This article relies largely or entirely on a single source. (January 2015)
A depiction of Tasso from a German encyclopedia, 1905. Note the laurel crown.
11 March 1544|
Sorrento, Kingdom of Naples
|Died||25 April 1595
Rome, Papal States
|Genre||Epic poetry, lyric poetry|
Torquato Tasso (Italian: [tor'kwa:to 'tasso]; 11 March 1544 - 25 April 1595) was an Italian poet of the 16th century, best known for his poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581), in which he depicts a highly imaginative version of the combats between Christians and Muslims at the end of the First Crusade, during the Siege of Jerusalem. He suffered from mental illness and died a few days before he was due to be crowned as the king of poets by the Pope. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Tasso remained one of the most widely read poets in Europe.
Born in Sorrento, Torquato was the son of Bernardo Tasso, a nobleman of Bergamo and an epic and lyric poet of considerable fame in his day, and his wife Porzia de Rossi, a noblewoman from Naples. His father had for many years been secretary in the service of Ferrante Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno, and his mother was closely connected with the most illustrious Neapolitan families. When the prince of Salerno came into collision with the Spanish government of Naples, being subsequently outlawed and deprived of his hereditary fiefs, Tasso's father shared his patron's fate. He was proclaimed a rebel to the state, along with his son Torquato, and his patrimony was sequestered. These things happened during the boy's childhood. In 1552 Torquato was living with his mother and his only sister Cornelia at Naples, pursuing his education under the Jesuits, who had recently opened a school there. The precocity of intellect and the religious fervour of the boy attracted general admiration. At the age of eight he was already famous.
Soon after this date he was allowed to join his father, who then resided in great poverty and without occupation in exile in Rome. News reached them in 1556 that Porzia Tasso had died suddenly and mysteriously at Naples. Her husband was firmly convinced that she had been poisoned by her brother with the object of getting control over her property.
As it subsequently happened, Porzia's estate never descended to her son; and the daughter Cornelia married below her birth, at the instigation of her maternal relatives. Tasso's father was a poet by predilection and a professional courtier. Therefore, when an opening at the court of Urbino was offered in 1557, Bernardo Tasso gladly accepted it.
The young Torquato, a handsome and brilliant lad, became the companion in sports and studies of Francesco Maria della Rovere, heir to the duke of Urbino. At Urbino a society of cultivated men pursued the aesthetic and literary studies which were then in vogue. Bernardo Tasso read cantos of his poem L'Amadigi to the duchess and her ladies, or discussed the merits of Homer and Virgil, Trissino and Ariosto, with the duke's librarians and secretaries. Torquato grew up in an atmosphere of refined luxury and somewhat pedantic criticism, both of which gave a permanent tone to his character.
At Venice, where his father went to superintend the printing of his own epic, Amadigi (1560), these influences continued. He found himself the pet and prodigy of a distinguished literary circle. But Bernardo had suffered in his own career so seriously from dependence on the Muses and the nobility, that he now determined on a lucrative profession for his son. Torquato was sent to study law at Padua. Instead of applying himself to law, the young man bestowed all his attention upon philosophy and poetry. Before the end of 1562, he had produced a twelve-canto epic poem called Rinaldo, which was meant to combine the regularity of the Virgilian with the attractions of the romantic epic. In the attainment of this object, and in all the minor qualities of style and handling, Rinaldo showed marked originality, although other parts seem unfinished and betray the haste in which the poem was composed. Nevertheless, its author was recognized as the most promising young poet of his time. The flattered father allowed the work to be printed; and, after a short period of study at Bologna, he consented to his son's entering the service of Cardinal Luigi d'Este. Even before that date, the young Tasso had been a frequent visitor at the Este court in Ferrara, where in 1561 he had encountered Lucrezia Bendidio, one of Eleanora d'Este's ladies-in-waiting, and fallen in love with her. She became the addressee of his first series of love sonnets, to be followed in 1563 by Laura Peperara, the next object of Tasso's affections. (Both Lucrezia and Laura had in the meantime become well known singers, and for a while Tasso seems to have courted them both.)
From 1565, Tasso's life was centered on the castle at Ferrara, the scene of many later glories and cruel sufferings. After the publication of Rinaldo he had expressed his views upon the epic in some Discourses on the Art of Poetry, which committed him to a distinct theory and gained for him the additional celebrity of a philosophical critic. The next five years seem to have been the happiest of Tasso's life, although his father's death in 1569 caused his affectionate nature profound pain. Young, handsome, accomplished in all the exercises of a well-bred gentleman, accustomed to the society of the great and learned, illustrious by his published works in verse and prose, he became the idol of the most brilliant court in Italy. The first two books of his five-hundred-odd love poems were addressed to Lucrezia Bendidio and Laura Peverara. The princesses Lucrezia and Eleonora d'Este, both unmarried, both his seniors by about ten years, took him under their protection. He was admitted to their familiarity. He owed much to the constant kindness of both sisters. In 1570 he traveled to Paris with the cardinal.
Frankness of speech and a certain habitual want of tact caused a disagreement with his worldly patron. He left France next year, and took service under Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, the Cardinal's brother. The most important events in Tasso's biography during the following four years are the completion of Aminta in 1573 and Gerusalemme Liberata in 1574. Aminta is a pastoral drama of very simple plot, but of exquisite lyrical charm. It appeared at the moment when music, under the influence of composers like Palestrina, Monteverdi, Marenzio and others, was becoming the dominant art of Italy. The honeyed melodies and sensuous melancholy of Aminta exactly suited and interpreted the spirit of its age. Its influence, in opera and cantata, was felt through two successive centuries. Aminta, played by courtiers in an island of Po river where the duke had his Giardino di delizie, was first printed by Aldo Manuzio in Venice in January 1581. A Croatian translation of Aminta by the poet Dominko Zlatari?, Ljubmir, pripovijest pastijerska, was printed one year before the original, also in Venice.
The Gerusalemme Liberata or Jerusalem Delivered occupies a larger space in the history of European literature, and is a more considerable work. Yet the commanding qualities of this epic poem, those which revealed Tasso's individuality, and which made it immediately pass into the rank of classics, beloved by the people no less than by persons of culture, are akin to the lyrical graces of Aminta.
In the Gerusalemme Liberata, as in the Rinaldo, Tasso aimed at ennobling the Italian epic style by preserving strict unity of plot and heightening poetic diction. He chose Virgil for his model, took the first crusade for subject, infused the fervor of religion into his conception of the hero, Godfrey. But his natural bent was for romance.
As he had done in Rinaldo, Tasso adorned Gerusalemme Liberata with a number of romantic episodes, which have proved more popular and influential than the grand sweep of the main theme. Thus, while the nominal hero of Gerusalemme Liberata is Godfrey of Bouillon ("Goffredo"), the leader of the First Crusade and the climax of the epic is the capture of the holy city. But Tasso's Goffredo, who is a mixture of Virgil's pious Aeneas and Tridentine Catholicism, is not the real hero of the epic. Instead, the reader is attracted to the stories of Ruggiero, fiery and passionate Rinaldo, melancholy and impulsive Tancredi, and also by the chivalrous Saracens with whom they clash in love and war.
The action of the epic turns on three stories of interaction between noble beautiful pagan women and these Crusaders. Armida, a beautiful witch, is sent forth by the infernal senate to sow discord in the Christian camp. Instead, she is converted to the true faith by her adoration for a crusading knight, and quits the scene with a phrase of the Virgin Mary on her lips. Clorinda, a brave female warrior, dons armor like Ariosto's Marfisa, fights a duel with her devoted lover, and receives baptism at his hands as she lies dying. Finally, Erminia, hopelessly in love with Tancredi, seeks refuge in the shepherds' hut.
These stories rivet the reader's attention, while the battles, religious ceremonies, conclaves and stratagems of the campaign are less engaging. Tasso's great invention as an artist was the poetry of sentiment. Sentiment, not sentimentality, gives value to what is immortal in the Gerusalemme. It was a new thing in the 16th century, something concordant with a growing feeling for woman and with the ascendant art of music. This sentiment, refined, noble, natural, steeped in melancholy, exquisitely graceful, pathetically touching, breathes throughout the episodes of the Gerusalemme, finds metrical expression in the languishing cadence of its mellifluous verse, and sustains the ideal life of those seductive heroines whose names were familiar as household words to all Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The epic was finished in Tasso's thirty-first year; when the manuscripts lay before him the best part of his life was over, his best work had been already accomplished. Troubles immediately began to gather round him. Instead of having the courage to obey his own instinct, and to publish the Gerusalemme as he had conceived it, he yielded to the excessive scrupulosity which formed a feature of his paranoid character. The poem was sent in manuscript to a large committee of eminent literary men, Tasso expressing his willingness to hear their strictures and to adopt their suggestions unless he could convert them to his own views. The result was that each of these candid friends, while expressing in general high admiration for the epic, took some exception to its plot, its title, its moral tone, its episodes or its diction, in detail. One wished it to be more regularly classical; another wanted more romance. One hinted that the Inquisition would not tolerate its supernatural machinery; another demanded the excision of its most charming passages, the loves of Armida, Clorinda and Erminia. Tasso had to defend himself against all these ineptitudes and pedantries, and to accommodate his practice to the theories he had rashly expressed.
Tasso's self-chosen critics were not men to admit what the public has since accepted as incontrovertible. They vaguely felt that a great and beautiful romantic poem was imbedded in a dull and not very correct epic. In their uneasiness they suggested every course but the right one, which was to publish the Gerusalemme without further dispute.
Tasso, already overworked by his precocious studies, by exciting court-life and exhausting literary industry, now grew almost mad with worry. His health began to fail him. He complained of headache, suffered from malarious fevers, and wished to leave Ferrara. The Gerusalemme was laid in manuscript upon a shelf. He opened negotiations with the court of Florence for an exchange of service. This irritated the duke of Ferrara. Alfonso hated nothing more than to see courtiers (especially famous ones) leave him for a rival duchy. Moreover, Alfonso was married to a French Calvinist princess and thus justly worried about antagonizing the more orthodox powers in Italy, concentrated in Florence and Rome.
Alfonso thought, moreover, that, if Tasso were allowed to go, the Medici would get the coveted dedication of that already famous epic. Therefore, he bore with the poet's humors, and so contrived that the latter should have no excuse for quitting Ferrara. Meanwhile, through the years 1575, 1576 and 1577, Tasso's health grew worse.
Jealousy inspired the courtiers to malign and insult him. His irritable and suspicious temper, vain and sensitive to slights, rendered him only too easy a prey to their malevolence.
In the course of the 1570s Tasso developed a persecution mania which led to legends about the restless, half-mad, and misunderstood author.
He became consumed by thoughts that his servants betrayed his confidence, fancied he had been denounced to the Inquisition, and expected daily to be poisoned. Literary and political events surrounding him contributed to upsets and the mental state, with troubles, stress and social troubles escalating.
In the autumn of 1576 Tasso quarrelled with a Ferrarese gentleman, Maddalo, who had talked too freely about some same-sex love affair; the same year he wrote a letter to his homosexual friend Luca Scalabrino dealing with his own love for a 21-year-old young man Orazio Ariosto;[a] in the summer of 1577 he drew his knife upon a servant in the presence of Lucrezia d'Este, duchess of Urbino. For this excess he was arrested; but the duke released him, and took him for a change of air to his country seat of Villa Belriguardo. What happened there is not known. Some biographers have surmised that a compromising liaison with Leonora d'Este came to light, and that Tasso agreed to feign madness in order to cover her honor, but of this there is no proof. It is only certain that from Belriguardo he returned to a Franciscan convent at Ferrara, for the express purpose of attending to his health. There the dread of being murdered by the duke took firm hold on his mind. He escaped at the end of July, disguised himself as a peasant, and went on foot to his sister at Sorrento.
The conclusions were that Tasso, after the beginning of 1575, became the victim of a mental malady, which, without amounting to actual insanity, rendered him fantastical and insupportable, a cause of anxiety to his patrons.
There is no evidence whatsoever for the later Romantic myth that this state of things was due to an overwhelming passion for Leonora. The duke, contrary to his image as a tyrant, showed considerable forbearance. Though a rigid and unsympathetic man, as egotistical as any princeling of his era, but to Tasso he was never cruel; unintelligent perhaps, but far from being that monster of ferocity as which was later portrayed. The subsequent history of his connection with the poet corroborates this view.
While with his sister at Sorrento, Tasso yearned for Ferrara. The court-made man could not breathe freely outside its charmed circle. He wrote humbly requesting to be taken back. Alfonso consented, provided Tasso would agree to undergo a medical course of treatment for his melancholy. When he returned, which he did with alacrity under those conditions, he was well received by the ducal family.
All might have gone well if his old maladies had not revived. Scene followed scene of irritability, moodiness, suspicion, wounded vanity and violent outbursts.
In the summer of 1578 he ran away again; traveled through Mantua, Padua, Venice, Urbino, Lombardy. In September he reached the gates of Turin on foot, and was courteously entertained by Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy. Wherever he went, wandering like the world's rejected guest, he met with the honor due to his illustrious name. Great folk opened their houses to him gladly, partly in compassion, partly in admiration of his genius. But he soon wearied of their society, and wore their kindness thin by his querulous peevishness. It seemed, moreover, that life was intolerable to him outside Ferrara. Accordingly, he once more opened negotiations with the duke; and in February 1579 he again set foot in the castle.
Alfonso was about to contract his third marriage, this time with a princess of the house of Mantua. He had no children, and unless he got an heir, there was a probability that his state would fall, as in fact it eventually did, to the Holy See. The nuptial festivals, on the eve of which Tasso arrived, were not therefore an occasion of great rejoicing for the elderly bridegroom. As a forlorn hope he had to wed a third wife; but his heart was not engaged and his expectations were far from sanguine.
Tasso, preoccupied as always with his own sorrows and his own sense of dignity, made no allowance for the troubles of his master. Rooms below his rank, he thought, had been assigned him; the Duke was engaged. Without exercising common patience, or giving his old friends the benefit of a doubt, he broke into terms of open abuse, behaved like a lunatic, and was sent off without ceremony to the madhouse of St. Anna. This happened in March 1579; and there he remained until July 1586. Duke Alfonso's long-sufferance at last had given way. He firmly believed that Tasso was insane, and he felt that if he were so St. Anna was the safest place for him.
It was no doubt very irksome for a man of Tasso's pleasure-loving, restless and self-conscious spirit to be kept for more than seven years in confinement. Yet one must weigh the facts of the case rather than the fancies which have been indulged regarding them. After the first few months of his incarceration he obtained spacious apartments, received the visits of friends, went abroad attended by responsible persons of his acquaintance, and was allowed to corresponded freely with others. The letters written from St. Anna to the princes and cities of Italy, to warm well-wishers, and to men of the highest reputation in the world of art and learning, form the most valuable source of information, not only on his then condition, but also on his temperament at large. It is singular that he spoke always respectfully, even affectionately, of the Duke.
Some critics have attempted to make it appear that he was hypocritically kissing the hand which had chastised him, with the view of being released from prison, but no one who has impartially considered the whole tone and tenor of his epistles will adopt this opinion. What emerges clearly from them is that he labored under a serious mental disease, and that he was conscious of it.
Meanwhile, he occupied his uneasy leisure with copious compositions. The mass of his prose dialogues on philosophical and ethical themes, which is very considerable, belong to the years of imprisonment in St. Anna.
Except for occasional odes or sonnets--some written at request, others inspired by his keen sense of suffering and therefore poignant--he neglected poetry. In the year 1580, he heard that part of the Gerusalemme was being published without his permission and without his corrections. The following year, the whole poem was given to the world, and in the following six months seven editions issued from the press.
The prisoner of St. Anna had no control over his editors; and from the masterpiece which placed him on the level of Petrarch and Ariosto he never derived one penny of pecuniary profit. A rival poet at the court of Ferrara undertook to revise and edit his lyrics in 1582. This was Battista Guarini; and Tasso, in his cell, had to allow odes and sonnets, poems of personal feeling, occasional pieces of compliment, to be collected and emended, without lifting a voice in the matter.
A few years later, in 1585, two Florentine pedants of the Crusca Academy declared war against the Gerusalemme. They loaded it with insults, which seem to those who read their pamphlets now mere parodies of criticism. Yet Tasso felt bound to reply; and he did so with a moderation and urbanity which prove him to have been not only in full possession of his reasoning faculties, but a gentleman of noble manners also. The man, like Hamlet, was distraught through ill-accommodation to his circumstances and his age; brain-sick he was undoubtedly; and this is the Duke of Ferrara's justification for the treatment he endured. In the prison he bore himself pathetically, peevishly, but never ignobly.
What remained over, untouched by the malady, unoppressed by his consciousness thereof, displayed a sweet and gravely-toned humanity. The oddest thing about his life in prison is that he was always trying to place his two nephews, the sons of his sister Cornelia, in court-service. One of them he attached to Guglielmo I, Duke of Mantua, the other to Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma.
In 1586 Tasso left St. Anna at the solicitation of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Prince of Mantua. He followed his young deliverer to the city by the Mincio, basked awhile in liberty and courtly pleasures, enjoyed a splendid reception from his paternal town of Bergamo, and reworked his 1573 tragedy Galealto Re di Norvegia into a classical drama entitled Torrismondo. But only a few months had passed when he grew discontented. Vincenzo Gonzaga, succeeding to his father's dukedom of Mantua, had scanty leisure to bestow upon the poet. Tasso felt neglected. In the autumn of 1587 he journeyed through Bologna and Loreto to Rome, and taking up his quarters there with an old friend, Scipione Gonzaga, now Patriarch of Jerusalem. Next year he wandered off to Naples, where he wrote several religious poems, including Monte Oliveto. In 1589 he returned to Rome, and took up his quarters again with the patriarch of Jerusalem. The servants found him insufferable, and turned him out of doors. He fell ill, and went to a hospital. The patriarch in 1590 again received him. But Tasso's restless spirit drove him forth to Florence. The Florentines said, "Actum est de eo." Rome once more, then Mantua, then Florence, then Rome, then Naples, then Rome, then Naples--such is the weary record of the years 1590-94. He endured a veritable Odyssey of malady, indigence and misfortune. To Tasso everything came amiss. He had the palaces of princes, cardinals, patriarchs, nay popes, always open to him. Yet he could rest in none.
His health grew ever feebler and his genius dimmer. In 1592, he published a revised version of the Gerusalemme, Gerusalemme Conquistata. All that made the poem of his early manhood charming he rigidly erased. The versification became more pedantic; the romantic and magical episodes were excised; the heavier elements of the plot underwent a dull rhetorical development. During the same year a blank-verse retelling of Genesis, called Le Sette Giornate, saw the light.
It is singular that just in these years, when mental disorder, physical weakness, and decay of inspiration seemed dooming Tasso to oblivion, his old age was cheered with brighter rays of hope. Pope Clement VIII ascended the papal chair in 1592. He and his nephew, Cardinal Aldobrandini of San Giorgio, determined to befriend the poet. In 1594, they invited him to Rome. There he was to receive the crown of laurels, as Petrarch had been crowned, on the Capitol.
Worn out with illness, Tasso reached Rome in November. The ceremony of his coronation was deferred because Cardinal Aldobrandini had fallen ill, but the pope assigned him a pension; and, under the pressure of pontifical remonstrance, Prince Avellino, who held Tasso's maternal estate, agreed to discharge a portion of his claims by payment of a yearly rent-charge.
At no time since Tasso left St. Anna had the heavens apparently so smiled upon him. Capitolian honors and money were now at his disposal. Yet fortune came too late. Before he wore the crown of poet laureate, or received his pensions, he ascended to the convent of Sant'Onofrio, on a stormy 1 April 1595. Seeing a cardinal's coach toil up the steep Trasteverine Hill, the monks came to the door to greet it. From the carriage stepped Tasso and told the prior he had come to die with him.
Tasso died in Sant'Onofrio in April 1595. He was just past fifty-one; and the last twenty years of his existence had been practically and artistically unsatisfying.
Galealto re di Norvegia (1573-4), an unfinished tragedy, which was later finished under a new title: Re Torrismondo (1587). It is influenced by the tragedies of Sophocles and Seneca, and tells the story of princess Alvida of Norway, who is forcibly married off to the Goth king Torrismondo, when she is devoted to her childhood friend, king Germondo of Sweden.
Dialoghi (Dialogues), written between 1578 and 1594. These 28 texts deal with issues from morality (love, virtue, nobility) to the mundane (masks, play, courtly style, beauty). Sometimes Tasso touches major themes of his time, such as religion vs. intellectual freedom; Christianity vs. Islam at Lepanto.
Discorsi del poema eroico, published in 1594, is the main text for Tasso's poetics. It was probably written in the years while he was working on Gerusalemme Liberata.
The disease Tasso began to suffer from is now believed to be bipolarity. Legends describe him wandering the streets of Rome half mad, convinced that he was being persecuted. After his lengthy imprisonment in Ferrara's Santa Anna lunatic asylum, he was able to resume his writing, although he never fully recovered.
During the Renaissance, the first (incomplete) translation of Jerusalem Delivered was brought out by Richard Carew (1594). A complete version by Edward Fairfax appeared under the title Godfrey of Bouillon in 1600. John Hoole's version in heroic couplets followed in 1772, and Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen's (in Spenserian stanzas) in 1821. There were several 20th-century versions, including by Anthony Esolen (2000) and by Max Wickert, published as The Liberation of Jerusalem by Oxford University Press (2009). Aminta, also his early love poems, as Love Poems for Lucrezia Bendidio, ed. and trans. by Max Wickert. New York: Italica Press, 2011, and as Rhymes of Love, ed. M.H. and S. Acocella, trans. by Maria Pastore Passaro (Ottawa: Legas, 2011). Several of the "Dialogues", "Torrismondo," and some of the late religious works have also been issued in English.
Tasso is commemorated by monuments in Bergamo and Sorrento. There are streets named after him in virtually every major Italian city, most notably in Bergamo, Posillipo (Naples), Rome, Turin, Palermo and Catania, as well as in Palo Alto, California.