Gerusalemme Liberata La Gerusalemme liberata, Torquato Tasso - Essay

Torquato Tasso


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

La Gerusalemme liberata Torquato Tasso

The following entry presents criticism of Tasso's epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (1581; Jerusalem Delivered). For discussion of Tasso's complete career, see LC, Volume 5.

La Gerusalemme liberata was Tasso's greatest achievement, an attempt to emulate and even surpass classical authors such as Homer and Virgil and to provide Italy with a national epic poem. While indebted to works of classical antiquity, Gerusalemme liberata is at the same time close to medieval romance; and while depicting events from the First Crusade, it also reflects the quandaries of the poet's own time, when Jerusalem was governed by a sultan and Europe was in the crisis of religious division. With Gerusalemme liberata Tasso sought to create a masterpiece that would deserve comparison with the great epics of the past; he succeeded in composing one of the most widely read and cherished books of the Renaissance.

Biographical Information

Active at the end of a splendid developmental period in Italian literature, Tasso sought to surpass his predecessors (especially Ludovico Ariosto, with whom he is often compared) and to provide Italy with a national epic poem. However, Tasso's times were far different from Ariosto's, as the passing of the Renaissance in Italy was marked by a shift from a spirit of inquiry to the inquisitional watchfulness of the Counter-Reformation. In literature, there was a growing tendency toward prescriptive theory and conformity to rigid and established compositional rules based on the theoretical writings of antiquity. Excessively solicitous of his colleagues' and the clergy's advice and opinions, Tasso is said to have possessed the spirit of the Renaissance only to be constrained by the Counter-Reformation. Fearing that any uncorrected unorthodoxies might prevent the publication of Gerusalemme liberata, Tasso began to lend partial manuscripts of the work to colleagues, critics, and friends for their critiques. Their comments, however, irritated and humiliated him, and while he continued to defend the work, portions of it—often inaccurate—became widely available, further aggravating his concern for his reputation. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1577 and was confined to a hospital for the next seven years. It was during this period that an unscrupulous printer published without Tasso's approval an incomplete and flawed edition of Gerusalemme liberata under its original title Il Goffredo. This prompted Tasso to publish a version of the poem himself, despite his dissatisfaction with it. The debate over Gerusalemme liberata lasted throughout Tasso's confinement, while he continued to revise the poem. He was finally released in 1586, and in the years following resumed work on his epic. In 1593 Tasso published his epic—finally purged, to his satisfaction, of its impurities—under the title Di Gerusalemme conquistata (Jerusalem Conquered). With many episodes deleted or changed to answer religious objections or to adhere to classical unities, and with the language refined to the point of diminished beauty, this revised version is unanimously deemed inferior to Gerusalemme liberata.

Plot and Major Characters

Di Gerusalemme conquistata is an epic poem in 20 cantos of about 100 stanzas each. Much of its action concerns the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 to Godfrey of Boulogne and his European allies during the First Crusade. Although Godfrey led the Crusade, it is Rinaldo who is the main hero of the poem. He undergoes a fall from grace when he succumbs to the beautiful Armida and is banished from the Christian camp, but is recalled to his sense of duty in Canto 16, returns to help the Christians enter Jerusalem, and kills the Saracen hero Solimano. Similarly flawed is a secondary hero, Tancredi, who is also in love with a Saracen female warrior, Clorinda. In a tragic episode he unwittingly kills her in combat, but is roused to great deeds at the end and slays the giant Saracen Argante. The poem ends in Christian triumph, not only with the capture of Jerusalem, but also with the conversion to Christianity of the Saracen heroines, Clorinda as she dies, and Armida at the end of the poem.

Major Themes

Gerusalemme liberata is an overtly serious work, stoutly Christian, explicitly moralistic, and deeply concerned from its inception with such theoretical matters as the relation of truth to invention and the problem of historical authenticity. Its subject matter, a protracted military contest between Christians and Muslims, had contemporary significance in a time of continuing struggle between the Italian states and the Ottoman Empire for commercial domination of the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the themes of loyalty and treachery, and the conflicting claims of public and private obligation—so important for Renaissance epic in general—were still pertinent to the court ethos and inter-state political rivalry characteristic of the age in which Tasso lived. In the poem, the blood and gore of antique epic are mitigated by idyllic and lyric passages which derive more from Petrarch and the Greek and Latin elegiac and erotic poets than from Homer or Tasso's own sometimes rough-hewn epic forbears. The women of Tasso's poetry, in particular, and the love interests they give rise to provide a more complex foil to the traditional military skirmishing and bravado, in part because all of Tasso's characters are more fully realized and psychologically developed than those of his predecessors.

Critical Reception

Tasso's attempt in Gerusalemme liberata to combine classical epic with traditional romance elements was the source of much critical conflict during his lifetime. Strict classicists attacked Tasso's use of the miraculous and the lack of a strict unity of action. Meanwhile, those who looked at its romantic elements denigrated it in comparison to Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso, while others condemned it for vague or emotional language. In addition, the Church denounced the portrayal of pagan magic and the loves depicted, both for their sensual quality and for the pairing of pagans with Christians. In Tasso's own time, his work was well received by the public despite the controversy in critical circles. While consensus on Gerusalemme liberata cannot be reached, it is clear that the epic had an effect on such significant figures as Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Dryden. Milton considered Gerusalemme liberata the only modern epic worthy of imitation. Twentieth-century critics have examined Gerusalemme liberata from a variety of perspectives. In his study of the poem, C. P. Brand maintained that the influence that the classical writers had on Tasso and his epic cannot be understated: “it is typical of Tasso's approach to art, to style and language to build on the great achievements of the past.” Other critics have analyzed the political aspects of Gerusalemme liberata. David Quint has claimed that looking at the “political picture turns Tasso's First Crusade into an emblem of the Church Militant, whose quest for souls is finally indistinguishable from the imperialist conquest of new territories and dependent subjects.” While many modern critics have praised Gerusalemme liberata for its mixture of romantic with classical elements, Dennis Looney has argued that this mixture is the poem's greatest flaw because it causes confusion and compromises the work, so that it can be considered neither as a romance nor as a true epic. For his part, Andrew Fichter has characterized the poem as a “Christian epic,” based on the theme of redemption. “Tasso's choice of redemption as a theme,” he asserts, “is perfectly suited to his purpose of constructing a true Christian epic, a poem based on Christian principles but one that also possesses the formal properties of the Aeneid, wholeness, magnitude, and unity of plot and character.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Il Rinaldo (poem) 1562

Aminta (play) 1573

*La Gerusalemme liberata (epic) 1581; revised as Di Gerusalemme conquistata, 1593

Discorsi dell'arte poetica (essays) 1587

Il re Torrismondo (play) 1587

Scielta delle rime (poetry) 1591-93

Discorsi del poema erico [Discourses on the Heroic Poem, 1973] (poetry) 1594

I due giorni del mondo creato [Creation of the World, 1982] (poetry) 1600; also published as Le sette giornate del mondo creato [enlarged edition], 1607

Opere. 33 vols. (poetry, pose, criticism, and drama) 1821-1832

*An earlier, incomplete version of this work was published as Il Goffredo in 1580.

C. P. Brand (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Brand, C. P. “The Epic: The Gerusalemme Liberata.” In Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and of His Contribution to English Literature, pp. 79-118. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Brand argues that Gerusalemme liberata is a “fusion of the heroic epic and the chivalrous romance” and that Tasso's style attempts to follow the classical precedents set by Homer and Virgil.]

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:...

(The entire section is 14135 words.)

Andrew Fichter (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fichter, Andrew. “Tasso: Romance, Epic, and Christian Epic.” In Poets Historical: Dynastic Epic in the Renaissance, pp. 112-55. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Fichter calls Gerusalemme liberata. “a true Christian epic,” based on the theme of redemption.]

The dynastic couple in Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata consists of Rinaldo, the strong right arm of Goffredo, commander of the Christian forces in the First Crusade, and Armida, who until her sudden conversion in the poem's closing stanzas plays the part of the meretrix, the principal agent of the demonic plot (instigated by Pluto himself) to subvert...

(The entire section is 16647 words.)

James T. Chiampi (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Chiampi, James T. “Tasso's Deconstructive Angel and the Figuration of Light in the Gerusalemme Liberata.Stanford Italian Review 7, nos. 1-2 (1987): 111-27.

[In the following essay, Chiampi maintains that Gerusalemme Liberata “is at constant pains to foreground its concern with unity, transparency, and univocal conformity” to an unchanging truth.]

At the beginning of book two of the Discorsi del poema eroico, after establishing that the dignity of man arises from his capacity for intellectual choice, Tasso digresses on its virtue, prudence:

Ma qual'è più incerta, quale più instabile, quale...

(The entire section is 7096 words.)

Timothy Hampton (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hampton, Timothy. “The Body's Two Crowns: Narrative and Martyrdom in Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata.Stanford Italian Review 9, nos. 1-2 (1990): 133-54.

[In the following essay, Hampton discusses how exemplary figures are presented in the narrative in Gerusalemme liberata and the way in which action defines the self, both for those characters and their humanist readers.]


“Nothing moves me like the examples of illustrious men,” writes Petrarch in a letter to his friend Giovanni Colonna.1 With these words the first modern humanist evokes a central topos of the aristocratic...

(The entire section is 9240 words.)

David Quint (essay date spring 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Quint, David. “Political Allegory in the Gerusalemme Liberata.Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 1 (spring 1990): 1-24.

[In the following essay, Quint discusses the religious aspects of Gerusalemme liberata, which, he argues, celebrates the triumph of the Counter-Reformation.]

In 1553, six years before Tasso first began to sketch the poem that was to become the Gerusalemme liberata, the Catholic monarchs Philip II and Mary Tudor acceded to the throne of England, after the Protestant reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The event was celebrated in an encomiastic oration, De vestituta in Anglia religione (“On the restoration of...

(The entire section is 10275 words.)

Albert Russell Ascoli (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ascoli, Albert Russell. “Liberating the Tomb: Difference and Death in Gerusalemme Liberata.Annali d'Italianistica 12 (1994): 159-80.

[In the following essay, Ascoli examines the fundamental importance of entombment and liberation in Gerusalemme liberata.]

Like much Counter-Reformation writing, Tasso's epic of the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem represents and then represses several varieties of threatening difference—religious, sexual, racial, psychological, even textual. In his fundamental study of the Liberata, Sergio Zatti (1983) has shown that the struggle of the “uniforme cristiano” to overcome the “multiforme pagano,” that...

(The entire section is 10687 words.)

Dennis Looney (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Looney, Dennis. “Tasso's Allegory of the Source in Gerusalemme Liberata.” In Compromising the Classics: Romance Epic Narrative in the Italian Renaissance, pp. 142-69. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Looney claims that Tasso uses an episode in Gerusalemme liberata concerning a source of water as an allegory of his own use of literary sources.]

Dice ancora Aristotele che … quella [la favola] de l'epopeia è simile a vino troppo inacquato.

Tasso, Discorsi del Poema Eroico1

In the previous chapter, we observed Torquato...

(The entire section is 14927 words.)

Giovanni Da Pozzo (essay date autumn 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Da Pozzo, Giovanni. “Last Assaults and Delayed Victory in Tasso's Liberata.1Italica 74, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 319-38.

[In the following essay, Da Pozzo considers impulses toward both indeterminacy and finality in Gerusalemme liberata.]

In the series of critical interpretations over the past ten years, a variety of methodological combinations have been presented regarding the reading of Tasso's main poem both in its singular parts as well as a complete work. These combinations demonstrate not only the ability to renew contemporary critical activity in this field of study, but they also contain these interpretative contributions within the...

(The entire section is 10338 words.)

Sergio Zatti (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Zatti, Sergio. “Epic in the Age of Dissimulation: Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata.” In Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso, edited by Valeria Finucci, pp. 115-45. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Zatti argues that the “theme of dissimulation—the disguising of bodies, sentiments, or intentions—plays such a large role in the Gerusalemme liberata because Tasso's text is itself born from a discourse of dissimulation.”]

The themes I wish to consider here may be counted among those that best justify the Gerusalemme liberata's placement among so-called mannerist texts. These themes absorb from...

(The entire section is 10820 words.)

Walter Stephens (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stephens, Walter. “Trickster, Textor, Architect, Thief: Craft and Comedy in Gerusalemme Liberata.” In Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso, edited by Valeria Finucci, pp. 146-77. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Stephens argues that Tasso uses Homeric imitations in Gerusalemme liberata that have important implications for the poem and its representation of authorship.]

In canto 18 of Gerusalemme liberata [GL], writing irrupts into the plot of Tasso's highly intertextual poem. Attacked by a falcon, a carrier pigeon takes refuge with Goffredo, who discovers a letter from the Egyptian...

(The entire section is 10942 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Bellamy, Elizabeth J. “Troia Vittrice: Reviving Troy in the Woods of Jerusalem.” In Translations of Power: Narcissism and the Unconscious in Epic History, pp. 131-88. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Examines the influence of the Aeneid on Tasso's writing of Gerusalemme liberata.

Benfell, V. Stanley. “Tasso's God: Narrative Authority in the Gerusalemme Liberata.Modern Philology 97, no. 2, (November 1999): 173-94.

Explores Tasso's attempt to equate God and poet in Gerusalemme liberata.

Chiampi, James T. “Tasso's Rinaldo in the Body of the...

(The entire section is 435 words.)