The two critical notions of irony and allegory, are uniquely harmonized in the character of Alcina, a femme fatal fairy who undergoes a process of progressive dramatization along the trajectory of Ariosto’s poetry without losing his problematic psychological ambiguity. In her, as in the very nature of simulation, irony and allegory live in a constant conflict which cannot be resolved if not in the very concordia discors typical of Ariosto’s poetry and of the metamorphic nature of its interlace. From an intra-textual perspective, the character of Alcina extends her narrative shadow all over the first part of the poem (VI, 16-VIII, 21; X, 35-68; XV, 11, 37); also the inter-textual spectrum of this character speaks of her structural complexity, as she recalls main figures of the classical epic and mythology (Medusa, Circe, Calypso, Dido) and enlivens the pages of several Renaissance chivalric poems before eventually reaching the music of XVIII cent. melodrama. In this paper I would like to investigate the narrative implications of the development of the character of Alcina both from the perspectives of intra- and inter-textuality of the Orlando Furioso and the Cinque canti. The aesthetical realm of Alcina described in cantos VI and VII of the Orlando Furioso suggests an ironic, and at times parodic, reading of both the stilnovistic and Petrarchan lyric traditions; the voyeuristic portrait of the fairy’s female nudity seems to allude to the many elements of ambivalence dissimulated in the episode (the utopian island, its lustful court, Ruggiero’s effeminacy), as well as to a notion of female body as illusory and counterfeited reality, capable of generating male anxiety and rage. As a master a non-Christian esoteric wisdom (astrology, geomancy, magic), Alcina shares a trait of psychological ambivalence visible also in the figure the other sorceress Melissa; an ambivalence which, I will argue, depends on Alcina’s and Melissa’s different reactions to a form of excessive love, that of the magician Atlante for Ruggiero. When read in this light, the character of Alcina becomes the unconscious agent of one of the magical plots designed by Atlante in the course of the poem, and a victim herself of the very amorous illusion produced by her own magical art; in other words she is transformed into the very simulacrum of herself.

Within the narrative trajectory of reiteration and completion adopted by Ariosto in canto IV of the Cinque canti, Alcina, here presented as a figure of a second Dido dramatically trapped in the conflict between rejection and resentment, seems to play a fundamental role of supervisor, even when she is not directly part of the action. By framing the binary illusion / reality typical of her fictitious beauty within a darker scenario of strong passions and treachery, the poetry of Cinque canti allows the character of Alcina to reach an unprecedented level of humanity and psychological complexity which seems to anticipate that of Tasso’s Armida in the Gerusalemme liberata. 

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