Last reviewed: June 2018
Italian poet and playwright
March 11, 1544
Sorrento, Kingdom of Naples (now in Italy)
April 25, 1595
Rome, Papal States (now in Italy)
Torquato Tasso was the son of Bernardo Tasso, a famous Italian poet exiled from Naples during his son’s childhood. Tasso spent his early years in Naples with his mother, who sent him to school with the Jesuits. When he was ten, he joined his father at Pesaro, where he and the heir to the duke of Urbino were tutored together. In 1557 his father sent him to study law at the University of Padua. Finding the law uninteresting, he turned before long to the study of philosophy and poetry. A few of his poems appeared as early as 1561, but real fame came with the publication of Rinaldo, a romantic epic published while the eighteen-year-old author was still a student at Padua. Torquato Tasso
After a short period of study at the University of Bologna, Tasso returned to Padua, and by 1565 he had found a wealthy patron in Cardinal Luigi d’Este, a member of the noble house of Ferrara that Tasso was to celebrate in his Jerusalem Delivered (the later title of an epic poem that he had begun at Bologna). The next five years of his life were happy and busy ones, except for the death of his father in 1569. A year later Tasso traveled with the cardinal to Paris, where he met a number of French writers of the period. A short time later a difference of opinion on religious matters caused him to exchange the cardinal’s patronage for that of Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara. Aminta, Tasso’s charming pastoral drama, added to his literary fame after its initial presentation at Ferrara in 1573.
Jerusalem Delivered, Tasso’s masterpiece, was completed the following year and was read publicly to the duke of Ferrara and the court in 1575. Having chosen Vergil as his model, Tasso followed the Roman poet’s strict adherence to unity, style, and form but with the addition of a Christianity so ardent that he went repeatedly to the Inquisition to confess his fears that he and the work might be unintentionally heterodox. The subject matter of the poem is the First Crusade, the theme dealing with the efforts of the forces of evil, personified by the beautiful sorceress Armida, to keep the crusaders under Godfrey of Bouillon from capturing the Holy City. Although classic in form, the poem is closer to medieval romance in its use of allegory and in the romantic interest supplied by love affairs between Christian knights and pagan heroines. Following the reading of Jerusalem Delivered, Tasso became ill, probably of malaria, and suffered delusions that attempts were being made on his life. When he asked for permission to leave the court, the duke was patient but firm in his refusal; perhaps he feared that Tasso, if angered or allowed to leave Ferrara, might dedicate his poem to the Medici family of Florence. Probably Tasso became temporarily insane about this time, for in 1577 he was placed under the medical care of the Franciscans at Ferrara.
In July of that year he escaped, disguised as a peasant, and went to Sorrento to take refuge with his sister Cornelia. His condition improved, and he was in Ferrara again in 1578. After a year spent wandering about Italy, he returned to Ferrara and openly accused Duke Alfonso of trying to poison him. He was then confined to an insane asylum for seven years. Although denied liberty of movement, he was permitted to receive visitors and was given spacious apartments in which to live. In 1580, an inaccurate partial version of Jerusalem Delivered was printed in Venice under the title Goffredo. A year later the complete work was published at Ferrara under its present title, Jerusalem Delivered. Publication was by order of the duke after Tasso’s manuscript had been seized along with his other effects. When the work appeared, he received nothing for the poem which made him famous throughout Europe.
Through the effects of friendly Vincenzio Gonzaga, prince of Mantua, Tasso was released in 1586 and allowed to go to Mantua to live under the protection of the prince. There he wrote Il re Torrismondo before he became a wanderer again. From 1587 to 1594 he traveled aimlessly about Europe, a victim of physical illness, mental weakness, and poverty. Jerusalem Conquered, a sequel to Jerusalem Delivered (but a much inferior work), was published in 1593. In 1594 arrangements were made to crown him poet laureate at the court of Pope Clement VIII and to grant him a suitable pension. Honors and money came too late. Before the ceremony could be performed, Tasso retired to the monastery of St. Onofrio, near Rome, and announced that he was entering the monastery to die, as he did less than a month later, on April 25, 1595—the very day scheduled for his crowning. The laurel wreath was laid on his coffin.