Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

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....

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

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.


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Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

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...

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Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

Research the Crusades and compare the actions, behaviors, and outcomes of the historical record to the events, characters, and outcomes in Tasso's poem.

Chivalry is an important element in the Renaissance art epic. After reading about chivalry, compare Tasso' s treatment of the heroic ideal to the medieval chivalric code.

Tasso suggests that his poem is an attempt to merge the Christian philosophy of Dante's work with the political ideology of Virgil's writings. After exploring Dante and Virgil, how well does Gerusalemme Liberata fulfill Tasso's goal?

Women are not often thought of as warriors and historically not allowed to fight in most Renaissance European armies, yet the major warrior for the Saracens is female. What does Tasso say about women and evil by making Clorinda the head of the Turkish army?

As a culture, American society does not glorify war, yet a lot of literature revolves around war and its consequences. How does Tasso resolve the conflict between the social needs for peace and the literary needs for war?

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What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

In the 1990s, Robert Fagles produced the most celebrated poetic translations of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. These highly readable translations tell the stories of the Greek victory at Troy and Odysseus's ten-year voyage home. In European literature, these poems started it all.

The Aeneid by Virgil, first century A.D., is Rome' s answer to Homer's epics. A cross between political propaganda and high literature, Virgil's poem tells the story of an escaped Trojan prince and his adventures while searching for a new homeland. The Aeneid is available in multiple prose and poetic translations including editions by John Dryden (1680) and Allen Mandelbaum (1972).

Dante Alighieri's three-part Medieval masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, ranks as one of the most widely read and influential epic poems ever written. Dante has Virgil guide the main character through Hell and Purgatory, while Beatrice (his childhood sweetheart) guides him through Heaven. In each place, Dante describes famous historical and literary characters that spend eternity in the various stages of the afterlife. It, too, exists in numerous translations.

The Tale of Genji, 1100 A.D., by Murasaki Shikibu, tells a story of romance, political intrigue, and court life in Medieval Japan. Written by an aristocratic Japanese woman, the story revolves around Genji's rise to power, fame, and wealth, while detailing a culture that is foreign to most Western readers. A full translation by...

(The entire section is 624 words.)