Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tasso, Torquato
The five years between 1565 and 1570 seem to have been the happiest of Tasso's life, although his father's death in 1569 caused his affectionate nature profound pain. Young, handsome, accomplished in all the exercises of a well-bred gentleman, accustomed to the society of the great and learned, illustrious by his published works in verse and prose, he became the idol of the most brilliant court in Italy. The princesses Lucrezia and Leonora d'Este, both unmarried, both his seniors by about ten years, took him under their protection. He was admitted to their familiarity, and there is some reason to think that neither of them was indifferent to Mm personally. Of the celebrated story of his love for Lednora this is not the place to speak. It is enough at present to observe that he owed much to the constant kindness of both sisters. In 1570 he travelled to Paris with the cardinal. Frankness of speech and a certain habitual want of tact caused a disagreement with his worldly patron. He left France next year, and took service under Duke Alfonso II. of Ferrara. The most important events in Tasso's biography during the following four years are the publication of the Aminta in 1573 and the completion of the Gerusalemme Liherata in 1574. The Aminta is a pastoral drama of very simple plot, hut of exquisite lyrical charm. It appeared at the critical moment when modern music, under Palestrina's impulse, was becoming the main art of Italy. The honeyed melodies and sensuous melancholy of Aminta exactly suited and interpreted the spirit of its age. We may regard it as the most decisively important of Tasso's compositions, for its influence, in opera and cantata, was felt through two successive centuries. The Gerusalemme Liherata occupies a larger space in the history of European literature, and is a more considerable work. Yet the commanding qualities of this epic poem, those which revealed Tasso's individuality, and which made it immediately pass into the rank of classics, beloved by the people no less than by persons of culture, are akin to the lyrical graces of Aminta. It was finished in Tasso's thirty-first year; and when the MS. lay before him the best part of his life was over, his best work had been already accomplished. Troubles immediately began to gather round him. Instead of having the courage to obey his owm instinct, and to publish the Gerusalemme as he had conceived it, he yielded to the critical scrupulosity which formed a secondary feature of his character. The poem was sent in manuscript to several literary men of eminence, Tasso expressing his willingness to hear their strictures and to adoj)t their suggestions unless he could convert them to his own views. The result w^as that each of these candid friends, while expressing in general high admiration for the epic, took some exception to its plot, its title, its moral tone, its episodes, or its diction, in detail. One wished it to be more regularly classical; another wanted more romance. One hinted that the Inquisition would not tolerate its supernatural machinery; another demanded the excision of its most charming passages—the loves of Armida, Clorinda, and Erminia. Tasso had to defend himself against all these ineptitudes and pedantries, and to accommodate his practice to the theories he had rashly expressed. As in the Rinaldo, so also in the Jerusalem Delivered, he aimed at ennobling the Italian epic style by preserving strict unity of plot and heightening poetic diction. He chose Yirgil for his model, took the first crusade for subject, infused the fervour of religion into his conception of the hero Godfrey. But his own natural bias was for romance. In spite of the poet's ingenuity and industry the stately main theme evinced less spontaneity of genius than the romantic episodes with which, as also in Rinaldo, he adorned it. Godfrey, a mixture of pious iEneas and Tridentine Catholicism, is not the real hero of the Gerusalemme. Fiery and passionate Binaldo, Buggiero, melancholy iihpulsive Tancredi, and the chivalrous Saracens with whom they clash in love and war, divide our interest and divert it from Goffredo. On Armida, beautiful witch, sent forth by the infernal senate to sow discord in the Christian camp, turns the action of the epic. She is converted to the true faith by her adoration for a crusading knight, and quits the scene with a phrase of the Virgin Mary on her lips. Brave Clorinda, donning armour like Marfisa, fighting in duel with her devoted lover, and receiving baptism from his hands in her pathetic death; Erminia seeking refuge in the shepherd's hut,—these lovely pagan women, so touching in their sorrows, so romantic in their adventures, so tender in tlieir emotions, rivet our attention, while we skip the battles, religious ceremonies, conclaves, and stratagems of the campaign. The truth is that Tasso’s great inven- tion as an artist was the x)oetry of sentiment. Sentiment, not sentimentality, gives value to what is immortal in the GeruscUemme, It was a new thing in the 16th century, something concordant with a growing feeling for woman and with the ascendant art of music. This sentiment, refined, noble, natural, steeped in melancholy, exquisitely graceful, pathetically touching, breathes throughout the episodes of the Gerumlemme^ finds metrical expression in the languishing cadence of its mellifiuous verse, and sustains the ideal life of those seductive heroines whose names were familiar as household words to all Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Tasso’s self-chosen critics were not men to admit what the public has since accepted as incontrovertible. They vaguely felt that a great and beautiful romantic poem was embedded in a dull and not very correct epic. In their uneasiness they suggested every course but the right one, which was to publish the Gerusalemme without further dispute. Tasso, already overworked by his precocious studies, by exciting court-life and exhausting literary industry, now grew almost mad with worry. His health began to fail him. He complained of headache, suffered from malarious fevers, and wished to leave Ferrara. The Gerusalemme was laid in manuscript upon a shelf. He opened negotiations with the court of Florence for an exchange of service. This irritated the duke of Ferrara. Alfonso hated nothing more than his courtiers leaving him for a rival duchy. He thought, moreover, that, if Tasso were allowed to go, the Medici would get the coveted dedication of that already famous epic. Therefore he bore with the poet’s humours, and so contrived that the latter should have no excuse for quitting Ferrara. Meanwhile, through the years 1575, 1576, 1577, Tasso’s health grew worse. Jealousy inspired the courtiers to calumniate and insult him. His irritable and suspicious temper, vain and sensitive to slights, rendered him only too easy a prey to their malevolence. He became the subject of delusions,—thought that his servants betrayed his confidence, fancied he had been denounced to the Inquisition, expected daily to be poisoned. In the autumn of 1576 he quarrelled with a Ferrarese gentleman, Maddalo, who had talked too freely about some love affair ; in the summer of 1577 he drew his knife upon a servant in the presence of Lucrezia d’Este, duchess of Urbino. For this excess he was arrested; but the duke released him, and took him for change of air to his country seat of Belriguardo. What happened there is not known. Some biographers have surmised that a com- promising liaison with Leonora d’Este came to light,' and that Tasso agreed to feign madness in order to cover her honour. But of this there is no proof. It is only certain that from Belriguardo he returned to a Franciscan convent at Ferrara, for the express purpose of attending to his health. There the dread of being murdered by the duke took firm hold on liis mind. He escaped at the end of July, disguised himself as a peasant, and went on foot to his sister at Sorrento.
The truth seems to be that Tasso, after the beginning of 1575, became the victim of a mental malady, which, without amounting to actual insanity, rendered him fantastical and insupportable, a misery to himself and a cause of anxiety to his patrons. There is no evidence whatsoever that this state of things was due to an overwhelming passion for Leonora. The duke, . instead of acting like a tyrant, showed considerable forbearance. He was a rigid and not sympathetic man, as egotistical as a princeling of that age was wont to be. But to Tasso he was never cruel,—hard and unintelligent perhaps, but far from being that monster of ferocity which has been painted. The subsequent history of his connexion with the poet, over which we may pass rapidly, will corroborate this view. While at Sorrento, Tasso hankered after Ferrara. The court-made man could not breathe freely outside its charmed circle. He wrote humbly requesting to be taken back. Alfonso consented, provided Tasso would agree to undergo a medical course of treatment for his melancholy. When he returned, which he did with alacrity under those conditions, he was well received by the ducal family. All might have gone well if his old maladies had not revived. Scene followed scene of irritability, moodiness, suspicion, wounded vanity, and violent outbursts. In the summer of 1578 he ran away again; travelled through Mantua, Padua, Venice, Urbino, Lombardy. In September ho reached the gates of Turin on foot, and was courteously entertained by the duke of Savoy. Wherever he went, “wandering like the world’s rejected guest,” he met with the honour due to his illustrious name. Great folk opened their houses to him gladly, partly in compassion, partly in admiration of his genius. But he soon wearied of tlieir society, and wore their kindness out by his querulous peevishness. It seemed, moreover, that life was intolerable to him outside Ferrara. Accordingly he once more opened negotiations with the duke; and in February 1579 he again set foot in the castle. Alfonso was about to contract his third marriage, this time with a princess of the house of Mantua. He had no children; and, unless he got an heir, there was a probability that his state would fall, as it did subsequently, to the Holy See. The nuptial festivals, on the eve of which Tasso arrived, were not therefore the occasion of great rejoicing to the elderly bridegroom. As a forlorn hope lie had to wed a third wife ; but his heart was not engaged and his expectations were far from sanguine. Tasso, preoccnpied as always with his own sorrows and his own sense of dignity, made no allowance for the troubles of his master. Rooms below his rank, he thought, had been assigned him. The princesses did not want to see him. The duke was engaged. Without exercising common patience, or giving his old friends the benefit of a doubt, he broke into terms of open abuse, behaved like a lunatic, and was sent off without ceremony to the madhouse of St Anna. This happened in March 1579; and there he remained until July 1586. Duke Alfonso’s long-sufferance at last had given way. He firmly believed that Tasso was insane, and lie felt that if he were so St Anna was the safest place for him. Tasso had put himself in the wrong by his intemperate conduct, but far more by that incomprehensible yearning after the Ferrarese court which made him return to it again and yet again. It would be pleasant to assume that an unconquerable love for Leonora led him back. Unfortunately, there is no proof of this. His relations to her sister Lucrezia were not less intimate and affectionate than to Leonora. The lyrics he addressed to numerous ladies are not less respectful and less passionate than those which bear her name. Had he compromised her honour, the duke would certainly have had him murdered. Custom demanded this retaliation, and society approved of it. If therefore Tasso really cherished a secret lifelong .devotion to Leonora, it remains buried in impenetrable mystery. He did certainly not behave like a loyal lover, for both when he returned to Ferrara in 1578 and in 1579 he showed no capacity for curbing his peevish humours in the hope of access to her society.
It was no doubt very irksome for a man of Tasso’s pleasure-loving, restless, and self-conscious spirit to be kept for more than seven years in confinement. Yet we must weigh the facts of the case rather than the fancies which have been indulged regarding them. After the first few months of his incarceration he obtained spacious apartments, received the visits of friends, went abroad attended by responsible persons of his acquaintance, and corresponded freely with whomsoever he chose to address. The letters written from St Anna to the princes and cities of Italy, to warm well-wishers, and to men of the highest reputation in the world of art and learning, form our most valuable source of information, not only on his then condition, but also on his temperament at large. It is singular that he spoke always respectfully, even afiectionately, of the duke. Some critics have attempted to make it appear that he was hypocritically kissing the hand which had chastised him, with the view of being released from prison. But no one who has impartially considered the whole tone and tenor of his epistles will adopt this opinion. What emerges clearly from them is that he laboured under a serious mental disease, and that he was conscious of it. He complains that his disorder at times amounted to frenzy, after which his memory was weakened and his intellectual faculties enfeebled. He saw visions and heard phantom voices. Puck-like spirits made away with his books and papers. The old dread of poison, the old terror of the Inquisition, returned with greater violence. His bodily condition grew gradually worse; and, though he does not seem to have suffered from acute attacks of illness, the intellectual and physical constitution of the man was out of gear. Meanwhile he occupied his uneasy leisure with copious compositions. The mass of his prose dialogues on philosophical and ethical themes, which is very considerable, we owe to the years of imprisonment in St Anna. Except for occasional odes or sonnets—some written at request and only rhetorically interesting, a few inspired by Ms keen sense of suffering and therefore poignant—he neglected poetry. But everything which fell from his pen during this period was carefully preserved by the Italians, who, while they regarded him as a lunatic, somewhat illogically scrambled for the very offscourings of his wit. Hor can it be said that society was wrong. Tasso had proved himself an impracticable human being; but he remained a man of genius, the most interesting personality in Italy. Long ago his papers had been sequestered. Now, in the year 1580, he heard that part of the Gerumlemme was being published without his permission and without his corrections. Next year the whole poem was given to the world, and in the following six months seven editions issued from the press. The prisoner of St Anna had no control over his editors; and from the masterpiece which placed him on the level of Petrarch and Ariosto he never derived one penny of pecuniary profit. A rival poet at the court of Ferrara undertook to revise and re-edit his lyrics in 1582. This was Battista Guarini; and Tasso, in his cell, had to allow odes and sonnets, poems of personal feeling, occasional pieces of compliment, to be collected and emended, without lifting a voice in the matter. A few years later, in 1585, two Florentine pedants of the Della Crusca academy declared war against the Gerusalemme. They loaded it with insults, which seem to those who read their pamphlets now mere parodies of criticism. Yet Tasso felt bound to reply; and he did so with a moderation and urbanity which prove him to have been not only in full possession of his reasoning faculties, but a gentleman of noble manners also. Certainly the history of Tasso’s incarceration at St Anna is one to make us pause and wonder. The man, like Hamlet, was distraught through ill-accommodation to his circumstances and his age; brain-sick he was undoubtedly ; and this is the duke of Ferrara’s justification for the treatment he endured. In the prison he bore himself pathetically, peevishly, but never ignobly. He showed a singular indifference to the fate of his great poem, a rare magnanimity in dealing with its detractors. His own personal distress, that terrible malaise of imperfect insanity, absorbed him. What remained over, untouched by the malady, unoppressed by his consciousness thereof, displayed a sweet and gravely-toned humanity. The oddest thing about his life in prison is that he was always trying to place his two nephews, the sons of his sister Cornelia, in court-service. One of them he attached to the duke of Mantua, the other to the duke of Parma. After all his father’s and his own lessons of life, he had not learned that the court was to be shunned like Circe by an honest man. In estimating Duke Alfonso’s share of blame, this wilful idealization of the court by Tasso must be taken into account. That man is not a tyrant’s victim who moves heaven and earth to place his sister’s sons with tyrants.
In 1586 Tasso left St Anna at the solicitation of Vincenzo Gonzaga, prince of Mantua. He followed his young deliverer to the city by the Mincio, basked awhile in liberty and courtly pleasures, enjoyed a splendid reception from his paternal town of Bergamo, and produced a meritorious tragedy called Torrismondo. But only a few months had passed when he grew discontented. Vincenzo Gonzaga, succeeding to his father’s dukedom of Mantua, had scanty leisure to bestow upon the poet. Tasso felt neglected. In the autumn of 1587 we find him journeying through Bologna and Loreto to Home, and taking up his quarters there with an old friend, Scipione Gonzaga, now patriarch of Jerusalem. Next year he wandered off to Naples, where he wrote a dull poem on Monte Oliveto. In 1589 he returned to Home, and took up his quarters again with the patriarch of Jerusalem. The servants found him insufferable, and turned him out of doors. He fell ill, and went to a hospital. The patriarch in 1590 again received him. But Tasso’s restless spirit drove him forth to Florence. The Florentines said, Actum est de eo.” Borne once more, then Mantua, then Florence, then Borne, then Naples, then Borne, then Naples — such is the weary record of the years 1590—94. We have to study a verit- able Odyssey of malady, indigence, and misfortune. To Tasso everything came amiss. He had the palaces of princes, cardinals, patriarchs, nay popes, always open to him. Yet he could rest in none. To rest would have been so easy, had he possessed the temperament of Berni or of Horace. But he was out of joint with the world. No sensuous comforts, no tranquillity of living, soothed his vexed soul. Gradually, in spite of all veneration for the sacer vates, he made himself the laughing-stock and bore of Italy.
His health grew ever feebler and his genius dimmer. In 1592 he gave to the public a revised version of the Gerusalemme, It was called the Gerusalemme Conquistata. All that made the poem of his early manhood charming he rigidly erased. The versification was degraded; the heavier elements of the plot underwent a dull rhetorical development. During the same year a prosaic composition in Italian blank verse, called Le Sette Giomate, saw the light. Nobody reads it now. We only mention it as one of Tasso’s dotages—a dreary amplification of the first chapter of Genesis.
It is singular that just in these years, when mental disorder, physical weakness, and decay of inspiration seemed dooming Tasso to oblivion, his old age was cheered with brighter rays of hope. Clement VIII. ascended the papal ebair in 1592. He and his nephew, Cardinal Aldobrandini of St Giorgio, determined to befriend our poet. In 1594 they invited him to Borne. There he was to assume the crown of bays, as Petrarch had assumed it, on the Capitol. Lean and worn out with sickness, ready to totter into the tomb, where rest might possibly be found, Tasso reached Home in November. The ceremony of his coronation was deferred because Cardinal Aldobrandini had fallen ill. But the pope assigned him a pension; and, under the pressure of pontifical remonstrance, Prince Avellino, who held Tasso’s maternal estate, agreed to discharge a portion of his claims by payment of a yearly rent-charge. At no time since Tasso left St Anna had the heavens apparently so smiled upon him. Capitolian honours and money were now at his disposal. Yet this good fortune came too late. It seemed as though fate had decided that this man, in all his weakness of character and pathetic grace of genius, should win the stern fame of martyrdom. Both laurel wreath and wealth must be withdrawn from him. Before the crown was worn or the pensions paid he ascended to the convent of St Onofrio, on a stormy 1st day of April in 1595. Seeing a cardinal’s coach toil up the steep Trasteverine Hill, those good monks came to the door to greet it. From the carriage stepped Tasso, the Odysseus of many wanderings and miseries, the singer of sweetest strains still vocal, and told the prior he was come to die with him.
In St Onofrio he died, on the 25th of April of that year 1595. He was just past fifty-one; and the last twenty years of his existence had been practically and artistically ineffectual. At the age of thirty-one the Gerusalemme, as we have it, was accomplished. The world too was already ringing with the music of Aminta. More than this Tasso had not to give to literature. But those succeeding years of derangement, exile, imprisonment, poverty, and hope deferred endear the man to us. Elegiac and querulous as he must always appear, we yet love Tasso better because he suffered through nearly a quarter of a century of slow decline and unexplained misfortune.
Taken altogether, the best complete edition of Tasso’s writings is that of Rosini (Pisa), in 33 vols. The prose works (in 2 vols., Florence, Le Monnier, 1876) and the letters (in 5 vols., same publishers, 1853) have been admirably edited by Cesare Guasti. This edition of Tasso’s Letters forms by far the most valuable source for his biography. No student can, however, omit to use the romantic memoir attributed to Tasso’s friend Marchese Manso (printed in Rosini’s edition of Tasso’s works above cited), and the important Vita di Torquato Tasso by Serassi (Bergamo, 1790). To give anything like a complete account of more recent critical and biographical Tasso literature is impossible within the limits of this article. (j. a. s.)