Born: 11 March 1544, Sorrento, Italy
Died: 25 April 1595, Rome, Italy
Italian poet, playwright and courtier. He was one of those rare literary figures whose works held an immediate and continuing fascination for musicians and writers alike and whose life became a legend that survived his death by three centuries.
Tasso was the son of Bernardo Tasso (d 1569), a court poet well known in his day. His early years were marred by political difficulties that caused his father to be expelled from Naples and the boy himself to be separated from his mother. These events contributed to his lifelong financial insecurity, since, deprived of his father’s land and his mother’s dowry, he became completely dependent on – and increasingly bitter about – court patronage. His early education was that of a courtier: literature (including Latin and Greek), mathematics, music and riding. In Venice, under the constant threat of Turkish invasion, he wrote Gierusalemme, a first draft of his great epic, based on the historic events of the first Crusade to liberate Jerusalem.
Tasso’s long association with Ferrara began in October 1565. He was first a member of the household of Cardinal Luigi d’Este and from 1572 a ‘gentleman’ in the service of Duke Alfonso II. The splendour and luxury of the Este court provided him with a stimulating environment, and the knowledge that Boiardo and Ariosto had written their poems there must have inspired him. Encouraged by Leonora and Lucrezia d’Este, he wrote his celebrated pastoral play Aminta, more lyrics and some dialogues and theoretical works. There, too, he began his Gerusalemme liberata, which was to occupy him for a decade.
Although Tasso won great favour with the performance of his Aminta (1573), he was plagued by unauthorized editions of it and of Gerusalemme liberata. The latter had been circulating among his friends before the first complete edition was published in 1581, thereby sparking one of the great literary debates of the century. Anxious about piratical publishers, fearful that his work would incur the wrath of the Inquisition and worried about his ill-health, Tasso revealed in his letters an increasing tendency towards paranoia. He was imprisoned in June 1577 after attacking a servant who, he thought, was spying on him, but in July he escaped and fled the court. Although he was reconciled with the duke in April 1578, his mental agitation did not allow him to remain in Ferrara nor to find a satisfactory patron in Mantua, Padua, Venice, Florence, Urbino, Pesaro or Turin. In February 1579 he returned to Ferrara, where, amid preparations for the reception of Duke Alfonso’s third bride, he felt ignored and humiliated. Within a month his angry outbursts and denunciations caused him to be arrested again and taken to S Anna, an asylum where he was confined for seven years. Although he suffered hallucinations and fits of melancholy, his writings from this period – lyrics, dialogues, letters, even a comedy (Intrichi d’amore) – are more suggestive of anguish than insanity.
Tasso was released in 1586 at the request of Duke Vincenzo I of Mantua, at whose court he completed the tragedy Il Rè Torrismondo. But his sense of persecution and dissatisfaction with his material benefits continued to make him restless. In April 1590, at the invitation of Jacopo Corsi, he was in Florence, where he may have witnessed a performance of his Aminta, possibly with music composed by Emilio de’ Cavalieri. He divided his last years between Naples and Rome, writing prose and poetry of a religious nature, and reworking his masterpiece Gerusalemme liberata into the less successful Gerusalemme conquistata in an attempt to respond to the objections of his critics.
In his lyrics Tasso, like many 16th-century Italian poets, displayed a partiality for the madrigal; unlike them, however, he wrote some of his best verse in the genre and brought it to a point of unsurpassed technical perfection. His lyrics were set by almost all the important composers, both madrigalists and monodists, of his own and the next few generations (a list of settings appears in Le rime di Torquato Tasso, ed. A. Solerti, Bologna, 1898–1902). At Ferrara and Mantua he knew Luzzaschi, Wert and Alessandro Striggio, whose styles he praised in his dialogue La Cavaletta (Venice, 1587), contrasting them with ‘degenerate music which has become soft and effeminate’. His Aristotelian studies had persuaded him that all types of poetry purge the passions (see his Del giudizio sovra la sua Gerusalemme, Rome, 1666), and the new, musically affective madrigal of the 1580s and 1590s reflected the passionate accents and dramatic situations of his epic poem.
Written in traditional ottava rima stanzas, Gerusalemme liberata soon surpassed Ariosto’s Orlando furioso as a popular source of texts for composers of the madrigal. Wert gave portions of Armida’s monologue (canto xvi) their first setting in his eighth book of madrigals (1586). Monteverdi’s second and third books (1590–92) reflect Tasso’s influence, the latter including two cycles drawn from cantos xii and xvi respectively. His Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (staged in Venice, 1624; published in the eighth book of madrigals, 1638) is taken from canto xii, and his lost Armida abbandonata (1626) is the first of numerous operas based on Tasso’s epic. Composers who treated subjects and characters from the Gerusalemme in their operas include Michelangelo Rossi (Erminia sul Giordano, 1633), Lully (Armide, 1686), Handel (Rinaldo, 1711), Gluck (Armide, 1777), Haydn (Armida, 1784), Rossini (Armida, 1817) and Dvořák (Armida, 1902–3). Also significant for the history of opera is Aminta, written principally in hendecasyllabic verse in which assonance and refrain, rather than rhyme, assume structural importance. This flexible style, particularly apparent in the concluding choruses of acts 2, 3 and 5, is similar to that later used by Rinuccini for the recitative sections of his first opera librettos.
The most complete edition of Tasso's works is that in five volumes by B. Maier (Milan, 1963–5).
Settings of his poetic works
View the Wikipedia article on Torquato Tasso.