Tasso, Torquato (1544–1595)

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TASSO, TORQUATO (15441595)

TASSO, TORQUATO (15441595), Italian poet. Tasso was born in Sorrento, where his father Bernardo was serving as secretary to the prince of Salerno. Like many courtiers, Bernardo had a peripatetic career, and Torquato's childhood included stays in Naples, Rome, Bergamo, and Pesaro. In 1560 Tasso entered the University of Padua to study law, but soon dedicated himself to philosophy and literary pursuits; two years later he transferred to the University of Bologna, but left when he was held responsible for a lampoon identifying homosexual students and faculty. Tasso returned to Padua in 1564 and entered the service of Cardinal Luigi d'Este, brother to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. In 1572, the poet entered the duke's service and took up residence at the d'Este court.

Tasso's first years in Ferrara were happy and productive. His pastoral play Aminta was performed at court to great acclaim in 1573, and by 1575 he had largely completed the epic poem on the First Crusade on which he had been working for over a decade. The poem was eagerly awaited, not least by the duke, but Tasso had doubts about its acceptability on both literary and religious grounds, and sent drafts to several prominent intellectuals, soliciting their suggestions. Hoping for reassurance, Tasso instead received detailed criticisms, which exacerbated his doubts. He became bogged down in revising the poem, and during this period his mental health deteriorated sharply. He grew increasingly paranoid and irascible and was tormented by religious anxieties. In May 1577 Tasso turned himself in to the Ferrarese Inquisition for spiritual examination; in June he attempted to stab a servant whom he suspected of spying on him. After this incident, Alfonso imprisoned him within the ducal palace; Tasso escaped and spent the next two years traveling around Italy. In 1579 he returned to Ferrara, but after he directed an abusive outburst at the duke, Alfonso had him locked up in the hospital of Sant'Anna, where he was confined for the next seven years. During Tasso's confinement, a pirated, incomplete text of his epic was printed. Tasso subsequently oversaw the publication of a corrected text, published as Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem delivered) in 1580 and in many editions thereafter. The poem was an immediate pan-European success, although Tasso himself was never satisfied with the Liberata and continued to revise his epic until 1593, when he published a substantially new poem entitled Gerusalemme conquistata (Jerusalem conquered). The Conquistata has never met with the Liberata's success. After his release from Sant'Anna in 1586, Tasso spent his final decade in the courts of Mantua, Florence, Naples, and Rome, never remaining long in one place. He died in the monastery of Sant'Onofrio in Rome shortly before he was to be crowned poet laureate.

Tasso wrote prolifically throughout his life. His works include an early chivalric epic, Rinaldo; a pastoral drama, Aminta; a philosophical poem, Il Mondo Creato; two treatises on poetics, twenty-eight dialogues, and hundreds of lyrics; in addition, over a thousand of his letters survive. It is the Liberata, however, that secures Tasso's reputation as the greatest Italian poet of the latter sixteenth century. In his poem Tasso strove to reconcile Virgilian epic, chivalric romance, and Counter-Reformation Catholicism; the Liberata achieves an uneasy but remarkably successful balance of these three elements. From the moment the Liberata appeared, it has been compared to the other great sixteenth-century Italian epic, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1516). Since Tasso admired and emulated Ariosto's poem, it is misleading to view them as polar opposites, but they do offer different pleasures. Tasso lacks Ariosto's sense of humor and delight in intricate, multiplotted storytelling; but Tasso reaches greater heights of lyricism, and draws his characters with greater psychological subtlety. Whether one prefers Ariosto or Tasso, the Liberata counts among the handful of Renaissance epics of lasting impact. It served as an important model for the two major English Renaissance epics, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667).

Apart from his literary influence, Tasso's life became the stuff of romantic legend. A play on "Tasso's Melancholy" was performed in London in the 1590s; Goethe and Byron wrote poetic versions of his story, both attributing the poet's mental disturbance to a hopeless love for Duke Alfonso's sister Eleonora. (Tasso's only definitively attested love affairs were with men.) Even stripped of romantic myth, however, Tasso's career makes a poignant story: that of an immensely talented poet who suffered personally and artistically from the insecurities of a life of courtly dependence, and from the chilly cultural climate of the Italian Counter-Reformation.

See also Italian Literature and Language ; Milton, John ; Spenser, Edmund .


Primary Sources

Tasso, Torquato. Aminta. In Three Renaissance Pastorals: TassoGuariniDaniel. edited by Elizabeth Story Donno, pp. 154. Binghamton, N.Y., 1993. A seventeenth-century translation of Aminta by Augustine Mathews.

. "Discourses on the Art of Poetry." In The Genesis of Tasso's Narrative Theory: English Translations of the Early Poetics and a Comparative Study of Their Significance, translated by Lawrence F. Rhu, pp. 99155. Detroit, 1993. Translation of "Discorsi dell'arte poetica" with essays on Tasso's early poetics.

. Jerusalem Delivered. Edited and translated by Anthony M. Esolen. Baltimore, 2000. Translation of Gerusalemme liberata.

Secondary Sources

Brand, C. P. Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and of His Contribution to English Literature. Cambridge, U.K., 1965.

Getto, Giovanni. Malinconia di Torquato Tasso. Naples, 1986.

Zatti, Sergio. L'uniforme cristiano e il multiforme pagano: saggio sulla "Gerusalemme liberata." Milan, 1983.

Tobias Gregory

Torquato Tasso

views updated Jun 27 2018

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).

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."

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Tasso, Torquato

views updated May 18 2018

Torquato Tasso



The last major literary genius the Italian Renaissance produced was Torquato Tasso (1544–1595). His life and work show the influence that the increasingly puritanical tastes of the Counter Reformation produced upon literary fashions in the second half of the sixteenth century. Tasso was born in Sorrento near the city of Naples in southern Italy, where his father Bernardo served as a courtier to the Baron of Salerno. Bernardo was forced to leave that position when he opposed the establishment of the Inquisition in nearby Naples. During the 1550s, Torquato traveled with his father, who had to take a series of insecure court positions in northern and central Italy to support the family. While on these travels, Tasso acquired an excellent education, but he also became familiar with the uncertainties that could plague a courtier's life if he failed to please his prince. In 1560, he entered the University of Padua, where his father wanted him to pursue a legal career that would free him from the need to secure literary patronage. Young Tasso, though, preferred poetry and philosophy to the law, and in these years, he began some of the poems that would eventually establish his fame. He began the chief of these works, Jerusalemme liberata or Jerusalem Delivered, at this time, although he did not finish it until many years later. Tasso conceived the poem as a chivalric epic similar to those of Ariosto, Boiardo, and Pulci. Its tastes, though, were more moral and religiously profound than these earlier works. While Tasso did not completely abandon the complex plot twists, eroticism, or adventurism of the chivalric romance, he sublimated these features to the higher themes of love and heroic valor.


Completing Jerusalem Delivered, though, proved to be a lifelong, tortuous task. After leaving the university, Tasso received patronage from a wealthy and influential cardinal at Ferrara. He had few duties except to write and amuse the cardinal's court in the city of Ferrara. In this environment Tasso circulated his poems, realizing that his works might cause offense in the heightened moral climate of the day. Over time, Tasso grew suspicious of his critics, and he feared being denounced to the Inquisition. He confessed his wrongdoings to the body when he had not even been summoned. Eventually, he stabbed a household servant whom he suspected of spying on him and then fled Ferrara. He left behind his manuscripts for Jerusalem Delivered and spent several years wandering through Italy. Later he returned to Ferrara where he denounced his former patrons, who imprisoned him, believing him to be mad. After seven years spent in an asylum, Tasso finally regained his freedom, his sanity, and his writings. His exaggerated, often paranoid fears of being persecuted by the Inquisition colored Jerusalem Delivered, and Tasso practiced a thorough self-censorship to avoid giving offense. Nevertheless, he still raised the chivalric tale he told to the level of high art.


Jerusalem Delivered was Tasso's masterpiece, and was quickly recognized as such. Translations of it appeared in France, England, and Spain relatively quickly, and the work became an important source for later dramas. By 1591, the epic poem had been translated into English, and Shakespeare may be among the many artists who adapted scenes from the work in his Cymbeline. In his capacity as a court artist at Ferrara, though, Tasso was responsible for composing intermezzi and other dramatic entertainments for the court. Many of these were short and soon forgotten, although the writer still managed to keep up an enormous output. Two of his dramas were more influential: his Aminta, (1573) and King Torrismondo (1578). Torrismondo was a tragedy, inspired by a work of Sophocles that warned of the consequences of illicit love. Aminta, by contrast, was a pastoral play and soon became the most influential drama of its kind in the later Renaissance. The play relates the story of a young shepherd poet, Aminta, and his love for the natural but chaste Silvia. Both the setting and the characters are highly idealized, and the play's beautiful love poetry was widely read and copied. The highly respected Gelosi troupe first performed the play at a country villa outside Ferrara in 1573. The play's popularity was, like Jerusalem Delivered, immediate, and inspired the writing of at least 200 similar pastorals by the end of the sixteenth century in Italy. Its influence stretched beyond Italy to embrace all European countries, and its conventions and language have been discovered in several later works by William Shakespeare, including As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In France and Spain imitators of Tasso's Aminta similarly garnered a wide audience for Renaissance pastoral.


C. P. Brand, Torquato Tasso (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

G. Getto, Interpretazione del Tasso (Naples, Italy: Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 1967).

C. Lanfranco, Ariosto and Tasso (Torino, Italy: G. Einaudi, 1977).

Tasso, Torquato (1544–1595)

views updated May 09 2018

Tasso, Torquato (15441595)

Considered the finest Italian poet of the late Renaissance, Torquato Tasso was the son of Bernardo Tasso, a poet and courtier who served as secretary to the prince of Salerno. When the prince was banished by the King of Naples, Torquato and his family lost their property and were forced to move from Sorrento. Torquato lived in Naples and was educated by the new order of Jesuits, the guardians of doctrine and religious expression of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He learned Latin and Greek before leaving Naples for Rome, where his father was serving the prince of Sorrento in exile. In 1557, at the age of thirteen, Torquato already enjoyed a reputation as a scholar and poet, and was hired as a tutor to the son of Duke Guidobaldo of Urbino. Tasso studied law and philosophy at the universities of Padua and Bologna. He preferred poetry, however, and first won renown in 1562 with Rinaldo, an epic poem of chivalry and courtly manners. He also wrote a didactic work, Discourses on the Art of Poetry. He earned a reputation as a critic and theorist on poetry, while his career as a scholar was cut short at the University of Bologna, where he was ostracized for writing satiric verses about students and professors.

In 1565 Tasso entered the service of the d'Este family of Ferrara as a court poet. He completed Aminta, a pastoral play in verse and music that combined myth and idealized court life, in 1573. This work had an important influence on Italian music and the development of opera over the next two centuries. In 1575, Tasso's famous epic poem Jerusalem Liberated was first published. Written in the poetic form known as ottava rima, in which the poem is divided into eight-line stanzas, Jerusalem Liberated used The Aeneid of the Roman poet Virgil as its model. Tasso described the First Crusade, the exploits of the Christian knight Godfrey of Bouillon and a fictional hero, Rinaldo, and the romantic idylls of several invented characters. Trained in the strictures of the Jesuit order, however, Tasso worried for the rest of his life about the religious propriety of his work. He submitted the poem to several scholars as well as to the church for review. When the poem drew criticism for its structure, characterizations, and religious tone, Tasso began putting it through a drastic revision that drained his creativity as well as his sanity.

In 1576 Tasso began suffering from a mental illness that some modern historians have identified as schizophrenia. He grew suspicious and paranoid, fearing that the Duke of Ferrara and many others meant to do him harm. Outbursts of violent anger alternated with depression. When he assaulted a servant whom he suspected of spying on him, he was sent to a convent by the duke. He escaped to Sorrento but returned to Ferrara in 1579, where Duke Alfonso was celebrating his wedding. On arriving in Ferrara, however, Tasso violently denounced the duke and for this he was imprisoned in a hospital for the next seven years. His epic poem was published in a pirated edition and for the next several years Tasso revised the work, finally bringing out his own edition in 1580.

Tasso wrote hundreds of sonnets, madrigals, dialogues, and canzoni (songs) in verse. His last years were spent traveling from one Italian court to the next in search of patrons and conditions that would allow him the necessary peace of mind to work. He was nominated as the poet laureate of Italy but died just before he was to receive the honor in an official ceremony. In 1600, Jerusalem Liberated was translated into English; the poem would have an important influence on the works of Edmund Spenser and John Milton.

See Also: Ariosto, Ludovico; Milton, John; Spenser, Edmund; Virgil

Tasso, Torquato

views updated May 18 2018

Tasso, Torquato (1544–95) Italian poet and prose writer. He was a member of the Court at Ferrara from 1565. His masterpiece, Jerusalem Delivered (1575), an epic on the First Crusade, became a model for later writers.

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Torquato Tasso

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