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Jason Lawrence, Tasso's Art and Afterlives
by Marco Corradini

Lawrence, Jason. Tasso’s art and afterlives: The Gerusalemme liberata in England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).

It is well-known how, since its first publication in 1581, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata was rapidly received as a major work both in Italy and beyond, not only within the field of literature, but also in the figurative arts and music. Along with France, England was the place where Tasso’s work was most enthusiastically received: Spenser’s Faerie Queene is the most familiar case of Tassian imitation before Milton. But further proof of the great attention the Liberata received in late sixteenth-century England is shown by, for example, Abraham Fraunce’s rhetoric manual, The Arcadian Rhetorike (1588). This text contains over eighty citations of passages from the Liberata and demonstrates how in this period Tasso’s poem rapidly became a reference model for English writers who were already oriented towards the artistic productions of Italy. Together with imitations of selected episodes from the poem, verse translations began to appear: the first in 1594, by Richard Carew, was limited to Cantos I to V, while the subsequent translation of the full poem, by Edward Fairfax, was printed in 1600.

Tasso’s presence in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (which must include also the wide distribution, together with the Gerusalemme liberata, of the pastoral drama Aminta, whose fortune is intertwined with that of Battista Guarini’s Pastor fido, and of Tasso’s interventions in the field of poetical theory) has been the object of uninterrupted critical attention since the beginning of the twentieth century at the least, with work by scholars including Mario Praz, Robert Durling, Charles P. Brand and Lawrence Rhu. However, in recent years, interest in Tasso’s reception is perhaps not as lively as the topic deserves. Jason Lawrence’s volume makes an original contribution to this tradition. It explores the fortunes of Tasso’s poem in the widest interpretation of the term and takes into account, besides its profound influence on literature, its huge impact on the visual arts and on melodrama, from the late sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The last chapter and conclusion shift the field of scrutiny from the works to the author’s biography, examining the emergence in England of what became in the eighteenth and nineteenth century a Europe-wide romantic myth, mostly based on legendary aspects of Tasso’s life.

The Gerusalemme liberata as a poem comprises, through a lucid and conscious design of its author, both ‘unity’ -  an indispensable requirement within the dominant Aristotelian paradigms of late sixteenth-century Italian culture –  and ‘variety’, which was believed to be essential to the creation of ‘delectation’ in the reader. The poem is therefore crossed by two thematic lines arranged in perfect equilibrium: while the main fabula follows the war narrative of the final moments of the First Crusade, the connecting episodes develop Tasso’s reflection on eros through male and female figures such as Erminia, Tancredi, Clorinda, Rinaldo, Armida. It was indeed the romantic plots of the poem that ensured its extraordinary success, since it was received by poets, painters and musicians first and foremost as a great repository of ‘affetti’, that is to say, of passions, which were a central topic in arts and treatises of the Late Renaissance and the Baroque period. It is logical, as a result, to find that the parts of the Liberata most often imitated by poets and reinterpreted by painters and musicians were the crucial moments where, in modern fashion, Tasso gives ample attention to the psychological introspection of his characters: Lawrence’s decision to focus on the love romance of Rinaldo and Armida is therefore apposite.

This specific focus on the ethos of Tasso’s characters was widespread and appears to be the most pressing motivation for the attention paid by Elizabethan authors to the poem, as Lawrence makes clear in the first chapter. From this focus derives the fact that the citations from the Gerusalemme chosen by Fraunce in his Rhetorike are mostly the direct speech of the characters, and centre even more specifically on the figure of the sorceress Armida, captured at the moment of her arrival in the Christian camp (canto IV), that is, during her initial attempted seduction of her enemies. Significantly, the same Tassian episode is reprised by Samuel Daniel in his Complaint of Rosamond, published in 1592, which concerns the story of Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s lover. Daniel however does not simply borrow from canto IV but reproduces elements from cantos XIV and XVI, all belonging to the semantic field of amorous temptation which characterise Armida, even though Rosamund was more of a victim of seduction rather than seductress. The reference to a natural ethics (‘the law of nature’) indeed points to, as well as the false siren of Gerusalemme liberata XIV 63, the celebrated first chorus of Aminta, which Daniel would later translate in 1601. Lawrence’s analysis, comparing passages from the Liberata to the corresponding verses of the Complaint, is convincing; but, though it is possible that Daniel first read the poem during his Italian journey of 1590-1591, it does not seem necessary to postulate his reading of canto IV in the rare partial printing made in Genoa by Zabata in 1579 (21-22).

Like Daniel, the Jesuit Robert Southwell echoes verses from the Liberata in his ‘Optima Deo’. It should be noted that Lawrence sees this poem as authentic, though Southwell’s editors, James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown, grouped it with poems of doubtful authorship (36).[1]  Southwell echoes the octaves set in Armida’s enchanted garden where a parrot pronounces an exhortation to pluck the rose of love before mankind’s brief youth loses its bloom; the English poem recontextualises the image of the rose transforming it into an exhortation to dedicate one’s youth to God. This transformation, while a spiritual parody of the original passage, is not entirely out of tune with the overall religious and moral significance of Tasso’s poem, where Armida’s magic represents for the Crusaders an obstacle to be overcome in the fulfilment of their mission. More debatable is Lawrence’s claim of a debt to the Liberata in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: while it is certainly possible to hypothesise that Shakespeare was familiar with Tasso, the textual references brought in by Lawrence to support of this thesis are perhaps too generic and can be ascribed solely to classical sources.

The second chapter of Lawrence’s book is dedicated in its entirety to an analysis of an intertextual relationship already well known to scholars: that between Armida’s garden and the ‘Bowre of Blisse’ of Book II, canto XII of the Faerie Queene, where Guyon, the knight of temperance, defeats the enchantress Acrasia. Spenser in this circumstance also draws inspiration from other Italian poems, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Giangiorgio Trissino’s L’ Italia liberata dai Goti, but Tasso’s influence is vast and profound. The originality of Lawrence’s reading consists chiefly in his foregrounding in his account of Spenser’s version of visual and auditory elements, which were already central to Tasso’s text, but which were further amplified by the English poet. According to Lawrence, Spenser’s emphasis in this key passage exerted an influence on painters and musicians in the following decades and centuries, which is examined in chapters three and four. It is evident that Spenser’s tale, despite presenting a fundamentally similar meaning to that of Tasso, is constrained within a markedly allegorical perspective, whereas the Italian poem is dominated by a deep probing of the psychology of the characters, whose points of view the author explores in succession. This is also the reason why the ultimate fate of the two sorceresses cannot but be different. Armida, after being abandoned by Rinaldo, does not leave the poem, but reappears in the last canto, still torn between ‘love’ and ‘disdain’. She is finally presented as achieving – in a striking contrast with her earlier incarnation -  true loving reciprocity with the beloved and a moral reintegration, underlined by her final words, ‘Ecco l’ancilla tua’, (XX 136 7). Armida’s words of course echo Mary’s response to the Angel of the Annunciation, though in this context it seems excessive to speak for her of ‘baptism’ (160). In contrast, Acrasia, after having been defeated by Guyon with the help of the Palmer, is bound ‘in chaines of adamant […]; / For nothing else might keepe her safe and sound’ (II xii 82 6-7), and afterwards rapidly exits the scene. The diamond chain, of mythological origin, appears in Petrarch, Triumphus Pudicitiae, 122, with a clear symbolic meaning; and it is particularly significant that in Gerusalemme conquistata, Tasso chooses for Armida the same solution imagined by Spenser for Acrasia: leaving the sorceress bound to a rock with a chain of diamond and topaz, symbols of reason and virtue. The Conquistata, indeed, is characterised by its adherence to religious and ethical imperatives, and pays much less attention to the analysis of love. For this reason, it appears closer to the ideological framework of the English poet.

In the third chapter Lawrence begins to examine the topic of the pictorial reception of Gerusalemme liberata within the English cultural milieu, and identifies a starting date of 1628, when King Charles I commissioned Van Dyck to paint a scene from the poem. The Flemish painter produced Rinaldo and Armida, now at the Baltimore Museum of Arts, inspired by canto XIV 60-68, presenting the sorceress bent over the sleeping knight, intent on binding him with flower chains, alongside the beautiful illusion of a naked girl emerging from the river. The painting reached London in 1630: at that time, illustrations of the Liberata were well established in Italy and France; thus Van Dyck’s work can be seen as the starting point in Britain for the pictorial interpretation of Tasso. Almost a century later, another painting of great significance arrived in England, Nicolas Poussin’s Tancredi and Erminia, now at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts of the University of Birmingham. Bought in France by the painter James Thornhill, the canvas (showing Erminia cutting her hair to provide bandages for her beloved Tancredi as narrated in Gerusalemme liberata, XIX 102-112), was the subject of a thorough study by Jonathan Richardson, published in Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it relates to Painting (1719). It is interesting to note that Richardson, who demonstrates exhaustive knowledge of Tasso’s poem, focuses especially on Poussin’s depiction of affections, concentrating his reflections on the very close relationship between the two sister arts (120-30).

The next chapter invites us to encounter the musical impact of the Liberata on the English stage during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beginning with Rinaldo e Armida written by John Dennis and set to music by John Eccles, first performed in 1698. Even in this field the English fortunes of the Liberata developed later than in the rest of Europe, as testified by the large number of melodramas, and before them of madrigals, drawn from the poem. The peculiarity of Dennis’s libretto resides in its being a tragedy, a decidedly unusual choice compared to the more widespread tragicomedy. The emphasis placed on the opposition of passions to reason, together with a mournful finale that sees Armida commit suicide, suggests that Dennis (as well as Aaron Hill, who conceived the Rinaldo set to music by Handel and then translated Giacomo Rossi’s Italian libretto) read Tasso’s poem in a moralistic framework ultimately not very distant from Spenser’s (138-52). But, as Lawrence reports, Hill’s Rinaldo was reviewed negatively in the Spectator on 6 March 1711 in an article by Addison that reprised the harsh judgement of Boileau’s IX satire on the ‘clinquant du Tasse’, leaving a lasting negative mark on the English popularity of the Gerusalemme liberata for the first half of the century (151-60). A different case is presented by another opera enacted in London in the eighteenth century, the Erminia favola boschereccia by Paolo Rolli with music by Giovanni Bononcini, which mixes the Liberata with Aminta and Pastor fido (160-67).

With the advent of Romanticism, critical attention in the whole of Europe shifted from the poem to the life of its author, giving rise to the myth of Torquato Tasso, based on legendary information contained in part in the seventeenth-century biography by Giovan Battista Manso. A literary fake made a significant contribution to this process, the Veglie, attributed to Tasso but written by Giuseppe Compagnoni, published for the first time in 1800 and quickly translated into the main European languages. This furthered the legend of the ‘impossible’ love of the poet for Eleonora d’Este, sister of Duke Alfonso, and presented it as the cause of his confinement in the Sant’Anna hospital in Ferrara. Tasso thus became a symbol of the struggle of the artist against power, an injured and defeated hero, in perfect accord with the sensibilities of the new cultural epoch. English writers played a crucial role in the promulgation of this biographical myth. Besides Byron’s Lament of Tasso, we find in addition works on the same subject by Thomas Wade, Henrietta Preston, Walter Savage Landor. A sort of ‘Tasso tour’ arose around this time, touching the main locations of the poet’s life, chief among them the cell in Sant’Anna where Tasso was believed to have been confined. A letter by Shelley dated from November 1818 is prominent among numerous travel testimonials (188-89). Lawrence notes the parallel rise of scientific interest in the psychological condition of the author: already in 1798 Nathan Drake, physician and man of letters, writes ‘on the Frenzy of Tasso’, while in more recent times the examination of Tasso’s psychobiography has been combined with Freudian methods, reaching however results that appear arbitrary and unconvincing from a literary critical point of view (191-92).

Overall, Lawrence’s book is a reliable general historical reconstruction of what the Gerusalemme liberata and its author bequeathed to the English cultural sphere in the fields of literature, art, drama, music and criticism, coupled with detailed analyses of certain key texts. The results of this research would have been even more fruitful had the author engaged more fully in dialogue with recent Tassian criticism in Italian, including important new interpretive perspectives on the poem (by Raimondi, Baldassarri, Scarpati, Zatti among others). It is worth noting also that a more careful revision would possibly have avoided certain frustrating transcription errors in citations from early modern Italian texts. In any case, we cannot but share Lawrence’s proposed goal ‘to stimulate […] a revival of ‘sympathetic interest’ in an under-appreciated epic masterpiece and its fascinating author’ (15), and to wish the book every success in this endeavour.


Marco Corradini

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore - Milano

Translated by Francesca Benatti

The Open University


[1] Robert Southwell, SJ, The Poems, ed. James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown (Oxford UP, 1967), pp.lxxxii-lxxxvi; 109-10.


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Marco Corradini, "Jason Lawrence, Tasso's Art and Afterlives," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2018). Accessed June 12th, 2018.
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