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Orlando is the Italian (and Dubrovnik dialect) name for Roland, a legendary eighth-century Frankish knight who died heroically defending a Pyrenean pass from an army of Saracens. The tale was popularized by the Chanson de Roland, an eleventh-century Norman-French poem that was spread across Europe by wandering troubadours. Preaching chivalrous values such as loyalty to one’s liege and a readiness to fight unto the last, the Chanson was hugely popular in courtly circles and was also useful as a propaganda tool, encouraging western knights to join the Crusades.
The original Roland was thought to have been a nephew of the great Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, and his cult was cultivated by rulers eager to associate themselves with imperial glamour. Roland’s popularity spread throughout German-speaking Europe during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, and it was here that statues of Roland began to catch on in a big way – no self-respecting city wanted to be left without one. Over 50 statues of the knight sprung up in various locations, with Dubrovnik being the southernmost city to sprout an example.
How and why Roland-mania arrived in Dubrovnik remains unclear. The city was well acquainted with the world of central Europe (indeed Charles IV’s son Sigismund of Luxemburg passed through here in 1396), so it’s no surprise that the knightly cult found expression here too. Local chroniclers developed the appealing but wholly improbable theory that Roland himself once visited Dubrovnik, duelling with a Saracen pirate called Spuzente and saving the city in the process. Placing a statue of Roland in a prominent city square was a subtle way of reminding Dubrovnik’s Ottoman suzerains that the locals would always identify with Christian Europe rather than Constantinople.
The statue was knocked over by a storm in 1825, and lay forgotten in a storehouse until someone thought it wise to re-erect it in 1878. Since then the angelic-faced little knight has become the city’s most popular social focus, presiding over countless chance meetings and assignations.