The Ambassadors
Detail from "The Ambassadors," by Hans Holbein the Yonger, 1533 (Nat'l. Gallery, London).


The praxis of locating the position of characters on the Waldseemüller Map is often straight-forward. When Ariosto writes that Rinaldo reaches the mouth of the Thames River and sails upstream to London (VIII.26), we simply locate the mouth of the Thames, which is signaled quite distinctly on the map and then draw a line up the river to where Waldseemüller has marked “Londinum.” Ecco fatto!

However, there are many places and spaces mentioned in the text which either do not appear on the Waldseemüller Map where we would expect them to, or do not appear at all. Some toponyms are ambiguous in the text. For instance, what place does Ariosto intend when he mentions “Pontiero”, the location of Merlin’s cave (VII.38): Ponthieu in Picardy? Pontreux in Brittany? Poitiers in west-central France? Other places have recognizable names, but present difficulty for plotting: for exmample, Ariosto locates the island of Ebuda "beyond Ireland" in canto VIII, but then implies that it sits off the coast of Brittany in canto X. Still other locations are deliberately fantastical: where can we plot Alcina’s island on a map that purports to represent the “real world”?

Each time that we have had to make a significant editorial decision when plotting a place, we have included a note explaining the reasoning behind our decision. The difficulty in plotting these places has led us to some interesting considerations of a more theoretical nature, which we also address in the notes.

We have collected our growing body of notes here on this page, but they can also be found on their respective canto maps (the note will appear when the corresponding place or text is highlighted).

All the notes have been written by Daniel Leisawitz.

Merlin’s cave and Pontiero

Canto III, stanza 5

The location of this cave, which turns out to be the entrance to Merlin's tomb, is ambiguous. No specific toponyms are given here, but we will learn in Canto VII.38 that the cave is in “le selve prossime a Pontiero” (the woods near Pontiero).

Various versions of this place name are mentioned as the seat of the Maganzese clan in the Innamorato(Pontiero/Pontieri), as well as in theMorgante(Pontiere/Pontieri) and the Franco-Veneto Entrée d'Espagne (Pontiu). According to Caretti (p157, note: xxxviii), in the Furioso the namePontiero couldindicate the city of Ponthieu, which is located in Northern France, or possibly Pontrieu in Normandy [sic]. However, either choice contradicts the plain sense of where we could assume the cave to be, given the description of the brief journey undertaken here by Bradamante and Pinabello. Admitting the problematic nature of both choices, Caretti goes with Ponthieu as being the slightly less illogical.

It seems to us more likely that Ariosto could have identified the name Pontierowith the ancient city of Poitiers in West-Central France. Ariosto refers to this place as both Pontiero (VII,38; XXII,47) and Pontieri (XXIII,3; XXXI,109; XLI,66), the plural -i reflecting the -s of the French. The French pronunciation /pwat-/, which is unnatural for Italian could be softened to /pont-/. The location of Poitiers also makes more geographical sense for Bradamante's movements from her duel with Sacripante (II.3) to Merlin's tomb (near Pontiero/i) (II.70), to the mouth of the Garonne River near Bordeaux (III.64-5, 75). We have therefore placed the cave and tomb to the southwest of Poitiers on the Waldseemüller map.

Alcina’s island

Canto VI, stanza 19

The placement of Alcina’s island has presented commentators with a crux interpretum that has yet to be laid to rest. The main contender for its likely position is the island of Japan, known in the West after Marco Polo’s Milione as Cimpagu or Zipangri (exponents of this view include Fòrnari, Casella, Vernero, and Doroszlaï). The question has continued to vex us, because Ariosto seems deliberately (and, I would argue, uncharacteristically) vague in his collocation of the place. Let us examine all the clues that the poet gives us before arriving at a conclusion.

In VI.19, we are told that after traveling a great distance in a straight line, without turning (the redundancy serves to emphasize the point), Ruggiero and the hippogriff circle above an island and land on it. The “linea dritta” that the hippogriff followed is the Tropic of Cancer, which we can infer from canto IV, when the winged horse left the Pyrenees with Ruggiero on board: “prende la via verso ove cade a punto / il sol, quando col Granchio si raggira” (IV.50). This direct journey is confirmed later in canto X when the narrator reminds us that, “Al venir quivi, era, lasciando Spagna, / venuto India a trovar per dritta riga, / là dove il mare orïental la bagna” (X.70).

This brief description is followed by a longer depiction of the island, to which is attributed generic attributes of a locus amoenus (VI.20-22), as well as a classical reference to Sicily through the citation of the nymph Aretusa.

In stanza 25 the narrator states that Ruggiero is overheated after travelling more than “3,000 milia” in full armor. We then get the story of Astolfo, who has been transformed into a myrtle which is growing in a patch of woods by the beach, another passage redolent with literary echoes (of Dante and Virgil).

Later in the canto, Astolfo delivers a topographic description of the island, which is bisected by a gulf on one side and an uninhabited mountain on the other (VI.45). The upper part of the island is ruled by Logistilla, Alcina’s sister, and we learn that the island is large enough to contain over one hundred castles, which Alcina’s army has conquered from Logistilla.

When Ruggiero eventually frees himself from Alcina’s grasp he makes his way to Logistilla’s castle, and then takes off on the hippogriff once more for France (cantos VII and VIII). Rather than retracing the journey that took him there, he decides to complete his circuit of the globe by heading west. When he takes off the first toponyms the narrator names are Cathay, Mangiana and Quinsai, all located, according to maps of the time, in the eastern extremity of the Asian continent: “Quinci il Cataio, e quindi Mangïana / sopra il gran Quinsaí vide passando” (X.71).

We get one more indication of the island’s position when Astolfo departs later by boat. Logistilla suggests that instead of heading north through rough seas, he skirt the lands of the Scythians (China), the Indians (India and SE Asia), and the Nabataeans (Arabia) toward the Persians and the Eritreans: “Piú tosto vuol che volteggiando rada / gli Sciti e gl’Indi e i regni nabatei, / e torni poi per cosí lunga strada ritrovare i Persi e gli Eritrei” (XV.12). This would again imply that the island is located east of China, though it is not clear how far.

Astolfo accepts Logistilla’s advice, and after leaving the port, he goes past the rich and populous cities of aromatic India (SE Asia), discovering thousands of islands on both sides, and continues on to the “Land of Thomas” (often depicted on contemporary maps as an overly-extended Indochina Peninsula) and golden Chersonesus (Malay Peninsula): “sopra le ricche e populose ville / de l’odorifera India il duca gira, / scoprendo a destra et a sinistra mille / isole sparse; e tanto va, che mira / la terra di Tomaso, onde il nocchiero / piú a tramontana poi volge il sentiero // Quasi radendo l’aurea Chersonesso, / la bella armata il gran pelage frange” (XV.16-17).

The identification of the “mille isole sparse” is requires interpretation. Contemporary maps often populate the area off the eastern coasts of the Asian continent with many small, non-specific islands, based on the authority of Marco Polo, who mentions 7,448 islands rich in gold and spices, and located in the “mare de Cin” (i.e. the Sea of Japan and East China Sea) between Japan and the continent. Examples of this practice can be found on maps of time including the Yale Martellus Germanus Map (1489), the Fra Mauro Map (c. 1450), the Catalan-Estense World Map (c. 1455), and our Waldseemüller map (1507). It is reasonable to identify these idealized and far-flung islands as the “mille isole sparse” spied by Astolfo during his journey from Alcina’s island.

So, it does seem quite reasonable, considering the indications Ariosto supplies and the maps of the era, to identify Alcina’s island with Zipangu (Japan), which contemporary mapmakers place directly on the Tropic of Cancer. However, there are two problems with this identification that must be noted. First, Ariosto rarely hesitates to employ specific toponyms to tell us exactly where his characters are. If Alcina’s island is Japan, then why did he not say so? Zipangu still represents a sufficiently exotic land to the early modern European reader to be suggestive of all manner of fantastical connotations including vast riches and cannibalism, so if Ariosto had wanted to conjure up these images in his readers’ minds, he likely would have simply told us that Alcina ruled over the island of Zipangu.

Second, the descriptions that Ariosto provides of the island do not reflect the contemporary understanding of Japan, simply because Alcina’s island seems utterly bereft of a local population (other than Alcina’s court, her servants and army). There are no towns or people mentioned, but rather an uninhabited land, that owes more to literary topoi, especially that of the locus amoenus (found in Horace, Ovid, Dante, Poliziano and others), than to a real-life place. It very well may be that Ariosto was inspired, at least in part, by Marco Polo’s description of Zipangu (for example, one could see a model for the impossibly tall golden walls that surround Alcina’s compound [VI.59] in Polo’s description of the golden roofed palace of Japan’s ruler: “Lo palagio del signore de l’isola è molto grande, ed è coperto d’oro come si cuoprono di quae di piombo le chiese” [Il Milione, Einaudi, 132.]), but that does not justify a wholesale identification of Alcina’s island with Japan.

We have therefore decided not to equate Alcina’s island with Zipangu on the Waldseemüller map. The fact that Ariosto does not supply a real-world toponym for the island or mention any real-world cities or populations, places Alcina’s island on a different plane of reality from almost every other location in the poem. This dissonance is sharpened all the more when Ruggiero and Astolfo leave Alcina’s island: upon their departure we are immediately assailed with a slew of names describing real-world places and populations that the characters pass on their ways back to Europe. Therefore, we have chosen to place Alcina’s island in the idealized and non-specific space between the Americas and Zipangu on the Waldseemüller Map. This non-specific space is represented by Waldseemüller as an empty, narrow sea on the western edge of his main map, as wide as the island of Zipangu itself. This placement allows us to maintain the supernatural and idealized nature that Ariosto lends Alcina’s island.

We have traced Ruggiero’s path from Europe, following the Tropic of Cancer across the Atlantic, across the American continents (which Ariosto does not mention here, and which he likely did not conceive of during the writing of these lines, which already appear in the 1516 edition of the poem), and over the Pacific Ocean (Mare Indicum). In order to signal Ruggiero’s shift to a supernatural geographical plane, we have lifted his journey off the western edge of the main map and placed him on the smaller map inserted above the main one, which presents the globe from two different vantage points, allowing for an uninterrupted view of the American continents and the Pacific Ocean. It is here on this super-terranean and extra-terrestrial sphere that we have placed Alcina’s island, in order to signal its otherworldliness.

In order to map characters’ itineraries on the island itself, we have turned to an illustration from Benedetto Bordone’s Isolario (first published in 1528). This Atlas of Islands purports to give the reader descriptions of all the islands of the world, "con li lor nomi antichi et moderni, historie, favole, et modi del loro vivere, et in qual parte del mare stanno, et in qual parallelo et clima giaciono" (from the frontispiece of the 1534 edition), and indeed in his volume Bordone expands the traditional scope of the genre beyond the islands of the Mediterranean to include those of Western Africa, Asia and the Americas. We have chosen an island which more or less conforms to the vague descriptions Ariosto gives us of Alcina’s island, though it is actually Bordone’s illustration of Java Minor (found on f. 69r). We have erased the name “Iava Minore” in order to render it an idealized and non-specific island.

Follow this link to Alcina’s Island: ALCINA’S ISLAND

Ebuda / The Isle of Tears

Canto X, stanza 93

The placement of the Isle of Tears presents a thorny question for commentators. The problem lies in the fact that Ariosto seems to contradict himself with reference to the relative location of this imaginary island. In the OF, the “Island of Tears” is synonymous with the “Island of Ebuda,” which Ariosto makes clear by reminding the reader that he had mentioned it before – “che (come io vi dicea sopra nel canto)” (X.93.v). This aide-mémoire sends the reader back to VIII.51, where Ariosto specifies that Ebuda is located “Nel mar di tramontana invêr l’occaso , / oltre Irlanda” (iii-iv). The island's position “toward the sunset” and “beyond” Ireland points toward an extreme northwesterly position with respect to the rest of Europe.

Indeed, the toponym Ebuda recalls Ptolemy's Cosmographia, in which he labels Ebuda the westernmost islands in an archipelago that he places off the northern coast of Ireland, at the northwestern edge of the inhabited world. So, it seems clear that Ariosto imagines Ebuda/Isle of Tears residing north of Ireland, at the very extremity of the Ptolemaic ecumene. Link to Ptolemaic projections.

The difficulty comes when Ariosto states that Ruggiero sets out from Ireland, and “Quindi poi sopra il mare il destrier muove / là dove la minor Bretagna lava: / e nel passar vide, mirando a basso, / Angelica legata al nudo sasso” (X.92.v-viii). The plain sense of this passage is that Ruggiero heads south from Ireland over the Celtic Sea, and spies Angelica tied to the rock on the Isle of Tears (where we had left her in VIII.67). The southerly route is reinforced later in the canto when the narrator mentions that Ruggiero had intended to head to Spain (X.113.i-ii).

Since this southerly route is incompatible with Ptolemy’s positioning of Ebuda, it creates an inconsistency. Some critics have chalked it up to an oversight, while others have sought to force an alignment by imagining circuitous routes, which would take Ruggiero first north then south. This theory was put forward by Vernero (81), who admitted that “Certo occorre uno sforzo.” Doroszlaï picks up on Vernero’s hypothesis and attempts to rationalize it (Espaces réels et espaces imaginaires, 26-30), but it still remains a stretch.

We have decided to place the Isle of Ebuda/Tears where it clearly makes sense in this canto: south of Ireland, off the westernmost coast of Brittany. This position coincides with the Island of Ushant on the Waldseemüller map. Our decision rests upon both the convoluted nature of the Vennero/Doroszlaï theory, and upon a detail that Vernero/Doroszlaï disregard. After defeating the orc, Ruggiero puts Angelica on the hippogriff and leaves Ebuda/Isle of Tears. The narratortells us that instead of continuing on to Spain, Ruggiero, anxious to possess Angelica, “Non più tenne la via, come propose / prima, di circundar tutta la Spagna; / ma nel propinquo lito il destrier pose, / dove entra in mar più la minor Bretagna” (X.113-i-iv). Since Ruggiero is in a terrible hurry to throw his arms around Angelica, it makes logical sense that he would search out the nearest possible shore (propinquo lito), and Ariosto tells us that the “propinquo lito” is where Brittany reaches further into the sea, thus the Ebuda/Isle of Tears of this canto must reside off the coast of Brittany.

How then can we account for this discrepancy that exists between Ebuda’s placement in canto VIII (north of Ireland) and its placement here (south of Ireland, off the cost of Brittany)? Rather than chalk it up to a mere oversight on Ariosto’s part (an unlikely assertion given the extensive revision over the course of decades that the poem underwent), I would like to suggest an alternative theory. If we consider the shift of Ebuda as an instance of irony – the literary technique for which Ariosto is perhaps most known – then we can make sense of its seemingly nonsensical shift in position. I would contend that Ariosto intentionally relocated the island in an ironic move that destabilizes the already fractured Ptolemaic ecumene. As if in a knowing wink to his readers, Ariosto here acknowledges the instability of our conception of the globe – a worldview in flux – by allowing islands to float around the edge of what had been the accepted limits of the world for 1600 years. In a poem in which the characters are constantly on the move, caught up in a whirlwind of ceaseless motion, at least the ground on which they stand should be stable. And yet, it is not, as Ariosto displays in this instance of geographic irony.

Ariosto alludes to this geographic instability in another subtly humorous moment in canto VI.35-42, when Astolfo recounts to Ruggiero the journey that had brought him to Alcina’s island. Astolfo and his companions happen upon a beach at the northeastern extremity of Asia (“le isole lontane”) from which they see a small island not too distant from the shore. On the island is the enchantress Alcina, who is magically catching fish without rod or net. Eager to get a closer look, Astolfo, in his enthusiastic curiosity, swims out to the little island, which turns out to be not an island at all, but rather an enormous whale. Alcina then kidnaps Astolfo, by stealing him away on the whale which transports them across the sea to her island, where she has her way with him and eventually transforms him into a myrtle when she grows tired of his company. Here, what appears to be a stationary expanse of rock turns out to be a mobile animal. Our senses are clearly not to be trusted, especially at the edges of the ecumene, where our worldview is most in flux.