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Torquato Tasso (1544-1595)


The greatest Italian poet of the late Renaissance, best remembered for his masterpiece La Gerusalemme liberata  (Jerusalem Delivered, 1575).  Milton ranked the work alongside The Iliad and The Aeneid. Tasso's hero was the leader of the first Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon; the climax of the epic was the capture of the holy city. In the 1570s Tasso developed a persecution mania which led to legends about the restless, half-mad, and misunderstood author. He died a few days before he was due to be crowned as the king of poets by the Pope. Until the beginning of the 19th century, Tasso remained one of the most widely read poets in Europe. The theme of Jerusalem Delivered has significance even today.

The sacred armies, and the godly knight,
That the great sepulchre of Christ did free,
I sing; much wrought his valor and foresight,
And in that glorious war much suffered he;
In vain 'gainst him did Hell oppose her might,
In vain the Turks and Morians armed be:
  His soldiers wild, to brawls and mutines prest,
  Reduced he to peace, so Heaven him blest.

(Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso, translated by Edward Fairfax, edited by Henry Morley, rev. ed., The Co-operative Publication Society, 1901, p. 1)

Torquato Tasso was born in Sorrento. The family had branches all over Europe, notably the Taxis family in Germany. His early years Tasso lived with his mother in Sorrento and Naples. At the age of ten he was sent to Rome, where he joined his father. He never saw his mother again. "Me from my mother's breast, a child, / Did cruel Fortune tear," he wrote the 'Ode to the River Metauro.' ('A Life of the Author,' in The Jerusalem Delivered of Torquato Tasso, translated by J.H.Wiffen, third edition, 1830, p. xii) While in Naples Tasso attended a Jesuit school. He was also educated at home by his father, Bernardo Tasso, himself a distinguished man of letters, a poet-courtier, who had been exiled from Naples and held posts here and there.

Tasso continued his education in various Italian cities, notably in Urbino, where he studied at the court of Duke Guidobaldo II delle Rovere. His first major work, the narrative poem Rinaldo, came out when he was 18 years old. The work was dedicated to Cardinal d'Este. From 1560 to 1565 he studied law and philosophy at the universities of Padua and Bologna. Tasso was thrown out of Bologna. Supposedly he wrote satires against the professors and the students. One of Tasso's friends in Padua was Scipio Gorzaga, later a famous cardinal, whose help meant much to Tasso. For the Academy of the Ethereals Tasso wrote three essays on the heroic poem. In Ferrara he entered the service of Cardinal Luigi d'Este, and later his brother, Duke Alfonso II, as poet-in-residence.

During this time Tasso wrote the pastoral drama Aminta (1573) for the d'Este sisters. It became extremely popular and was printed in 1581 without the permission of the author, who was at that time confined in a lunatic asylum. La Gerusalemme liberata was composed between the years 1559 and 1575. Tasso had left his first love in Padua, but he then fell in love with Lucrezia Bendidio, a singer, whose father was a Ferrarese nobleman. Tasso dedicated to her forty-two poems of Rime degli academici eterei (1567). Lucrezia later married a widower, Conte Paolo Macchiavelli.

La Gerusalemme liberata depicts in 20 songs the First Crusade (1096-9) and the Crusaders siege of Jerusalem under the leadership of Godfrey of Boulogne. It portrayed both imaginary characters and real historical persons, among them the most interesting are heroes Rinaldo and Tancredi, and their Saracen ladies Armida and Clorinda. Models of the heroic epic were Homer and Virgil's Aeneid. Tasso's Aeneas was Godfrey, he is the "captain of a chosen band". The epic was constructed according to the theory of tragedy put forth by Aristotle in the Poetics. Its subject matter, a clash between cultures, had contemporary relevance – Pope Saint Pius V had called upon all Christians to join for a war against the Ottoman Empire.

After finishing his masterwork, Tasso started to suffer from mental problems - his sensitive nature was racked by doubts about the critical and religious orthodoxy of his work and by suspicions of hostility toward him on the part of patrons and friends. Tasso had travelled with Cardinal d'Este to France, and when King Charles IX praised his work, he answered with an undiplomatic remark about toleration of Protestants at the court.

According to stories, Tasso was so poor that he had to beg for money and he was dressed in the same clothes for a year. From this disastrous journey started Tasso's problems. He couldn't tolerate criticism, feared assassins, negotiated with the Medicis, who were the enemy of the house of Este, and attacked a servant with a knife. It has been also claimed that Tasso had an affair with Duke Alfonson's unmarried sister, Princess Leonora, for which he was imprisoned.

For a period Tasso lived with his sister Cornelia in Sorrento, leaving in Ferrara his books and papers and the manuscript of the Liberata. Tasso didn't live long in one place. During a brief stay in the residence of Duke of Urbino at  Casteldurante, he wrote the unfinished 'Canzone al Merauro' (Ode to the River Metauro), which begins as a plea for shelter: "Child of great Apennine! / River, if small yet far renowned, / More glorious than by waters, through thy name, ‒ / I these thy banks benign / A flying pilgrim seek: their courteous fame / Make good; let rest and safety here be found" (translated by Elizabeth Julia Hasel). 

When Alfonso was getting married to Margherita Gonzaga, Tasso felt he had been ignored, and he shouted curses in public at the d'Este family. Finally he was declared insane. By order of the duke, whose patience was exhausted, beginning in 1579 Tasso spent seven years in the hospital of St. Anna, chained in solitary confinement, or according to some sources, he lived there like a country gentleman, having a bedroom and a study. Moreover, Tasso was granted furloughs, and he had all the books he needed. Though Tasso's physical health improved, his constant inner torment was his loss of honor. During this time he wrote a number of philosophical and moral dialogues. Some of his sonnets Tasso addressed to his cats.

Although Tasso believed that that he was in control of his mental faculties, the French writer Montaigne paints a very different picture of the poet when he met him Ferrara in November 1580: "I felt even more vexation than compassion to see him in Ferrara in so piteous state, surviving himself, not recognizing himself of his works, which, without his knowledge and yet before his eyes, have been brought out uncorrected and shapeless." (The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame, 1958,  p. 363) Curiously, Montaigne does not mention Tasso in his Travel Journal, but writes about him in an essay, 'An Apology for Raymond Sebond'. A painting by Fleury François Richard of their meeting, 'Montaigne and Tasso' (1821), is set in an underground prison cell, not at St. Anne's mental hospital.

Tasso never totally regained his sanity. It has been suggested that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Tasso himself suspected that he was suffering from consumption and from dropsy, but he also heard voices, had nightmares and hallucinations, and he complained of the condition of his urine. In 1586 Tasso was released into the care of the duke of Mantua, on condition that he would leave Ferrara. At the same time he found himself honored for his Jerusalem, which had gained a huge popularity. Also a pirated edition of the poem appeared.

In 1587 Tasso published, together with the Discorsi dell'arte poetica, which he had written between 1562 and 1565, a selection of his letters, written 1575-76. In this contribution to epic theory Tasso criticized Ariosto's Orlando furioso for its episodic narrative. A few years earlier Camillo Pellegrino had stated in his dialogue Il Carrafa o vero della epica poesia, that Gerusalemme liberata was in comparison to Ariosto's work a far superior epic poem.

For the rest of his life, Tasso wandered in Italy from court to court, unhappy, paranoid, afraid of inquisition, and poverty-stricken. To meet critical and ecclesiastical objections, he made numerous changes to Jerusalem Conquered. The d'Estes did not return his manuscript after he left Ferrara. Because of the numerous revisions and changes, there is no "definitive" version of his masterpiece. Its new, sanitized version, Gerusalemme conquistata (1593), which expanded the poem's length by four books, was judged as a failure. In Apologia in difesa della Gerusalemme liberata Tasso defended this later work and attacked against accusations that there was too much magic and romance in Jerusalem Delivered. The public preferred the earlier version of the epic.

Tasso's later writings include a tragedy, Il Re Torrismondo (1587), and a poem about creation, Le sette giornate del mondo creato (1607, The Seven Days of the Created World), completed in 1594. John Milton was familiar with the work. When Milton visited Italy, he met in Naples Tasso's friend, Giovanni Battista Manso, writer of Vita di Torquato Tasso (1619).

In a letter to Barezzo Barrizi in May 1591, Tasso hinted that his famous epic was only half of his projected work. Perhaps collecting material for a new poem, he asked friends to send copies of Dionysus of Hallicarnussus' History of Rome and Lucian's satirical novels.

At Naples Tasso stayed for a period with the monks of Monte Oliveto, also the title of his unfinished religious poem. In 1594 he was invited to Rome by Pope Clement VIII to be crowned Italy's Poet Laureate. However, Tasso became seriously ill and died in Rome on April 25, 1595, before he could accept the honor. Among Tasso's other works are some 2 000 short poems, including sonnets and madrigals. He wrote letters, dialogues, and the theoretical restatement of ancient theories of poetry, Discorsi del poema eroico (1594).

From the time of Edward Fairfax's translation into English of Jerusalem Delivered (1594, 1600), Tasso strongly influenced English poets. Parts of the epic was memorized by Queen Elizabeth I in the mid-1580s. She reportedly said that Italian was worthy of being learned by everyone who wished "to read the noble works . . . of the great poet Torquato Tasso". ('Tasso at the French Embassy: Epic, Diplomacy, and the Law of Nations' by Diego Pirillo, in Authority and Diplomacy from Dante to Shakespeare, edited by Jason Powell and William T. Rossiter, 2013, p. 138) Spencer used Tasso's sonnets in many of his Amoretti, and Byron's The Lament of Tasso was based on the legend of Tasso's passion for Leonora d'Este. The French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) visualized scenes from the epic and Tasso's Discorsi inspired his theory of art. Voltaire symphatized with Tasso's troubled life in his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727): "His talents which gained him so great a reputation were the cause of his misfortunes. His life formed a chain of miseries and woes." (Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and of His Contribution to English Literature by C.P. Brand,  1965, p. 209)

Goethe's play Torquato Tasso (1790) is just as much about Goethe in Weimar as it is about Tasso in Ferrara. According to Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe said: "I had the life of Tasso, and I had my own life, and putting together these two singular figures with their peculiarities, I obtained my Tasso." (Goethe's Torquato Tasso, Edited for the Use of Students by Calvin Thomas, 1889, p. v)

For further reading: Tasso and Milton: The Problem of Christian by Judith A. Kates (1984);  Corneille, Tasso and Modern Poetics by A. Donald Sellstrom (1986); Gender and Genealogy in Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata by Marilyn Migiel (1993); Three Renaissance Pastorals: Tasso, Guarini, Daniel, ed. by Elizabeth Story Donno, et al (1993); Torquato Tasso in Deutschland by Achim Aurnhammer (1995); The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: from Public Duty to Private Pleasure by Jo Ann Cavallo (2004); Tasso's Art and Afterlives in England: the Gerusalemme liberata in England by Jason Lawrence (2017); Tasso tra Liberata e Conquistata: la Bibbia, i Padri, la liturgia by Ottavio Ghidini (2019); Lascivia mascherata: allegoria e travestimento in Torquato Tasso e Giovan Battista Marino by Maddalena Fingerle (2022) - Note: Goethe suggested in Torquato Tasso, that Tasso was imprisoned for daring to love Duke Alfonso's sister Leonora d'Este, but Angelo Solerti's biography of the poet (1895) corrected this myth. Donizzetti's opera (1833) was also based on the legend.

Selected works:

  • Rinaldo, 1562
    - Rinaldo: A Poem In XII Books (tr. John Holle, 1792) / Rinaldo: A New English Verse Translation with Facing Italian Text (translation, critical introduction and notes by Max Wickert, 2017) 
  • Rime de gli Academici Eterei, 1567
  • Rime e prose, 1581
  • L'Aminta, 1581 (play, prod. 1573)
    - The Countess of Pembroke's Ivychurch (tr. 1591) / Aminta: The Famous Pastoral (tr. John Dancer, 1660) / Amintas (tr. John Oldmixon, 1698) / Tasso's Aminta (tr. P.B. Du Bois, 1726) / Amintas: A Dramatic Pastoral (tr. William Ayre, 1737) / The Amyntas (tr. Percival Stockdale, 1770) / Amyntas: A Sylvan Fable (tr. Frederic Whitmore, 1900) / Aminta (tr. Ernest Grillo, 1924; Louis E. Lord, 1931; Charles Jernigan and Irene Marchegiani Jones, 2000)
  • La Gerusalemme liberata, 1581
    - Godfrey of Boulogne, or, The Recouerie of Ierusalem (tr. Edward Fairefax, 1594, 1600) / The Third Book of Jerusalem Delivered (tr. William Bond, 1718) / Tasso's Jerusalem: Books 1-3 (tr. Henry Brooke, 1738) / The Jerusalem bk 1 (tr. Thomas Hooke, 1738) / Tasso's XV Book of Jerusalem, Deliver'd (tr. H. Layng, 1748) / The Delivery of Jerusalem (2 vols., tr. P. Doyne, 1761) / Jerusalem Delivered (2 vols., tr. John Hoole, 1763, 1764, 1767, 1783, 1797) / Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered (2 vols., tr. J.H. Hunt, 1822) / Jerusalem Delivered (tr. Alexander Cuningham Robertson, 1853; Charles Lesingham Smith, 1874; Joseph Tusiani, 1970; Ralph Nash, 1987;  Anthony M. Esolen, 2000) / The Liberation of Jerusalem (tr. Max Wickert, 2009)
    - Vapautettu Jerusalem (suom. Elina Vaara, 1954)
    - films: 1910, Le Tyran de Jérusalem, dir. Camille de Morlhon, prod. Pathé Frères; 1911, dir. Enrico Guazzoni, prod. by Cinès; 1913, dir. Enrico Guazzoni; 1918, dir. Enrico Guazzoni; 1958, dir. Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, starring Francisco Rabal, Sylva Koscina, Gianna Maria Canale, Rik Battaglia, Philippe Hersent, prod. MAX Film; 2001 (TV film), Rinaldo, dir. Brian Large, based on Giacomo Rossi's libretto, starring Deborah York, David Daniels, David Walker, Axel Köhler, prod. Arte
  • Discorso della virtu feminile e donnesca del Sig. Torquato Tasso, 1582
  • Delle rime et prose del S. Torquato Tasso, 1583-86 (4 vols.)
  • Apologia in difesa della gerusalemme liberata, 1585 [(Apology in Defense of Jerusalem Delivered]
  • Aggiunta alla rime, et prose del Sig. Torquato Tasso, 1585
  • Il Re Torrismondo, 1586 (play, ed. Bartoldo T. Sozzi, in Opere 2, 1956)
  • Galealto re di Norvegia (unfinished, 1573-74) / Il Re Torrismondo, 1587
    - King Torrismondo (tr. Maria Pastore Passaro, 1997)
  • Discorsi dell’arte poetica, 1587 (lecture, rev. version, Discorsi del poema eroico, 1594)
    - Discourses on the Art of Poetry (tr. Lawrence F. Rhu, in The Genesis of Tasso's Narrative Theory, 1993)
  • Rime, 1591-93 (2 vols.)
  • Gerusalemme conquistata, 1593
  • Discorsi del poema eroico, 1594
    - Discourses on the Heroic Poem (tr.  Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel, 1973)
  • Intrichi d'amore: comedia, 1604 (play, prod. 1598)
  • Il Monte Oliveto, 1605
  • Le sette giornate del mondo creato, 1607
    - Creation of the World (translated into English verse with introduction by Joseph Tusiani, 1982) / Creation of the World (translated by Dario Rivarossa, Salwa Khoddam, and Carter Kaplan; illustrated by Dario Rivarossa, Eva Nieri, and Tiziana Grassi, 2016) 
  • Opere, 1821-32 (33 vols., ed.  Giovanni Rosini)
  • Lettere, 1852-55 (5 vols., ed. Cesare Guasti)
  • I dialoghi di Torquato Tasso, 1858 (ed.  Cesare Guasti)
  • Tasso’s Sonnets, 1866 (tr. Charles Chorley)
  • Prose diverse, 1875 (2 vols., ed. Cesare Guasti)
  • Opere minori in versi, 1891-95 (3 vols, ed. Angelo Solerti)
  • Le Rime di Torquato Tasso, 1898-1902 (3 vols., ed. Angelo Solerti)
  • Tales from Tasso, and Other Poems and Translations, 1909 (tr. G. Grinnell-Milne)
  • Opere, 1934-36 (ed. Luigi Bonfigli)
  • Tutte le poesie di Torquato Tasso, 1957 (ed.  Lanfranco Caretti)
  • Dialoghi, 1958 (3 vols., ed. Ezio Raimondi)
    - Tasso's Dialogues: A Selection (translated with introduction and notes by Carnes Lord and Dain A. Trafton, 1982)
  • Prose, 1959 (ed. E. Mazzali)
  • Opere, 1963 (5 vols., ed. Bruno Maier)
  • Scritti sull’arte poetica, 1977 (2 vols., ed.  Ettore Mazzali)
  • Tre scritti politici, 1980 (ed. Luigi Firpo)
  • Lettere poetiche, 1995 (ed. Carla Molinari)
  • Lettera sul matrimonio; Consolatoria all’Albizi , 2007 (ed. Valentina Salmaso)
  • Rhymes of Love, 2011 (introduction and translation by Maria C. Pastore Passaro; edited by Maria Henry and Susette Acocella)
  • Rime eteree, 2013 (a cura di Rossano Pestarino)
  • Le torrismon du tasse: tragedie Charles Vion d'Alibray, 2019 (edizione, note e introduzione di Daniela Dalla Valle)
  • Aminta, 2021 (testo critico e nota al testo di Paolo Trovato; introduzione e commento di Davide Colussi)
  • Madrigali autografi di Torquato Tasso a Carlo Gesualdo: (Madrid, Real Biblioteca, ms. II/3281), 2021 (edizione critica a cura di Diego Perotti)

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