Birthplace: Sorrento, Italy
Location of death: Rome, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Gerusalemme Liberata
Italian poet, was the son of Bernardo Tasso, a nobleman of Bergamo, and his wife Porzia de Rossi. He was born at Sorrento on the 11th of March 1544. His father had for many years been secretary in the service of the 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. In this disaster of his patron Tasso's father shared. 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 fervor 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 indigence, 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. When, therefore, an opening at the court of Urbino 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 dukedom 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, whither 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 addiction to the Muses and a prince 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 son's entering the service of Cardinal Luigi d'Este. In 1565, then, Torquato for the first time set foot in that castle at Ferrara which was destined for him to be the scene of so many glories, and such 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 age was nothing if not critical; but it may be esteemed a misfortune for the future author of the Gerusalemme that he should have started with pronounced opinions upon art. Essentially a poet of impulse and instinct, he was hampered in production by his own rules.
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, and there is some reason to think that neither of them was indifferent to him personally. Of the celebrated story of his love for Leonora this is not the place to speak. It is enough at present to observe that 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 the Aminta in 1573 and the completion of the Gerusalemme Liberata in 1574. The Aminta is a pastoral drama of very simple plot, but of exquisite lyrical charm. It appeared at the critical moment when modern 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. We may regard it as the most decisively important of Tasso's compositions, for its influence, in opera and cantata, was felt through two successive centuries. The Gerusalemme Liberata 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. It was finished in Tasso's thirty-first year; and when the manuscript lay before him the best part of his life was over, his best work had been already accomplished. Troubles immediately began to gather around 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 critical scrupulosity which formed a secondary feature of his character. The poem was sent in manuscript to several literary men of eminence, 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. 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 fervor of religion into his conception of the hero Godfrey. But his own 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, as also in Rinaldo, he adorned it. 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. On Armida, beautiful witch, sent forth by the infernal senate to sow discord in the Christian camp, turns the action of the epic. 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, donning armour like Marfisa, fighting in duel with her devoted lover, and receiving baptism from his hands in her pathetic death; Erminia seeking refuge in the shepherd's 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 his courtiers leaving him for a rival duchy. He 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, 1577, Tasso's health grew worse. Jealousy inspired the courtiers to calumniate and insult him. His irritable and suspicious temper, vain and sensitive to slights, rendered him only too easy a prey to their malevolence. He became the subject of delusions, thought that his servants betrayed his confidence, fancied he had been denounced to the Inquisition, expected daily to be poisoned. In the autumn of 1576 he quarrelled with a Ferrarese gentleman, Maddalo, who had talked too freely about some love affair; 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 change of air to his country seat of 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 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 misery to himself and 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, instead of acting like 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 -- hard and 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 hankered after 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; travelled through Mantua, Padua, Venice, Urbino, Lombardy. In September be reached the gates of Turin on foot, and was courteously entertained by the 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 out 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 it did subsequently, to the Holy See. The nuptial festivals, on the eve of which Tasso arrived, were not therefore the occasion of great rejoicing to 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 princesses did not want to see 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. Tasso had put himself in the wrong by his intemperate conduct, but far more by that incomprehensible yearning after the Ferrarese court which made him return to it again and yet again. It would be pleasant to assume that an unconquerable love for Leonora led him back. Unfortunately, there is no proof of this. His relations to her sister Lucrezia were not less intimate and affectionate than to Leonora. The lyrics he addressed to numerous ladies are not less respectful and less passionate than those which bear her name. Had he compromised her honor, the Duke would certainly have had him murdered. Custom demanded this retaliation, and society approved of it. If therefore Tasso really cherished a secret lifelong devotion to Leonora, it remains buried in impenetrable mystery. He did certainly not behave like a loyal lover, for both when he returned to Ferrara in 1578 and in 1579 he showed no capacity for curbing his peevish humors in the hope of access to her society.
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 eedit 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 the Duke of Mantua, the other to the 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.
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 produced a meritorious tragedy called 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 we find him journeying 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 a dull poem on 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. We have to study 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. Gradually, in spite of all veneration for the sacer vates, he made himself the laughingstock and bore of Italy.
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 St. 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 the crown was worn or the pensions paid he ascended to the convent of St. Onofrio, on a stormy 1st of April in 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, the Odysseus of many wanderings and miseries, the singer of sweetest strains still vocal, and told the prior he was come to die with him.
In St. Onofrio he died, on the 25th of 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 not 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.
Father: Bernardo Tasso (nobleman, b. 1493, d. 1569)
Mother: Porzia de Rossi
Author of books:
Gerusalemme Liberata (1581)
Monte Oliveto (1588)
Le Sette Giornati (1592)
Gerusalemme Conquistata (1592)
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