Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556
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...
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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 against the Christians by burning their siege engines. Tasso makes the argument that just being born into a certain race, culture, or religion does not solidify one's "membership" in that group. To soundly consider oneself within a group, one must embrace its traditions, practices, and beliefs. Because Clorinda never practiced a Christian tradition, she did not consider the Christians she battled as her people. Tasso's view on this issue takes on greater meaning in light of the religious and ethnic wars that were tearing Europe apart during the Renaissance.
Erminia, however, does not fit neatly into either major category. She is a Syrian princess who is in love with the man who destroys her family and home, Tancred. She loves him because he protected her when the Christians sacked Antioch. She, too, is on the wrong side, narratively speaking, in love with the enemy. But, Erminia is not really an Amazon, nor is she only a Prize object. Tasso creates a complex character who wants to help her people, yet feels torn between her duty and her desire. She loves Tancred, but he does not know that she exists. She tells Aladine the names of all the Christian knights as they assemble around Jerusalem and she watches the battle between Tancred and Argantes. Although she is a Saracen and a woman, she is horrified when Tancred is wounded in the combat and longs to go and comfort him. This is the typical emotional state of a Prize object. However, Erminia realizes that she cannot venture outside the city walls as a woman; she needs a disguise. Unlike a true Amazon, Erminia borrows Clorinda's armor instead of a man's armor, suggesting that she wants the strength of an Amazon, but lacks the inner fiber to pull off the role. She acts like a typical Prize object as she flees from the Christian soldiers, who think she is Clorinda, but this role becomes highly ironic when the reader realizes that her main pursuer is Tancred. Erminia wants Tancred to pursue her, but when this happens, she panics and rejects the prize object role. Erminia's fate is rather cloudy at the end of the poem. She is tending Tancred's wounds, but he is still grieving for the loss of Clorinda and Tasso leaves their story unfinished. By playing with this character, Tasso exposes the dangerous situations and problems faced by real women in his era.
By far the most interesting and creative female character in Gerusalemme Liberata is the Saracen enchantress, Armida. She is gorgeous, wicked, evil, and marries the hero in the end. Armida enters the story as Satan's ploy to destroy Godfrey's army, thus taking on the traditional role of woman as evil temptress in the religious literature of the period. Here too, though, Tasso does not let these traditional definitions of femininity go unaltered. Godfrey is portrayed as the best and most chivalric knight in all of Europe, and one of the main rules of knighthood was that knights were to give aid to whomever asked them for it, especially women. However, Godfrey refuses to grant Armida's request, so Godfrey is as much to blame for what happens as is Armida herself.
Armida enjoys playing the role of Prize object. She uses her sexuality and her beauty to seduce over fifty knights from Godfrey's army including Rinaldo, Godfrey's best fighter. Armida seduces and takes Rinaldo to her enchanted castle out in the Atlantic Ocean. There she entertains him with sex, food, wine, and beautiful things. Under Tasso's pen, the Prize object becomes the sexual aggressor. When Rinaldo decides to return to Godfrey's camp, he and Armida reverse roles. He is now the Prize object and she the pursuer. Although Armida has destroyed her palace and gone after Rinaldo, she still sees herself as the ultimate prize. She offers herself in marriage to any man who will bring her the prize she wants: the severed head of Rinaldo.
Even after all of this, the sexual freedom, the difference in religion, the contract on his life, Rinaldo still loves Armida. This love is not one sided as is the case with Tancred, Clorinda, and Erminia. Armida and Rinaldo have spent a good deal of time together, getting to know one another. Yes, her beauty and his handsome features drew them together at first, but there was no talk of marriage four hours after meeting as there is in most fairy tales and epic romances. Rinaldo and Armida discover that they truly love each other after the battle for Jerusalem is over and the Christians have won. Ironically, the least honorable female character in the poem, Armida, "wins." She converts to Christianity and gets her man. Through her marriage, Armida becomes the "successful" woman in the poem, according to Renaissance standards, rather than the honorable Clorinda or the long-suffering Erminia. Tasso rewrites the social code of conduct for women with the creation of Armida. By making her the only successful woman in the poem, Tasso argues for female agency, the freedom of sensual choice, and the redeeming power of romantic love.
The wild women of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata challenge the traditional definitions of real Renaissance women and the literary women of epic and romance. Tasso is not satisfied with creating flat, static characters that can be easily defined or manipulated. Instead he plays with the traditional forms of the Prize object and the Amazon to create women characters who leap off the page and into the imagination.
Source: Michael Rex, for Epics for Students, Gale, 2001.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1410
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 Nymphs. In Canto XVIII of the Gerusalemme Liberata, Tasso's hero Rinaldo enters the Enchanted Forest to cut down the charmed myrtle tree, which is traditionally sacred to Venus. His doing so will enable the Christian army to use the wood for engines designed to free Jerusalem. Tasso depicts the Enchanted Forest as being "lietamente ombroso" ("sweet with pleasant shade"), featuring "un fiume trapassante e cheto" ("a quiet, still, transparent flood"). As Rinaldo progresses through this beautiful paradise, he hears "un suono in tanto/ che dolcissimamente si diffonde" ("a sound that strange, sweet, pleasing was"). Attracted to the music, he moves forward to "un mirto…in gran piazza" ("a myrtle in an ample plain"), where he witnesses a "maggior novitate" ("a marvel great and strange"):
Quercia gli appar, che per sé stessa incisa apre feconda il cavo ventre, e figlia: e n'esce fuor vestita in strana guisa ninfa d'etá cresciuta (oh meraviglia!); e vede insieme poi cento altre piante cento ninfe produr dal sen pregnante. Quai le mostra la scena, o quai dipinte tal volta rimiriam dèe boscareccie, nude le braccia, e l'abito succinte, con bei coturni e con disciolte treccie: tali in sembianza si vedean le finte figlie de le selvatiche corteccie; se non che in vece d'arco e di faretra, chi tien leúto, e chi vïola o cetra. E cominciâr costor danze e carole; e di sé stesse una corona ordiro, e cinsero il guerrier, sí come sòle esser punto rinchiuso entro il suo giro. Cinser la pianta ancóra; e tai parole nel dolce canto lor da lui s'udiro. (emphasis added)
[An aged oak beside him cleft and rent,
And from his fertile hollow womb forth ran
(Clad in rare weeds and strange habiliment)
A nymph for age able to go to man;
An hundred plants beside, even in his sight,
Childed an hundred nymphs, so great, so dight;
Such as on stages play, such as we see
The Dryads painted, whom wild Satyrs love;
Whose arms half naked, locks untrussed be,
With buskins laced on their legs above,
And silken robes tuck'd short above their knee;
Such seem'd the Sylvan daughters of this grove,
Save that, instead of shafts and boughs of tree,
She bore a lute, a harp or cittern she;
And wantonly they cast them in a ring,
And sung and danc'd to move his weaker sense;
Rinaldo round about environing,
As centres are with their circumference:
The tree they compass'd eke, and 'gan to sing,
That woods and streams admir'd their excellence.]
Afterwards, the guardian of the grove, the enchantress Armida, appears. She has magically animated the hundred nymphlike spirits, to tempt Rinaldo from cutting down the tree, in order to help the pagan army defeat the Christians. But Rinaldo, infused with the Holy Spirit after his prayer on Mount Olivet, and armed with the divine wisdom of both the wise old magician from Ascolona and Peter the Hermit, refuses to be moved by Armida's enchantments and cuts the tree down. "Qui l’incanto forní, sparîr le larve" ("Then fled the spirts all, the charms all ended").
The similarities between the two Dances are striking enough to suggest that Spenser may have had Tasso's Dance in mind when creating his own. One reason the new source is significant is that for the first time we have a Dance similar in details to Spenser's that presents a precedent for a hundred nymphs dancing within a magical vision. Another reason the source is significant is that the juxtaposition of the two Dances offers us another instance of how Spenser adapts literary materials to his romantic epic. For, although both Dances present artistically created visions of beauty designed to enchant the senses of man, the differences between them are equally important. Armida's dancers, for example, are wantonly clad ("nude le braccia, e l'abito succinte"), revealing them to be the embodiments of seduction and the false appearance of reality, as the simile from the theatre in Stanza 27 further suggests. Hence, Armida uses this Dance as a vision of beauty designed to deceive Rinaldo—to tempt him to abandon his divinely ordained quest. Rinaldo's ability to disperse the magical illusion thus reveals the power of divine wisdom concerning the spirit of God to dispel the illusion of the false beauty of nature and man (woman).
Spenser, by contrast, inserts the Graces into the Dance (as it were), and converts the half-dressed nymphs into "naked maidens lilly white," so that "without guile/ Or false dissemblaunce all them plaine may see,/ Simple and true from covert malice free." The outer appearance and the inner reality of Spenser's dancers are the same: chaste, graceful beauty. For, unlike Armida, Colin Clout is a good magician who creates beautiful visions that inspire heroes on their quests. For Spenser, the Dance becomes an embodiment of the true spiritual beauty that, however evanescent, nonetheless is the source guiding man to the fulfillment of his true destiny. Spenser's borrowing from Tasso thus reveals his syncretic habit of mind at work: he creates Colin's Dance of Grace out of Armida's Dance of Disgrace.
Source: Patrick Cheney, "Spenser's Dance of the Graces and Tasso's Dance of the Sylvan Nymphs," in English Language Notes, Vol. 22, No. 1, September, 1984, pp. 5-9.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2717
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 gestures forward towards the walls and Rinaldo, who is on the threshold of victory. We are suspended in a moment of battle that carries with it the sensuous weight of the entire poem, the strain, terror, romance, and heroism of the whole Christian endeavor.
Also like Tasso, in his allegory accompanying the poem Cigoli describes the figures' hierarchical relationships to one another. Godfrey is understood most fully through his effectiveness as a leader—a purer, wiser man of control who ties the past to the present through his knowledge and action. Likewise, Rinaldo's depiction invokes his total life in the poem, culminating in his immersion in battle in obedience to his destiny and Godfrey's command. For Tasso, Godfrey as commander represents rational control. Rinaldo represents a more irrational nature that is subjected to obedience. If Godfrey is mind, a higher state, Rinaldo is the embodiment of passion that acts on what the mind, the intellect, commands. While Rinaldo had exhibited passion in a less acceptable, sensual fashion by yielding to Armida as well as by relinquishing his responsibility to nobility (of purpose), he is now in battle reunited with his proper natural role, obedience to intellect.
Tasso is heroic and he is melancholic. This Cigoli captures in the allegorical figure whose expression betrays the fear and sadness of these men who know devastation as well as glory. Her sadness is the embodiment of reflection and so Tasso ends his canto in stanza 105 following the battle:
The conquerors at once now enter'd all,
The walls were won, the gates were open'd wide;
Now bruised, broken down destroyed fall
The ports and towers that battery durst abide:
Rageth the sword, death murd'reth great and small,
And proud 'twixt woe and horror sad doth ride;
Here runs the blood, in ponds there stands the gore,
And drowns the knights in whom it liv'd before.
But remorse cannot be the final tone of the poem. However much one senses the irony of bloody conquest, the main theme is Christian victory wherein all apparent contradictions are resolved. The painting celebrates this victory under the aegis of faith and divine supervision in a manner consistent with the Counter Reformation emphasis on faith and action (works), a meaning revealed through the allegorical figure.
The combination of her various attributes, cornucopia, conch shell, and triangle does not yield to precise interpretation, yet the figure can be interpreted to suggest a thoroughly Counter Reformatory meaning. To begin with, there is a prototype for the reclining figure. She resembles Eve in her posture and expression, as seen, for example, on Ghiberti's 'Gates of Paradise' and in numerous paintings of the fourteenth century. The figure of Eve in turn is related to the Earth Mother. Eve as Earth Mother is especially fitting here because she is associated with the Church. Like the Church, Eve is the mother of all living things. She is biblically responsible for future generations of mankind and her name in Hebrew is interpreted as meaning 'all living things.' It would follow then that Eve as the Church would also symbolize Jerusalem, even Jerusalem as the new Church. Clearly this is the subject of the painting in general, the saving of Jerusalem, or the purification and restitution of the Church in a Counter Reformatory sense. Eve then, may be interpreted as an allegory of The Liberation of Jerusalem, the subject of the painting.
The attributes can be interpreted to support this thesis. If the shell and the cornucopia with grain are seen as basic elements, earth and water, they reinforce the notion of the figure as Eve/Earth Mother. Furthermore in the context of the painting's subject matter they can be interpreted as symbols of the sacraments of Eucharist (bread) and Baptism (water), the latter held on the side of the embattled citizens of Jerusalem soon to be availed of the opportunity of conversion. The triangle likewise suggests something compatible with this interpretation. The obvious meaning would be the Trinity. But an explanation of the tilted, almost inverted angle is less apparent. Possibly it is meant to conform with the compositional directives, the angle of the action, the charge forward and the scaling of the walls. If so, as a central symbol of the mystery of faith, the Trinity here would draw even greater attention to the Counter Reformation doctrine of the relationship of man's action and its success through faith. Placed in the center of the allegory of victory it reminds us of man's real means of achievement through the action and dedication to God of Godfrey and Rinaldo.
Cigoli, like Tasso, conceives the subject within the historical terms of the Counter Reformation. He casts the heroism, which subsumes the adventure and romance of the episodes of individuals, in the context of the larger struggle of the Church to assert its doctrine, to fight the heresy of Luther and the threat of the pagan Turks. Any painter undertaking a depiction of The Liberation of Jerusalem subsequent to the publishing of Tasso's poem would presumably have this concept in mind. Let us consider two comparable examples dating around the same time or slightly earlier. One by Santi di Tito has already been mentioned; the other is by Bernardo Castello, who illustrated early editions of Tasso's poem. Santi's work contains many elements in common with Cigoli's, as we have seen. It lacks conviction, however. One is given only a fleeting impression of battle. His organization of the composition into parallel receding planes is disjunctive. It does not unite the main elements of the composition, which represent opposing forces, in a way that suggests anything more than the description of parts of a battle. The viewer is effectively shut off from the painting, kept out of it. Yet one is treated to a feast of detail that stretches back into the distance exploring minute hill towns or castles that disappear into a vast sky.
Castello, too, arranges his composition into a series of planes that conform essentially to the picture plane. They recede into the distance parallel to one another, the first comprising the mass of attacking soldiers and the second the massive architecture of the city. There is no engaging activity, only the proportionally small foreground soldiers on horseback and the few distant figures running onto the ramparts. At no point does the viewer enter the space of the painting to foster sufficiently a feeling of involvement. In Cigoli's attack one moves into the space diagonally along the ramparts and battlefield. The action is close and consequently personal. One is caught between the soldiers scaling the walls and the charging horse. Cigoli provides an intimate view of the battle, not the entire scene as if viewed from a safe distance.
Ellis Waterhouse in his article 'Tasso and the Visual Arts' defines the prevalent unimaginative approach to Tasso. While referring to the tradition for illustrating Orlando Furioso, he says:
... it is therefore all the more curious that painters seem hardly to have illustrated Tasso at all during his lifetime—apart from the two series of engravings for the illustrated editions of the Gerusalemme, which mainly show the 'historical' incidents of the poem and are not in the least influenced by Tasso's description of the passions.
Elsewhere in his article, Waterhouse partially locates the special quality that links Cigoli more closely to Tasso:
The mannerists constantly placed their figures in poses contrary to normal usage, but they were organized so predominantly in the interest of the whole pattern that their individual contribution to the narrative tended to be vague and imprecise. This was exactly the opposite of Tasso. In painting it was not until the 1590's, above all in the style of the Carracci, who were working on the decoration of the Galleria Farnese in Rome at the time of Tasso's death, that a reaction against this kind of mannerism set in, in favor of significant action.
It is precisely Cigoli's grasp of the personal as well as the essentially historical nature of the characters that reveals his faithfulness to Tasso's interpretation of the epic. It is the passion of Tasso's figures that he strives so successfully to re-create. And certainly the transformation into 'significant action' of vague, imprecise, and anecdotal contributions to narrative content characterizes Cigoli and distinguishes him from his contemporaries, before, I might add, the Carracci were working in Rome.
As a model for achieving his coherency with Tasso it would seem that Cigoli adheres to the humanist theory of ut pictura poesis, 'as in painting so in poetry' (and vice versa). Central to this theory (adopted from antique sources and developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) is the notion that painting, like poetry, should be subject to the principles of clear style, convincing expression, and edifying purpose. In spite of the prevalence of this theory at the end of the century, few artists utilized its potential, as we have seen in the previous comparisons. Rensselaer Lee, in discussing the principles, evolution, and applicability of ut pictura poesis in the sixteenth century, points out that artists dealing with Tasso's Gerusalemme 'eschewed the serious main action of the poem that had to do with the siege and capture of Jerusalem under the crusader Godfrey Boulogne, and chose for the most part only those amorous and idyllic episodes wherein the lyric element is strong, and Tasso's idosyncratic vein of tender melancholy finds unfettered expression.' He is commenting on the popularity of Tasso's poem among artists of the seventeenth century and their lack of concern with the moralistic and didactic aspects of the theory that were stressed by the Counter Reformation. But we are safe in saying that such a concern existed in the late sixteenth century. The instructional emphasis in ut pictura poesis served during Cigoli's time as a theoretical standard by which art might be measured and might convey historical significance. Cigoli's painting which we have discussed here is eloquent testimony to this.
Source: Charles H. Carman, "An Early Interpretation of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata," in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 30-38.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10843
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 Aeneid, and from the classical literary theorists, particularly Aristotle and Demetrius.
His epic thus treats an heroic theme of large scale, the siege and capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by Godfrey of Boulogne and his allies; it deliberately plunges 'in medias res' with the approach to Jerusalem, ignoring the previous exploits of the crusaders; it has a single unified theme, to which the episodes are subordinated; it adopts a serious magniloquent tone throughout—so that De Sanctis complained that 'from first to last he blew the trumpet'; and its characters and action are very widely inspired by classical precedent, with 'maraviglie,' 'agnizione,' 'peripezie,' etc. The councils of the supernatural forces controlling the action, the quarrel and withdrawal of the leading Christian knights on whose eventual recall the success of the campaign depends; the night expedition of two enemy warriors, the espionage mission of Vafrino, the troop reviews, the battles and duels—these and many other incidents are often closely reminiscent of passages from Homer and Virgil. At the same time the heroic ideal is adapted to the claims of the time: a period of history is chosen which allows the celebration of the Christian faith, which is no less prominent here than are the Greek gods in Homer; and the contemporary critics of 'empty fictions' are met with references to the chronicles and a substratum of historical fact. This is the structure of the heroic epic devised by Tasso.
However, Tasso had no wish to renounce the chivalrous romance completely. His plan as outlined above might seem a deliberate attack on the romances, with their light-hearted humorous approach, loose structure, popular language and indifference to historical and geographical reality; and indeed Tasso's approach is in a degree negative. He opposes forcefully the 'defects' of the romances, but he cannot deny their appeal, and indeed feels it himself. Ariosto's remarkable popularity beside Trissino's failure was not to be ignored. The heroic ideal is adulterated therefore with the charms of the romances—notably the loves and enchantments— and Tasso admits his compromise from the beginning. He begs pardon of his Christian muse for his adorning the truth:
... e tu perdona s'intesso fregi al ver, s'adorno in parte d'altri diletti, che de' tuoi, le carte. Sai che là corre il mondo ove più versi di sue dolcezze il lusinghier Parnaso, e che 'l vero condito in molli versi, i più schivi allettando ha persuaso.
So in the accepted romance tradition the pagan Armida wreaks havoc in the Christian ranks by her seductive charms, and two other pagan beauties, an Amazon (Clorinda) and a stay-at-home (Erminia), are at the centre of other digressive incidents. Nor are the wizards and witches of the romances absent, and the crusaders even suffer at one stage from being turned into fish. The camouflage of these obvious 'diletti' is thin—the loves are mildly allegorical, an obstacle in the path of Christian duty; and the enchantments are remotely controlled by Christian powers, by God and his angels or Beelzebub. But the connection with the romances of chivalry is seen everywhere—not only in the form, where the traditional octave rhyme and canto structure are employed, but in the chivalrous spirit of the crusaders, who will take no unfair advantage of an unhorsed or disarmed opponent, and in many details of the action: even the favourite Italian knight Rinaldo reappears as a crusading ancestor of Tasso's patrons, the Estensi.
This compromise between the heroic, serious, didactic elements on the one hand and the fanciful and romantic on the other is typical of Tasso's approach to so many things: it constantly appears in his letters in his attempts to placate his critics and at the same time to safeguard his own wishes; in his search for peace and independence and yet his hankering for the court and its excitement; in his writings it is also evident in his aim to reconcile Aristotle and Plato, in his frequent reference to or intimation of sources, and his attempts at almost every literary genre, epic, lyric, dramatic, dialogue, discourse—as though he stands in no one camp but in all. So that he has seemed to many critics a man of the Renaissance struggling to conform to the spirit of the Counter Reformation in which he had the misfortune to be born, while to others he is of the very essence of his time or even a herald of the Seicento. It is this very imprecision of mind, this drifting between schools and genres and feelings which contributes so effectively to Tasso's originality as a poet and which has preserved his reputation through the changing trends of the centuries, so that he has appealed to Secentisti and Arcadians, Romantics and Classicists.
This is, however, a difficult and dangerous course for a poet who may juxtapose but fail to blend the contrasting components. Thus the Liberata has been condemned by many critics since De Sanctis for failing to reconcile the heroic and the romance elements. The strictly heroic elements have been considered uninspired, accepted by a reluctant poet because of the climate of religious and literary opinion. Tasso is held to have been unmoved by the Crusade as a glorious feat of arms, or at least unable to convey his emotion; and to be lacking in religious faith, for which he substituted the formal ceremony and pomp of the Counter Reformation; thus the attempt to create a heroic religious epic failed. On the other hand, where the poet was in sympathy with his material was in the love episodes and the enchantments—here, it was said, his fancy had free play and here the poet found inspiration for his best work, in the enchanted wood and the garden of Armida, the death of Clorinda and the loves of Erminia and of Olindo. So the Liberata has been thought of as an epic poem in which the strict epic elements fail, while the romance, lyrical moments keep the poem alive—hence Momigliano's view, repeated by Fubini, of a new poetic technique, 'per cui la poesia si raccoglie in alcuni momenti culminanti e sembra tacere per lungo spazio.'
While there is certainly an element of truth in this view, it errs through oversimplification and the aesthetic judgement has been biased by long-standing historical fallacies—that the heroic and religious elements were alien to the poet who accepted unwillingly the dictates of Inquisitors and literary dictators—and perhaps by a distaste for psychological half-tones. (Is Tancredi a hero or isn't he? Is Armida a wicked sorceress? Is Goffredo the ideal prince?) The search for a biographical explanation has contributed to the distinction between epic and lyric, between heroic and romance, as though the poem were a document of the everyday life of the poet (who was neither heroic nor religious but who was superstitious and amorous) whereas it is really a reflection of a complex world of fears and aspirations which pervades the heroic and religious material no less than the romantic. However, the distinction between the two bodies of material, the heroic epic and the romance, is a useful one and will serve to illustrate what has been said.
Tasso's theme then is the celebration of a great and glorious feat of arms, and to dismiss the military and heroic elements as unpoetic concessions to literary tradition or popular taste or Counter Reformation missionary zeal is to misread the poem. The military action is important to Tasso—it is not merely a structure on which to hang his romantic episodes. The poet is fascinated by action, perhaps precisely because he was not himself a man of action. His military experience is nil, but his imagination is stirred by the clash of arms and the emotional tensions aroused by the prospect of death. The very techniques of fighting interest him intensely, particularly the parry and thrust of the duel; he is expert in the arts of the sword, and the accuracy of his accounts of single combats is legendary. The duel is no longer the monotonous hacking of the chivalrous romances but a contest of skills and characters, a moving interplay of minds as of bodies. The duel between Tancredi and Argante in Canto VI is a good example of this, from the cautious taking of stance to the first feint inducing the aggressive Argante to make his overbold thrust; Tancredi parries swiftly, wounds his opponent and reassumes his stance. Argante, arrogant, always victorious, can scarcely believe that he is wounded and in his rage and pain rushes wildly on to Tancredi's sword again:
Il fero Argante, che se stesso mira del proprio sangue suo macchiato e molle, con insolito orror freme e sospira, di cruccio e di dolor turbato e folle; e portato da l'impeto e da l'ira, con la voce la spada insieme estolle, e torna per ferire, ed è di punta piagato ov'è la spalla al braccio giunta.
Now the pagan throws discretion to the winds and rains blows on the lighter Tancredi who anxiously defends himself; and only the oncoming darkness puts an end to the dramatic conflict. The duel between Rinaldo and Gernando in Canto V is also dramatic, not only in the vivid representation of the action, but particularly in the picture of the inferior Gernando who in his moment of fear trembles, but puts on a bold face and meets his opponent resolutely. Thus the clash of arms uncovers the deepest resources of character.
The broader canvas of the military campaign is also treated with considerable narrative skill. Tasso is interested in every aspect of the conflict—the costumes, weapons, supplies, troop dispositions and tactics. The instruments of war assume a personality of their own, the sword for example which is thrust into the supplicating face of the young Lesbino:
Senso aver parve e fu de l'uom più umano ilferro, che si volse e piatto scese.
The massive siege-tower participates in the action almost as though a character ('primo terror de le nemiche genti') and sets off a chain of colourful and moving incidents: it is damaged in the first assault, and brought back by the Christian knights, but its wheels break and it sways furiously in the darkness while Goffredo puts guards round it and sets men to work to repair it. Through the night the besieged Muslims can hear the sound of the workmen and see the gleam of their torches—hence the sortie of Clorinda and Argante to fire it and the lengthy attempt on the enchanted forest for more wood. The firing of the tower becomes a colourful and thrilling incident as the pagans flee leaving the blazing structure behind them:
Vedi globi di fiamme oscure e miste fra le rote del fumo in ciel girarsi. Il vento soffia, e vigor fa ch'acquiste l'incendio e in un raccolga i fochi sparsi. Fère il gran lume con terror le viste de' Franchi, e tutti son presti ad armarsi.
La mole immensa, e sì temuta in guerra, cade, e breve ora opre sì lunghe atterra.
The tension of this night sortie is conveyed by Tasso with great skill: the two fleeing assailants reach the walls of the city with the Christians in pursuit; the gates are opened to receive them, and then hastily shut, and in the confusion Clorinda is shut out—but in the darkness she is able to mingle with her opponents and slip away. The splendour of troops in battle-array, the noise and confusion of the battle-field, the murmurings of a riotous army, the eloquence of leaders, the crafty subtleties of ambassadors—all these are brilliantly shown, not indeed with the accuracy of the historian, but with the feeling of a poet who imagines and relives the event with the help of the chroniclers and the poets of the past.
Thus in spite of his historical documentation Tasso's battles are often dream landscapes through which his knights pass in a frenzy of heroism. Ariosto, who knew something of campaigning from first-hand experience, has a scene in which his knights tramp reluctantly out into the rain to do battle with a tired wayfarer. Tasso will not suffer this denigration of the heroic ideal: he believes in the high motives of his crusaders. His account of the noble Goffredo pressing forward through the battle to attack Soliman is effective poetically precisely because it is a dream of heroism, a baroque painting where the outlines are forgotten: Goffredo seems to fly on, as he leaps over 'i confusi monti…de la profonda strage': all is vague and confused—blood and dust, danger and death.
Arms and heroism are not then alien to Tasso's poetic inspiration, but it is more often the heroism of failure which moves him than the glory of success, and more often the horror of violence than the splendour of armed might. Tasso is fascinated by violence and has scenes of slaughter which shock by a grim realism of imagery and sound:
e'l ferro ne le viscere gli immerse. Il misero Latin singhiozza e spira, e con vomito alterno or gli trabocca il sangue per la piaga, or per la bocca.
Elsewhere the horror of death is conveyed in a vague generic impression, as in his description of the uneasy still of the strewn battle-field:
Non v'è silenzio e non v'è grido espresso, ma odi un non so che roco e indistinto: fremiti di furor, mormori d'ira, gemiti di chi langue e di chi spira.
It is easy to place these scenes of horror against the background of Tasso's own anxious and fearful mind—his practical inexperience of battle does not debar him from the poetry of violence and of death. Indeed Tasso's own passivity seems to bring into his heroic action an element of humanity which is rare in the chivalrous epic. There is often an inner life behind the act of heroism which the unhappy, unheroic Tasso knew only too well: Sofronia, the shy 'matura vergine' suffers martyrdom in her exposure to the public gaze before ever the fire is lit around her; the timid Erminia's heroism is to don Clorinda's armour and to dare to ride out, past the guards, in spite of her fears, into the hostile night; Gernando foresees his death at Rinaldo's hands and trembles inwardly with fear while he assumes a bold face.
The most moving poetry of defeat however is in the deaths of the two pagan leaders, Solimano and Argante. They are both fanatical warriors, relentless in battle, unwilling to acknowledge superior force; but the ferocity of each is softened by a moment of self-pity or of introspective gloom which heightens the heroism of their death. Argante pauses before his final fatal duel with Tancredi to look back at the falling Jerusalem: Tancredi taunts him with cowardice and Argante suddenly rises superior to Tancredi's taunts in a few deeply pondered words:
Penso—risponde—a la città del regno
di Giudea antichissima regina,
che vinta or cade, e indarno esser sostegno
Il procurai de la fatal ruina,
e ch'è poca vendetta al mio disdegno
Il capo tuo che 'l Cielo or mi destina.
It is with Argante, the noble loser, that our sympathies lie, and his ultimate death, brought about by the violence of his own blow, is that of a 'grande vinto,' and has become legendary:
Moriva Argante, e tal moria qual visse: minacciava morendo e non languia. Superbi, formidabili e feroci gli ultimi moti fur, l’ultime voci.
Solimano too reveals a moment of weakness in his tears for the dead Lesbino. When he falls finally stunned by Rinaldo's blow he is suddenly aware of his approaching defeat and death, and cannot bring himself to defend his life, but dies silently under the attack:
non fugge i colpi e gemito non spande, nè atto fa se non se altero e grande.
It is by virtue of this intensely personal reaction to the theme of arms and heroism that Tasso's choice of subject is justified poetically. Yet the element of subjectivity is constantly minimized by Tasso in his 'lettere poetiche,' while the historical accuracy is emphasized. The choice of an historical theme is made in accordance with the poet's belief in the importance of verisimilitude. He states in the Discorsi dell'Arte Poetica that the theme of the epic poem is best taken from history, because if the reader thinks that the material is false, he will not be so easily moved to anger, terror or pity. Historical truth is thus a means of gaining the close participation of the reader.
A good deal of historical research therefore went into the Liberata. Tasso made use of William of Tyre, Paolo Emilio, Roberto Monaco, indeed any historical information that came his way, without distinguishing the more reliable sources from the derivative. The crusade of 1096-99 organized by Urban II, is then an historical fact, and from the chronicles Tasso draws many of his characters: Goffredo and his brothers Eustazio and Baldovino, Tancredi, Pietro the hermit, Dudone, Odoardo, Ottone Visconti, Guglielmo Embriaco and others; and many details and episodes are also taken from historical sources: the expulsion of the Christians from Jerusalem, the geographical descriptions of the city, the underground tunnel, the death of Sveno, the Arab attack, the drought, and many details of the battles—the dove-messenger intercepted by the Christians, the use of siege-towers, of deception, smoke, even the weather of the day of the final battle. More often hints in the chronicles are the basis for Tasso's own inventions. Clorinda, an invented character, is justified by a statement in an anonymous chronicle that the Saracen women fought against the Crusaders. Ottone's duel with the invented Argante is based on a duel between Ottone and a pagan mentioned by William of Tyre. The Sofronia-Olindo episode is invented on the basis of a report of the self-sacrifice of a Christian youth following the discovery of a dead dog in a Jerusalem mosque and threats of punishment of the Christians for profanation. Tancredi's love for Armida is justified by Tasso in a letter where he claims that the chronicles describe him as 'excessively fond of the embraces of the Saracen women.' Similarly Tasso is able to defend the supernatural elements by reference to the beliefs of the time, 'the history of this war being full of miracles, it wasn't suitable for the poem to be any less wonderful.'
In many cases however the chronicles were a hindrance to the poet. They often did not conform to the heroic ideal which he was celebrating because they showed up the vices of the crusaders: he has tried, he says, to gloss over or excuse the defects of the Christians. He pretends therefore that the faults of Raimondo were due to his old age, and those of Tancredi to his youth, although he knows that this is not historically true. For structural reasons he felt the need to bring the anti-Christian forces under a more unified command, and he makes Solimano subordinate to the King of Egypt and the Arabs, while Argante is made the rival of Solimano, in imitation of Homer and Virgil—but he has doubts about this: some critics, he says, might like him to keep to historical truth, but he would prefer not to do so.
Tasso is therefore no enthusiast for historical truth and frequently ignores it or consciously exaggerates it. So the three years of campaigning are increased to six; Ugone who has deserted is declared to have died; Goffredo, not in fact elected to leadership until after the conquest of Jerusalem, is here made the ideal prince from Canto I; and the invasion by the Egyptian army is made to occur several months earlier than it really did in order to produce a grand climax to the poem. Thus Tasso's frequent references in letters and discourses to his historical sources are often a cover for his own artistic inclinations—an excuse for the inventions of his own imagination which he feared that moralizing and pedantic critics might censure.
Tasso's theories did not require the epic to reproduce historical truth, but to celebrate ‘l’impresse d'una eccelsa virtù bellica, i fatti di cortesia, di generosità, di pietà, di religione.' It is from his belief in the illustrious nature of the epic and in universal truth that so many of the defects of the poem spring. In accordance with these principles Tasso strives, often uncritically, after certain ideals of character and action. He wishes to impress on us the noble, grave, serious nature of his heroes and he is not content to let this arise from their actions, but blows the trumpet when they appear. Goffredo more than any other character suffers from this. He is not in fact a very compelling or admirable leader, and resorts to the drawing of lots and a hypocritically contrived dignity to cover his insecure control of his army—but Tasso bolsters him up with pompous epithets: in the first canto alone he is 'il gran capitano,' 'il pio Goffredo augusto in volto ed in sermon sonoro,' 'il provido Buglion' with 'volto placido e composto.' This arid and meaningless labelling is applied to nearly all his main characters: Rinaldo 'venerabile e severo,' Clorinda's 'regal sembianza,' Armida's 'regal sdegno,' Erminia 'altera e gentile,' Dudone 'di virilità grave e maturo'; and of the Caliph of Egypt, who, history tells us, was a youthful twenty-five, Tasso declares:
e ben da ciascun atto è sostenuta la maestà de gli anni e de l'impero.
The attempt to sustain a lofty tone is thus intruded into the action where often it serves only to accentuate an uninspired passage. The lance, which Goffredo avoided by ducking, strikes the faithful Sigiero, whose fidelity must be stressed:
nè gli rincresce, del suo caro duce morendo in vece, abbandonar la luce.
It is notable in the hyperbolic feats of arms where the exhausted muse resorts to ever hollower epithets:
incredibili, orrende e monstruose.
—and it leads the poet into complicated and unnatural situations, as in the Sofronia episode. The historical origin was a dead dog thrown into a mosque—but a dead dog was hardly worthy of the heroic epic. Tasso looks for a substitute and thinks of the Palladio stolen by Ulysses and Diomedes in the Iliad. By a violent contortion of probability he then makes the pagans steal the Christian image of the Virgin to protect them, so that a Christian could be expected to steal it back, and a truly noble act of heroism may replace a rather pedestrian one.
The search for heroic gravity here as elsewhere leads Tasso too often to the classics, as though the presence of a Homeric detail, by the force of association, will ensure dignity and gravity. Particularly in matters of style Tasso repeats constantly the formulas and devices of the 'stile magnifico' which Aristotle and Demetrius had declared appropriate to the epic, and the pursuit of this stylistic ideal leads him into many faults. It is above all his attempt to avoid the commonplace and everyday which is so difficult to reconcile with his professed attention to historical truth. Everyday words are replaced by high-sounding peri-phrases, such as that describing Erminia in the shepherd's cottage making cheese:
e da l'irsute mamme il latte preme e 'n giro accolto poi lo stringe insieme.
In many cases a vacuous genetic language results, or a pedantic paraphrase of a commonplace expression:
…e Gabriel s' accinse
veloce ad esseguir l'imposte cose.
A similar lameness results from a mechanical amplification, which aims at solemnity but sounds very much like padding:
e drizza a l'Oliveto il lento moto monte che da l'olive il nome prende, monte per sacra fama al mondo noto.
It is often Tasso's fear that his material is not sufficiently heroic which prompts him to resort to rhetorical devices. Erminia's indecision between her desire to help the wounded Tancredi and her fears of leaving the besieged city is poetically inspiring, but Tasso must relate it to his heroic theme by a high-sounding personification:
e fan dubbia contesa entro al suo core duo potenti nemici, Onore e Amore.
This pompous and literary style is particularly inappropriate in the mouths of some of his characters, who are compelled to use a language and literary reminiscences remote from their experience, so that we find the phraseology of classical philosophy on the lips of the pagans, and the crusading soldiers praying at the sight of Jerusalem in Dante-esque tones.
In this examination of the attempt to create an heroic epic, one important element has not yet been mentioned: it is the concern with 'meraviglia,' a word which constantly appears in statements about the epic, and which recurs not infrequently in the Liberata itself:
percote l'alta pianta. Oh meraviglia! manda fuor sangue la recisa scorza.
Its close association with classical precedent ('mirabilia') is apparent from Tasso's declared aim of over-going antiquity:
Già ne l'aprir d'un, rustico sileno meraviglie vedea l'antica etade, ma quel gran mirto da l'aperto seno imagini mostrò più belle e rade.
In the Giudizio Sulla Gerusalemme Conquistata he claims that he is in some ways more 'meraviglioso' than Homer. Elsewhere he insisted that it was the poet's aim to arouse wonder—this was essential in the heroic epic—but at the same time he must be true to life. The fictions of the classical epics, based on a false religion and therefore incredible, should now be replaced by the supernatural structure of Christianity, God and his angels, Beelzebub and his devils. In this way not only the marvels of antiquity but also the enchantments of the romances could be reconciled with the Christian religion—or such was Tasso's intention.
The suitability of supernatural elements arousing wonder in a poem intended to celebrate heroic ideals is clear: heroes are superhuman by virtue of their alliance with supernatural forces, and only by superhuman strength can the opponents of heroes rise to meet them. This is true of the classical epics no less than of the romances—indeed the continued popularity of magic throughout the ages might well have made it indispensable now. But it is no cold spirit of literary emulation that interests Tasso in the 'marvellous.' He was himself fascinated by the supernatural throughout most of his life, in fact until the comparative calm of his last years. Lacking a firm religious faith, he was unable to reconcile the world as he knew it with his own inner consciousness. Science could not explain all the marvels of the world, and what escaped the control of reason and will seemed to him a sort of diabolical force. Hence his fascination with magic forces, which led him at one stage to believe that he was himself bewitched.
The 'meraviglie' of the Liberata therefore respond both to a theoretical literary programme and to an intimate personal necessity. Their failure always to coincide seems to explain the uncertain inspiration of the supernatural elements in the poem. Thus the reproduction of classical miracles in a Christian setting is often incongruous: the Christian guardian angel of Goffredo heals his wounds by plucking herbs on Mount Ida and dropping them unobserved in the dressing that is prepared for him. Beelzebub's method of disturbing the duel between Argante and Raimondo is to form an image of Clorinda ('Mirabil mostro') who urges Oradino to shoot an arrow at Raimondo, and the latter's guardian angel is only just in time to reduce the force of the shot—a complex and unconvincing intrigue inserted under Homeric influence. Equally uninspired is the episode in which, in imitation of the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid, Solimano enters Jerusalem in a magic chariot enveloped in a cloud that makes him invisible. He also uses an underground tunnel, mentioned in the chronicles—which seems hardly necessary for one so magically equipped.
Indeed the miracles of the Christian religion are reconciled only with difficulty with the needs of the story. The mysterious appearance of two hermits by Sveno's dead body and their command that for the sake of revenge his sword should be taken to Rinaldo, is a strangely un-Christian scene. So too is the picture of the hermit Pietro, whose devout trance ('Pieno di Dio, rapto dal zelo') enables him to recount the glories of the house of Este. The attempt to 'Christianize' the supernatural structure of the poem is generally a failure—the struggle between Christians and Moslems is related to a contest between God and the devil the outcome of which is only too obvious; and the miracles by which God answers the prayers of the faithful are too mechanically obvious and too zealously advertised:
Oh glorioso capitano! oh molto dal gran Dio custodito, al gran Dio caro! A te guerreggia il Cielo; ed ubidenti vengon, chiamati a suon di trombe, i venti.
Elsewhere and most frequently the supernatural is a mechanical afterthought, superimposed on an action which is already psychologically justified: Gernando's arrogant dislike of Rinaldo is adequately explained before ever the 'maligno spirito d'Averno' unnecessarily creeps into his breast. Tasso's approach is perhaps illustrated by his treatment of Tancredi's failure in the enchanted wood: before the tree which he must fell but which takes on the appearance of his lady Clorinda, he is caught in an agony of indecision likened in a telling simile to a nightmare; but Tasso regretted this human weakness in his hero and proposed to change the passage by introducing an enchantment. The change was not made, however, on this occasion and Tancredi's humanity does not suffer.
In spite of this Tasso succeeds in innumerable ways in convincing the reader that the hand of God does indeed hang over the action—a sense of fatality, which must be God's providence, drives the characters on their courses. This is particularly moving in the case of Clorinda. On the evening of her sortie to fire the siege-tower her nurse senses the perils that await her and tells her the story of her youth—her miraculous preservation from dangers, the warnings conveyed in a dream that she should be baptized. Now at least she should take heed. Clorinda listens attentively for she too has had forebodings, but she will not abandon the faith in which she has been brought up and she goes off, completes her task and is attacked by Tancredi. The end is preordained, and is forecast with melancholy resignation:
Ma ecco omai l'ora fatale è giunta che 'l viver di Clorinda al suo fin deve,
and fatally wounded she accepts baptism and dies at peace.
…In questa forma
passa la bella donna e par che dorma.
There are moments too when the presence of God and his angels urging on the battling Christians seems to blend the earthly and the supernatural forces into an irrestible power—as in the assault on Jerusalem, where Goffredo lifts his eyes to heaven and sees the dead Christian heroes with the heavenly host fighting for the Christian cause.
Where, however, the supernatural most frequently inspires Tasso to passages of great poetic feeling is where it coincides with his own anxious sense of the mystery of the world, in the expression of vague haunting fears and strange visions of fascinating but unattainable scenes of beauty and peace. The nightmarish horrors of his own clouded mind reappear in the devilish forces which beset the Christians, in Pluto's terrifying appearance, and the swarming demons:
Venieno innumerabili, infiniti spirti, parte che 'n aria alberga ed erra, parte di quei che son dal fondo usciti caliginoso e tetro de la terra;
and the murky landscapes:
Ma già distendon l'ombre orrido velo che di rossi vapor si sparge e tigne.
The enchanted wood is a study in fear: Tancredi, like Tasso, does not dare to confess his fear—only the uncomplicated Rinaldo is unmoved by the terrors. These are imprecise pictures where the image has no place in space or time, no rational explanation; their fascination is in their lack of rationality. The mysterious haunting music of the wood springs from an unknown source:
di novo s'udia quella gioconda
strana armonia di canto e di querele;
ma il coro uman, ch'a i cigni, a l'aura, a l'onda
facea tenor, non sa dove si cele:
non sa veder chi formi umani accenti,
nè dove siano i musici stromenti.
Together with the fear of unknown dangers goes the dream of only half-visualized scenes of happiness and confidence. The Christian knights Carlo and Ubaldo are carried to the distant Fortunate Isles in a boat that sails but seems to fly, impelled by an unknown force, the description of which is vague, generic, significant for the sound rather than the visual imagery—'porta seco non so che di vago e di curioso,' Tasso said of it. Here in a remote and misty dream are set the gardens of Armida, on a dark and uninhabited mountain amid snow and shadows. Dante's supernatural world is so precise that it can and has been mapped with geometrical accuracy. We could hardly even begin to map the gardens of Armida. Tasso, sensitive as he was to the poetry of Dante's vision, goes beyond him in the expression of these vague and dreamlike experiences that belong not in the concrete world of action and reality, but in the only half-conscious workings of his own mind. This is a new note in Italian literature and a foreshadowing in some ways of the poetry of the Romantics.
The fascination of magic is only one element in Tasso's preoccupation with the supernatural which arises, as we have suggested, out of an intimate sense of the mystery of the universe and of man's part in it, and a dissatisfaction with the rational explanations of science. This concern with a reality beyond the normal world of the senses is, in my view, of a religious nature and identifies Tasso as a man of serious religious aspirations. Many critics have been unable to find in the Liberata what they term the 'true religious sense,' and have dismissed the religious passages as cold, formal, expressive of the letter of the Counter Reformation, preoccupied with ceremony and display. Donadoni was extremely critical: Tasso's religious sense seemed to him negative and insincere, not really religious at all, but a weariness of the world, something external and formal.
It is undeniable that the spirit of the Council of Trent pervades the poem—this is in a sense a document of the Counter Reformation in which the religious ideals of the new age are displayed in the medieval context of the crusades: the resistance of the Church to the heretical empire of the over-powerful Turks as to the heresies of the Reformation was a contemporary necessity in which Tasso sincerely believed and which certainly motivated his choice of subject. It is part of Tasso's epic ideal that his poem should celebrate ‘l’illustre della religione,' and he brings to his work a seriousness of religious interest not to be found in Pulci or Ariosto. The poet's fears of Inquisitorial censorship certainly influenced his treatment of the subject, but there is every reason to believe that his conformity was not a violent suppression of his own inclinations; it has been aptly said that the Counter Reformation was in him.
Whether or not one accepts this view it is clear that two different themes of a religious nature recur in the Liberata. On the one hand there is the personal, intimate sense of mystery, loneliness and weakness which seeks for God as an explanation and consolation; and on the other is the consciousness of the collective force of the Church and the delight in its ceremonial and liturgy. These are not conflicting themes, although Tasso often fails to reconcile them in his poetry just as he had not yet succeeded in reconciling them in his life. The first is nearly always poetical in expression. Rinaldo on Monte Oliveto is alone, beyond Church, priests, ritual—he looks up at the night and marvels at the incorruptible beauties of nature and is ashamed of his own wickedness. His penitence is the result of that sense of mystery and wonder which was Tasso's own experience and which he interpreted in a broadly Platonic rather than Christian way:
Fra se stesso pensava: 'Oh quante belle luci il tempio celeste in se raguna! Ha il suo gran carro il dì, l'aurate stelle spiega la notte e l'argentata luna; ma non è chi vagheggi o questa o quelle, e miriam noi torbida luce e bruna ch'un girar d'occhi, un balenar di riso, scopre in breve confin di fragil viso.'
A sense of the weakness of man and the futility of human effort recurs in the journey of Carlo and Ubaldo to the Fortunate Isles:
Giace l'alta Cartago: a pena i segni de l'alte sue ruine il lido serba. Muoiono le città, muoiono i regni, copre i fasti e le pompe arena ed erba, e l'uom d'esser mortal par che si sdegni: oh nostra mente cupida e superba!
So the 'mago di Ascalonia' condemns his own folly of thinking that his learning could ever measure the creations of God; and Ugone contrasts in his exhortation to Goffredo the beauty of the heavens with the loneliness of man on earth:
Quanto è vil la cagion ch'a la virtude umana è colà giù premio e contrasto! in che picciolo cerchio e fra che nude solitudini è stretto il vostro fasto!
Here then the unhappiness of the human lot is religious in origin, a sense of the greatness of God's creation which man can never fully experience on this earth, an aspiration to a beauty and mystery beyond the senses. In contrast with the loneliness, the weakness and fears of the poet, which receives poetic form in the gloomy horrors of darkness, is the glowing light that dispels fear, as in Goffredo's vision of Ugone:
Pareagli esser traslato in un sereno candido e d'auree fiamme adorno e pieno; e mentre ammira in quell'eccelso loco l'ampiezza, i moti, i lumi e l’armonia, ecco cinto di rai, cinto di foco, un cavaliero incontra a lui venia.
Alongside this rather pondered philosophical faith should be set the simple acceptance of Christ which brings peace—the acceptance of Clorinda who has not questioned the Moslem faith in which she was brought up (and is free from the introspective anxiety of some of the Christians), but who asks for baptism and dies in peace without second thoughts. Her calm acceptance of death is the Christian ideal of peace in God; and her faith has the power to stir the errant Tancredi, who has set the love of a pagan woman above his duty as a Christian:
In queste voci languide risuona
un non so che di flebile e soave
ch'al cor gli scende ed ogni sdegno ammorza,
e gli occhi a lagrimar gli invoglia e sforza.
The simplicity of this scene where the spiritual awakening of Tancredi is an intimate and personal drama that takes place within himself and without the external pressure of the Church has been contrasted by an Italian critic with the coldly formal sermon preached at him by Pietro the Hermit shortly after:
Questa sciagura tua del Cielo è un messo.
It is as though Tancredi is not to be entrusted with the working out of his own spiritual welfare, which must be placed in the hands of the Church. Similarly Rinaldo's moving experience on Monte Oliveto is reinforced by another formal sermon from Pietro. This concession to the spirit of the times is probably not insincere. Tasso was not content with the reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle with which he interpreted the real world and his own reactions to it. He felt the need of a creed, and the formalities of worship— hence his eagerness to consult the Inquisitors. He was seriously afraid of hell and only too eager to conform, so that the ceremonial of the poem, the confessing, baptizing, praying, preaching, parading correspond to an inner prompting in the poet. The love of colour and pageantry inspires some fine passages, particularly the procession to Monte Oliveto:
Va Piero solo innanzi e spiega al vento il segno riverito in Paradiso, e segue il corso a passo grave e lento in duo lunghissimi ordini diviso.
At times, however, this religious mission is cold and unmoving. Tasso works too hard to raise the tone in obedience to the principles of magnificence and gravity which dictate his treatment of the military theme, and a formal pomp and display destroy the sense of religious devotion. God and his angels gaze down from a theatrically contrived stage setting, with Fate and Nature, Motion and Time, Place and Fortune carefully disposed around them. The religious struggle becomes a cold political battle in which the Christians' prayers are mechanically answered and those of their opponents ignored, while an unflinching love of blood and revenge moves the ministers of God and Tasso himself:
O giustizia del Ciel, quanto men presta tan to più grave sovra il popol rio! Dal tuo secreto proveder fu desta l'ira ne' cor pietosi, e incrudelio. Lavò co'l sangue suo l'empio pagano quel tempio che già fatto avea profano.
Appropriate as this may have been to the spirit of the Crusade, we feel neither interest nor sympathy for this political conflict reported in so partisan a manner.
Above all, the religious inspiration falls foul of a cold didactic sermonizing tendency which is the formal side of the Counter Reformation. Sofronia reads the amorous Olindo a chilling lecture on his sins:
Amico, altri pensieri, altri lamenti, per più alta cagione il tempo chiede. Chè non pensi a tue colpe? e non rammenti qual Dio prometta a i buoni ampia mercede?
—and most of Pietro's speeches are set in the same key. A severe Inquisitorial morality enters the medieval scene:
...in cima a l'erto e faticoso colle de la virtù riposto è il nostro bene. Chi non gela e non suda e non s'estolle da le vie del piacer, là non perviene.
This didactic note in the Liberata sounds forced and superficial. It is not an integral part of the poem, and the attempt to strengthen it in the Conquistata proved quite unsuccessful. Indeed there is good external evidence of Tasso's purely formal attempts to add more weight to his poem in his Allegory, which was not composed until after the poem was written and first appeared only with the Bonnà editions. Tasso himself declared in a letter to Gonzaga that when he first began his poem the idea of an allegory was quite remote from his mind, but that when he had come more than halfway he began to think about an allegory, as something that might help him to meet his critics. The formal Allegory is thus an afterthought. This does not mean that symbolic meanings did not occur to Tasso as he wrote— in view of the derivative nature of so much of the material this would hardly have been possible. The tests of the enchanted wood are clearly a means of purification, and the garden of Armida a picture of the seduction of the senses; but the essence of these episodes is in their literal, not their allegorical senses, which is stressed, as Tasso admits, because of 'la strettezza dei tempi'; and in fact the Allegory was welcomed widely as justification for the amorous material, and helped to smooth the poem's path, not least in England.
The elements examined so far may all be considered essential features of the serious heroic epic: that is to say from the adaptation of the classical epics to the spirit of the Counter Reformation Tasso evolved a poem celebrating an heroic and religious ideal of character, based on an historical theme and interpreted according to classical principles of verisimilitude and 'meraviglia.' In adopting this programme Tasso was conforming, sometimes more, sometimes less willingly, to the ideas of his time-to the literary Aristotelianism and Catholic severity of the late sixteenth century in Italy. His constant theorizing on the epic and his anxious self-abasement before the Inquisition are characteristic of his age, even more than they are of the man, and while Tasso was able to mould the ideals of the time to his own temperament, so that in the heroic and Christian ideal and the techniques of verisimilitude and 'meraviglia' he translates aspects of his own inner life, the inspiration here is uncertain and unequal just because of the pressure of external forces.
An epic constructed exclusively according to this formula could not satisfy Tasso because it would not allow him sufficient place for himself. He makes this clear in the Arte Poetica in his insistence on the poet's 'licenza del fingere.' The theme chosen should be sufficiently remote in time to allow the poet to invent as he sees fit, and the material should not be too extensive if the author is not to be forced to leave out 'gli episodi e gli altri ornamenti, i quali sono al poeta necessarissimi.' The episodes, which deal mainly with love and enchantments, have long been admired as the most personal and inspired parts of the poem. At the same time they are the traditional components of the chivalrous romance and were still of great popular appeal, so that Tasso in introducing his serious epic suggests that the introduction of elements not strictly sanctioned by his Muse is a sop to popular demands.
The distinction between the essential, serious, epic elements in his poem and the non-essential, romance, 'soave licor,' is then something of which Tasso is so conscious as to feel the need of an explanation and apology from the very beginning. However, this attempt to forestall moral and religious objections is far from convincing and the simile of the medicine administered to the sick child (a conventional literary one), like so many of Tasso's similes, sounds quite inappropriate in its context (although it certainly comes directly from the experience of the unhealthy Tasso who would take no medicine that wasn't sweet). In fact it is in the 'sweets' of his poem that he seems most inspired, the love stories, the enchantments and the pictures of nature which are as though interludes in the serious action of the epic. The enchantments which, as we have seen, corresponded to a demand of Tasso's own personality, could be related, although rather loosely, to classical principles of 'meraviglia.'
The love episodes on the other hand were remote from classical precedent. Dido and Circe provided no more than a hint. In the relationship of Sofronia and Olindo, Tancredi and Clorinda, Erminia and Tancredi, Rinaldo and Armida, Tasso was able to express many aspects of the psychology of sexual love which he knew from his own experience or observation; and here he felt freer to develop and embroider his subject as his imagination moved him, unencumbered by historical sources, and not seriously hindered by principles of epic gravity.
His conception of love, as of heroism and of religion, is strongly influenced by his own deep-rooted anxiety and melancholy. It is not the happiness and tranquillity of reciprocal passion physically fulfilled or spiritually sublimated which stirs Tasso's imagination—any more than uninhibited courage or untroubled faith. It is love as an unknown, unreciprocated devotion or as frustrated physical desire—a mysterious fated power that cannot be resisted. The loves, all of which are finally legalized or 'spiritualized,' are full of human weaknesses and suffering. Thus Olindo loves Sofronia from afar without daring to declare his 'cupidi desiri.' He is young and modest; she is 'matura,' beautiful, chaste, retiring, taking no interest in her beauty and avoiding admirers. For centuries readers have interpreted this episode as a camouflage for the youthful Tasso's love for the mature Leonora d'Este, and while this has now been abandoned one cannot doubt that the incident springs from the poet's own experience. It is written from the viewpoint of Olindo; the reader, like the young lover, does not know what Sofronia feels:
o lo sprezza, o no 'l vede, o non s'avede.
But the unhappy Olindo is able to reveal his love by offering the supreme sacrifice of his own life to save Sofronia when she is bound to the stake—it is the adolescent dream—but he is bound to the same stake and in his despair dares to confess his love and his sensual desire:
oh fortunati miei dolci martiri! s'impetrarò che, giunto seno a seno, l'anima mia ne la tua bocca io spiri.
To complain that Olindo's declaration is too sudden, or his language too rash in view of the flames at his feet, is to miss the point of this adolescent vision. The sense of outrage to the immaculate, unapproachable Sofronia in her exposure to the public gaze and then to the physical contact and immodest language of Olindo is indicative of the conflicting emotions in the mind of the young lover who both loves and resents, reveres and desires. The last-minute release by Clorinda brings the dream to a happy ending rather abruptly and in a few hasty lines we learn that Sofronia's modesty is overcome by Olindo's loving sacrifice, and Olindo's desires are legitimized by marriage. The antithetical language is a conscious attempt to reflect the tense conflict of the action: contrast the highly artificial style of the frenzied Olindo at the stake:
Quest'è dunque quel laccio ond'io sperai teco accoppiarmi in compagnia di vita?
with the simple words of the calm Sofronia: 'Mira 'l ciel com'è bello, e mira il sole…'
Erminia's love for Tancredi, like Olindo's for Sofronia, is undeclared and unreciprocated. She is a child indulging a dream. When Tancredi conquered her father's kingdom his courteous treatment of the captive princess conquered her too, and reluctantly she left her 'prigion diletta' to go with her mother to Jerusalem where she lives in her memories:
Ama ed arde la misera, e sì poco in tale stato che sperar le avanza che nudrisce nel sen l’occulto foco di memoria via più che di speranza; e quanto è chiuso in più secreto loco, tanto ha l'incendio suo maggior possanza.
When Tancredi is wounded in his duel with Argante she longs to go out and help him, but her duty is to care for her opponent. The long debate with herself before she finally puts on Clorinda's armour and rides out is spoilt by Tasso's exaggerated concern with the verisimilitude of this incident, but it contains some moving poetry, notably the picture of the tender girl donning the hard armour, her gazing across the Christian camp in the starry night, and her flight from the hostile guards:
Fuggì tutta la notte, e tutto il giorno errò senza consiglio e senza guida, non udendo o vedendo altro d'intorno, che le lagrime sue, che le sue strida.
She takes refuge with the shepherds and then disappears until the end of the poem where she and Vafrino find the senseless body of Tancredi and in her care of his wounds, bound with her own hair, she is able at last to show her love. It is another dream of the anguished lover, and the ending is deliberately left uncertain. Erminia is lodged near the wounded Tancredi, and we hear no more of her.
Later Tasso feared that he might be criticized for this apparently happy ending and he declared his intention of making her become a nun. The essence of her story is in the pathos of her undeclared love which might well have finished in the cloister but is not, I think, spoilt by this inconclusive ending. She may be thought to have won Tancredi's love by her unselfish devotion or to have outlived her childish dreams in this brief contact with reality. Neither interpretation mars the delicacy of Tasso's portrait.
Tancredi's love for Clorinda is not only unhappy in that it is not returned, but is sinful in that it is for a pagan opponent and distracts him from his duty as a soldier of Christ. There is a note of despair and confusion in his conduct before ever he fights Clorinda, and in his masochistic surrender to the confident Amazon and his dazed contemplation of her when he should be fighting Argante, Tasso comes close to depicting his own dreamy passivity;
Ecco io chino le braccia, e t'appresento senza difesa il petto: or chè no 'l fiedi?
—and in the mental anguish to which his killing of Clorinda brings him, Tancredi is beset by all the horrors of Tasso's own moral confusion—the terrors of the darkness and his fear of solitude—
Vivrò fra i miei tormenti e le mie cure, mie giuste furie, forsennato, errante; paventarò l'ombre solinghe e scure che 'l primo error mi recheranno inante, e del sol che scoprì le mie sventure, a schivo ed in orrore avrò il sembiante. Temerò me medesmo; e da me stesso sempre fuggendo, avrò me sempre appresso.
In this torment the memory of Clorinda's simple faith and her pardon cannot help him, and only the rebuke of the priest and his fear of hell bring him to his senses, but even then only slowly. The parallel with Tasso's own experience is notable. In spite of the ill-digested Petrarchan and Virgilian reminiscences, Tancredi stands out as a moving and original portrait of the introspective tragic lover—he anticipates the anguish of the lovers of Romantic times when his popularity reached its peak.
Rinaldo's love for Armida is different from those of Olindo, Tancredi and Erminia, in that it is, until his awakening by Carlo and Ubaldo, entirely sensual. He is excused morally in that his downfall is entirely the result of enchantment. This episode was suggested to Tasso particularly by Homer's Circe, Ariosto's Alcina, and Trissino's Faleria, and certainly attracted him for the possibilities it offered in the depiction of physical and natural beauty and sensual pleasure. But his imagination is checked by moral considerations, and he is careful to stress the allegorical significance of the incident, and to try to improve morally on his models. Rinaldo is in the mould of Achilles, young, impetuous and resentful of authority, and his break with Goffredo and departure from the Christian camp is in the Homeric and romance tradition—but Tasso is concerned to show the moral development of Rinaldo who is to represent an ideal of Christian virtue. His love for Armida is the central experience in his education—he is made to see the dangers of excessive self-confidence, which caused him to fall a victim to Armida's wiles, while Carlo and Ubaldo, with the instruction of Pietro (the Church) and the 'mago di Ascalona' (scientific knowledge in conformity with religion), are able to resist the enchantments and bring him to his senses by showing him his reflection in a shield (reason). Rinaldo is thus able to leave Armida and to return to the Christian fold where he repents of his past ways, confesses, prays and is then able to overcome the enchantments of the forest—from an egoistic and headstrong youth he has become a modest God-fearing man. The reconciliation with Armida at the end of the poem is due partially at least to Tasso's desire for moral perfection in Rinaldo, who does not desert his seductress, as Aeneas had deserted Dido, but forgives and converts her.
In spite of the didactic and allegorical elements, however, the seduction of Rinaldo in the garden of Armida is perhaps the most inspired passage in the whole poem; it hinges on a theme prominent in Tasso's poetry, sensual love. But here once more is the poetry not of fulfilment but of anticipation—not sensual satisfaction but erotic desire. Armida from the beginning reveals all the artful wiles of the court lady who keeps her admirers in a frenzy of anxious expectation: she is the complete flirt, such as might have tormented and delighted the youthful Tasso at Ferrara. Her enchanted garden stimulates the senses without satisfying them. Tasso lingers lovingly over his picture of the bathing girls, and even Carlo and Ubaldo stop to watch them, knowing they are sinful. The sense of sinfulness, the frustrating veil of the running water, the long swathing hair, emphasize the erotic delight:
e'l crin, ch'in cima al capo avea raccolto in un sol nodo, immantinente sciolse, che lunghissimo in giù cadendo e folto d'un aureo manto i molli avori involse. Oh che vago spettacolo è lor tolto!
Even Rinaldo in Armida's embrace is anxious and unsatisfied in the frustration of a merely sensual love that is never calmed:
Sovra lui pende; ed ei nel grembo molle le posa il capo, e 'l volto al volto attolle, e i famelici sguardi avidamente in lei pascendo si consuma e strugge. S'inchina, e i dolci baci ella sovente
liba or da gli occhi e da le labra or sugge, ed in quel punto ei sospirar si sente …
Their passion is selfish: Armida wants to be worshipped and served, and Rinaldo forgets his duty in his attempt to satisfy his senses—but Rinaldo's love is spiritualized by his return to duty and Armida is redeemed by his love and forgiveness. However, this new, spiritual love is barely hinted at—it does not move Tasso because it lies outside his experience. What does move him is a world of alluring and unattainable female charm, and he succeeds, as few poets have done before or since, in expressing in his poetry the fascination and the frustration of the senses.
In the love episodes, then, Tasso's inner experience finds poetic expression, but to isolate the loves from the rest of the epic and to claim that here the poet's self is revealed free from the restricting influence of literary or moral pressure is far from the truth. Literary influences are strong here and the moral severity of the Counter Reformation frequently intrudes. These are not, however, totally external, unwelcome impositions—they were part of the poet' s own mind and imagination. He saw Armida as a Circe-Dido-Alcina-Faleria figure, and he felt the sinfulness of sensual love. So the love stories are woven into the action as essential components of the heroic Christian epic, and Tasso insisted on the correctness of his decision, which he was prepared to defend, he said, on the authority of Aristotle: epic and romance were not, he maintained, separate genres.
As a background to the loves and feats of arms, the religious miracles and romantic enchantments, Tasso paints in a highly subjective and largely original natural scene. His nature descriptions are rarely superfluous ornaments or interludes: they are an adjunct to the action and emphasize its emotional tones. Trees and winds, sunshine and storm take on human attributes and reflect the mood of the characters or of the author. As in the Aminta therefore the natural background blends easily into the human action. The wind takes a part in the narrative, almost like a chorus, threatening in the storm, plaintive with Erminia by the brook, gentle and soothing in the Isles of Fortune, evoking sobs and sighs in the trees of the enchanted wood; and when the wind ceases the silence itself befriends the actors:
Senza risposta aver, va per l'amico silenzio de le stelle a l'alte mura.
The trees and plants also participate: the great myrtle speaks with Clorinda's voice, and a chain of flowers binds Rinaldo (as the tree bound Silvia in the Aminta). The fascination of the garden of Armida is that around the sensuous lovers the trees and plants and animals repeat the human abandon:
Raddoppian le colombe i baci loro, ogni animal d'amar si riconsiglia: par che la dura quercia e 'l casto alloro e tutta la frondosa ampia famiglia, par che la terra e l'acqua e formi e spiri dolcissimi d'amor sensi e sospiri.
But this apparently natural scene is really contrived. Here where we find Tasso's most elaborate nature description the subject is not a landscape but a garden, a work of art not of nature; and this garden is conditioned by the human action. It is a confusion of over-luxuriant growth, but a baroque confusion, consciously disordered.
The natural scene is therefore treated extremely subjectively. It is difficult to speak of love of nature in Tasso: to him nature is kindly or hostile, attractive or repellent, not of itself, but according as one comes to it in peace or in anxiety, elated or afraid. Night, for example, may be friendly and comforting or mysterious and threatening. It is frequently associated with fear of the darkness, with the nightmares of the fevered mind and the unseen powers of evil:
Ma quando parte il sol, qui tosto adombra notte, nube, caligine ed orrore che rassembra infernal, che gli occhi ingombra di cecità, ch'empie di tema il core.
The darkness, however, may be friendly: the confident mind has no such fears—the enchanted wood is 'lietamente ombroso' to the converted Rinaldo. The night may also be comforting when the darkness is dispelled by stars or moonlight, and Tasso has some superb pictures of its calm and beauty which, in spite of frequent literary reminiscences, still seem fresh and immediate in their fusion of sound and image:
Era la notte, e 'l suo stellato velo chiaro spiegava e senza nube alcuna, e già spargea rai luminosi e gelo di vive perle la sorgente luna.
The light, the dawn, the sunshine, on the other hand, accompany the triumphant progress of the powers of goodness—in subtle ways Tasso parallels the progressive lightening of the sky with the advance of the Christian army, for example, or with Rinaldo's spiritual awakening:
Così pregava, e gli sorgeva a fronte fatta già d'auro la vermiglia aurora che l’elmo e l'arme e intorno a lui del monte le verdi cime illuminando indora.
Each of the elements of nature is thus felt rather than described. Botanical, zoological and geographical knowledge is at a minimum—the few conventional similes of wild life are pallid beside Dante's—but nature evokes a deep emotional response. Deserts are vast solitudes; mountains are remote, fraught with difficulties and threatening. Water in particular fascinates Tasso, often as a kind of symbol of human restlessness: it may be cruel and harsh in the turbulence of flood, rushing anxiously on in the mountain stream, seeking the peace of the sea where at last it is calm:
... dove il fiume
queta in letto maggior l'onde correnti.
It is mysterious and fascinating: although transparent it conceals the bathing girls, and although clear and beautiful its depths hold strange poisons:
ma dentro a i freddi suoi cristalli asconde di tosco estran malvagità secreta.
Nature is neutral therefore: natural pnenomena reflect or symbolize human predicaments. Tasso's idyll does not betoken a romantic faith in the healing powers of mother nature. In the Aminta the refuge of a natural golden age is known to be illusory: and in the Liberata the simple pastoral life, for all its charms, cannot hold Erminia. It is a refuge from the city, from action and intrigue, but Erminia, like Tasso, could not settle in the rustic tranquillity; and the idyll of Armida's garden is blatantly false.
Stylistically this intensely subjective view of nature is brought out by a frequent use of personification to which the reader becomes so habituated that he hardly notices it. Night 'embraces' the earth, 'yields' to day, 'comes from the womb of its mother'; the sun 'threatens,' the mountain 'hides its face'; the wind 'plays' with the waves; the dawn 'appears at its balcony'; the silence is 'friendly'; the stars 'cruel,' the moon 'miserly.' And as Tasso's view is so personal and emotional, hardly observing but rather feeling the object, a simple generic vocabulary gives the barest outline of the scene, which is filled in with a picture in sound, so that readers are conscious of a music or harmony in Tasso's poetry that is difficult to define, but has stimulated so many composers to set his verse to music. The effectiveness of these passages has been variously attributed to the great care with which Tasso analysed the effects of aspirants and sibilants, long and short vowels, single and double consonants in the rhyme words, etc.; to his clever use of traditional literary images for their associative effect; and to the intensity