Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Apr. 2005 - entirely revised Nov. 2022                        

Torquato Tasso

The National library in Naples has recovered one of Torquato Tasso's sonnets by buying it from a private collector. It will be added to the large collection that they already have and presented to the public in a small ceremony. There are other bits of new "Tassobilia" such as a love-letter he wrote to women he was in love with. Who stole the sonnets in the first place and is that private collector now in jail? I don't know and you must be kidding.

Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Sorrento's most famous son, was not in the town in June 1558, the date of a vicious sacking of Sorrento by Saracen pirates, one that killed thousands of persons, and saw many more carried away into slavery. He was fourteen years old at the time and had already moved away to Rome. But the raid was a pivotal inspiration for his masterpiece Gerusalemme liberata [Jerusalem Delivered] (1574), still considered one of the great epic poems in Italian and at the time viewed as the great Epic of Christendom, recalling, as it did, the First Crusade with its stirring opening:

       Canto l'arme pietose, e 'l capitano/ Che il gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo—
       (I sing the pious arms, and the captain who freed the great sepulcher of Christ.)

Christians at the time of Tasso were still almost within living memory of the fall of the thousand-year old Christian Empire of Byzantium, and Gerusalemme liberata filled a need for rousing reminders of glory. Tasso was compared to Homer, Vergil and Dante, and though such comparisons now seem strained, the work fit the spirit of the times and was the most popular piece of Italian literature for many years. Nevertheless, Tasso's life was a turbulent one, for even his masterpiece, in spite of popular acclaim, was severely criticized by the Inquisition. This disturbed Tasso, as did the relative failure of virtually all of his other works. Tasso has become a metaphor of the disturbed and misunderstood genius. He made almost no money at all from Gerusalemme liberata, and he wandered incessantly, selling his stray poems. He suffered bouts of depression and madness, even being locked away for a while. This great poet wandered incessantly looking for something. This new addition to the library makes us wonder about his life.

There is no shortage of information about his early life but nothing in it is very helpful. So the cliffs and mountains of Sorrento, while proverbially tranquil, are also a facade covering his life of disappointment and hardship. Torquato started out fine. His father was a nobleman and respected lyric poet. His mother was also nobility and connected with illustrious Neapolitan families. But Naples at the time was run by the Spanish who set up the Inquisition and had little or no use for the home-grown rulers of southern Italy. The Spanish found an excuse to dump the local prince of Salerno; they outlawed him, took his property, and did the same thing to those he had helped with patronage. That included the Tasso family. Before that, Torquato had been the poet prodigy in a Jesuit school. He was a brilliant child. His precocious intellect and religious fervor got attention and admiration. At the age of eight he was already locally famous.

      This statue is in Sorrento.
Then it was downhill. His life became a mental roller coaster that modern medicine calls "bi-polar disorder". His mother let him go to Rome to find his father, now living hand-to-mouth in exile and poverty. His father, Bernardo, was a poet, though, and when an opening at the court of Urbino (on the Adriatic, NE of Rome) was offered to him in 1557, he gladly accepted it. His son went with him and for a while enjoyed the court life of aesthetics and literature. Venice is just to the north and now his father went there to superintend the printing of his own poetry. He took Torquato and apparently giving up his own ambition, devoted himself to making a better life for his son. He sent Torquato to Padua (near Venice) to study law. Torquato, of course, had no interest in law and spent his time reading philosophy and writing poetry. He produced by 1562, at the age of 18, a 12-canto poem called Rinaldo. It was original and so remarkable that even then people said he was the most promising young poet of his time.

He then fell in love with various young women, which is where those recovered love-letters come from. He courted two of them at the same time. Through all of this his life was hectic and breathless - write, move, write, move, write, move. His father died in 1569. That took away the one anchor in his life. He started to drift. Badly.

His great epic, Gerusalemme liberata, was finished in 1574, when he was 31. The best days of his life were over and he knew it. He finally cracked, and, like many with such a condition, he knew he had cracked. The Duke of Ferrara had him committed to the St. Anne madhouse in Ferrara in 1579, more as a favor to keep him out of the clutches of the Inquisition. He stayed until 1586. 

We still pay tribute to great poets and writers. I don't know if that means less now than it did then, but in 1595 in Italy if you had a man in your midst whom people spoke of as another Dante or Virgil, you honored him. In 1595 Pope Clement VIII invited Tasso to the Capitoline Hill in Rome to be crowned "king of poets", as they had done with Petrarch a few centuries earlier. There is no higher honor. Yet on April 1, 1595, a few days before his "crowning" was to take place a coach toiled up the steep Trasteverine Hill to the convent of Sant'Onofrio. The monks came to the door to greet it. From the carriage stepped Torquato Tasso and told the prior he had come to die with him. Tasso died in Sant'Onofrio in early April, 1595. He was 51.

His works were widely translated and adapted. Until the beginning of the 20th century, he was one of the most widely read poets in Europe. He had an enormous impact on later poets, artist and musicians. A short list:

    - Tasso influenced much English Elizabethan poetry;
    - Claudio Monteverdi wrote music based on his poetry; Gesualdo put many of Tasso's text to music;
    - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a play, Torquato Tasso, in 1790, and also a cantata text, inspired by Gerusalemme         liberata, later set to music by Johannes Brahms;
    - Giacomo Leopardi wrote Dialogo di Torquato Tasso, a prose work about Tasso's long stay in the St. Anna madhouse in         which a "Genius", or ghost, visits Tasso to console him in his loneliness;
    - Among the numerous operas based on Gerusalemme librata are works by Lully, Alessandro  Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel,         Haydn, Salieri, Cherubini, Rossini and Dvořák, and now a  modern opera on the theme, by Judith Weir, transposes             the scene into contemporary Iraq;
    -Both Edmund Spenser and John Milton were greatly influenced by Tasso's work;
    -Lord Byron's poem "The Lament of Tasso" narrates Tasso's spell in St. Anna's hospital;
    -Gaetano Donizetti wrote an opera about Tasso (1833) and usedsome of the poet's writing in the libretto;
    -Franz Liszt composed a symphonic poem, Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo [Lament and Triump];
    -Artists inspired by Jerusalem Delivered include Tintoretto, Domenichino, Van Dyck, Delacroix, and many others.

    It's a long list. I think many later artists, those who wrote, painted and made music about Tasso, thought to                     themselves: "Look at that poor man. I hope that doesn't happen to me."

added Nov 2022—

                                         A Meeting of the Minds - All Three of Him



Selene Salvi reminds me that there are reminders of Torquato Tasso scattered around Naples. There are some unexpected connections, such as the one between Tasso and Giacomo Leopardi, the 19th-century poet. Tasso (1544-1595) was a contemporary of Shakespeare; Leopardi lived in the early 1800s. What could these two have in common? One, they were both great poets; two, they both led very unhappy lives. Selene also reminds me that Tasso was Leopard's favorite poet.

There is a plaque on the Palazzo Balsorano on via Crispi that reads:

        "Torquato Tasso/ guest of a friend/ in 1592 looked from this place/ upon the fields,
        heavens and harbor/ sketched the created world/ rewove Jerusalem/ thought about friendship/
        forgot adversity/ happy with life.    25 April 1895.

Here Tasso was the guest of Giambattista Manso (1567–1645) who wrote the first biography of Tasso, "Life of Torqauto Tasso" (1621).

I imagine Tasso pleased to know that his life would not go unremembered. I think he might have felt close to other poets, not yet born, like Leopardi, who in 1824 wrote an amazing, often overlooked collection called Operette morali [Small Moral Tales], one of which is of his favorite poet, Torquato Tasso, talking with his spirit-companion, his Genio, who has just dropped by for a visit!

Genio: Torquato, how're you doing?
Tasso: Well, you know how it is
in prison and up to my neck in troubles.
Genio: Come on, you just had a good meal. Don't think about all that. Relax. We can tell a few stories, laugh a little.
Tasso: Not much of that left in me, but it's better with you here. Have a seat.
Genio: Me? Sit down? That's not easy for a spirit. Fine. Pretend I'm sitting down.
Tasso:  If only I could see Leonora again! Just thinking about her fills me with joy. It makes me feel like the Torquato I                 used to be before I got tangled up with society and mankind. Now  I just weep and feel dead. I think we have to             use the world we live in and suffer in to look inside ourselves and find out who we used to be, who we were at the             beginning, before we started to spread out into the world around us. We keep withdrawing into ourselves and get             more and more sluggish. It saps us, takes our life. I'm amazed that thinking of a woman has the power to bring             me back to life, restore my soul,  and make me forget my troubles. If I  thought I'd never see her again, I'd never             ever again be happy.
Genio: What do you think is better, to see the woman you love or to think about her?
Tasso: I don't know. When she was with me, she was a woman. Now that she's not here, she seems more like a goddess.
Genio: Those goddesses are so sweet and kind, but get close and they can dazzle you.
Tasso: That's for sure. But don't you think it's a woman's doing when she's something other than  what you imagined?
Genio: What's wrong with that? They're flesh and blood, too, you know - not ambrosia and nectar. What even comes close             to a woman? And what about men? They're not exactly trustworthy and lovable creatures. Why do women have to             be angels?
Tasso: With all that, I'm dying to see her again and talk with her.
Genio: Fine. I'll bring her to you in your dreams tonight. Lovely and young. A real lady. Much better than what you                     remember. And at the end she'll take your hand and look into your eyes  intently and fill you heart with such                     overwhelming sweetness, that all day tomorrow or  whenever you remember this dream, your heart will be filled             with tenderness.    
Tasso: Big deal. A dream instead of the truth.
Genio: What is truth?
Tasso: Pontius Pilate didn't know that any more than I do. 
Genio: Look, there is no difference between a dream and the real thing except that sometimes a  dream can be much                 better and sweeter than real life.
Tasso: So a delightful dream and a real-life delight are the same?
Genio: Yes. I knew of a woman who followed the man who loved her around in his dreams. All the time. Good dreams,                 too. But whenever he saw her for real, she wasn't nearly as good as his dreams. He had lost the beauty of his                 dreams because he was searching for the real thing. Look at the ancients. Not so dumb. They sought beauty                     wherever - in dreams and in real life. Pythagoras. He didn't eat certain foods because it kept him from sleeping                 and having nice dreams. Sure, they're superstitions, but they let you take a drink before you go to  sleep, and                 pray to Mercury, the guardian of dreams. So even if they're not happy in real life, they can be happy when they're             asleep. I think a lot of them found it. They praised Mercury more than the other gods.
Tasso: Then why were we born? Why do we live for pleasure? Must we choose between body and spirit? If we think                     pleasure can only be found in dreams, then we should do nothing but dream. I can't sink to that.
Genio: You already have. You're alive and you want to go on living. What is pleasure?
Tasso: I haven't really had that much experience with it to be able to say.
Genio: No one has. It's not automatic. It's trial and error. Pleasure comes from speculation. It's not a real thing. It's                     desire, not a fact. You come up with it in your thoughts without even trying  it first. A concept. Not a  feeling. You             don't notice it even if you get one of the delights that you really wanted.
This particular "Little Moral Tale" is much longer, but it is clear that Leopardi is using his "partner in poetry", his spiritual brother across centuries, as a spring-board to talk about himself. Everything is sheer Leopardi talking to himself. The story continues in the same vein. They talk of pleasure, pain, and boredom. At the very end, the exchange is this:

Genio: How long have you felt like this?
Tasso: A number of weeks, as you know.
Genio: Haven't you known from the start what this is doing to you?
Tasso: I was more aware of it early on, but little by little my mind just started to drift and I got used to it. Maybe I was                 amused by talking to myself about serious things and not chattering away idly. I felt I was with serious persons                 asking me serious questions. They ask, I answer. A grand conversation with myself.   
Genio: You'd rather be in their company than in your own, by yourself. And that has become your life. That happens.                     Separating yourself from others gives you the chance to use your imagination, to invent and reinvent. Look, I'm                 going to leave you now. You're tired and I want to set up the  dream I promised you for tonight. Maybe you can                 spend the rest of your life like that. That's all the world has any right expect to from you. It's good to be a little                 ragged around the edges, too. When you get down to it, though, time moves very slowly in  this prison cell. It'd                 be nice to be outside in the gardens with those who are putting you through this. Good-bye.
Tasso: Good-bye. Listen. This conversation has comforted me. Not that it has broken my sadness. For the most part,                 that's still like a very dark night. No moon or stars. But with you here, it's like the darkness of twilight. It doesn't             bother me. I'm grateful. I'd like to call you when I need you. How do I find you?
Genio: You haven't figured that out yet? In any bottle of good wine.

            The emphasis on dreams reminds me of a verse by another great poet:

                                                        All would be well
                Could we but give us wholly to the dreams,
                And get into their world that to the sense
                Is shadow, and not linger wretchedly
                Among substantial things; for it is dreams
                That lift us to the flowing, changing world
                That the heart longs for. What is love itself,
                But dreams that hurry from beyond the world
                To make low laughter more than meat and drink,
                Though it but set us sighing? Fellow-wanderer,
                Could we but mix ourselves into a dream,
                Not in its image on the mirror!

                W.B. Yeats
                except from The Shadowy Waters (1906)

            This exact same entry is also under Leopardi.

                    to history portal              to literature portal            to top of this page

 © 2002 - 2023