Torquato Tasso

The Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), author of "Gerusalemme liberata, " the greatest epic poem written in Italian, was the finest poet of his time.

Torquato Tasso born on March 11, 1544, was the son of Bernardo Tasso, a member of the Bergamasque nobility and the author of Amadigi, a retelling of the Spanish poem Amadis de Gaula. Torquato received his first instruction from a priest in his native Sorrento. When he was 8 years old, he entered a Jesuit school in Naples. Within 2 years he had made great progress in Latin and Greek. In 1554 he left his mother—who died 2 years later without the boy's seeing her again—to join his father in Rome. As secretary to the prince of Salerno, Ferrante Sanseverino, the elder Tasso had followed the prince into exile and poverty.

Torquato's early religious instruction and separation from his mother left indelible marks on his personality. Another lasting influence was an early exposure to aristocratic society. In 1557 his father's favor with Duke Guidolbaldo II of Urbino secured for Torquato a position as companion, or perhaps tutor, to the duke's son Francesco Maria, as well as access to instruction in the chivalric arts. Tasso's courtly tastes and ambitions, scarcely commensurate with his family's straitened circumstances, and coupled with the humanists' exalted ideal of the worth and importance of poets, led to some rebuffs and disappointments.

In 1559 Tasso assisted his father in Venice in the revision of Amadigi, as Bernardo attempted to modify his chivalric poem to make it conform to Aristotelian precepts for heroic poetry. Three years later Torquato's epicchivalric poem Rinaldo, written in 12 cantos, won him considerable acclaim. He was forced to abandon his studies at the University of Bologna after being charged with lampooning professors and fellow students. In 1564 the patronage of Prince Scipione Gonzaga permitted Tasso to continue his studies of literature and philosophy in the prince's Accademia degli Eterei (Academy of the Ethereal).

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Court Poet

In 1565 Tasso began his long service as court poet to the Este family in Ferrara under the sponsorship of Cardinal Luigi d'Este. Six years later he was employed by the cardinal's brother, Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara. Tasso was very proud of the fact that, unlike several other poets at court, his sole duty was to write verse—a circumstance perhaps occasioned not only by his excellence as a poet but also by his lack of ability in practical matters.

Tasso's pastoral verse play, Aminta, written in 1573, was an immediate and enduring success. As an example of its genre, it is perhaps more nearly perfect than even his epic, Gerusalemme liberata, which appeared in 1575. Tasso wrote Aminta in 2 months during a period when he felt more dominant than dominated at court. Extremely musical, the play idealizes court life, projecting its civility and refined sensibility into a world of myth where only gentle sentiments can survive. Even the satyr, ostensibly the embodiment of animal lust, is a sensitive and madrigalizing creature. The expression of love in both dialogue and plot, combined with a rare lyricism and charming simplicity, created an unsurpassed example of the idyllic and hedonistic ideal of the Renaissance.

Madness and Imprisonment

From about 1576 until his death Tasso suffered from an intermittent psychosis. Fits of restlessness and depression alternated with period of paranoia and at times hallucinations. Although he continued to write profusely, taking too literally the humanists' vaunt that a great poet can confer immortality on whomever he chooses to exalt in verse, he never again displayed the verve that characterizes his two masterpieces. Suspicious of everyone around him, he insisted on being examined for heresy by the Inquisition. In June 1577 he was confined in a convent after attacking a servant with a knife. Escaping to his sister's home in Sorrento, he came disguised in tattered clothing and told her that her brother Torquato was dead, revealing his true identity only after her fainting had reassured him of her love.

Having received permission to rejoin the Este court, Tasso arrived in Ferrara in February 1579 during the celebration of Duke Alfonso's third marriage, to Margherita Gonzaga. Tasso's violent outburst against the duke after his arrival drew scant attention but resulted in the poet's prompt confinement to a hospital, which was protracted for 7 years. Not until the publication in 1895 of Angelo Solerti's exhaustive biography of Tasso was the romantic myth (which inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Torquato Tasso, 1790) laid to rest that Tasso was imprisoned for having dared to love the duke's sister, Duchess Leonora d'Este. A contributory factor to the length of his imprisonment may have been Alfonso's fear that Tasso's doubts about his own and others' religious orthodoxy might play into the hands of the Roman Curia in its designs on the duchy of Ferrara. The duke was without direct heirs, and his mother, Renée of Valois, daughter of Louis XII, had been exiled from Ferrara in 1560 after her conversion to Calvinism.

During his hospital confinement Tasso continued to write a great deal. He proved quite docile after his eventual release, at first conditional, in 1586. A letter of his in 1581 complains of "human and diabolic disorders" and of hearing "shouts … mocking laughter and animal voices … whistles … bells."

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Last Years

Following his liberation Tasso traveled restlessly up and down the Italian peninsula. He thanked the monks of Monte Oliveto in Naples for their hospitality with an unfinished poem in octave verse on the origins of their monastery, Il Monte Oliveto, published posthumously in 1605. In his declining years he unashamedly sought recognition and monetary rewards for encomiastic poems written to prospective patrons. In 1591, during a period of illness in Mantua, he wrote the Genealogia di casa Gonzaga in octave verse for his longtime protector Scipione Gonzaga, now a cardinal. In 1592 Tasso penned a poem in blank verse, Le sette giornate del mondo creato (The Seven Days of the World's Creation), published in 1607. His coronation as poet laureate had been proposed before death overtook him on April 25, 1595, in the monastery of S. Onofrio in Rome.

Tasso's almost 2, 000 rime constitute a rich collection of sonnets, canzoni, madrigals, and stanzas. His 26 dialogues, inadequately studied, afford eloquent testimony to his vast classical erudition, as well as to his lively prose style. His approximately 1, 700 extant letters provide ample documentation of his troubled life.

"Gerusalemme liberata"

During the half century following the writing of Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, two events exerted a strong influence on the next great narrative poem in Italian, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata. The "rediscovery" of Aristotle's Poetics meant that Tasso had to write for a critically oriented public that expected the Aristotelian precepts of unity to be observed. The influence of the Council of Trent can be seen in Tasso's selection of the First Crusade, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, as his epic theme; in the religious inspiration provided to other characters by Peter the Hermit; and in the religious purification undergone by the invented epic hero, Rinaldo. Virgilian and Homeric reminiscences also abound in Gerusalemme liberata. Yet the passages of sustained greatness occur chiefly in the amorous episodes of Olindo and Sofronia, Tancredi and Clorinda, and Rinaldo and Armida. For this reason some critics have characterized Tasso as a brilliant poet with a flawed architecture. The epic warfare and the bland Goffredo (Godfrey) are perhaps less interesting for the modern reader than for Tasso's contemporaries, who well remembered the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and the Turkish threat to Europe.

Tasso unfortunately paid great heed to the carping critics of his poem, some of whom were members of the newly founded Accademia della Crusca and who had created a famous polemic about the relative merits of Ariosto and Tasso. After the publication of pirated editions of his poem during his imprisonment, Tasso rewrote it in an emasculated version as Gerusalemme conquistata, which is now read only by specialists. His ultimate answer to his critics lay not in the apologetic Allegory (1576) of Gerusalemme liberata but in his six discourses Del poema eroico (1594). An amplification of an earlier treatise, Dell'arte poetica (1570), these discourses attempted a definitive restatement of classical and Aristotelian poetics. The end of heroic poetry was "to profit men with the example of human actions"; its means of achieving its end was il diletto (pleasure). Readers must be able to recognize themselves in the characters.

Gerusalemme liberata, translated as Jerusalem Delivered into English octaves by Edward Fairfax in 1600, enjoyed a long vogue in England and throughout Europe.

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Further Reading on Torquato Tasso

Edward Fairfax's translation of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered was republished with an introduction by John Charles Nelson in 1963. A useful critical study of Tasso's work and life is C. P. Brand, Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and of His Contribution to English Literature (1965). See also Cecil Maurice Bowra, From Virgil to Milton (1945).