The greatest Italian poet of the late Renaissance, Torquato Tasso wrote the epic Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated). This poem, through the imitation of classical models, marks stylistically the culmination of the Renaissance poetic manner and anticipates the Baroque trend of the 17th century. It also reveals the "modern" sensibility of its author and the half-morbid feelings of his melancholic disposition, which made such a disconcerting impression on his contemporaries.
Tasso was born in Sorrento, near Naples, on March 11, 1544, the son of Bernardo Tasso, a poet and courtier, and of Porzia de'Rossi. His childhood was overshadowed by family misfortunes: his father followed the Prince of Salerno into exile in 1552; the family estates were confiscated; his mother died in 1556; and there was subsequent litigation about her dowry. Tasso joined his father in Rome in 1554 and two years later at the court of Urbino, where he was educated with the Duke's son. His imagination had already been fired by stories of the Crusades, and he was struck in 1558 by news of an attack by the Turks on Sorrento, where his sister Cornelia narrowly escaped the accompanying massacre. While in Venice the following year, Tasso began to write an epic in ottava rima (an Italian stanza of eight 11-syllabled lines). Gerusalemme, about the first Crusade (which recovered Jerusalem from the Turks in 1099). He soon interrupted its composition, probably realizing that he was too inexperienced to write a historical epic, and turned to themes of chivalry. The resulting Rinaldo exhibited his technical ability but not as yet his poetic genius. In 1560 he was sent to study law in Padua and there met the Humanist and critic Sperone Speroni, under whose guidance he studied Aristotle's Poetica. It was probably then that he started writing his Discord del'arte Poetica explaining therein his qualified acceptance of the rules supposedly laid down by Aristotle in 4th-century-BC Greece. (For instance, Tasso maintained that unity of action should not exclude a variety of episodes.) In 1562 he also wrote love poems to Lucrezia Bendidio, a maid-in-waiting to Princess Leonora of the powerful Este family.
In 1565 Tasso entered the service of Luigi, cardinal d'Este at Ferrara, where he enjoyed the patronage of the Duke's sisters, Lucrezia and Leonora, for whom he wrote some of his finest lyrical poems. In 1569 his father died; the following year Lucrezia left Ferrara, and Tasso followed the Cardinal to Paris, where he met a fellow poet, the Frenchman Pierre Ronsard. Back in Ferrara in 1571, he became one of the Duke's courtiers and devoted himself to intense poetic activity. In 1573 he wrote the pastoral drama Aminta, which transcends the convention of artificial rusticity with the sensuous, lyrical inspiration of its picture of Arcadia. The play reflects in its idealization of court life the ephemeral period of happiness he enjoyed at Ferrara. In the same year he also began a tragedy, "Galealto re di Norvegia."
In 1575 Tasso completed his masterpiece, the Gerusalemme liberata, on which he had been working since his stay in Padua. In this epic poem Tasso narrates the action of a Christian army led by Godfrey of Bouillon (Goffredo was an early alternative title for the poem) during the last months of the First Crusade. In its composition he tried to establish a balance between the moral aspirations of his times and his own sensuous inspiration, and between the requirements of the formal rules laid down for an epic by Renaissance scholars and the impulse of his own lyrical fantasy. he succeeded in reconciling invention with historical truth by adding a number of romantic and even supernatural episodes to the firm groundwork of the principal historical action. Aware of his epic's poetic novelty, Tasso went to Rome in order to arrange its revision by a group of critics. Back in Ferrara in 1576, he started revising his work in a contradictory mood, in which he felt the urge both to accept the criticism he himself had sought and yet to rebel against this kind of authority. He developed a persecution mania, accompanied by unwarranted scruples about his own religious orthodoxy, and the following years were characterized by sudden departures from Ferrara and by violent crises, the latter culminating in his incarceration in the hospital of S. Anna (1579-86) by order of the Duke of Ferrara. During his confinement Tasso wrote a number of philosophical and moral dialogues that, together with his numerous letters, are among the best examples of 16th-century Italian prose. In 1581 the first editions of the Gerusalemme liberata and portions of the Rime e prose were published. A long controversy started among Italian critics on the respective merits of his epic and of his immediate predecessor Ariosto's chivalric poem Orlando Furioso, Tasso himself taking part in the controversy with an Apologia.
In July 1586 Tasso was released from S. Anna, thanks to the intervention of Vincenzo Gonzaga, prince of Mantua, who received him at his court. After a revival of creative inspiration - at Mantua he completed his tragedy Galeato, re-entitled Re Torrismondo - he relapsed into his usual inquietude and fled from Mantua, wandering mainly between Rome and Naples, where he composed his religious poems Monte Oliveto and Le sette giornale del monde creato. In May 1592 he was given hospitality in Rome by Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini, a nephew of Pope Clement VIII. To this patron he dedicated a new version of his epic (Gerusalemme conquistata, published 1593), a poetic failure that reveals the extent of Tasso's final submission to the moral and literary prejudices of the times. After writing two more religion poems (Lagrime di Maria Vergine and Lagrime di Gesu' Cristo). In June 1594 he went to Naples again, where his Discorsi del poema eroico was published. In the Discorsi he tried to justify the new version of his epic according to his modified conception of art. On Tasso's return to Rome in November 1594, the Pope granted him an annual pension and promised to make him poet laureate. But Tasso fell ill in the following March, was moved to the Convent of S. Onofrio, and died on April 15, 1595.
It was not long before Gerusalemme liberata was translated and imitated in many European languages, but its mixed reception following publication aggravated Tasso's melancholic disposition. This melancholy was partly caused by a contrast between his hedonistic ideals - as displayed in his pastoral drama Aminta - and his religious aspirations in accordance with the rigid morality of the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church's movement of revival in answer to Protestantism. The restlessness of the poet's life, his mental illness, his supposed romantic loves, and his alleged persecutions all gave rise to a legend about the man: Tasso became a literary subject first in the 17th-century Italy and then in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, being finally represented as the man of genius who is misunderstood and persecuted. Modern criticism refers the peculiarities of his life and character to the moral incertitude of the times.