Images of Feminity in Traditional Art Epic Terms

(Epics for Students)

Gerusalemme Liberata has rightly been called the finest Renaissance art epic written in terms of style, action, message, and characters. Torquato Tasso successfully combines elements of the heroic epic with elements of the medieval romance. One of his major contributions to the art epic are his female characters. Traditionally female epic characters fall into one of two kinds: the prize object and the Amazon. The prize objects are usually characters that are hyper-feminine; they cannot defend themselves, they are usually the reward for some heroic act by the male characters, and they provide the majority of the narrative action. The Amazons, on the other hand, tend to be women who cease to be women; they are warriors who refrain from anything feminine and fight, act, and generally behave just like men. Both prize objects and Amazons are incredibly beautiful. These definitions are open to numerous mutations, but the idea of women as the source of tension in epic literature is a predominant feature of the genre. While Tasso uses these types of female characters in his poem, he subtly twists these definitions, trying to give his women more credibility and human focus. Although these powerful characterizations of women are, in epic terms, evil, i.e. bad guys, they are redeemed by the power of love. Tasso's three main female characters, Clorinda, Erminia, and Armida, reshape the traditional definitions of epic femininity and recast the role of women in Renaissance society.

Clorinda is, perhaps, the most traditional of Tasso's women. She is the typical epic Amazon in that she dresses in armor, fights the enemy, and detests anything feminine. However, she is different from the Amazons in epic literature before her. She, unlike the Amazons in Boiardo's and Ariosto's epics, is on the wrong side. Clorinda is a Persian princess who arrives in Jerusalem just before Godfrey and his Christian knights lay siege to the city. Her reputation as a warrior proceeds her and the Saracens seem to have no problems with her taking command of the troops. This appears odd given Renaissance society's reluctance to view women as anything but silent, chaste, and obedient. However, at the time Tasso was writing the poem, there were several powerful women rulers who led troops into battle, including Mary, Queen of Scots, the Italian-born French queen Catherine De Medici, and England's Elizabeth I. So, in his characterization of Clorinda, Tasso might be arguing for a more inclusive role for a limited class of women.

However, his manipulation of Clorinda's character does not end with making her the commander of the Saracen army. Tasso also makes her the love interest of the Christian knight Tancred, whom she has never met. This is a traditional epic/romance convention. However, he twists this idea as well. Clorinda is never informed of Tancred's love until she is dying, slain by his sword in battle. The affair is completely one sided. Tasso is commenting on the inequities of European society and literary tradition that insist that a woman should accept whoever declares "love" for her, merely because the man has fallen in love. Tasso's Amazon, unlike those in Boiardo and Ariosto, does not revert to a normal woman when love enters the picture. Neither does she kill herself for love, as Virgil's Amazon, Dido, does. While Clorinda is redeemed, in a religious sense, by Tancred, she does not submit to his wooing and remains true to her own code of conduct.

This divergence from the traditional form is also seen by the fact that Tasso also makes Clorinda a Christian by birth, but a Saracen by culture. The revelation that she was born a Christian does not change Clorinda's commitment to the Saracen cause. In fact, she seems to ignore the possible conflict of interest and proceeds to wreak the most damage...

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Spenser's Dance of the Graces and Tasso's Dance of the Sylvan Nymphs

(Epics for Students)

The two major annotated editions of The Faerie Queene both overlook Tasso's Dance of the Sylvan Nymphs in the Gerusalemme Liberata as a source for Spenser's Dance of the Graces. Yet the similarities between the two Dances are striking. The scenes for both Dances, Mount Acidale and the Enchanted Forest, are Venusian paradises. Both scenes depict music, dancing nymphs who are really conjured spirits, an artist figure animating the Dance, and dancers who vanish through a hero's action. More specifically, both feature Dances animated by a magician in which one hundred spirit-nymphs move around a figure of beauty in the center.

In Book VI, canto x, of The Faerie Queene, Spenser's hero Calidore stumbles upon Mount Acidale, a paradise sacred to Venus. Mount Acidale features a "spacious plaine" atop a hill that is "bordered with a wood," through which flows a "gentle flud." Calidore, hearing "the merry sound / Of a shrill pipe," marches to the forested edge of the plain until he spies

An hundred naked maidens lilly white, All raunged in a ring, and dauncing in delight. All they without were raunged in a ring, And daunced round; but in the midst of them Three other Ladies did both daunce and sing, The whilest the rest them round about did hemme, And like a girlond did in compasse stemme: And in the middest of those same three, was placed Another Damzell.

Spenser's Dance features a series of concentric circles: a hundred nymphs in an outer ring surround the Three Graces, who in turn surround the Fourth Grace at the very center. All are spirits animated by the magician-poet Colin Clout, who plays his pipe to create the "enchaunted show." Calidore, "Much wond[ring]…at this straunge sight…/resolving, what it was, to know," steps forward, causing all the dancers to vanish.

Thus far critics have found a variety of sources for the ingredients of Spenser's complex Dance. Among the most commonly cited sources for Spenser's information on the Three Graces themselves are Hesiod's Theogony, Seneca's De Beneficiis, Servius' In Vergilli Carmina Comentarii, Boccaccio's De Genealogia Deorum, and Natalis Comes' Mythologia. However, according to D. T. Starnes, "all that Spenser wrote about the three Graces" could have come from two handbooks of mythology, Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae & Britannicae and Charles Stephanus' Dictionarium Historicum, Geographicum, Poeticum, which conveniently synthesize Hesiod, Seneca, Servius, and Boccaccio in a manner resembling Spenser. Among the most commonly cited sources for Spenser's information on the Fourth Grace is Homer's Pasithea in the Iliad, as well as the mythological handbooks of Comes, Cooper, Stephanus, and others. The only two sources cited for an artist or magician creating the magical vision are Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, which features an old witch animating a dance of twenty-four maidens for a knight of King Arthur's court; and Book II of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, which features three naked ladies dancing around a youth who is making music. Although these sources shed much light on Spenser's Dance, none of them provides a precedent for Spenser's use of a "hundred" dancers in his outer ring—a feature consistently overlooked in all of the commentary.

Such a precedent is found in Tasso's Dance of the Sylvan...

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An Early Interpretation of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata

(Epics for Students)

The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin has a painting of The Liberation of Jerusalem in its collection. One enters the carefully arranged and brilliantly colored composition through the most prominent figure on a rearing horse who signals the onslaught enacted to the right. In sharp contrast is the relaxed and somewhat melancholy allegory of victory reclining in the foreground. By combining a keen historical accuracy with an allegorical figure to suggest the context and purpose of action, the painter reveals himself to be acutely sensitive to Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata. Before pursuing this relationship, however, there is a question of authorship to resolve.

Currently attributed to Ambrose Dubois, the painting actually belongs to the oeuvre of Lodovico Cardi, "Il Cigoli." Through comparisons with known works by Cigoli this painting can be attributed securely and dated with relative precision ca. 1590. The soldier at the lower right with his back to us grasping the bottom rung of the ladder, for example, is almost identical in pose to the tormentor in Cigoli's Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of 1590. Both he and his companion shooting an arrow are similar in pose, body type, proportion, and clothing to the soldier in Cigoli's Resurrection of 1591. And the ramparts of this Jerusalem are sufficiently close to the walls of Jerusalem in Cigoli's St. Heraclius Carrying the Cross of 1594 to confirm common authorship.

Stylistically the static posed quality in some of the principal figures immediately calls to mind Cigoli's teacher Santa di Tito. In fact Cigoli's Liberation is based partially on a version by Santi of 1589 that was executed as part of the decorations for the marriage of Ferdinand de Medici and Christine of Lorraine, known to us from an engraving. Cigoli's portrayal of the city and his concentration of elements is quite different, yet there are two obvious points of comparison: one, the placing of a similar grouping of soldiers raising a ladder at the foreground right; and two, the practically complete adoption (by Cigoli) of Santi's foreground left soldier, shooting his crossbow (which Cigoli uses), for the soldier shooting an arrow at the right.

Cigoli, too, participated in the commission of 1589 where he painted a scene of The Defeat of Manfred by Charles of Anjou. Almost every painter of note in Florence participated in this commission and their works were placed on one of three triumphal arches (Cigoli's on the first and Santi's on the third). These celebrated the entry of Christine of Lorraine into Florence by depicting famous deeds of the Florentines (first arch), her wedding (second arch), and the glory of the houses of Lorraine and Guise (third arch). Cigoli's Liberation, though different in subject and composition, also owes something to his Defeat of Manfred. He has selected from the group fighting at the foreground right in the Defeat, the horse and rider in the foreground left of the Liberation: an image lively enough to fit the subject but sufficiently subdued to serve a role more appropriate to the content of Tasso's poem.

The prominence of the mounted soldier suggests that he is Godfrey of Boulogne, leader of the Christian army. Beginning in stanza 49 of canto 18 of the Jerusalem Liberated the flight of a dove is described as it wings over the camp towards the walls only to be intercepted (stanza 50) by a falcon causing it to fall and land in Godfrey's lap. In stanzas 51 and 52, we learn that the dove bore a message for the Saracen prince, telling of Egyptian troops coming to relieve the siege and defeat the Christians. Taking this good fortune as a sign from heaven, Godfrey commences the attack. Though the dove is actually let go (stanza 53), we assume it is retained on top of Godfrey's staff to identify him and signify divine authority of the mission.

The figure's posture on horseback and his backward glance also help to identify him as Godfrey. In stanza 65, after describing the preparation for the battle and the Saracens' fear of the siege towers (seen in the distant middle ground), Tasso tells us:

The Syrian people now were no wit slow
Their best defences to that side to bear
Where Godfrey did his greatest engine show,
From thence where late in vain they placed were;
But he who at his back right well did know
The host of Egypt to be 'proaching near,
To him call'd Guelpho and the Roberts twain,
And said—On horseback look you still remain…

Tasso continues in the next stanza:

And have regard, while all our people strive
To scale this wall where weak it seems and thin,
Lest unawares some sudden host arrive,
And at our backs unlook'd-for war begin.
This said, three fierce assaults at once they give,
The hardy soldiers all would die or win;
And on three parts resistance makes the King,
And rage 'gainst strength, despair 'gainst hope doth bring…

These stanzas point out that Godfrey is still on horseback, that in looking back he appears to anticipate the approaching Egyptians, and that he is commanding the general mobilization of troops and siege towers for scaling the walls.

The success of this battle depends on the return to camp of Rinaldo who, released from the magical grip of Armida, leads the attacking forces. His bravery in leading the assault against the Saracens is succinctly described in stanza 77 where we read:

One died, another fell, he forward went,
And these he comforts and he threat'neth those,
Now with his hand outstretch'd the battlement
Well nigh he reach'd, when all his armed foes
Ran thither, and their force and fury bent
To throw him headlong down, yet up he goes;
A wond'rous thing, one knight whole armed bands,
Alone, and hanging in the air, withstands!

Cigoli captures Tasso's image of Rinaldo emerging from the chaos of the assault miraculously unscathed and poised to conquer. All but obscured at first glance, we find Rinaldo immersed in the battle, standing atop the ladder in the middle ground about to thrust his spear as if in response to Godfrey's commanding gesture.

Conforming with the poem's epic nature, Cigoli suggests events that lead up to and, by implication, extend beyond their current activity. Godfrey looks back anticipating the arrival of the Egyptians, and at the same time he...

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The Epic: The Gerusalemme Liberata

(Epics for Students)

Structurally the Liberata is a fusion of the heroic epic and the chivalrous romance, and represents a conscious attempt at the perfection of a literary form. Few poems have been less 'spontaneous' in the conventional sense: years of reading, thought, discussion, correspondence, even formal declaration of principles preceded and accompanied the composition of the poem. For Tasso the peaks of literary achievement had been reached by Homer and Virgil in the epic and his aim was to rival, where possible to excel them. It is typical of Tasso's approach to art, to style and language to build on the great achievements of the past, and he deduced his principles for epic poetry very largely from the Iliad and the...

(The entire section is 10843 words.)