Torquato Tasso (11 March 1544 – 25 April 1595) was an Italian poet of the 16th century, best known for his poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) (1580), 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.
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. The prince of Salerno came into collision with the Spanish government of Naples, was outlawed, and was deprived of his hereditary fiefs. Tasso's father shared in this disaster of his patron. He was proclaimed a rebel to the state, together with his son Torquato, and his patrimony was sequestered. These things happened during the boy's childhood. In 1552 he 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 joined his father, who then resided in great poverty, an exile and without occupation, 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 aesthetical and literary studies which were then in vogue. Bernardo Tasso read cantos of his 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 the 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 narrative 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 such marked originality that its author was proclaimed the most promising poet of his time. The flattered father allowed it to be printed; and, after a short period of study at Bologna, he consented to his sons entering the service of Cardinal Luigi d'Este.
The five years between 1565 and 1570 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 princesses Lucrezia and Leonora 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 travelled 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 most important events in Tasso's biography during the following four years are the publication of Aminta in 1573 and the completion of 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 Palestrina's impulse, was becoming the main 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.
As in the Rinaldo, so also in the Jerusalem Delivered, he 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 fervour of religion into his conception of the hero Godfrey. But his natural bias was for romance. In spite of the poet's ingenuity and industry the stately main theme evinced less spontaneity of genius than the romantic episodes with which he adorned it, as he had done in Rinaldo. Godfrey, a mixture of pious Aeneas and Tridentine Catholicism, is not the real hero of the Gerusalemme. Fiery and passionate Rinaldo, Ruggiero, melancholy impulsive Tancredi, and the chivalrous Saracens with whom they clash in love and war, divide our interest and divert it from Goffredo. The action of the epic turns on Armida, the beautiful witch, sent forth by the infernal senate to sow discord in the Christian camp. 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. Brave Clorinda, dons armour like Marfisa, fighting in a duel with her devoted lover and receiving baptism from his hands at the time of her pathetic death; Erminia seeks refuge in the shepherds' hut. These lovely pagan women, so touching in their sorrows, so romantic in their adventures, so tender in their emotions, rivet our attention, while we skip the battles, religious ceremonies, conclaves and stratagems of the campaign. The truth is that 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.
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 leave him for a rival duchy.
The truth seems to be 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 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. He was a rigid and not sympathetic man, as egotistical as a princeling of that age was wont to be. But to Tasso he was never cruel; unintelligent perhaps, but far from being that monster of ferocity which has been painted. The subsequent history of his connection with the poet, over which we may pass rapidly, will corroborate this view. While 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.
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 we 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 corresponded freely with whomsoever he chose to address. 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 our 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, we owe to the years of imprisonment in St. Anna. Except for occasional odes or sonnets -- some written at request and only rhetorically interesting, a few inspired by his keen sense of suffering and therefore poignant -- he neglected poetry. But everything which fell from his pen during this period was carefully preserved by the Italians, who, while they regarded him as a lunatic, somewhat illogically scrambled for the very offscourings of his wit. Nor can it be said that society was wrong. Tasso had proved himself an impracticable human being; but he remained a man of genius, the most interesting personality in Italy. Long ago his papers had been sequestered. Now, in the year 1580, he heard that part of the Gerusalemme was being published without his permission and without his corrections. Next 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 Della 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. Certainly the history of Tasso's incarceration at St. Anna is one to make us pause and wonder. 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. He showed a singular indifference to the fate of his great poem, a rare magnanimity in dealing with its detractors. His own personal distress, that terrible malaise of imperfect insanity, absorbed him. 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. After all his father's and his own lessons of life, he had not learned that the court was to be shunned like Circe by an honest man. In estimating Duke Alfonso's share of blame, this wilful idealization of the court by Tasso must be taken into account. That man is not a tyrant's victim who moves heaven and earth to place his sister's sons with tyrants.
His health grew ever feebler and his genius dimmer. In 1592 he gave to the public a revised version of the Gerusalemme. It was called the Gerusalemme Conquistata. All that made the poem of his early manhood charming he rigidly erased. The versification was degraded; the heavier elements of the plot underwent a dull rhetorical development. During the same year a prosaic composition in Italian blank verse, called Le Sette Giornate, saw the light. Nobody reads it now. We only mention it as one of Tasso's dotages -- a dreary amplification of the first chapter of Genesis.
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 our poet. In 1594 they invited him to Rome. There he was to assume the crown of bays, as Petrarch had assumed it, 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 was come to die with him.
He died in Sant'Onofrio in the April 1595. He was just past fifty-one; and the last twenty years of his existence had been practically and artistically ineffectual. At the age of thirty-one the Gerusalemme, as we have it, was accomplished. The world too was already ringing with the music of Aminta. More than this Tasso had naught to give to literature. But those succeeding years of derangement, exile, imprisonment, poverty and hope deferred endear the man to us. Elegiac and querulous as he must always appear, we yet love Tasso better because he suffered through nearly a quarter of a century of slow decline and unexplained misfortune.
Galealto re di Norvegia, (1573-4) an unfinished tragedy, which later was finished with a new title: Re Torrismondo (1587). It is influenced by Sophocles's and Seneca's tragedies, 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 various issues, from moral ones (love, virtue, nobility) to more mundane ones (masks, play, courtly style, beauty). Sometimes Tasso touches major themes of his time: for instance, religion vs. intellectual freedom; Christianity vs. Islam at Lepanto.
Discorsi del poema eroico, published in 1594. This is the main text to understand Tasso's poetics and was probably written during the long years or composing and revising Gerusalemme Liberata
The disease Tasso began to suffer from is now believed to be schizophrenia. Legends describe him wandering the streets of Rome half mad, convinced that he was being persecuted. At times he was imprisoned for his own safety by the Duke in St. Anne's lunatic asylum. Though he was never fully cured, he was able to function and resumed his writing. The Gerusalemme was published by his friends Angelo Ingegneri and Febo Bonna, mostly with the consent of the poet.