Article abstract: Tasso—considered to be one of the greatest Italian poets—reflects the crisis of his age, and his writings seek to reconcile classical ideals with the renewed religious fervor arising from the Counter-Reformation. In this attempt to synthesize the vision of perfection and human dignity of the classics with Christian spiritual values lies the significance of his major works.
Torquato Tasso was born in the coastal village of Sorrento, just south of Naples. His mother came from a noble Neapolitan family, while his father, originally from the northern town of Bergamo, was a diplomat and an accomplished man of letters who wrote a well-known chivalric poem entitled Amadigi in 1560. Although Tasso’s first years were spent in the serene and idyllic atmosphere of the Mediterranean Sea, they were soon disturbed by a sudden and unexpected turbulence: His father, caught in the political misfortunes of his protector, the Prince of Salerno, was forced into exile, and all of his goods were confiscated. At the age of ten, Tasso was taken from the Jesuit school in Naples, where for two years he had studied Latin and Greek and had received a thorough religious training, and sent to Rome to be with his father. Thus began the agitated and roaming existence that was to mark his entire life, first by necessity and later as a tormented vocation. This abrupt separation from his mother, whom he was never to see again (she died prematurely a year later in 1556), left in the young Tasso an indelible impression that was to influence his lyrical production and reinforce his pessimistic view of the human condition. In 1557, he was at the court of Urbino; his father had just entered in the service of the duke, who was aware of Torquato’s penchant for poetry and wanted the precocious young man to be a study companion to his own son. It was at Urbino that Torquato first came into contact with the splendid yet treacherous courtly environment that was to influence his life and writings deeply. At the age of fifteen, he relocated to Venice, and it was there, where the presence of the Turks was most felt and feared, that he began a rough draft of his famous epic poem on the First Crusade. The next five years were spent studying at the University of Padua, first law, according to his father’s wishes, and then his own chosen fields of philosophy and letters. There, he met and frequented one of the most celebrated literary figures of the Renaissance, Sperone Speroni, and other famous scholars who stirred in him the ardent desire for lyrical expression.
At Padua, Tasso joined the Accademia degli Eterei and in 1562 published a chivalric poem in octaves, Rinaldo (English translation, 1792). This is a significant work in that it contains many of the themes that were to characterize his later production: the thirst for glory, adventure, and love and the yearning for chivalric ideals. It was during this time that Tasso’s first doubts on religious matters surfaced—a lifelong spiritual struggle that would culminate in his later years in a complete revision of his famous epic, using orthodox religious teachings, and a dedication of the final years of his life to religious didactic works. Finally, it was at Padua that his love for Lucrezia Bendidio blossomed, and it was to her that many of his love poems would be dedicated.
In 1565, Tasso entered the service of Cardinal Luigi d’Este at the court of Ferrara and began the happiest and most fruitful period of his career; for the next ten years, he lived the ideal life of the man of letters for which he had longed. In 1567, he was given a literary stipend by Duke Alfonso II, and in this serene and refined courtly environment he was able to cultivate his genius and produce his most important works. Ferrara had been the home of the famous Renaissance poet, Ludovico Ariosto, and this for Tasso was both a source of inspiration and a spur to competition. Although the court of Ferrara was flourishing only in appearance and in reality was following Italy toward its political downfall, Tasso saw in its pomp and false grandeur the last vestiges of the ideals of the Renaissance, and he felt compelled to sing its praises.
Even though he composed many of his most beautiful poems during this period, dedicated to the ladies of the court, it was with the Aminta (1573; English translation, 1591) that Tasso established his reputation as a poet and playwright. This pastoral drama in five acts was first represented in the presence of Alfonso II on the island of Belvedere, the lovely summer residence of the Estensi, and was an immediate success. In his depiction of the world of the classical shepherd-poets, so rich in literary tradition, Tasso projected his ideals of a genteel and serene existence devoid in its primordial innocence of the sense of evil and sin. It also becomes for the poet an allegory of courtly life seen as a point of encounter for poets, sensitive souls, and fervent lovers. Although there are elements of tragedy...
(The entire section is 2080 words.)