Images of Feminity in Traditional Art Epic Terms
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...
(The entire section is 1556 words.)