When Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata first appeared in a pirated edition in 1579, it was hailed as a great, albeit slightly flawed, art epic in the tradition of Dante and Virgil. Tasso, himself, was angry that the poem had appeared in print without his permission, especially since the manuscript had received some harsh criticism from its first readers. By the time the poem was printed in an authorized version, in 1581, its reputation as an uplifting, patriotic, influential, and brilliant examination of Christian Europe's heroic past was already established. Fellow Italians and other Europeans celebrated the poem's meaning and message. The English poets, especially those writing in the 1650s-1680s, were heavily influenced by Tasso's skill as a poet and word-crafter. Edmund Spenser and John Milton both credited Tasso's poem as an inspiration to their own epic poems, while literary critics such as John Dryden, Anne Dancier, and William Hayley all praised the work as the best modern epic poem before Paradise Lost. Although his poem achieved great success, Tasso either did not believe the praise or did not like the moral looseness of his characters. By 1591, he had drastically re-written the poem, eliminated all of the romance, magical, and adventure elements leaving only a moralistic and religious core. Tasso liked the finished product, but no one else did. Although few people read epic/heroic poetry for pleasure anymore, Gerusalemme Liberata continues to be one of the most important and influential works from the late Italian Renaissance.
Gerusalemme Liberata is, nominally, a poem about the First Crusade in the eleventh century C.E. The First Crusade was ordered by Pope Urban II in 1094 as a way for European Christians to "liberate" Jerusalem from the Muslim Turks who had conquered the city several years earlier. The leader of the First Crusade was Godfrey of Bouillon (in modern-day Belgium) and he marched his multinational army across Europe, Asia Minor, and finally into the Middle East. He surrounded Jerusalem and eventually defeated the Turkish armies stationed there. He then set up the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem so Christians could travel to the Holy Land without having to pay taxes. To the historical record, Tasso adds several knights, an enchantress, some Amazons, and a good deal of magic. The plot of the poem evolves around not only Godfrey's desire to capture the city, but also the love affairs of Clorinda, Tancred, and Erminia, and that of Armida and Rinaldo. The poem is divided into twenty cantos of varying lengths. Tasso suggests a four part structure in terms of the storyline.
The first section of Gerusalemme Liberata includes Cantos I, II, and III. Here, the groundwork for the developing plot surrounding the adventures of Godfrey and the various lovers is laid. Godfrey's campaign against the Turks is divinely inspired. God, much like the Greek and Roman gods in earlier epics did, selected Godfrey and told him to gather all...
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In the second group of cantos (IV-IX), the plot thickens, so to speak. Here, all kinds of problems get thrown in the Christians' way, most of them coming from Satan. Like most epics, the battles on earth are mirrored by battles on the cosmic scale. Here God is allowing Satan to torment and derail most of Godfrey's plans. In fact, Satan summons his fallen angels into a conference much like the one earlier in the poem. The result is an agreement to try to stop the Christians by any means necessary.
One of the most successful ways is through the use of sex. One of the devils devises a plan with Armida as the lynchpin. Armida is a beautiful enchantress who seeks out Godfrey's camp. She pretends to need his help, but in reality is trying to seduce as many of his men as possible. She is quite successful, especially after Godfrey refuses to help her.
Canto V muddies the waters even more. Rinaldo, one of Tasso's creations, is elected to replace the warrior killed earlier, but he is unpopular among some of the army. Rinaldo is the best fighter Godfrey has, yet Godfrey does not trust or believe him. The tension in the Christian camp is raised when Rinaldo kills Genrando for spreading lies about him. Rather than staying and explaining things to Godfrey, Rinaldo leaves. Meanwhile, Godfrey has allowed Armida to choose a few soldiers to help her get back home and they are chosen by lot. She departs taking her champions with her. Much to Godfrey's dismay, she has also "captured" a large number of other knights with her beauty and charm.
The problems in the Christian camp continue. Without Rinaldo, Godfrey cannot launch a full scale assault on the city and must settle for single combat. He does not have his greatest warrior, so he names Tancred as the Christian champion. Tancred is the second...
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The third part of Gerusalemme Liberata is the cantos that all the earlier action has been building up to. Here, Rinaldo and Godfrey are reconciled, the first assaults on the city are launched, the great battles are fought, and plans are laid.
Cantos X and XI deal with the plans for the first assault against Jerusalem. The Muslims plan their strategies inside, while the Crusaders celebrate mass and plan their attack. Godfrey is happy when he learns that Rinaldo is alive, and feels just a little justified when he finds out that Armida is an enchantress and not just some helpless maiden. The Crusaders attack Jerusalem at dawn and make a bloody day's work of it. Clorinda and Solyman lead the city's defenses and Tasso describes the fighting in heroic and chivalric terms. Godfrey is wounded and nightfall brings an end to the Christians' attack. The battle has proved to Clorinda that the siege machines that Godfrey built must be destroyed and, in Canto XII, she decides to burn them to the ground.
Before Clorinda can put her plan into action, she is told her earliest history. Instead of being born a Muslim, she was born a Christian and raised a Muslim. She finds this interesting, but it does not change her mind in anyway. She and a select few men steal out of the city and torch the wooden machines. On their way back to the city, Clorinda stops to kill a Christian soldier who has insulted her and so, gets locked out. She tries to blend in with...
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The last section of Gerusalemme Liberata deals with the final four cantos of the poem which describe the final assault on Jerusalem and record the deaths of all the major Muslim characters. Canto XVII sets the stage for the last battle. The Muslims are amassing, including the armies of the King of Egypt, and backed by Armida and Emiren they march towards Jerusalem. Armida even offers to marry any man who brings her the severed head of Rinaldo. Meanwhile, Rinaldo arrives in the Holy Land and receives Sven's sword. He even takes a tongue lashing from several priests for abandoning his fellow Christians. The tension continues to mount as the attack proceeds. Rinaldo defeats the spirits in the woods and the Christians are able to build their machines again. Without Clorinda, the Muslims do not have a prayer. The Christians attack the city and claim control over parts of the walls. They slaughter the troops hiding in Solomon's temple and plant the Cross on the city walls. Canto XIX details a pitched battle within the city itself. All of the major characters are accounted for: Tancred kills Argantes, while Rinaldo and Godfrey pursue Solyman and Aladine from the Temple Mount to the Tower of David. The battle is suspended because Godfrey's spies have informed him of the approaching Egyptian troops. One of the spies, Vafrine, rescues Erminia and they find Tancred, almost dead, near Argantes's body. Erminia nurses Tancred in a portion of the city that the Christians...
(The entire section is 369 words.)