Historical Context

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Italian Renaissance Tasso is considered the last of the major Italian Renaissance poets. The Italian Renaissance, which began, traditionally, with the Fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, was a period of renewed literary, architectural, and artistic creativity that slowly spread across Europe. The Italian Renaissance launched artists like Michelangelo,...

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Italian Renaissance
Tasso is considered the last of the major Italian Renaissance poets. The Italian Renaissance, which began, traditionally, with the Fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, was a period of renewed literary, architectural, and artistic creativity that slowly spread across Europe. The Italian Renaissance launched artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Titian; writers like Castiglione, Petrach, and Machiavelli; and artisans like Amati, the teacher of Stradivarius. There was a renewed sense of cultural identity, religious clarity, and pride in nationality. Literature was to be written in Italian rather than Latin. At the same time, educated people were to be knowledgeable about everything from art to warfare, from politics to dancing, and were expected to be able to express this knowledge and these abilities effortlessly. The Italian Renaissance collapsed under its own weight soon after Tasso died, ushering in the Baroque Period, but for its time, the Renaissance was the most important cultural, artistic, and political movement.

The Crusades
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns ordered by the then universal European Church in Rome against the ever-expanding Turkish/Ottoman Muslim Empire between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries. Although there were Crusades as late as the seventeenth century, the major Crusades were in the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. The First Crusade, called for by Pope Urban II in 1094, was arguably the most successful. The Ottoman Turks had captured Jerusalem and forced all pilgrims to pay travel taxes. The Turks were Muslim, a monotheistic religion similar to Judaism and Christianity, but for the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Muslims were just another group of pagans, like the Jews. Godfrey of Bouillon was selected to head the multinational force to re-take the city with the holiest of Christian shrines, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Christ's tomb) and Mount Calvary (where Christ was crucified). The leaders of the First Crusade secured the cooperation of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire and so were able to invade Palestine and conquer Jerusalem. The city was quickly retaken by the Turks in the early twelfth century, thus launching the Second Crusade, lead by Philip of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Third Crusade, lead by Philip III of France and Richard I of England. However, by that time, the Crusades had deteriorated into European fights with the European kings making deals with the Turkish generals to betray one another. Throughout these military campaigns, the morality of killing thousands of people in the name of God was never addressed. The immorality and increasing length of the Crusades lead to a number of social, political, and religious reforms including the end of serfdom, the rise of the nation-state, and the Protestant Reformation.

The Renaissance Art Epic
The Renaissance Art Epic is a narrowly defined literary genre that involves a mixture of political and religious ideology with traditional heroic poetry and romance elements to express new ideas about life, social ideas, and religious truths. There are two basic types of Art Epics: Religious and Secular. The Religious Art Epic uses biblical or religiously based material as its starting point such as John Milton's Paradise Lost, while Secular Art Epics focus on heroic traditions or invented storylines like Ludvico Ariosto's Orlando Furiouso and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. The Renaissance Art Epic, regardless of its type, always uses old ideas about the heroic past like national pride, fighting ability, and the transformation of the hero through a death of some kind, wedded with elements of romance such as female characters, love (whether sexual or courtly), and the supernatural. The epics also usually used heroes out of the distant past whose stories could be manipulated and embellished. The point of Art Epic was to show contemporary readers how to live a true, honest, and productive life through historical example. It was also a place for the poet to display his (the overwhelming majority of authors were male) poetic skill in rhyme, rhythm, poetic imagery, and figurative language. The Art Epic fell out of favor as the dominant form of non-dramatic literary expression by the end of the eighteenth century, as novels became more popular to read at home. However, the poets who created the Renaissance Art Epic are still regarded as some of the best poetic crafters ever.

Literary Style

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Epic Features
In many ways, Gerusalemme Liberata is a perfect, rhetorically-speaking, epic. Many of the dominant features found in Greek and Roman epics are found in Tasso. He uses the idea of a perfect hero, Godfrey and Rinaldo, who is the salvation of his group. There is the use of military ability, the intervention of the supernatural (God verus Satan), and the trip to the underworld with Rinaldo's supposed death and re-birth. Tasso was actively following the successful models of Virgil, Dante, and Ariosto as epic authors. In his Discourses on the Heroic Poem (1594), Tasso suggests that there are four major elements to epic poetry that must be followed by all epic poets: the story or fable, the morality of the characters, the purpose behind the story, and the language. All of these elements could be manipulated in the extreme, but they have to be present for an epic poem to work. Tasso's definition of epic elements basically survived until the twentieth century.

Point of View
The point of view is a traditional third person unlimited narrator. All the characters' minds, wants, desires, and fears are laid open by the narrator. This is an essential part of epic poetry during this time period. Since epic characters were created to serve as examples of proper behavior, the motives and actions of those characters had to be easy to understand. A first person narration of the action would not work effectively for Tasso's purpose. A third person narrator also lends an air of finality or absoluteness to the poem.

Gerusalemme Liberata is set in Palestine, what is now Israel and the Occupied West Bank. Tasso acknowledges that this area is the religious homeland of the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but he does not recognize the political nature of the First Crusade. Tasso's Jerusalem bears almost no resemblance to the real city. Solomon's Temple was destroyed in 79 C.E. by the Romans, while the Tower of David has been a ruin since ancient times. There is also very little description of the countryside or the city itself. This is not important in a heroic epic. For heroic poetry, the where is not as important as the how. The fact that all these men fight and fight bravely is all that matters. The idea that all these knights, Christian or Saracen, fight by the same rules and in the same way takes precedence over any debt to reality. Tasso himself suggested the limits of using a real historical event, but he could not find a storyline that he liked better to explore his ideas on morality and heroics.

Figurative Language
The language of Gerusalemme Liberata depends mainly on the translation being used. Since very few Americans, relatively-speaking, read Italian, most Americans experience the poem in translation. In fact, Gerusalemme Liberata was one of the more frequently translated epic poems. The earliest complete translation into English was that of Edward Fairfax in 1600. Fairfax "Englished" the poem, translating it into English heroic verse (ABABABCC) and used English cultural references, metaphors, and allusions. The poem continued to be retranslated, with major editions by poets like Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1725), James K. King (1884), and Ralph Nash (1987). The Nash edition, the only one remaining in print, belongs to a group of translations from the late 1970s to mid-1980s that translated poetry into English prose. In doing so, a good deal of the poetic or figurative language is lost. Nash addresses this problem in his introduction. He states that he is more interested in preserving Tasso's story than his language and so chose to use prose, which is easier to read, and more like a narrative. Nash's translation is very readable and focuses on the storyline, but it does lose the fire and beauty of the earlier, poetic translations. The following examples from the Nash prose translation (1987) and the Fairfax poetic translation (1600) illustrate this point:

"Solyman, Solyman, reserve to a better time your sluggish slumbers; for the country where you reigned is yet a slave, under the yoke of foreign peoples. Can you sleep on this earth and not call to mind that it holds the bones of your unburied men? Where so great a token of your shame remains, are you lazily awaiting the new day?"

"O Solyman! Thou far-renowned king, Till better season serve, forbear thy rest; A stranger doth thy lands in thraldom bring; Nice is a slave, by Christian yoke oppress'd; Sleepest thou here, forgetful of this thing, That here thy friends lie slain, not laid in chest, Whose bones bear witness of thy shame and scorn, And wilt thou idly here attend the morn?

The prose translation is easier to read and understand, but the poetic translation has a better rhythm and use of figurative language.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich, "Epic and Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination, University of Texas Press, 1981.

Boileau, Nicholas, The Art of Poetry, translated by John Dryden, Rentley, 1683.

Clark, John, A History of Epic Poetry, Haskell, 1973.

Cook, Patrick, "The Epic Chronotope from Ariosto to Spenser," in Annali D'Italianistica, Vol. 12, 1994, pp. 115-142.

Dacier, Anne, "Letters," "Preface to Homer," and "Notes to Iliad," in Madame Dacier: Scholar and Humanist, edited by Fern Farnham, Angel Press, 1976.

Dryden, John, Essays of John Dryden, edited by W. P. Ker, Clarendon Press, 1926.

Dubois, Page, History, Rhetorical Description, and the Epic: From Homer to Spenser, Brewer, 1982.

Feeney, D.C., "Epic Hero and Epic Fable," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 38, 1986, pp. 137-158.

Lewalski, Barbara, "The Genres of Paradise Lost: Literary Genre as a Means of Accommodation," in Milton Studies, Vol. 17, 1983.

Rowe, Elizabeth Singer, Letters Moral and Entertaining in Prose and Verse, Robert Johnson, 1805.

Quint, David, Epics and Empire: Politics and Generic Form From Virgil to Milton, Princeton University Press, 1993.

Tasso, Torquato, Discourses on the Heroic Poem, translated by Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel, Clarendon Press, 1973. Translation of Discrsi dell' Arte e del Poema Eroico, 1594.

Tillyard, E. M. W., The English Epic and Its Background, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Bowra, C.M., Heroic Poetry, MacMillan, 1952.
Bowra explores the features of epic poetry from the ancients through early modern times.

Broaddus, James, Spenser's Allegory of Love: Social Vision in Books III, IV, and V of The Faerie Queene, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
This work explores how love, both romantic and patriotic, works in Spenser's poem.

Cavanagh, Sheila, Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in The Faerie Queene, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Examines the uses of female sexuality in understanding how Spenser creates female characters.

Curran, Stuart, "The Epic," in Poetic Form and British Romanticism, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Curran explores how poetic form influenced and shaped Romantic poetry. This essay focuses on epic poetry and its features.

Dennis, John, Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry, Richard Parker, 1701, Garland, 1971.
Dennis discusses all types of poetry and how these poetic forms developed, spending a good deal of time on epic and heroic poetry.

Gutschera, Deborah, “‘A Shape of Brightness': The Role of Women in Romantic Epic," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 66, 1987, pp. 87-108.
Discusses the role of women and female characters in Renaissance epic.

Hayley, William, An Essay on Epic Poetry, J. Dodsley, 1782.
This major essay, written in poetic form, calls on British poets to write new epics. He creates not only a definition for epic poetry, but a tradition as well. In addition, Hayley specifically tells women to write epic poems.

Murrin, Michael, The Allegorical Epic: Essays in Its Rise and Fall, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Murrin explores the Renaissance epic and its allegorical elements.

Treip, Mindele Anne, Allegorical Poetics & The Epic: The Renaissance Tradition to Paradise Lost, University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Treip chronicles the epic poets, their poems, and their times.

Wacker, Norman, "Epic and the Modern Long Poem: Virgil, Blake, and Pound," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 42, 1990, pp. 126-143.
Wacker makes comparisons between Renaissance epics and Victorian long narrative poems.

Compare and Contrast

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18th Century: During the Renaissance and throughout most of Western history since then, women have not been allowed to fight in armies. In fact, women are legally barred from enlisting in the military for most of American history. Europeans, as well, made military service by women illegal.

19th Century: Florence Nightingale founds the nursing corps of the British Army during the Crimean War. Clara Barton assembles a similar unit in the United States during the American Civil War.

20th Century: Women have made significant strides towards increasing their numbers and presence in all branches of the military. Women not only serve in the general corps of the army, navy, and marines; many can be found in high-ranking supervisory positions. In the last half of the twentieth century, a handful of women braved established military and societal codes to integrate branches and schools that had been exclusively male. Despite these vast changes, some countries in Europe and the Middle East, while allowing women to serve in the military, keep women out of combat service.

16th Century: Religious intolerance is predominant at the time that Tasso is writing. The Protestant Reformation began a century earlier with the writings of Jon Huss and Martin Luther's break with the Catholic Church in Rome. Italy remained predominately Catholic and, with the power of Spain and France, started the Counter Reformation and the Inquisition. There is a great deal of animosity between Catholics and Protestants.

20th Century: While there are still some hotbeds of religious tension, a majority of the European countries adhere to policies of religious tolerance. In the United States, laws mandate freedom of religion. The greater public's acceptance of varied religious practices continues to grow as more and more people are encouraged to integrate outside their cultural backgrounds and come in contact with those of differing faiths.

16th Century: Most Europeans during this century believe in magic, mystical practices, and philosophies to explain things they can not understand. The Catholic Church has forbidden most scientific exploration because it threatens their view of God's connection to the Universe.

17th Century: In 1609, Galileo makes the first complete astronomical telescope. Using his new telescope, Galileo notices that the moon has an uneven, mountainous surface and that numerous stars make up the Milky Way Galaxy. In 1610, he discovers the four largest satellites of Jupiter, the first satellites of a planet other than Earth to be detected. His investigations support the Copernican theory of the solar system; however, this theory was denounced as dangerous to faith. Galileo was warned not to uphold it or teach it.

19th Century: Charles Darwin proposes the theory of evolution, later to be known as Darwinism. Darwin meticulously documents observations that lead him to question the generally held belief in the specific creation of each species. Darwin observed that species undergo a continuing struggle to survive and adapt. His theory of evolution hinges on the fact that species need variations to adapt to their environments, allowing them to survive and reproduce. His monumental Origin of Species is published in 1859.

20th Century: This century saw an explosion of scientific, astronomic, medical, and technological advances. From Einstein's famous theorem, to the landing of the first man on the moon and the proliferation of information technology, man's understanding of the world within and around him is greater than it has ever been. What has not changed from Tasso's age is that the more people learn, the more they understand how much is unknown, pushing them to continue posing questions and seeking their answers. Magic, for many people, has become relegated to a world of sideshow demonstrations, consisting of card tricks, illusions, and fortune tellers.

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