Torquato Tasso had many inducements to poetry. He was born at Sorrento (1544), where the sea is an epic, the sky a lyric, and every hill an ode. His father Bernardo was a poet, a courtier, a man of sensitivity and passion, who plotted against the Viceroy, was banished from the Kingdom of Naples (1551), and wandered from court to court, leaving wife and child impoverished behind him. Torquato’s mother, Porzia de’ Rossi, came of an old Tuscan family with culture in its blood. For three years the boy studied in a Jesuit school at Naples. He imbibed Latin and Greek in nerve-racking doses, and was trained to a profound piety that gave him in alternation theological tremors and an indescribable peace. At ten he joined his father in Rome; his mother’s death two years later left him deeply moved and long disconsolate. He accompanied his father to Urbino and Venice; there Bernardo published his own Amadigi (1560), which set medieval romance into verse.

Torquato himself was now agitated with poetry. He was dispatched to Padua to study law, but the father’s example was more powerful than his precepts; the youth neglected statutes, and concatenated rhymes. He had long since fallen under Virgil’s spell; now he resolved to apply the Mantuan’s noble and serious style to those chivalric legends that Ariosto had treated with a twinkle in his eye. So he surprised his father by sending him Rinaldo, a romance in twelve cantos. Bernardo was saddened and pleased; he foresaw the vicissitudes of a poet with nothing but genius, yet he beamed to see his son, aged eighteen, rivaling in delicacy and imaginative verse the best poets of the time. He had the little epic published (1562), warmed his soul in the acclaim it received, and allowed Torquato to abandon law at Padua for philosophy and literature at Bologna. There the youth’s talent proved troublesome; he wrote prickly epigrams upon his teachers, was threatened with a libel suit, and returned precipitately to Padua.

Bernardo persuaded Cardinal Luigi d’Este, brother to Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, to engage Torquato as secretary (1565). The poet gladly joined a court then regarded as the finest flower of Italian culture. There he found an environment alive with music, dancing, literature, art, intrigue, and love. Two sisters of the Cardinal caught Tasso’s fancy: Lucrezia, lofty, beautiful, and thirty-one, and Leonora, twenty-nine, a pious invalid whose quarrels with Alfonso made her the idol of the court. Legend (as in Goethe’s drama and Byron’s Lament of Tasso) describes the poet as falling in love with Leonora; certainly he addressed impassioned poems to her, as custom demanded, and both ladies admitted him to a friendship haloed with the aura of pedigree; but one sister was his senior by eleven years, the other by nine, and neither seems ever to have given him anything cozier than an ear. Tasso never married; he could love only princesses, and they could marry only property. Perhaps, as diffident of his powers as he was proud of his poetry, he feared the obligations and restraints of marriage.

In 1569 his father died penniless; Tasso had to borrow to bury him. A year later Cardinal d’Este took the youth to Paris. Torquato was shocked to find Charles IX associating amiably with Huguenot leaders; he openly criticized the government for consorting with heretics. The Cardinal, anxious to keep the favor of the King, sent his troublesome secretary back to Italy; Tasso never forgave him.

Alfonso consoled the poet by attaching him to his own household with an annual stipend and no responsibilities except to dedicate to the Duke the epic that he was known to be writing about the First Crusade. These years were relatively happy. In the summer of 1573 Tasso produced at the court his pastoral drama Aminta, and was heartened by its success. The lords and ladies of Ferrara, who lived by exploiting the peasantry, were thrilled to see the bliss of rustics—on the stage; and all the gallants of the court rejoiced in the picture of a golden age when everything pleasant was lawful and good.

O bel età dell’ oro

Non già perché di latte

Sen corse il fiume,

e stillòmele il bosco …

Ma sol perch èquel vano

Nome senza oggetto

Quel idolo d’errori,

idol d’inganno,

Quel che dal volgo insano

Onor poscia fu detto,

Chi di nostra natura ‘l

feo tiranno,

Non mischiava il suo affano

Fra le liete dolcezze

Delle amoroso gregge;

Nè fu sua dura legge

Nota a quell’ alme

in libertate avvezze,

Ma legge aurea e felice

Che Natura scolpì

“S’ei piace,

ei lice.72

O lovely age of gold!

Not that the rivers rolled

With milk or that the

woods wept honeydew …

But solely that that vain

And breath-invented pain,

That idol of mistake, that

worshiped cheat,

That honor—since so called

By vulgar minds appalled—

Played not the tyrant

with our nature yet.

It had not come to fret

The sweet and happy fold

Of gentle humankind;

Nor did its hard law bind

Souls nursed in freedom; but

that law of gold,

That glad and golden law, all

free, all fitted,

Which Nature’s own hand wrote:

“What pleases is permitted.”73

That unwonted boldness of spirit left him when (1574) he found himself finishing his epic, Gerusalemme liberata. This was the culminating effort of his life. If it failed, or if the Church condemned it as licentious or heretical, he would never be happy again. Fearfully he sent the manuscript to seven critics and asked their judgment on the poem’s plot, characters, diction, and morality. They passed so many censures upon it that, not knowing how to please them all, he put the poem aside. For five years it lay unpublished. The poet, conscious that he had written a masterpiece, demanded too much of his critics, and of life. He confessed that “he could not bear to live in a city where the nobles did not yield him the first place, or at least admit him to absolute equality.” This last he surely merited, but he added that he “expected to be adored by friends, served by servingmen, caressed by domestics, honored by masters, celebrated by poets, and pointed out by all.”74 A party grew up at Ferrara that criticized his poetry, his character, and his claims. He began to dream of softer berths in kinder courts.

Physical and mental disturbances had shaken his nerves: malarial fever, repeated headaches, the cumulative shocks of his father’s exile, his mother’s death, his father’s dying destitution. Moreover, theological doubts—of hell, of immortality, of Christ’s divinity—darkened his mind with a sense of sin and drove him to frequent confession and Communion.75 He was convinced that he had experienced the power of black (Satanic) magic. He had horrible visions of the Last Judgment and saw God driving the condemned into everlasting fire.76 He had delusions of persecution—suspected his servants of betraying his secrets, believed that he had been denounced to the Inquisition, and daily expected to be poisoned. He was a difficult guest.77

Alfonso dealt with him sympathetically, for, after all, the greatest poem of the age was dedicated to him and gave half a canto (XVII) to celebrating his lineage. He excused the poet from attendance at court, and sent him to the pleasant villa of Belriguardo for change and quiet. But his patience was strained when he found that Tasso was secretly negotiating with Francesco de’ Medici—Alfonso’s keenest rival and enemy—with a view to acceptance as a pensioner at the Florentine court. In November 1575 the poet left Ferrara, saying that he was going to Rome to get the indulgence of the jubilee. He went, but visited Florence twice en route. The Grand Duke did not take to him. Francesco wrote to a friend (February 4, 1576), “I hardly know whether to call him a mad, or an amusing and astute, spirit”; and a year later he decided that “he did not want to have a madman at his court.”78 Tasso returned sadly to Ferrara.

He asked Alfonso for the post of historiographer; he received it. In January 1577 he appeared before the Inquisition at Bologna and confessed that he had sinfully entertained doubts of the Catholic faith; the Inquisition sent him back with words of comfort and good cheer. In June of that year, while in the apartments of Lucrezia d’Este, he drew his knife upon a servant who had aroused his suspicion. Alfonso ordered the poet to be confined in a room of the castle, but soon released him and took him to Belriguardo. The Duke behaved, wrote Tasso, “almost as if he had been a brother, and not as a sovereign.”79 The poet asked to be sent to the Monastery of San Francesco; Alfonso so ordered, and he recommended a purge. Tasso submitted; but at the monastery he broke out into a frenzy, charging that his wine had been doctored; the monks asked that he be taken off their hands. He was returned to the ducal castle and put under guard. He escaped, disguised himself as a peasant, and wandered on foot and alone across the Apennines to the home of his sister Cornelia in Sorrento. She received him with loving tenderness.

He might have won some clarity and happiness there had he not worried about the great poem, still unpublished, that he had left behind him in Ferrara; and perhaps, long accustomed to court life, he missed the comforts that had accompanied his tribulations. He went to Rome and begged the Ferrarese ambassador to intercede for him with Alfonso. The Duke sent money to take care of him and consented to his return, on condition that he promise to be quiet and submit to medical treatment. Arrived at Ferrara (1578), he was given a private apartment outside the palace; a servant was provided, and meals were sent from the ducal table. Tasso accepted sedatives and purges obediently and continued to write fine poetry. But he had hoped to be again a favorite at the court; instead, nearly everyone treated him as a madman. Neither the Duke nor the princesses any longer admitted him to their presence. The worst insult of all was that Alfonso ordered the poet’s manuscripts, including the Gerusalemme, to be taken from him, lest he destroy them.

In June 1578 Tasso again fled from Ferrara. He went to Mantua, Padua, Venice, Urbino, Turin. There Duke Charles Emmanuel received him with honors and gave him all the comforts he had known at Ferrara. But after three months the restless poet, perhaps anxious to recover his manuscripts, petitioned Alfonso to take him back. Alfonso agreed, and in February 1579 Tasso was again lodged in the palace of Cardinal Luigi d’Este. But Alfonso, longing for heirs, was being married for the third time, and had no ear for poets; Tasso was not invited to the festivities. For two weeks he bore neglect fretfully; then (March 12, 1579) he left the Cardinal’s quarters and broke into the Palace of the Bentivogli, crying out against the Duke, the new Duchess, and the whole court. He ran to the Castello, insisting on seeing the Duchess and recovering his manuscripts. The Duke ordered him removed to the nearby Sant’ Anna mental hospital. There he was confined for over seven years.

He was not entirely mad. He had lucid intervals, in which he wrote poetry and received friends; Montaigne claimed to have visited him. Several ladies of the court came to comfort him, and once Lucrezia took him to her villa at Belvedere; but his violence frightened her, and she had him sent back to the hospital. The broken mind was cast into intermittent terror by hallucinations of spectral voices heard, of supernal spirits invading his room and stealing his poems.

Now, at last, his epic was published. Those who had possession of the manuscript, learning that book pirates had copied it, sent it to the printers (1580). The critics still found fault with it, but Italy acceped it enthusiastically, and Church authorities praised its theme and piety. Edition followed upon edition; two thousand copies were sold in a day; homes and courts echoed its melody. Men debated whether Tasso should be ranked with Ariosto or Petrarch; Voltaire, with no Christian prejudice, preferred the poem to The Iliad;80 Elizabeth of England, hearing parts of it translated into Latin, envied the Duke of Ferrara for having found a Homer to immortalize him.81

If we prod our historic sense we can begin to understand why Europe responded so warmly to this stirring narrative of the First Crusade. It was hailed as the long-awaited, sorely needed epic of Christendom. For when Tasso commenced his poem Europe was amassing the fleet that met the Turks at Lepanto; the great battle was fought while the poet wrote; it was won, but the rapid recovery of the Turks was threatening Europe, especially Italy; Rome, the citadel of Christianity, was in danger as the poem reached completion. The fear of Islam was then as pervasive in Christendom as Europe’s dread today of a revitalized Orient. In that atmosphere men and women read, in seductive verse, the heartening story of how Godfrey of Bouillon, in 1099, had led a battered but triumphant Christian host to the capture of Jerusalem.

So Tasso, remembering and challenging Virgil’s arma virumque cano, proudly begins:

Canto l’arme pietose, e ‘l capitono

Che il gran sepolcro liberòdi Cristo—

“I sing the pious arms, and the captain who freed the great sepulcher of Christ.” He calls upon the Muse to inspire celestial ardors in his breast, and dedicates his poem to “magnanimo Alfonso” for rescuing him from the squalls of fortune and giving him a pleasant port. God sends the Archangel Gabriel to bid Godfrey cease dallying and press on to Jerusalem. As the Christians near the city, its Turkish governor, Aladin, orders his men to transfer a statue of the Virgin from a Christian church to a Moslem mosque, believing that the image will bring victory to its possessor. The statue is recaptured and concealed by Christians; Aladin decrees the massacre of all the remaining Christians in Jerusalem. The lovely maiden Sophronia offers herself as a sacrifice for her people; she falsely tells Aladin that she has stolen and burned the image; he condemns her to die at the stake. Her unrequited lover Olindo seeks to die in her place and assumes the guilt; they are both condemned to death, but they are rescued by the Moslem heroine Clorinda. Pluto, god of the nether world, calls a council of his followers to consider means of defeating the Christian besiegers. As their instrument they choose the fair Armida, a Damascene damsel with bewitching powers. Rinaldo and other knights are ensnared into her enchanted garden, and Rinaldo relaxes in her arms. Tancred, the perfect Christian knight, chivalrous and brave, admires Clorinda’s courage and falls in love with her across the barriers of creed. In one of the liveliest cantos (XII) of the poem Clorinda disguises herself and fights Tancred to her death; dying, she begs him to christen her into his own faith. Godfrey sends soldiers to find Rinaldo and the lost knights; they discover Armida’s castle, turn away from the “naked beauties” swimming in her pool, and free the captives. Angry at Rinaldo’s desertion of her, Armida offers herself as prize to anyone who will kill him. Tisiphernes takes the task, but Rinaldo pierces him through from fore to aft. Armida proposes suicide, but Rinaldo dissuades her with revived love; she consents to conversion and surrenders to him with the Virgin’s phrase, “Ecco l’ancilla tua”82 The Christians scale the walls, slaughter the Moslem hosts, and give thanks to God. The story does not go on to the incineration of the Jews.

Ariosto had smiled at the chivalric romance; Tasso revived it in fullest gravity, adding medieval magic and marvels to the classical machinery of intervening divinities. The Counter Reformation had for a time repressed the lusty Italian sense of humor; a lack of humor prepared Tasso for insanity. The cosmos must not be taken too seriously. Tasso, in his epic, is faith unquestioned and sentiment unrelieved. He adorns the poem with such conceits that Galileo compared it to a museum of curiosities,83 and wrote angry criticisms in the margin of his copy.84 The imitations are obvious: of Homer in the battle scenes, of Virgil in the visit to hell, of Ariosto in the amours, of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch in ideas and whole lines. The magic is childish, the Amazons are absurd. TheGerusalemme may not be as majestic as The Iliad, nor as captivating as The Odyssey, nor as noble as The Aeneid; yet it sustains interest as well as any epic, its style is studded with happy turns and flows of melody, its characters are alive, its episodes are skillfully fused with the central theme. Many of its scenes and incidents inspired famous paintings. Its verse and mood helped to form Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Its stanzas, put to music, have solaced the weary rhythm of Venetian gondoliers.

Tasso, in his lucid intervals, took little pleasure and less profit from the success of his poem. Not a penny came to him from the publishers. As with most authors, an ounce of censure outweighed a pound of praise. He winced to read the strictures of some critics—that his rhymes were too often jingles, his love scenes too sensuous, his Moslems too admirable, his heroines too often like men. But the remainder of Italy hailed him as Virgil reborn, and voices were raised demanding some better treatment for the stricken poet. Those who visited him, however, saw that he needed careful supervision, and that Alfonso was handling the matter as considerately as could be expected of a man often offended, and busy with government.

The condition of the poet improved. In July 1586 Vincenzo Gonzaga, heir apparent to the duchy of Mantua, secured his release on a promise to take care of him. For a month Tasso lived at Mantua; then he left it for Bergamo, Modena, Bologna, Loreto, Rome, selling his poems and praises to any who would pay. He was well received in Rome, but soon he wandered away again, to Siena, to Florence, again to Mantua, again to Naples, where Marquis Manso befriended him, and once more to Rome, where Cardinals Cinzio and Aldobrandino housed him in their rooms in the Vatican (1594). He wished to return to Ferrara to die there; Alfonso refused to let him come. Pope Clement VIII assigned him a pension and made plans to crown him poet laureate. But in April 1595 the worn-out poet, old and infirm at fifty-one, had to be taken to the Monastery of San Onofrio, in Rome, for better supervision. There, after one more outburst of passion, he died (April 25), murmuring, “In manus tuas, Domine.” The laurel wreath that he had never lived to wear was placed upon his bier. The body was borne in procession to St. Peter’s and back again, followed by the papal court and the nobles and scholars of Rome; it was buried in the monastery church and was marked with a simple epitaph: Hic jacet Torquatus Tassus. The cell he had occupied became a goal of pilgrimage, as it is today.

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