ST. ONOFRIO AND TASSO
One of the most romantic shrines of pilgrimage in Rome is the church of St. Onofrio. It is situated in the Trastevere, that portion of the city beyond the Tiber whose inhabitants boast of their pure descent from the ancient Romans. A steep ascent on the slope of the Janiculum, through a somewhat squalid but picturesque street, and terminating in a series of broad steps, leads up to it from the Porta di San Spirito, not far from the Vatican. The ground here is open and stretches away, free from buildings, to the walls of the city. The church has a simple old-fashioned appearance; its roof, walls, and small campanile are painted with the rusty gold of lichens that have sprung from the kisses of four centuries of rain and sun. It was erected in the reign of Pope Eugenius IV. by Nicolo da Forca Palena, an ancestor of that Conte di Palena who was a great friend of Torquato Tasso at Naples. It was dedicated to the Egyptian hermit Honuphrius, who for sixty years lived in a cave in the desert of Thebes, without seeing a human being or speaking a word, consorting with birds and beasts, and living upon roots and wild herbs. A subtle harmony is felt between the history of the hermit and the character of this building raised in his honour. A spot more drowsy and secluded, more steeped in the dreams of the older ages, is not to be found in the whole city. In front of the church there is a long, narrow portico, supported by eight antique columns of the simplest construction, in all likelihood borrowed from some old pagan temple. Under this portico is a beautiful fresco of the Madonna and Child by Domenichino. To the right are three lunettes, which contain paintings by the same great master, representing the Baptism, Temptation, and Flagellation of St. Jerome. On the left of the arcade are portraits of the most prominent saints of the Hieronomyte order. Exposed to the weather at first, these invaluable frescoes had faded into mere spectres of pictures; but they are now protected from further injury by glass.
Usually the church is closed, except in the early morning, and visitors are admitted by the custode on ringing a door bell under the portico. The interior is dark and solemn, with much less gilding and meretricious ornament than is usual in Roman churches. It contains, in the side chapels, many objects of interest; frescoes and altar-pieces by Annibale Caracci, Pinturicchio, and Peruzzi; and splendid sepulchral monuments. Of the last the most conspicuous are the marble tomb of Alessandro Guidi, the Italian lyric poet, who died in 1712; and the simple cenotaph in the last chapel on the left of one of the titular cardinals of the church, who died in 1849, the celebrated linguist Mezzofante. But the tomb upon which the visitor will gaze with deepest interest is that of Torquato Tasso, who died in the adjacent monastery in 1595. The chapel of St. Jerome, in which it is situated, the first on the left as you enter, was restored by public subscription in 1857, in a manner which does not reflect much credit upon the artistic taste of modern Rome. Previous to this the remains of the poet reposed for two hundred years in an obscure part of the church close to the door, indicated by a tablet. Above this spot there is a portrait of the time, which from an artistic point of view is very poor, but is said to be a good likeness. Removed on the anniversary of his death, about thirty years ago, to the chapel of St. Jerome, the poet's remains are now covered by a huge marble monument in the cinque-cento style, adorned by a bas-relief of his funeral and a statue of him by Fabris. Whatever may be said regarding the artistic merits of this monument, no one who has read the poet's immortal epic, and is conversant with the sad incidents of his life, can stand on the spot without being deeply moved.
Connected with the church is a monastery dedicated to St. Jerome. In one of the upper corridors is a beautiful arched fresco of the Madonna and Child, by Leonardo da Vinci, with the donor of the picture in profile kneeling before her. The picture is surrounded by a frame of fruit and flowers on an enamelled ground. The soft, tender features of the infant Jesus, and the quiet dignity and grace of the smiling Madonna, are so characteristic of the style of Leonardo da Vinci that the picture would be at once referred to him by one who did not know its origin. The chamber where Tasso spent the last days of his life is on the upper floor, and is the most conveniently situated in the whole building. It is left very much in the same state as when he lived in it. The walls and ceiling are bare and whitewashed, without any decoration. Here and there are several pale marks, indicating the places of objects that had been removed. In one part is painted on the plaster a false door partially open, behind which is seen the figure of Tasso about to enter; but every person of good taste must condemn the melodramatic exhibition, and wish that he could obliterate it with a daub of whitewash. The custode directed my attention to it with an air of great admiration, and could not understand the scowl with which I turned away my face. There are several most interesting relics of Tasso preserved in this chamber—his table, with an inkstand of wood; his great chair covered with Cordova leather, very aged and worn-looking; the belt which he wore; a small German cabinet; a large China bowl, evidently an heirloom; a metal crucifix of singular workmanship, given to him by Pope Clement VIII., which soothed his dying moments; several of his letters, and an autograph copy of verses. In one corner is the leaden coffin, much corroded, in which his remains were originally deposited. On the table is a mask in reddish wax moulded from the dead face of the poet, and placed upon a plaster bust—a most fantastic combination. From this mask, which is an undoubted original, numerous copies have been taken, which are scattered throughout Europe. It is in consequence somewhat effaced, but it still shows the characteristic features of the poet—the purity of the profile, the fineness of the mouth, and the spiritual beauty and fascinating expression of the whole face. But the incoherence of the adaptation makes it painful to think that this is the best representation of the poet we possess.
The extensive garden behind the convent combines a considerable variety of natural features. The monks grow large quantities of lettuce and fennochio; and interspersed among the beds of vegetables are orange and other fruit trees, and little trellises of cane, wreathed with vines. A large tank is supplied with water from a spring whose murmur gives a feeling of animation to the spot. The garden rises at the end into broken elevated ground showing the native rock through its grassy sides. A row of tall old cypresses crowns the ridge—their fluted trunks gray with lichen-stains, and their deep green spires of foliage forming harp-strings on which the evening winds discourse solemn music, as if the spirit of the poet haunted them still. On one side are the picturesque ruins of a shrine overarching a fountain, now dry and choked up with weeds, and fringed with ferns. Cyclamens—called by the Italians viola pazze, "mad violets"—grow on its margin in glowing masses; sweet-scented violets in profusion perfume all the air; and a few Judas-trees, loaded with crimson blossoms, without a single leaf to relieve the gorgeous colour, serve as an admirable background, almost blending with the clouds on the low horizon. On the other side the hill slopes down in a series of terraces to the crowded streets of the Trastevere, forming a spacious out-door amphitheatre, in which the Arcadian Academy of Rome used to hold its meetings during the summer months, and where St. Filippo Neri was wont to give those half-dramatic musical entertainments which, originating in the oratory of the religious community established by him, are now known throughout the world as oratorios. Between these two objects still stands the large torso of a tree which bears the name of "Tasso's oak," because the poet's favourite seat was under its shadow. It suffered much from the violence of a thunderstorm in 1842, but numerous branches have since sprouted from the old trunk, and it now affords a capacious shade from the noonday heat. It is a variety of the Valonia oak, with delicate, downy, pale-green leaves, much serrated, and contrasts beautifully with the dark green spires of the cypresses behind. The leaves at the time of my visit had but recently unfolded, and exhibited all the delicacy of tint and perfection of outline so characteristic of young foliage. The garden was in the first fresh flush of spring—that idyllic season which, in Italy more than in any other land, realises the glowing descriptions of the poets. Plucking a leafy twig from the branches and a gray lichen from the trunk as mementoes of the place, I sat down on the mossy hole, and tried to bring back in imagination the haunted past. Nature was renewing her old life; the same flowers still covered the earth with their divine frescoes; but where was he whose spirit informed all the beauty and translated its mystic language into human words? The permanency of nature and the vanity of human life seemed here to acquire new significance.
The spot on which I sat commands one of the finest views of Rome and the surrounding country. Down below to the left is the enormous group of buildings connected with St Peter's and the Vatican, whose yellow travertine glows in the afternoon sun like dead gold. Beyond rise the steep green slopes of Monte Mario, with vineyards and olive-groves nestling in its warm folds, crowned with the Villa Mellini beside the "Turner pine," a familiar object in many of the great artist's pictures. Stretching away in the direction of the old diligence road from Florence is a succession of gentle ridges and bluffs of volcanic rock covered with brushwood, among which you can trace the bold headland of the citadel of Fidenæ, and the green lonely site of Antemnæ, and the plateau on which are the scanty remains of the almost mythical Etruscan city of Veii, the Troy of Italy. The view in this direction is bounded by the advanced guard of the Sabine range, the blue peak of Soracte looking, as Lord Byron graphically says, like the crest of a billow about to break. In front, at your feet, is the city, broken up into the most picturesque masses by the irregularity of the ground; here and there a brighter light glistening on some stately campanile or cupola, and flashing back from the graceful columns of Trajan and Antonine. The Tiber flows between you and that wilderness of reddish-brown roofs cleaving the city in twain. For a brief space you see it on both sides of the Bridge of Hadrian, overlooked by the gloomy mass of the Castle of St. Angelo, and then it hides itself under the shadow of the Aventine Hill, and at last emerges beyond the walls, to pursue its desolate way to the sea through one of the saddest tracts of country in all the world. Away to the right, where the mass of modern buildings ceases, the great shattered circle of the Colosseum stands up against the sky, indicating by its presence where lie, unseen from this point of view, the ruins of the palaces of the Cæsars and the Forum. Beyond the city stretches away the undulating bosom of the Campagna, bathed in a misty azure light; bridged over by the weird, endless arches of the Claudian aqueduct, throwing long shadows before them in the westering sun. Worthy framework for such a picture, the noble semicircle of the Sabine Hills rises on the horizon to the left, terminating in the grand rugged peak of Monte Gennaro, whose every cliff and scar are distinctly visible, and concealing in its bosom the romantic waterfalls of Tivoli and the lone ancestral farm of Horace. On the right the crested Alban heights form the boundary, crowned on the summit with the white convent of Monte Cavo—the ancient temple of Jupiter Latialis, up to which the Roman consuls came to triumph when the Latin States were merged in the Roman Commonwealth—and bearing on their shoulders the sparkling, gem-like towns of Frascati and Albano, with their thrilling memories of Cicero and Pompey; the whole range melting away into the blue vault of heaven in delicate gradations of pale pink and purple. In the wide gap between these ranges of hills—beyond the stone pines and ilex groves of Præneste—the far perspective is closed by a glorious vision of the snow-crowned mountains of the Abruzzi, giving an air of alpine grandeur to the view. And all this vast and varied landscape, comprehending all glories of nature and art, all zones and climates, from the tropical aloes and palms of the Pincian Hill to the arctic snows of the Apennines, is seen through air that acts upon the spirits like wine, and gives the ideal beauty of a picture to the meanest things.
Italian poets share in the wonderful charm that belongs to everything connected with their lovely land. They are seen, like the early Tuscan paintings, against a golden background of romance. Petrarch, Dante, Ariosto, invested with this magic light, are themselves more attractive even than their poetic creations. But Torquato Tasso, perhaps, more than them all, appeals to our deepest feelings. No sadder or more romantic life than his can be found in the annals of literature. He was one of those "infanti perduti" to whom life was one long avenue of darkened days. In his temperament, in the character of his genius, and in the story of his life, we can discern striking features of resemblance between him and the wayward, sorrowful Rousseau. Hercules, according to the old fable, "was afflicted with madness as a punishment for his being so near the gods;" and the imaginativeness of a brain which had in it a fibre of insanity, near which genius often perilously lies, may be supposed to account for much that is strange and sad in his career. The place of his birth was a fit cradle for a poet. On the edge of a bold cliff, overlooking the sea at Sorrento, is the Hotel Tasso, known to every traveller in that region. Here, according to the voice of tradition, the immortal poet was born on the 11th of March 1544, eleven years after the death of Ariosto. It is said that the identical chamber in which the event took place has since disappeared, owing to the portion of rock on which it stood having been undermined by the sea; and, as if to give countenance to this, some of the existing apartments are perilously propped up on the very edge of the cliff by buttresses, which, giving way, would hurl the superstructure into the abyss. The original building stood on the site of an ancient temple; and it is probable that, with the exception of one of the bedrooms, which is said to have been Tasso's cabinet, the edifice retains none of the features which it possessed in the days of the poet.
But whatever changes may have taken place in the human habitation, the scenes of Nature around, from which he drew the inspirations of his youthful genius, remain unchanged. Every feature of landscape loveliness is focussed in that matchless panorama. Behind is a range of wild mountains, whose many-shaped peaks and crags, clad with pine and olive, assume, as the day wears on, the golden and purple hues of the sky—sloping down into the midst of vineyards and groves of orange, myrtle, and all the luxuriant verdure which the warm sun of the South calls forth, out of which gleam at frequent intervals picturesque villages and farms, which seem more the creation of Nature than of Art. In front is a glorious view of the Bay of Naples, with the enchanted isles of Capri and Ischia sleeping on its bosom, and the reflected images of domes and palaces all along its curving shores "charming its blue waters;" while dominating the whole horizon are the snowy mountains of Campania, broken by the dark purple mass of Vesuvius, rising up with gradual slope to its rounded cone, over which rests continually a column of flame or smoke, "stimulating the imagination by its mystery and terror." Apart from its associations, that landscape would have been one to gaze on entranced, and to dream of for years afterwards. But with its countless memories of all that is greatest and saddest in human history clinging to almost every object, it is indeed one of the most impressive in the world. The land is the land of Magna Græcia. The sea is the sea of Homer and Pindar. Near at hand are the Isles of the Sirens, who allured Ulysses with their magic song; away in the dim distance are the wonderful Doric temples of Pæstum, which go back to the mythical times of Jason and the Argonauts. On the opposite shore is the tomb of Virgil, on the threshold of the scenes which he loved to describe,—the Holy Land of Paganism, the Phlegræan Fields, with the terrible Avernus and the Cave of the Sibyl, and all the spots associated with the Pagan heaven and hell; and in the near neighbourhood Baiæ, with its awful memories of Roman luxury and cruelty, and Puteoli, with its inspiring associations of the Apostle Paul's visit, and the introduction of Christianity into Italy. Meet nurse for any poetic child, the place of his birth was peculiarly so for such a child as Tasso; and we can detect in the subjects of his Muse in after years, the very themes which such a region would naturally have suggested and inspired.
The age in which he was born was also eminently favourable for the development of the poetic faculty. By the wonderful discoveries of the starry Galileo, man's intellectual vision was infinitely extended, and the great fundamental idea of modern astronomy—infinite space peopled with worlds like our own—was for the first time realised. It was an era of maritime enterprise; the world was circumnavigated, and new ideas streamed in from each newly-visited region. It was pre-eminently the period of art. Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael had just passed away, but Michael Angelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese were still living, freeing men's spirits by the productions of their pencil from formal fancies and conventional fetters, and sending them back to the fresh teaching of Nature. The art of printing was giving a new birth to letters, and the reformation of religion a new growth to human thought. A new power had descended into the stagnant waters of European life, and imparted to them a wonderful energy. Along with the revival of classical learning and the general quickening of men's minds, there was blended in the South of Europe a lingering love of romance and chivalry, and a strong religious feeling, which had arisen out of the vigorous reaction of Roman Catholicism. Italy was at this time the acknowledged parent both of the poetry and the general literature of Europe; and the immortal works of Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto had formed an almost perfect vernacular language in which the creations of genius could find fittest expression.
But Tasso was not only born in a poetic region and in a poetic age: he was also the son of a poet. He inherited the divine faculty; he was cradled in poetry. His father, Bernardo, though he has been put into the shade by his more gifted son, has claims of his own to be remembered by posterity. He occupies a high place in the well-defined group of the chivalric poets of Italy. His principal poem, the Amadigi, which was composed about the time of his son's birth, though not published for sixteen years afterwards, treats in a hundred cantos the romantic history of Amadis of Gaul, and deals in giants, enchanted swords, prodigious wounds, and miraculous cures. Various estimates of this long poem have been formed by critics from the favourable analysis of Ginguéné to the severe censure of Sismondi. But in spite of its lack of dramatic power, and the monotony of its imagery, the heat of his genius crystallising only a part of the substance of his work, there can be no question that the poem is distinguished by a certain gravity and elevation of sentiment, which places it high above the romances of the older school, and brings it near to the dignity of epic poetry. In this respect the Amadigi may be said to form an interesting transition from the irregular romance of Ariosto to the symmetrical epic of his own son. The son's poetic path was thus prepared, and the mould in which his immortal work was cast was formed by his father. The fortunes of the two poets read remarkably alike. They are marked by the same extraordinary vicissitudes, and the same general sadness and gloom.
The family of Tasso belonged to Bergamo, in the north of Italy, a region which has given birth to several eminent men, among others to Tiraboschi, the historian of Italian literature. It was originally noble, and had large territorial possessions. One ancestor, Omodeo, who lived in the year 1290, is worthy of special mention as the inventor of the system of postal communication, to which the world owes so much; and hence the family arms of a courier's horn and a badger's skin—tasso being the Italian for badger—which the post-horses, down to within fifty years ago, wore upon their harness. In the time of Bernardo, however, the fortunes of the family had decayed, and the early days of the poet were passed in poverty. Adopted after the death of his parents by his father's brother, the Bishop of Recanati, he was placed at school, where he soon acquired a wonderful familiarity with the Greek and Latin authors, then newly restored to Europe. Highly cultivated, refined, and possessed of great personal beauty, while manifesting at the same time a peculiar talent for diplomacy, Bernardo speedily won his way to distinction. His first work, which was a collection principally of love-poems, celebrating his passion for the beautiful Genevra Malatesta, who belonged to the same family as the ill-fated Parasina of Byron, attracted the attention of the reigning Prince of Salerno, Ferrante Sanseverino, one of the chief patrons of literature in Italy, who thereupon engaged him as his private secretary. At the court of this prince he met Porzia de' Rossi, a lady of noble birth, who was beautiful and accomplished, and possessed what was considered in those days a large fortune. After his marriage with this lady Bernardo and his bride retired to a villa which he had purchased at Sorrento, where he enjoyed for several years an exceptional share of domestic felicity, his wife having proved a most devoted helpmeet to him.
In these propitious circumstances the infant that was destined afterwards to confer the greatest lustre upon the family name was born. His father was absent at the time with the Prince of Salerno, who had joined the Spanish army in the new war that had arisen between Charles V. and Francis I.; a war whose chivalrous and inspiring acts the Marquis d'Azeglio made use of in 1866 in his romance of history, Fieramosca, to rouse again a spirit of independence in his countrymen. A friend of his father, therefore, held the child at the baptismal font, in the cathedral of Sorrento, where he received the name of Torquato—a name which his elder brother, who lived only a few days, had previously borne. The treaty of Crepi, which concluded the war between Charles V. and Francis I., in which the former was victorious, allowed Bernardo Tasso to return home with his patron ten months after the birth of his son. By this treaty the French king, who had previously assumed the title of King of Naples, resigned all claims upon that State, and the inhabitants were henceforth subjected entirely to the dominion of the Spanish sovereigns of the house of Austria. The emperor, Charles V., appointed the Marquis de Villafranca, better known as Don Pedro de Toledo, to be Viceroy of Naples, who, like his despotic master, carried out his so-called reforms with a high hand, and interfered with the personal and domestic affairs of the inhabitants, so that he speedily roused their resentment. Against the establishment of the Inquisition, which he set about under the mask of zeal for religion, but in reality for the intimidation of the nobles, the whole city rose up in violent opposition. After having exhausted itself in a vain struggle with the viceroy, it resolved to petition the emperor, and commissioned the Prince of Salerno to plead its cause at the Court of Nuremberg. But in consequence of being forestalled by the cunning Don Pedro, the prince, when he arrived, found the case prejudged, and all his arguments and pleadings were of no avail. Disgusted with the failure of his errand, with the coldness of his reception, and with other indignities which he received at the hands of the emperor and his viceroy, he determined to abandon altogether the cause of Austria. Repairing to Venice, he publicly gave effect to his decision; whereupon Don Pedro, too glad to have an opportunity of oppressing his personal enemy, declared the prince a rebel, confiscated his estates, and seized all his personal property. In the misfortunes of his patron Bernardo Tasso shared. He too was proscribed as a rebel; his property at Salerno was seized, and his wife and children were transferred by the viceroy's orders to Naples, where her family resided, and where, under their cruel treatment, instigated by the viceroy, she was deprived of her fortune, and virtually held a prisoner to the day of her death.
Such were the dark clouds that, after a brief gleam of the brightest prosperity, hung over the early years of Torquato Tasso. Deprived of the care of a father who followed from court to court the varied fortunes of his benefactor, and in the company of a mother worse than widowed, dependent upon the cold and niggardly charity of friends who were either too timid or superstitious to oppose the patron of the Inquisition, the child grew up in melancholy solitude, like an etiolated plant that has been deprived of the sunshine. The original sadness and sensitiveness of his disposition was much increased by the family misfortunes. In his seventh year he was sent to a school in the neighbourhood, opened by the Jesuits, who were at this time beginning to exert a powerful influence upon society, principally on account of their zeal in the cause of education. At this school he remained for three years, acquiring a wonderful knowledge of Latin and Greek, and manifesting such enthusiasm in his studies that he rose long before day-break, and was so impatient to get to school that his mother was often obliged to send him away in the dark with a lantern. Here he showed the first symptoms of his genius for poetry and rhetoric, and gave public testimony to the deep religious feeling which he inherited from his parents, and which had been so carefully cultivated by his ecclesiastical masters, by joining the communion of the Church. In his tenth year his father left the court of Henry III. of France, and settled in Rome, where he had apartments assigned him in the immense palace of Cardinal Hippolito of the house of Ferrara. These apartments were furnished as handsomely as his impoverished resources allowed, in the hope that he might have his wife and children to live with him. But in spite of all his efforts and entreaties his wife was not allowed by her brothers to rejoin him; while his own position as an outlaw made it impossible for him to enter the kingdom of Naples to rescue her. The only concession he could get from the authorities was permission for her to enter with her daughter Cornelia as pensioners among the nuns in the convent of San Festo; and no sooner was this step taken than her friends openly seized her dowry, on the plea that it would otherwise belong to the convent, as her husband's outlawry cancelled his claims to it. Her boy, of course, could not enter the convent with her; he was therefore sent to his father in Rome. The separation between mother and son, we are told, was most affecting. To her it was the climax of her trials; and, bowed down beneath the weight of her accumulated sufferings, she fell an easy victim to an attack of fever, which, in the short space of twenty-four hours, ended her wretched life. Upon Tasso the parting from a mother whom he was never to see again, and whose personal qualities and grievous trials had greatly endeared her to him, produced an impression which even the great troubles of his after life could never efface.
With a mind richly stored, notwithstanding his youthful age, with classic lore, and quickened and made sensitive by a varied and sorrowful career, Torquato Tasso came to Rome. The first occasion of seeing the imperial city must have been exciting and awakening in a high degree to such a boy. He was leaving behind the passive simplicity of the child, and had already a keen interest in the things ennobled by history and cared for by grown-up men. This dawn of a higher consciousness found a congenial sphere in the city of the soul. With what absorbing eagerness his young mind would be drawn to the study of the immortal deeds, which were the inheritance of his race, on the very spot where they were done. He would behold with his eyes the glorious things of which he had heard. There would be much that would shock and disappoint him when he came to be familiar with it. Many of the ancient monuments had been destroyed; and many of the ancient sites, especially the Forum and the Palatine, were deserted wastes which had not yet yielded up their buried treasures of art to the pick and spade of the antiquarian. The ravages inflicted by the ferocious hordes of the Constable Bourbon in 1527 had not yet been obliterated by the restorations and repairs undertaken by Pope Paul III. The city had lost much of its ancient glory, and had not yet exchanged its gloomy medieval aspect for that of modern civilisation. But, in spite of every drawback, he could not sufficiently admire the buildings and the sites which bore witness of all that was grandest in human history. Along with a young relative, Christopher Tasso, he pursued his classical studies in the midst of all these stimulating associations under the tutorship of Maurizio Cattaneo, the most learned master in Italy. The companionship of a youth of his own age did him a great deal of good. It satisfied his affections, it saved him from the loneliness to which his father's ill-health at the time would otherwise have consigned him, and it spurred him on to a healthful exercise of his mental powers. For a short time he led a comparatively happy life in Rome. His father's prospects had somewhat improved. Cardinal Caraffa, who was a personal friend of his, ascended the pontifical throne under the name of Paul IV.; and as they were on the same political side, he hoped that his fortunes would now be retrieved. But this gleam of prosperity speedily vanished. The imperial enmity, which had been the cause of all his previous misfortunes, continued to pursue him like a relentless fate. Philip II. of Spain and the Pope having quarrelled, the formidable Duke of Alba, the new Viceroy of Naples, invaded the Papal States, took Ostia and Tivoli, and threatened Rome itself. With extreme difficulty Bernardo Tasso managed to make his escape to Ravenna, with nothing left him but the manuscript of his Amadigi. In the meantime his son was taken to his relatives at Bergamo. In this city, under the shadow of the Alps, Torquato remained for a year in the home of his Roman schoolfellow. The inhabitants have ever since cherished with pride the connection of the Tassos with their town, and have erected a splendid monument to Torquato in the market-place. The exquisite scenery in the neighbourhood had a wonderful effect upon the mind of the youthful poet. It put the finishing touch to his varied education. The snows of the North and the fires of the South, the wild grandeur of the mountains and the soft beauty of the sea, the solitudes of Nature where only the effects of storm and sunshine are chronicled, and the crowded scenes of the most inspiring events in human history, had their share in moulding his temperament and colouring his poetry.
From Bergamo Torquato was summoned to Pesaro, since known as the birthplace of Rossini, hence called the "Swan of Pesaro." His father had found a home with the Duke of Urbino, who treated him with the utmost kindness. In the Villa Barachetto, on the shores of the Adriatic, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery and by the finest treasures of art, which have long since been transferred to Paris and Rome, Bernardo Tasso at last completed his Amadigi; while, captivated by his grace and intelligence, the duke made Torquato the companion of his son, Francesco Maria, in all his studies and amusements. For two years father and son enjoyed in this place a grateful repose from the buffetings of fortune. But, fired by ambition, Bernardo left Pesaro for Venice, in order to see his poem through the press of Aldus Manutius; and being not only welcomed with open arms by his literary friends in that city, but also appointed secretary of the great Venetian Academy "Della Fama," with a handsome salary, he sent for his son, took a house in a good situation, and resolved to settle down in the place. There was much to captivate the imagination of the youthful Torquato in this wonderful city of the sea, then in the zenith of its fame, surpassing all the capitals of transalpine Europe in the extent of its commerce, in refinement of manners, and in the cultivation of learning and the arts. Its romantic situation, its weird history, its splendid palaces, its silent water-ways, its stirring commerce, its inspiring arts, must have kindled all the enthusiasm of his nature. But he did not yield himself up to the siren attractions of the place, and muse in idleness upon its varied charms. On the contrary, the time that he spent in Venice was the busiest of his life. He was absorbed in the study of Dante and Petrarch; and the results of his devotion may still be seen in the numerous annotations in his handwriting in the copies of these poets which belonged to him, now preserved in the Vatican Library in Rome and the Laurentian Library in Florence. He was also employed by his father in transcribing for the press considerable portions of his poetical works; and these studies and exercises were of much use to him in enabling him to form a graphic and elegant literary style. His own compositions, both in prose and verse, were by this time pretty numerous, though nothing of his had found its way into print as yet.
His father saw with much concern the development of his son's genius. Anxious to save him from the trials which he himself had experienced in his literary career, he sent him to the University of Padua to study law, which he thought would be a surer provision for his future life than a devotion to the Muses. One great branch of law, that which relates to ecclesiastical jurisprudence, has always been much esteemed in Italy, and the study of it, in many instances, has paved the way to high honours. Almost all the eminent poets of Italy, Petrarch, Ariosto, Marino, Metastasio, spent their earlier years in this pursuit; but, like Ovid and our own Milton, their nature rebelled against the bondage. They took greater pleasure in the study of the laws for rhyme than in the study of the Pandects of Justinian or the Decretals of Isidore. It was so with Tasso. He attended faithfully the lectures of Guido Panciroli, although these were not compulsory, and waited patiently at the University during the three years of residence which is required for a law degree. But all the time his mind was occupied with other thoughts than those connected with his law studies. Still, uncongenial as they must have been to him, he could not have attended for three years to such studies without unconsciously deriving much benefit from them. They must have impressed upon him those ideas of order and logical arrangement which he afterwards carried out in his writings, and which separate them so markedly from the confused, inconsistent license of the older literature of Italy; and he could not have resided in the birthplace of Livy, in constant association with the highest minds of the time, as a member of a University then the most famous in Europe, numbering no less than ten thousand students from all parts of the world, without his intellectual life being greatly quickened.
During ten months of enthusiastic work he produced his first great poem, which, considering his age—for he was then only in his eighteenth year—and the short time occupied in its composition, is one of the most remarkable efforts of genius. He called his poem Rinaldo, after the name of the knight whose romantic adventures it celebrates—not the Rinaldo of the Gerusalemme Liberata, but the Paladin of whom so much is said in the poems of Boiardo and Ariosto,—and dedicated it to Cardinal Lewis of Este, then one of the most distinguished patrons of literature in Italy. It contains a beautiful allusion to his father's genius as the source of his own inspiration. It abounds in the supernatural incidents and personified abstractions characteristic of the romantic school of poetry; and though Galileo said of it that it reminded him of a picture formed of inlaid work, rather than of a painting in oil, it has nevertheless a unity of plot, a sustained interest, and a uniform elevation of style, which distinguishes it from all the poetry of the period. Our own Spenser has imbibed the spirit of some of its most beautiful passages; and several striking coincidences between his Faerie Queen and the Rinaldo can be traced, particularly in the account of the lion tamed by Clarillo, and the well-known incident of Una and the lion in Spenser. The poem of Rinaldo will always be read with interest, as it strikes the keynote of Tasso's great epic, the Gerusalemme Liberata, many of the finest fictions of which were adopted with very little modification from the earlier work. His letter asking his father's permission to publish it came at a very inopportune moment. Bernardo was smarting just then under the disappointments connected with the reception of his own poem, the Amadigi. It produced little impression upon the general public; the copies which he distributed among the Italian nobles procured him nothing but conventional thanks and polite praise; while the magnificent edition which he prepared specially for presentation to Philip II. of Spain, in the hope that he might thereby be induced to interest himself in the restoration of his wife's property at Naples, was not even acknowledged. Wounded thus in his deepest sensibilities, and bewailing the misfortunes of his literary career, we need not wonder that he should have sent a reply peremptorily commanding his son to give up poetry and stick to the law. The young poet in his distress sought the intervention of some of his father's literary friends, and through their mediation the destiny of Torquato Tasso and of Italian poetry was accomplished, and the poem of Rinaldo was given to the world through the renowned press of the Franceschi of Venice. No sooner was it published than it achieved an extraordinary success, for Cervantes had not yet made this class of fiction for ever ridiculous.
Notwithstanding that the public were surfeited with romantic poetry, the merits of this new work, constructed upon different principles and carried out in an original style, were such that the literary schools were carried by storm, and the young Tasso, or Tassino, as he was now called to distinguish him from his father, at once leapt into fame. So great was his reputation, that the newly-restored University of Bologna invited him to reside there, so that it might share in the distinction conferred by his name. In this magnificent seat of learning he remained, enjoying the advantage of literary intercourse with the great scholars who then occupied the chairs of the University, until the publication of some anonymous pasquinades, reflecting severely upon the leading inhabitants, of which he was falsely supposed to be the author. In his absence the Government officials visited his rooms and seized his papers. The sensitive poet regarded this suspicion as a stain upon his honour, and the outrage he never forgave. Shaking the dust from his shoes, he departed from Bologna, and for some time led an unsettled life, enjoying the generous hospitality of the nobles whose names he had celebrated in his Rinaldo. Returning at length to Padua, where he engaged in the study of Aristotle and Plato, and delivered three discourses on Heroic Poetry in the Academia degli Eterei, or the Ethereals—in which he developed the whole theory of his poetical design—which were afterwards published, the office of Laureate at the court of Ferrara was offered to him by Cardinal Lewis of Este, to whom, as I have said, he had dedicated his Rinaldo.
Torquato Tasso was now in the full bloom of opening manhood. He was distinguished, like his father, for his personal beauty and grace, with a high, noble forehead, deep gray melancholy eyes, regular well-cut features, and hair of a light brown. He had the advantage of all the culture of his time. His manners were refined by familiar intercourse with the highest nobles of the land, and his mind richly furnished, not only with the stores of classic literature, but also with the literary treasures of his own country; while a residence, more or less prolonged, in the most famous towns, and among the most romantic scenes of Italy, had widened his mental horizon and expanded his sympathies. He had already mounted almost to the highest step of the literary ladder. Nothing could exceed the tokens of respect with which he was everywhere received. But, in spite of all these advantages, Tasso was now beginning to realise the shadows that accompany even the most splendid literary career. His own experience was now confirming to him the truth of what his father had often sought to impress upon his mind,—that the favour of princes was capricious, and that a life of dependence at a court was of all others the most unsatisfactory. Constitutionally disposed to melancholy, irritable and sensitive to the last degree, he brooded over the fancied wrongs and slights which he had received; and at first he was disposed to accept the advice of his father's friend, the well-known Sperone, who strongly dissuaded him from going to the court of Ferrara, painting the nature of the life he would lead there in the most forbidding colours. It would have been well had he listened to this wise counsel, strengthened as it was by his own better judgment; for in that case he might have been spared the mortifications which made the whole of his after life one continued martyrdom. But recovering from a protracted illness, into which the agitation of his spirits threw him, when on a visit to his father at the court of the Duke of Mantua, he passed from the depths of despondency to the opposite extreme of eagerness, and, fired by ambition, he resolved to enter upon the path to distinction which now opened before him. And here we come to the crisis of his life.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a state of things existed in Italy somewhat similar to that which existed in the Highlands of Scotland in earlier times. Each Highland chief maintained an independent court, and among his personal retainers a bard who should celebrate his deeds was considered indispensable. So was it with the princes of Italy. In their train was always found a man of letters whose poetic Muse was dedicated to laureate duties, and was valued in proportion as it recorded the triumphs of the protecting court. For this patronage of art and letters no court was more distinguished than that of Ferrara.
"Whoe'er in Italy is known to fame,
This lordly home as frequent guest can claim."
The family of Este was the most ancient and illustrious in Italy. The house of Brunswick, from which our own royal family is descended, was a shoot from this parent stock. It intermarried with the principal reigning families of Europe. Leibnitz, Muratori, and our own great historian, Gibbon, have traced the lineage and chronicled the family incidents of this ducal house. Lucrezia Borgia and the Parasina of Byron were members of it. For several generations the men and women were remarkable for the curious contrasts of a violent character and the pursuits of the arts of peace which they displayed. Poisonings, assassinations, adulteries, imprisonments for life, conspiracies, were by no means uncommon incidents in their tragical history. And yet under their government Ferrara became the first really modern city in Europe, with well-built streets, a large population, and flourishing trade, attracting wealthy settlers from all parts of Italy. Nearly all the members of the reigning house were distinguished for their personal attractions and their mental capacities. They were also notorious for their love of display. We have books, such as the Antiquities of the House of Este by Muratori, the Chivalries of Ferrara, the Borseid, and the Hecatommiti of Giraldi, which were written almost to order for the purpose of gratifying this vanity. Borso, the first duke, caused his portrait to be painted in a series of historical representations in one of his principal palaces; Hercules I. kept the anniversary of his accession to the throne by a splendid procession, which was compared to the festival of Corpus Christi; an Order, which had nothing in common with medieval chivalry, called the Order of the Golden Spur, was instituted by his court, and conferred upon those who reflected lustre by their deeds or their literary gifts upon the house of Este; while, to crown all, we read at this day on the tower of the cathedral of Ferrara the dedicatory inscription beginning with "To the god Hercules II.," which the complaisant inhabitants had put there,—an apotheosis which reminds us of the worst slavery of imperial Rome under Caligula and Domitian. Some of the greatest names of Italy, such as Petrarch, Boiardo, Ariosto, the wonderful prodigy Olympia Morata, and the celebrated poetess Vittoria Colonna—the friend of Michael Angelo—were connected with this brilliant court. The well-known French poet Clement Marot fled to it to escape persecution in his native country. Calvin found a refuge there for some months under the assumed name of Charles d'Heppeville, during which he converted the duchess to the reformed faith. The father of Tasso visited it when it was at the height of its splendour and renown. Hercules II., the then reigning prince, son of Lucrezia Borgia, had earned a great reputation for his literary works and patronage of the fine arts; and his wife, the friend of Calvin, the youngest daughter of Louis XII. of France, was even more remarkable for her talents, being equally skilled in the Latin and Greek languages. This renowned couple drew around them a circle of the most accomplished men and women in Europe, in whose congenial society Bernardo Tasso spent a few months of great enjoyment, delighting all by his wit and social qualities.
But notwithstanding all this magnificence and love of learning, the house of Este, among its other contradictory qualities, was distinguished for capriciousness and meanness. Even Muratori, their ardent panegyrist, does not attempt to conceal this blemish. We must deduct a good deal from the high-sounding praise which the courtly writers of Italy bestowed upon this house for its splendid patronage of literature, when we remember that Ariosto, who passed his life in its service, was treated with niggardliness and contempt. He had a place assigned him among the musicians and jugglers, and was regarded as one of the common domestics of the establishment. Guarini, the well-known author of the Pastor Fido, contemporary with Tasso, met with much indignity in the service of Alphonso II.; while Panigarola and several other distinguished men were compelled to leave the service of the ducal family by persecution. Benvenuto Cellini, who resided at the court of Ferrara twenty-five years before Tasso, gives a very unfavourable account of the avarice and rapacity which characterised it; and Serassi, the biographer of Tasso, remarks that the court seems to have been extremely dangerous, especially to literary men. It was not therefore, we may suppose, without other reasons than his being merely a Guelph, that Dante in his Inferno placed one of the scions of the house in hell, and uniformly regarded the family with dislike. Tasso himself was destined to experience both the favour and the hostility, the generosity and the neglect, of this capricious house.
Ferrara is now a dull sleepy city of less than thirty thousand inhabitants. It is a place that continues to exist not because of its vitality, but by the mere force of habit. Its broad deserted streets and decaying palaces lie silent and sad in the drowsy noon sunshine, like the aisles of a September forest. But in the days of Tasso it was one of the gayest cities of Italy, which looked upon itself as the centre of the world, and all beyond as mere margin. It was always festa, always carnival, in Ferrara; and when the poet came to it in his twentieth year, on the last day of October 1565, he found it one brilliant theatre. The reigning duke, Alphonso II., had just been married to the daughter of Ferdinand I., Emperor of Austria; and this splendid alliance was celebrated by tournaments, balls, feasts, and other pageantry, which transcended everything of the kind that had previously been seen in Italy, with the exception, perhaps, of the fêtes connected with the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to his grandfather. The ardent mind of the poet, it need hardly be said, was completely fascinated. He saw himself surrounded daily with all the splendours of chivalry, and lived in the midst of scenes such as haunt the dreams of poets and inspire the pages of romance. Goethe, in his Torquato Tasso, an exquisite poem, it may be said, but wanting in dramatic action, gives a vivid picture of the poet's life at the court of Ferrara, which bore some resemblance to his own at the court of Weimar.
Two sisters of the reigning prince lived in the palace, and by their beauty and accomplishments imparted to the court an air of great refinement. The younger, the famous Leonora of Este, was about thirty years of age at this time, and therefore considerably older than Tasso. A severe and protracted illness had shut her out from the festivities connected with her brother's marriage, and communicated to her mind a touch of sadness, and to her features a spiritual delicacy which greatly increased her attractiveness. The numerous writers by whom she is mentioned talk with rapture, not only of her beauty and genius, but also of her saintly goodness, which was so great that a single prayer of hers on one occasion was said to have rescued Ferrara from the wrath of Heaven evinced in the inundation of the Po. In the society of these ladies Tasso spent a great deal of his time; and perhaps his intercourse with them, unconstrained by court conventionalities, was not altogether free from those tender feelings which the charms of a lovely and accomplished woman, whatever her rank, might readily excite in a poetic temperament. The author of the Sorrows of Werther did not, therefore, perhaps draw exclusively upon his imagination in picturing the rise and struggle of an unhappy passion for Leonora d'Este in the bosom of the young poet. Whatever may be said regarding this passion, however, there can be no doubt that his heart was at this time enslaved by younger and humbler beauties. He had much of the temperament of his father, who, although exemplary in his single and married life, was distinguished for his Platonic gallantry, and cherished a poetic attachment, according to the fashion of the day, for various ladies throughout his career, such as Genevra Malatesta, the beautiful Tullia of Arragon, and Marguerite de Valois, sister of Henry III. These follies were but the froth of his genius, however; and in this respect his son followed his example. Lucrezia Bendidio, a young lady at court gifted with singular beauty and musical talent, reigned for a while supreme over his affections. But she had other suitors, including the author of the Pastor Fido, and the poet Pigna, who was the secretary and favourite of the reigning duke. The Princess Leonora tried to cure Tasso of this passion by persuading him to illustrate the verses of his rival Pigna. Nothing came of this first love, therefore, and the object of it soon after married into the house of Machiavelli.
In the congenial atmosphere of the court of Ferrara, surrounded by the flower of beauty and chivalry, stimulated by the associations of his master Ariosto, which every object around recalled, and encouraged by the praises of the sweetest lips in the palace, Tasso set himself diligently to the composition of the great work of his life, the Gerusalemme Liberata, the plan of which he had formed before he left the University of Padua. Among the treasures of the Vatican Library I have seen a sketch in the poet's own handwriting of the first three cantos. This sketch he now modified and enlarged, and in the space of a few months completed five entire cantos. He read the poem as it proceeded to the fair sisters of his patron, and received the benefit of their criticisms. This work, which is "the great epic poem in the strict sense of modern times," occupied altogether eighteen years of the author's life. It was begun in extreme youth, and finished in middle age, and is a most remarkable example of a young man's devotion to one absorbing object. The opening chapters were written amid the bright dreams of youth, and in the happiest circumstances; the closing ones were composed amid the dark clouds of a morbid melancholy, and during an imprisonment tyrannical in all its features. Placed side by side with Homer and Virgil, it may be said with Voltaire that Tasso was more fortunate than either of these immortals in the choice of his subject. It was based, not upon tradition, but upon true history. It appealed not merely to the passions of love and ambition, but to the deepest feelings of the soul, to faith in the unseen and eternal. To humanity at large the wars of the Cross must be more interesting than the wrath of Achilles, and the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre than the siege of Troy. No theme could be more susceptible of poetic treatment than the Crusades. They were full of stirring incident, of continually changing objects and images. The strife took place amid scenes from which the most familiar stories of our childhood have come, and around which have gathered the most sacred associations of the heart. And Tasso's mind was one that was peculiarly adapted to reflect all the special characteristics of the theme. It was deeply religious in its tone, and therefore could enter into the struggle with all the sympathy of real conviction. His luxuriant imagination was chastened by his classical culture; while the pervading melancholy of his temperament gave to the scenes which he described an effect such as a thin veil of mist that comes and goes gives to a mountain landscape. The gorgeous Oriental world of the palm tree and the camel, seen through this sad poetic haze, has all the shadows of the deep northern forests and the tender gloom of the western hills. The rigid outlines of history fade in it to the indefiniteness of fable, and fact becomes as flexible as fancy.
The circumstances of the times were also peculiarly favourable for the composition of such a poem. He was at the proper focal distance to appreciate the full interest of the Crusades, not too near to be absorbed in observation and engrossed in the immediate results; not too far off to lose the sympathy for the religious chivalry which inspired the Holy War. Earlier, in the intensely prosaic period that immediately succeeded, the romance of the Crusades was gone; later, Europe was girding itself for the sterner task of reformation. Before the time of Tasso, Peter the Hermit would have been deemed a foolish enthusiast; later, he would have been sent to a lunatic asylum. But just at the time when Tasso wrote there was much, especially in Italy, of that spirit which roused and quickened Europe in the eleventh century, much that appealed to the natural poetry in the human heart. The recent victory of the Christian forces at the famous battle of Lepanto checked the spread of Mohammedanism in Eastern Europe, and turned men's thoughts back into the old channel of the Crusades; so that Gregory XIII., who ascended the pontifical throne about the time that Tasso had resumed the writing of his Gerusalemme, had actually planned an expedition to the Holy Land, like that which his predecessor, Urban II., had sent out. And one of the principal events which the poet witnessed after his arrival at Ferrara, when the marriage rejoicings were over, was the departure of the reigning duke with a company of three hundred gentlemen of his court, arrayed in all the pomp and splendour of the famous Paladins of the first Crusade, to assist the Emperor of Austria in repelling an invasion of the Turks into Hungary. Many of the noble houses of Europe at this time were extremely anxious to trace their origin to the Crusades; and the vanity of the house of Este required that Tasso should make the great hero of his epic—the brave and chivalrous Rinaldo—an ancestor of their family. The scenes and associations, too, in the midst of which his daily life was spent, helped him to realise vividly the pageantry connected with the heroes of his epic.
Thus happy in the choice of a subject, and favoured by the spirit of the time and the circumstances in which he was placed, Tasso gave himself up to the composition of his poem with a most absorbing devotion. Like Virgil, he first sketched out his work in prose, and on this groundwork elaborated the charms of colouring and harmony which distinguish the poem. So carefully did he study the military art of his day that all his battles and contests are scientifically described, and are in entire accordance with the most rigorous rules of war; and so thoroughly did he make himself acquainted with the topography of the Holy Land by the aid of books, that Chateaubriand, who read the Gerusalemme under the walls of Jerusalem, was struck with the fidelity of the local descriptions. Tasso occasionally sought relief from his great task by the composition of sonnets and lyrics, which were published in the Rime of the Paduan Academy, and contributed to make him still more popular all over Italy. He also took part in those literary disputations in public which were characteristic of the age; and for three days in the Academy of Ferrara, in the presence of the court, defended against both sexes fifty "Amorous Conclusions" which he had drawn up—a form of controversy which seems to have been a relic of the courts or parliaments of love, very popular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. One of the ladies of the court impugned with success his twenty-first conclusion "that man loves more intensely and with more stability than woman;" but whether this success was the result of the goodness of her cause, and not rather of her own ability or of Tasso's gallantry, may be left an open question. He afterwards published the whole series of the "Amorous Conclusions," and dedicated them to Genevra Malatesta, who now, as an old married woman, was greatly touched by receiving such a compliment from the son of her former lover.
Tasso's father was now dying at Ostiglia, a small place on the Po, of which the Duke of Mantua had made him governor. With talents unimpaired, at the age of seventy-six, and while preparing a new poem upon the episode of Floridante in the Amadigi, he was seized with his last illness. His son, full of filial anxiety, hastened to see him, and found the house in wretched disorder; the servants having taken advantage of the helplessness of their master to neglect their duties and steal any valuable property they could lay their hands upon, so that Tasso had not only to take charge of the household affairs, but also to defray out of his own scanty resources the domestic expenditure. After a month's severe struggle his father died in his arms, to the regret of all Italy, and his remains were interred with great pomp by the Duke of Mantua in a marble cenotaph in the principal church of his capital, and were afterwards transferred by Tasso to the church of St. Paul in Ferrara, where they now lie. Thus passed away one of the most conspicuous and unfortunate persons of his age, of whom it has been said that he was "a politician, unlucky in the choice of his party; a client, unlucky in the choice of his patrons; and a poet, unlucky in the choice of his theme."
The fatigue and sorrow connected with this bereavement brought on a severe illness, from which Torquato recovered with a sense of loneliness and depression which only deepened as the years went on. From this melancholy he enjoyed, however, a temporary respite by a visit to Paris. The house of Este by frequent intermarriages was connected with the French court, in consequence of which they had a right to use the golden lilies of France in their armorial bearings; and many of the ecclesiastics of the family held rich benefices in that country as well as in their own. Cardinal Lewis, the brother of the reigning duke, resolved to inspect the abbeys that belonged to him in France, and to strengthen the Roman Catholic cause, which had received a severe blow from the Reformation; and among the gentlemen of his train he took with him Tasso, in order to introduce him to his cousin Charles IX., who himself dabbled in poetry and had a fine literary taste. From the French monarch the poet obtained a gracious reception; and by the whole court he was warmly welcomed as one who had worthily commemorated the gallant deeds of the Paladins of France at the siege of Jerusalem. For nearly a year he resided in different parts of France, and notwithstanding the numerous distractions of such a novel mode of life, he added many admirable stanzas to his great epic, inspired by the very scenes among which his hero, Godfrey, and his knights had lived. He left just in time to escape the dreadful massacre of St. Bartholomew; but he may be said to have suffered indirectly on account of it. Though treated with distinction by the French court, his personal wants were left unsupplied, and his patron, Cardinal Lewis, did not make up for this meanness. Voltaire, therefore, had reason to indulge in a cynical sneer at the glowing accounts of his visit given by Italian writers; and Balzac's statement that Tasso left France in the same suit of clothes that he brought with him, after having worn it for a year, is not without foundation. This shabby treatment, however, was part of a wider State policy. The year of Tasso's residence in France was one of preparation for the massacre of St. Bartholomew; but in order to avert the suspicions of the intended victims, the Huguenots were treated with such extraordinary favour by the authorities that the Pope himself was incensed, and remonstrated with the King. Tasso, ignorant of the dreadful secret, spoke candidly and vehemently against the reformed doctrines and those who professed them. His patron therefore simulated deep indignation on account of this imprudence; and as the step fell in both with his personal avarice and his State policy, he broke off the cordial relations that formerly existed between them.
On the return of Tasso to Ferrara he occupied himself for about two months with the composition of a pastoral drama called the Aminta. This species of poem, which originated with Theocritus, who represented the shepherds of Sicily nearly as they were, and was imitated by Virgil, who idealised the shepherd life, was revived at the court of Ferrara; and some years before a local poet wrote a pastoral describing a romantic Arcadia, which was acted at the palace, and seems to have inspired Tasso with the idea of writing one too. But all previous pastorals—the Sacrifizio of Beccari, the Aretusa of Lollio, the Sfortunato of Argenti—were rough and incongruous medleys compared with the finished production of Tasso, which may be said to mark an era in the history of dramatic poetry. Although Tasso himself did not think much of it, and did not take any steps to publish it, the judgment of his contemporaries and of posterity has placed it next in point of merit to the Gerusalemme; and by Italians it is especially admired for its graceful elegance of diction. Leigh Hunt executed a very good translation of it, which he dedicated to Keats. Its choruses, which are so many "lyrical voices floating in the air," are very beautiful. It was designed for the theatre, and was acted with great splendour at the court of Ferrara, and a few years later at Mantua, when the well-known artist and architect Buontalenti painted the scenery. This fact, however, shows how primitive was the state of the theatre at this time; and how the spectators, little accustomed to histrionic representations, were content to witness dramas that had no plot or action, and to follow the progress of a beautiful poem rather than a dramatic development. The Aminta long retained its popularity as an acted poem in Italy. It was often represented in open-air theatres, like the ancient Greek plays, in gardens or in woods, where Nature supplied the scenery, and the scalinata or stage was only some rising piece of ground. Traces of one of these sylvan theatres may still be seen in the grounds of the Villa Madama, on the eastern slopes of Monte Mario near Rome; and one cannot help thinking that a poem so redolent of the open air, so full of Nature and still natural life, which Tasso himself called Favola Boschereccia, or a Sylvan Fable, was better adapted for such a stage than for the heated air and artificial surroundings of the Italian theatres. Such a pastoral was in entire keeping with the manners of the Italian peasants; and the scenes of Arcadia which it represented might be seen almost everywhere in the beautiful valleys and chestnut-covered hills of their native land. The exquisite loveliness of the climate, and the simplicity and indolence of the people, lent themselves naturally to such ideal dreams. And Tasso in his Aminta only gave expression to the same happy thoughts which the same scenery and the same people had ages before inspired in the mind of Virgil when he wrote his Eclogues.
After a few months' quiet sojourn with Lucrezia d'Este, now Duchess of Urbino, at that court, he was appointed secretary to the Duke of Ferrara, in room of his rival Pigna, who for this reason became his mortal enemy, and stirred up against him the persecution which embittered his whole subsequent life. But standing high, as he did, in the favour of the duke, he enjoyed for a while a season of calm repose, during which he finished the great epic poem, which was eagerly looked for throughout Italy. Anxious to make this cherished work of his genius as perfect as possible, he unfortunately was imprudent enough to submit portions of his work to all his learned friends for their opinion. Besides in this way getting the most contradictory advices, sacrificing his own independent judgment, and imposing an unworthy yoke upon his genius, the result was that the fragments of the poem passed from hand to hand, and so got into the possession of the printers, who, eager to profit by the public curiosity, pieced them together, and clandestinely printed them. Even in this fragmentary form, the cantos that appeared in various cities of Italy were received with unbounded applause. The author, as may be imagined, was intensely annoyed at this wrong that had been done to him, and wrote to the Pope, to the Republic of Genoa, and to all the Italian princes who had any authority in the case, to put a stop to the publication of a work which had been circulated without his sanction, but in vain. Even the first complete edition, which was issued in 1581, seems to have been without his consent; for the author complains that he was compelled, by the surreptitious publication of parts of his poem, to finish the work in haste, and he wished for more time to elaborate the plot and polish the style. In the later editions, no less than seven of which appeared the same year, Tasso seems to have been to some extent consulted; but it may be said that the great epic was given to the world in the form in which we now have it, without the author's imprimatur, and without the benefit of his finishing touches. But in spite of this disadvantage it took the whole country at once by storm. Two thousand copies were sold in two days. Throughout literary circles nothing else was spoken of. The exquisite stanzas, full of the true chivalric spirit, touched a responsive chord in every Italian bosom. Not only in the academies of the learned was the poem discussed, not only was it recited before princes amid the splendours of courts, but priests mused over it in the solitude of the cloister, and peasants chanted its sonorous strains as they worked in the fields. Quotations from it, we are told, might be heard from the gondolier on the Grand Canal of Venice, as he greeted his neighbour in passing by, and from the brigand on the far heights of the Abruzzi, as he lay in wait for the unsuspecting traveller; and "a portion of the Crusader's Litany was a favourite chant of the galley-slaves of Leghorn, as, chained together, they dragged their weary steps along the shore."
There is no book which it is easier to find fault with than the Gerusalemme when estimated by the satiated critical spirit of modern times, which insists upon brevity, and demands in each line a certain poetic excellence; especially if the poem is known only through the medium of a translation, which, however faithful, is but the turning of the wrong side of a piece of tapestry. We may object to the want of originality in the leading characters, to the occasional inflated style, and the conceits and plays upon words now and then introduced, to the apparently disproportionate influence of love upon the action of the poem, as Hallam has remarked, giving it an effeminate tone, and, above all, to the introduction of so much supernatural machinery in the form of magic and demons; for such supernaturalism is out of keeping altogether with our vaster knowledge of the universe, and our more solemn ideas of Him who pervades it. But it is not by an analysis of particular parts, or a criticism of special peculiarities, that the Gerusalemme should be judged. It is by its effect as a whole, as a highly finished work of art. A single campaign of the first crusade—that of 1099—embraces the whole action of the poem; but the numerous episodes form each a perfect picture, that, like a flower floating on a stream, and illumined by a special gleam of sunlight, does not interrupt the continuous flow of the narrative. In a state of society characterised by much corruption, the sentiments are uniformly pure; and in an artificial age, when Nature was regarded as only the background of human action, the descriptions of the objects of Nature are wonderfully accurate; and the mind of the poet towards the flowers and trees, the woods and hills and streams, was in a childlike state, and had all the freshness and joyousness of childhood. The student is not to be envied who can read without emotion the enthusiastic description of the Crusader's first sight of Jerusalem, the touching pathos of Clorinda's death, and the sublime account of the ruins of Carthage. It would indeed refresh many a mind, surfeited by the vast mass of our modern literature, to go back to the green pastures and still waters of this grand old poem.
Every visitor to Florence knows the venerable monastery of San Marco, with its hallowed relics of Savonarola, and its beautiful frescoes of Fra Angelico. In a large apartment of this monastery, which was formerly the library of the monks, are now held the meetings of the famous Della Cruscan Academy, instituted in 1582 for the purpose of purifying the national language. At that time every town of the least importance in Italy had its academy with some strange fantastic name, which was an important element in the intellectual life of the people, and exercised a critical control over the literature of the day. Up to the year 1814 the Della Cruscans assembled in the Palazzo Riccardi, the ancient palace of the Medici; but that stately building being required for Government purposes, the members have since been accommodated in San Marco, where they have sunk into obscurity, many of the inhabitants of Florence being altogether ignorant of the existence of such an institution in their city. I had considerable difficulty in finding out the locality. The furniture of the apartment is exceedingly curious, and is meant to indicate the object of the Academy, which—as its name literally translated, of the bran or chaff, signifies—is to sift the fine flour of the language from the corrupt bran that has gathered around it. The chairs are made in imitation of a baker's basket, turned bottom upwards and painted red. On the wall behind each chair is suspended a shovel, with the name of its owner painted upon it, along with a group of flowers in allusion to the famous motto of the Academy, "Il più bel fior ne coglie," "It plucks the fairest flower." On the table, during my visit, there was a model of a flour-dressing machine and some meal sacks; while several printed sheets of a new edition of the Italian Dictionary, which the members were engaged in publishing at the time, with manuscript corrections, were scattered about. At present the Academy, besides doing this important work, occasionally holds public sessions; but it is an effete institution, that has little more than an archæological interest. It was very different, however, in the sixteenth century. Then, in point of numbers and reputation, it was the outstanding literary academy of Italy, and occupied the commanding position from which the all-powerful humanists of the previous age had been driven by the counter reformation. It is chiefly, however, by its attacks upon Tasso that it is now known to fame.
No sooner was the Gerusalemme published than comparisons began to be instituted between it and the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto. This latter poem was then in the zenith of its reputation; it was regarded as the supreme standard of literary excellence, and it was slavishly imitated by all the inferior poets of Italy. It was inevitable, therefore, that the two works should be compared together. But as well might the Æneid of Virgil be compared with the Metamorphoses of Ovid. The Orlando Furioso is a romantic poem in the manner of Ovid, whereas the Gerusalemme Liberata is an epic poem in the manner of Homer and Virgil. No Italian poet previous to Tasso had written an epic; and Tasso himself distinctly avowed that he had chosen that form of poetry deliberately; not only as being more congenial to his own mind, but also that he might avoid following in the steps of Ariosto, whose work he regarded as, in its own department, incapable of being excelled, or even equalled. In reply to the generous letter of Ariosto's nephew, who wrote him a letter of congratulation, he said, "The crown you would honour me with already adorns the head of the poet to whom you are related, from whence it would be as easy to snatch it as to wrest the club from the hand of Hercules. I would no more receive it from your hand than I would snatch it myself."
But in spite of the altogether different nature of the two poems, and in spite of the distinct disavowals of Tasso, the critics persisted in accusing him of the presumption of entering the lists with Ariosto. And in this idea they were strengthened by the injudicious praises of Camillo Pellegrini, who in a dialogue entitled Caraffa or Epic Poetry, likened the Orlando Furioso to a palace, the plan of which is defective, but which contains superb rooms splendidly adorned, and is therefore very captivating to the simple and ignorant; while the Gerusalemme Liberata resembles a smaller palace, whose architecture is perfect, and whose rooms are suitable and elegant without being gaudy, delighting the true masters of art. This squib was published in Florence, and at once aroused the hostility of the Della Cruscans. They were already prejudiced against Tasso on account of his connection with the court of Ferrara, between which and the court of Florence there was a bitter rivalry; and that offence was intensified by the unguarded way in which he spoke of the Florentines as being under the yoke of the Medici, whom he denounced as tyrants. The Academy, which at the time enjoyed the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was therefore too glad to seize upon Pellegrini's squib as a pretext for a vehement attack upon Tasso's epic. Ariosto was dead, had passed among the immortals, and was therefore beyond all envy; but here was a living poet, who belonged to a court which had cruelly treated the daughter of their ruler, Lucrezia de Medici, the first wife of Alfonso of Ferrara, and was a mere youth, who was guilty of the sacrilege of seeking to dethrone their favourite. Ariosto had greatly admired Florence, and celebrated its beauties in one of his finest poems; and was it to be borne that this young upstart, who had presumed to speak disparagingly of their city, should be preferred to him? It would be a useless waste of time to go over in detail the absurd criticisms by which they attempted to throw ridicule upon the Gerusalemme Liberata. They would have passed into utter oblivion had not Tasso himself, by condescending to reply to them, given to them an immortality of shame. Not contented with abusing his poem and himself, they also attacked his father, asserting that his Amadigi was a most miserable work, and was pillaged wholesale from the writings of others, and thus wounded the poet in the most tender part.
By this combination of critical cavils against him, Tasso was thrown back from the land of poetical vision into a dreary mental wilderness. The effect upon one of his most sensitive nature, predisposed by temperament and the vicissitudes of his life to profound melancholy, was most disastrous. We can trace to this cause the commencement of those mental disorders which, if they never reached actual insanity, bordered upon it, and darkened the rest of his life. His overwrought mind gave way to all kinds of morbid fancies. His body became enfeebled by the agitation of his mind; and the powerful medicines which he was prevailed upon to take to cure his troubles only increased them. Like Rousseau during his sad visit to England, he became suspicious of every one, and lost faith even in himself. Religious doubts commenced to agitate his mind. Distracted by this worst of all evils, he put himself into the hands of the Holy Fraternity at Bologna; and though the inquisitors had sense enough to see that what he considered atheistical doubts were only the illusions of hypochondria, and tried to reassure him as to their belief in the soundness of his faith, he was not satisfied with the absolution which they had given to him.
The court of Ferrara was full of unscrupulous intriguers. Tasso's wonderful success could not be forgiven by some of the petty aspirants after literary fame who haunted the ducal precincts. Pigna, whose place as secretary he had usurped, stirred up the jealousy of the other courtiers into open persecution. Leonardo Salvinati, the leader of the Della Cruscan Academy, wishing to ingratiate himself with the court, joined in the hostility. Tasso's papers were stolen, and his letters intercepted and read, and a false construction was put upon everything he did. At first the duke refused to hear the various accusations that were brought against him, and continued to show him every mark of esteem. He had the privilege, in that ceremonious age a very high one, of dining daily with the prince at his own private table. He accompanied the princesses to their country retreats at Urbino, Belriguarda, or Consandoli, where in healthy country pursuits he forgot for a time his troubles. At Urbino he wrote the unfinished canzone to the river Metauro, one of the most touching of his compositions, in which he laments the wounds which fortune had inflicted upon him through the whole of his hapless life.
But the tenure of princely favour at Italian courts, amid so many ambitious patrons and anxious suitors, was very precarious. It was uncommonly so at Ferrara. After a while a sudden change passed over the mind of the duke towards Tasso. Whether tired of the poet's incessant complaints, irritated at his incautious conduct—going the length on two occasions of drawing his sword, when provoked, upon members of the ducal household,—or whether his suspicions were aroused regarding the relations between him and his sister Leonora, is not known, but from this time he began to treat Tasso as if he were a madman. He was placed under the charge of the ducal physicians and servants, who reported to their employer every careless word. Removed from Belriguarda, he was ordered to be confined in the Ferrarese convent of San Francisco; and two friars were appointed to watch over him continually. Such a life was unendurable to the proud poet, who disliked the nauseous medicines of the convent as much as its restraint; and taking advantage of a festa, when his keepers were unusually negligent, he made his escape by a window. In the disguise of a shepherd he travelled on foot over the mountains of the Abruzzi, getting a morsel of bread and a lodging from the peasants by the way, to his sister's house at Sorrento, now the Vigna Sersale. There he remained during the whole summer, soothed by his sister's affectionate kindness. The monotony of the life, however, began to pall upon him, and he longed to get back to his old scenes of excitement. Undeterred by an evasive reply which the duke sent to an urgent letter of his, he set out for Ferrara; and on his arrival, meeting with a cold reception, he was obliged again to leave the place where he had once been so happy. For a year and a half he wandered over almost the whole of Northern Italy, visiting in turn Venice, Urbino, Mantua, Padua, Rome, and Turin. At the last place he arrived without a passport, and in such a miserable condition that the guards at the gates of the city would not have admitted him had he not been recognised by a Venetian printer who happened to be present. His startled looks, his nervous manner, and his perpetual restlessness, confirmed wherever he went the rumour of his madness; and, even if he were not mad, the object of Alfonso of Este's anger might be a dangerous associate. During all this time he was in the greatest poverty, being obliged to sell for bread the splendid ruby and collar of gold which the Duchess of Urbino had presented to him when he recited to her at her own court his pastoral poem of Aminta.
From the Duke of Urbino and Prince Charles Emanuel of Savoy, however, he received generous treatment; but a fatal spell carried him back a third time to Ferrara. His arrival by an unfortunate coincidence happened to be on the very day that Margaret Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Mantua, was to come home as the third bride of Alfonso. The duke, preoccupied with the stately ceremonies connected with his nuptials, took no notice of him; and many of the courtiers from whom he expected an affectionate welcome, taking their cue from their master, turned their backs upon him. What a contrast to his first reception at that court fourteen years before, when he stood among the noble spectators of Alfonso's marriage with his first wife, the Archduchess of Austria, as one of the most honoured of the guests! He now gazed upon the splendours of this third marriage ceremony, by far the greatest poet of his age, but a homeless vagrant, a reputed maniac, treated with neglect or contumely on every side! No wonder that his cup of misery, which had previously been filled to the brim, overflowed with this last and crowning insult; and, scarce knowing what he did, he broke forth into the most vehement denunciations of the duke and his whole court, declaring that they were all "a gang of poltroons, ingrates, and scoundrels." These fiery reproaches, which his misery had wrung from the poor poet, were carried by his enemies to the ear of the Duke, and Tasso was immediately seized and imprisoned as a lunatic in the hospital of Santa Anna in Ferrara—in the same year and the same month, it may be mentioned, in which another of the great epic poets of the world, Camoens, the author of the Lusiad, finished as a pauper in an hospital his miserable career.
While madness was alleged as the ostensible reason, the real motives of this step are involved in as deep a mystery as the cause of Ovid's banishment to Tomi, on the Euxine. Muratori, the author of the Antiquities of the House of Este, says that he was confined principally in order that he might be cured; while the Abbate Serassi, who wrote a life of the poet, attributes his imprisonment to his insolence to the duke and his court, and to his desire, repeatedly expressed and acted upon, to leave his patron's service. But both these writers considered the interests of the house of Este more sacred than those of truth. The cause generally accepted is Tasso's supposed attachment to Leonora, the sister of the duke. For a long time he is said to have cherished this passion in secret, concealing it even from the object of it, although evidences of it may be found in some marked form or playful allusion in nearly all his poetical writings; the episode of Olinda and Sophronia in the Gerusalemme, which he was urged in vain by his friends to withdraw on the ground of its irrelevancy, being intended to represent his own ill-fated love. On one occasion, however, in a confiding mood, he told the secret to one of the courtiers of Ferrara, whom he believed to be his devoted friend. But what was thus whispered in the closet was proclaimed upon the house-top; and a duel was the result, in which Tasso, as expert in the use of the sword as of the pen, put to flight the cowardly traitor and his two brothers, whom he had brought with him to attack the poet. This adventure, and the cause of it, reached the ears of the duke, whose resentment was kindled by the audacity of a poor poet and dependant of his court in falling in love with a lady of royal birth. On the strength of this suspicion his papers were seized, and all the sonnets, madrigals, and canzones that were supposed to give countenance to it, confiscated. The manuscript of the Gerusalemme itself was retained, and a deaf ear was turned to the poet's entreaties for its restoration. Gibbon, in his Antiquities of the House of Brunswick, relates that one day at court, when the duke and his sister Leonora were present, Tasso was so struck with the beauty of the princess, that, in a transport of passion, he approached and kissed her before all the assembly; whereupon the duke, gravely turning to his courtiers, expressed his regret that so great a man should have been thus suddenly bereft of reason, and made the circumstance the pretext for shutting him up in the madhouse of St. Anne. An abortive attempt was made to prove the attachment, about fifty years ago, by a certain Count Alberti, who published a manuscript correspondence purporting to be between Tasso and Leonora, which he discovered in the library of the Falconieri Palace at Rome. The alleged discovery excited an immense amount of interest in this country and on the Continent; but ere the edition was completed the author was accused of having forged the manuscripts in question, and was condemned to the galleys.
The story of this hapless love is so romantic in itself, and has been made the theme of so much pathetic poetry, that it would be almost a pity to destroy by proof any foundation upon which it may rest. And yet it is difficult to agree with Professor Rosini, who has ably treated the whole question in a work entitled Amore de Tasso, and has come to the conclusion, after carefully weighing all the evidence, that this was the rock upon which Tasso's life made shipwreck. On this theory several circumstances are altogether inexplicable. We may dismiss at once the famous kiss as certainly a myth. Besides the disparity of age, the ill-health, severe piety, and exalted rank of Leonora were formidable barriers in the way of Tasso's contracting a passion for her; and it is well known that the poet, who could not have forgotten so soon a devoted love, did not offer a single tribute of regret to her memory when she died a few years afterwards. It is also but too certain that Leonora left her supposed lover to languish in a dungeon without any reply to his pathetic complaints. The force of gravitation is a mutual thing; and just as the great sun himself cannot but bend a little in turn to the smallest orb that wheels around him, so the august Princess of Este could not but have regarded with womanly interest a devoted admirer, however humble. The poetical gallantry of the day will account for all Tasso's lyrical effusions in praise of Leonora. They were in most instances simply the tributes that were expected from the laureate of a court, especially a laureate who was accused, with some show of reason, by the courtiers of Ferrara, of an enthusiastic devotion to women, and of wasting his life with the day-dreams of love and chivalry.
Regarding the question of his madness, which was, as I have said, the ostensible cause of his imprisonment, we are left in almost equal uncertainty. His morbid sensibility, irritated by the treatment which he received alike from his friends and foes, his repeated complaints and occasional violences and extravagances of conduct, may have seemed to a selfish prince to border closely upon mental derangement. But his whole conduct during his imprisonment, the nature of the numerous writings which he produced during that dark period, forbid us to suppose that his intellect ever crossed the line which separates reason from insanity. From out the gloom that surrounds the whole case two points stand out clear and indisputable, that no indiscretion of conduct or aberration of mind on the part of Tasso can possibly have merited the sufferings to which he was subjected, and that whatever may have been Alfonso's suspicions, his fiendish vengeance is one of history's darkest crimes, and covers the tyrant with everlasting disgrace.
Three objects attract the steps of the modern pilgrim in desolate grass-grown Ferrara; the house, distinguished by a tablet, in which Ariosto was born; the ancient castle in the centre of the town, in whose courtyard Ugo and Parasina, whom Byron has immortalised, were beheaded; and next door to the chief hotel—the Europa—and beside the post-office, the huge hospital of St. Anne, in which Tasso was confined. This last object is by far the most interesting. The sight of it is not needed to sadden one more than the deserted streets themselves do. The dungeon, indicated by a long inscription over the door, is below the ground-floor of the hospital; it is twelve feet long, nine feet wide, and seven feet high, and the light penetrates through its grated windows from a small yard. By several authors, including Goethe, considerable doubts have been expressed regarding the authenticity of this cell; and certainly the present features of the place are not confirmatory of the tradition. This doubt, however, has not prevented relic-hunters—among whom Shelley may be included—from carrying off in small fragments the whole of the bedstead that once stood there, as well as cutting off large pieces from the door which still survives. Lamartine wrote in pencil some poetical lines upon the wall; and Byron, with his intense realism, caused himself to be locked for an hour in it, that he might be able to form some idea of the sufferings which he recorded in his Lament of Tasso.
Less than sixty years ago the insane were treated with the utmost inhumanity as accursed of God; and the asylums in which they were shut up were dismal prisons, where the unfortunate inmates were left in a state of the utmost filth, or were chained and lashed at the caprice of savage keepers. The madhouse which Hogarth drew will aid us in forming a conception of an Italian asylum in the sixteenth century, which was much worse than anything known in our country. The other inmates of the hospital of St. Anne suffered much doubtless; but they were really mad, and were therefore unconscious of their misery. But that alleviation was wanting in the case of Tasso. He was sane and conscious, and his sanity intensified the horror of his situation, "enabling him to gauge with fearful accuracy the depths of the abyss into which he had fallen." One glimpse of him is given to us by Montaigne, who visited the cell, where it seems the unfortunate inmate was made a show of to all whom curiosity or pity attracted to the hospital. "I had even more indignation than compassion when I saw him at Ferrara in so piteous a state—a living shadow of himself." His jailer was Agostino Mosti, who, although he was himself a man of letters, and therefore should have sympathised with Tasso, on the contrary carried out to the utmost the cruel commands of his prince, and by his harsh language and unceasing vigilance immensely aggravated the sufferings of his victim. This inhuman persecution was caused by Mosti's jealously of Tasso as the rival of his beloved master Ariosto, to whom at his own cost he had erected a monument in the church of the Benedictines at Ferrara.
For a whole year Tasso endured all the horrors of the sordid cell in which he was immured. After a while he was removed to a larger apartment, in which he could walk about; and permission was granted to him sometimes to leave the hospital for part of a day. But whatever alleviations he might thus have occasionally enjoyed, he was for seven long years a prisoner in the asylum, tantalised by continual expectations held out to him of approaching release. One person only—the nephew of his churlish jailer—acted the part of the Good Samaritan towards him, cheered his solitude, wrote for him, and transmitted the letters of complaint or entreaty which he addressed to his friends, and which would otherwise have been suppressed or forwarded to his relentless enemy. His sufferings increased as the slow weary months passed on, so that we need not wonder that the last years of his captivity should sometimes have been overclouded by visions of a tormenting demon, of flames and frightful noises, with an apparition of the Virgin and Child sent to comfort him. That he should have been able to preserve the general balance of his mind at all in circumstances sufficient to unseat the reason of most men, is a convincing proof of the stability of his intellect, and his unshaken trust in the God of the sorrowful. While we think of this protracted cruelty of the author of his imprisonment, it is some consolation to know that he met with what we may well call a merited retribution. Alfonso, as Sir John Hobhouse tells us, in spite of his haughty splendour, led an unhappy life, and was deserted in the hour of death by his courtiers, who suffered his body to be interred without even the ceremonies that were paid to the meanest of his subjects. His last wishes were neglected; his will was cancelled. He was succeeded by the descendant of a natural son of Alfonso I., the husband of Lucrezia Borgia; and he, falling under the displeasure of the Vatican, was excommunicated; and Ferrara, having been claimed by Pope Clement VIII. as a vacant fief, passed away for ever from the house of Este.
Thou formest in his fortunes bids us think
Of thy poor malice, naming thee with scorn,
Alfonso! How thy ducal pageants shrink
From thee! if in another station born,
Scarce fit to be the slave of him thou mad'st to mourn."
At no period of his life was the mind of Tasso more active than during his imprisonment. In the absence of all nourishment from the bright world of Nature which he loved so passionately, his fancy could grow and keep itself leafy, like the cress-seed, which germinates and produces its anti-scorbutic foliage on a bit of flannel moistened with water, without any contact with soil or sunlight, in the long Arctic night of the ice-bound ship. With the ravings of madmen ringing in his ears, he composed some of the most beautiful of his writings, both in prose and verse. Among the manuscripts of the British Museum are preserved some of these writings, whose withered vellum pages we turn over with profound pity, as we think of the sad circumstances in which they were composed. The most valuable of these is the manuscript of the Torrismondo, in Tasso's own handwriting, and in the original parchment binding. This work was begun before his imprisonment, and it was not finished until the year after his liberation; but the greater part of it was composed in the wretchedness of his cell at Ferrara. The story upon which it is founded is a very harrowing one, a king of the Ostrogoths marrying his own sister, mistaking her for a foreign princess; but it is treated with very inadequate tragic power, and, like the Aminta, displays no real action. Its beauty chiefly consists in its choral odes on the vanity of all earthly things, which are exquisitely sad and touching. We hear in them the wild wail of the poet over his own misfortunes, and the vanishing of the dreams of glory which haloed his life. The chorus with which the tragedy winds up—"Ahi! lagrime; Ahi! dolore"—the words appropriately carved upon his tombstone at St. Onofrio—is unspeakably pathetic. It is his own dirge, the cry of a heart whose strings are about to break. It is as untranslatable as the sigh of the wind in a pine forest. If the words are changed, the spell is lost, and the way to the heart is missed.
At last the solicitations of the most powerful princes of Italy on Tasso's behalf overcame the tenacity of Alfonso's will, and the victim was released; but not till he had become so weak and ill that, if the imprisonment had continued a little longer, death would inevitably have opened the door for him. When the order for his liberation had been obtained, his friends made known to him by slow degrees the glad tidings, lest a too sudden shock should prove fatal. He was now free to go wherever he pleased, and to behold the beauties of Nature, which had been the mirage of his prison dreams; but the elasticity of his spirits was gone for ever; the bow had been too long bent to recover its original spring, and the memory of his sufferings haunted him continually, and cast a dark shadow over everything. He could not altogether shake off the fear that he was still in Alfonso's power, and wherever he went he fancied that an officer was in pursuit of him to drag him back to the foul prison in St. Anne's. A modern Italian poet, Aleardo Aleardi, has graphically described the feelings of the gentle poet-knight, roaming, pale and dishevelled, as a mendicant from door to door. But the sufferings that had thus maimed him bodily and mentally had spiritually ennobled him; and there is not a more touching incident in all history than his entreaty to be allowed to kiss the hand of the cruel tyrant, as a last favour before leaving Ferrara for ever, in token of his gratitude for the benefits conferred upon him in happier days,—a favour which Alfonso, to his eternal disgrace, refused to grant.
At first Tasso took up his abode at the court of the Duke of Mantua, whose son, Vincenzo Gonzaga, had been the principal instrument in his release, on the occasion of his marriage with the sister of Alfonso of Ferrara. This Vincenzo Gonzaga is shown by the light of history in two opposite characters: as the generous friend and patron of Tasso, and as the pupil of the Admirable Crichton, who in a midnight brawl slew his tutor in circumstances of the utmost baseness and treachery. For a while Tasso was treated with great kindness at Mantua, but, the father dying, the son no sooner ascended the ducal throne than, with the capriciousness peculiar to Italian princes, he turned his back upon the poet whom he had formerly befriended. The incident I have mentioned would have prepared us for this dastardly conduct; the evil side of his nature, which was kept in abeyance during his political pupilage, assuming the predominance on his accession to power. Tasso's proud spirit could not endure the neglect of his once ardent friend, and he set out again into the cold inhospitable world, imploring in his great poverty from a former patron the loan of ten scudi, to pay the expenses of his journey to Rome. On the way he turned aside to make a pilgrimage to Loretto, in order to satisfy that earnest religious feeling which had been the inspiration of his genius, but the bane of his life. The searching scrutinies and the solemn acquittals of the inquisitors of Bologna, Ferrara, and the great tribunal of Rome itself, had not satisfied his morbid mind. And he thought that he might get that peace of conscience which nothing else could give by a visit to the Casa Santa—the house of the Virgin Mary at Loretto. Worn out by the long journey, which he made in the old fashion on foot, he knelt in prayer before the magnificent shrine; and thus, admitted as it were within the domestic enclosure of the holy household, he felt that the Blessed Virgin had given him that calmness and repose of heart which he had not known since he had prayed as a boy beside his mother's knee. Strengthened by the successful accomplishment of his vow, he went on to Rome; but the stern Sixtus V., who was now upon the Papal throne, was too much occupied with the architectural reconstruction of Rome, and with the suppression of brigandage in the Papal States, to bestow any attention upon literature; and Tasso had lost whatever energy he once possessed to assert his claims to recognition among the multitude of sycophants at the Vatican.
Sick at heart, he left the imperial city, and directed his steps to Naples, in the hope that on the spot he might succeed in recovering his father's possession and his mother's dowry. But here, too, the same ill-fortune that had hitherto dogged his steps attended him. The lawsuit which he instituted, though it promised well at first, proved a will-o'-the-wisp, which lured him into the bog of absolute penury. His sister was dead; his mother's relatives, formerly hostile, were now, because of the lawsuit, doubly embittered against him. In his distress he sought refuge in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto, which is now occupied by the offices of the Municipality of Naples, and the monastery garden converted into a market-place. Here, in one of the finest situations in Naples, commanding one of the loveliest views in the world, and in the congenial society of the monks, his shattered health was recruited, and his mind tranquillised by the beauties of Nature and the exercises of religion. He repaid the kindness of his hosts by writing a poem on the origin of their Order, and by addressing to them one of his best sonnets. Among the visitors who sought him out in this retreat was John Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa, who afterwards became his biographer. This accomplished nobleman, "whose name the friendship and Latin hexameters of Milton have rendered at once familiar and musical to English ears," was by far the kindest and most consistent patron that Tasso ever met with. He loaded him with presents, and showed him the most delicate and thoughtful attentions during Tasso's visit at his beautiful villa on the seashore near Naples. He took him with him to his tower of Bisaccio, where he remained all October and November, spending his days, with great advantage to his health, in hunting, and his nights in music and dancing, taking special delight in the marvellous performances of the improvisatori. Milton's acquaintance with Manso may be regarded as one of the most fortunate incidents of his foreign travels, inasmuch as his conversations about Tasso are supposed to have suggested to him the design of writing an epic work like the Gerusalemme; and indeed Milton is supposed to have borrowed some of his ideas for Paradise Lost from the Sette Giornate, or Seven Days of Creation, a fragmentary poem in blank verse, which Tasso began under the roof of his friend at Naples. This work is now very little known, but it is worthy of being read, if only for the lofty dignity of its style, and the beauty of some of its descriptive parts, particularly the creation of light on the first day, and of the firmament on the second, and the episode of the Phoenix on the fifth. Its association with Milton's far grander work, as literary twins laid for a while in the same cradle, will always invest it with deep interest to the student.
Tasso occupied himself at the same time with an altered version of his great poem, which he called the Gerusalemme Conquistata. He was induced to undertake this work in order to triumph over his truculent critics, the Della Cruscans, who had condemned the former version. In the Imperial Library at Vienna is preserved the manuscript of this version, with its numerous alterations and erasures, showing how laborious the task of remodelling must have been. He suppressed the touching incident of Olinda and Sophronia. He changed the name of Rinaldo to Riccardo; and ruthlessly swept his pen through all the flatteries, direct and indirect, which he had originally bestowed upon the house of Este. There is hardly a single stanza that is not changed. But in the process of revision he deprived his poem of all life. Religious mysticism has been substituted for the refined chivalry of the Crusades, and poetry and romance have been sacrificed for classical regularity and religious orthodoxy. To any one familiar with the original, the Conquistata must be regarded as the most melancholy book in any language; a sad monument of a noble genius robbed of its power and depressed by calamity. And it is all the more melancholy that the author himself was utterly unconscious of its defects, and got so enamoured of what he considered his improvements, that he wrote and published a discourse called the Giudizio—a cold pedantic work, in which he explained the principles upon which he made his alterations. In vain, however, did the author thus commit literary suicide. His immortal poem had passed beyond the reach of revision, and stamped itself too deeply upon the minds and hearts of his countrymen to be effaced by any after version. And now the Conquistata has sunk into well-merited oblivion, while the Liberata—"his youthful poetical sin," as he himself called it—is everywhere admired as one of the great classics of the world.
For nine years Tasso lived after his imprisonment. But his free life was only a little less burdensome than his prison one. With impaired health and extinguished hope, and only the wreck of his great intellect, he wandered a homeless pilgrim from court to court, drawn like a moth to the brilliant flame that had wrought his ruin. Well would it have been for him had he settled down to some quiet independent pursuit that would have taken him away from the atmosphere of court life altogether, such as the Professorship of Poetry and Ethics which had been offered to him by the Genoese Academy. But the habits of a whole lifetime could not now be given up. His education and training had fitted him for no other mode of life. Without the patronage of the great, literature in those days had not a chance of success; and a thousand incidents in the life of Tasso serve to show that "genius was considered the property, not of the individual, but of his patron"; and with petty meanness was the reward allotted for this appropriation dealt out. His experience of the favour of princes at this period was only a repetition of his own earlier one, and that of his father. His patrons, one after another, got tired of him; and yet he persisted in soliciting their favour. From the door of his former friend, Cardinal Gonzaga, at Rome, he was turned away; and as a fever-stricken mendicant he sought refuge in the Bergamese Hospital of that city, founded by a relative of his own, who little thought that it would one day afford an asylum to the most illustrious of his name.
But fate had now discharged its last evil arrow, and began to relent during the two remaining years of his life. The sun that was all day obscured, as it struggled with dark clouds, emerged at last, and made the western sky ablaze with splendour. All over the country nothing was to be heard but the echoes of Tasso's praises. From the fountains of the Adige to the Straits of Messina, in the valleys of Savoy, and in the capitals of Spain and France, his immortal epic was read or recited by the highest and the lowest. Fortunes were made by its sale. The famous bandit Sciarra, who with his troop of robbers had terrified the whole of Southern Italy, hearing that Tasso was at Gaeta, on his journey from Naples to Rome, sent to compliment him, and offer him, not only a free passage, but protection by the way. At Florence, whither he went at the invitation of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the whole literary society of the place, even including many of the Della Cruscans, showered honours upon him. While at Rome Pope Clement VIII. gave him the most flattering reception, assigned to him an apartment in the Vatican, and an annual income of two hundred scudi. From the representatives of his mother's friends at Naples he was also offered an annuity of two hundred ducats, and a considerable sum in hand, on condition of stopping the lawsuit. Thus furnished with what he had vainly looked for all his life, the means of a comfortable subsistence, his closing days promised a happiness to which he had hitherto been a stranger. But the gifts of fortune were brought to him with sad auguries, like the soft sunny smiles of September skies, which gild the fading leaves with a mockery of May. Tasso came to Rome in November. But the state of his health was so deplorable that he could not remain with safety in the room assigned to him in the Vatican. It was thought, therefore, that the elevated position and salubrious air, as well as the quiet life of the monastery of St. Onofrio, not far off on the same side of the Tiber, would be more suitable for his restoration. Accordingly, Cardinal Cynthio Aldobrandini, nephew of Clement VIII., who had befriended him on many occasions, brought him to St. Onofrio in his own carriage. And as his weary steps crossed the threshold, he said to the monks, who received him with pitying looks, "I come to die among you."
Whenever he was able to go out, he spent the last days of his life in the garden of the monastery. There he sat under the shadow of the aged oak that has since become historical; and as he watched the sunset of his life, he would gaze upon the mighty ruins and the glorious view stretching before him with that inspired vision which creates half the beauty it beholds, and with that enhanced appreciation caused by the prospect of the coming darkness which would hide it for ever from his sight. We love to think of the poet in this quiet resting-place, where the noises of the great world reached him only in subdued murmurs. Heaven was above him, and the world beneath. The memory of his wrongs and his ambitions alike vanished in the shadow cast before by his approaching death. Alfonso and Ferrara faded away upon the horizon of eternity; even the fame of his Gerusalemme, the great object for which he had lived, had become utterly indifferent to him. In the monastery of St. Onofrio, a bent, sorrow-stricken man, old before his time, joining with the monks in the duties of religion, Tasso appeals more powerfully to our feelings than when in the full flush of youth and happiness he shone the brightest star in the royal court of Alfonso.
Awakening to the sense of the great loss that Italy was about to sustain in his death, his friends and admirers proposed that the Pope should confer upon him at the Capitol the laurel wreath that had crowned the brow of Petrarch. But the weather during the winter proved singularly unpropitious for such a ceremony. Rain fell almost every day, and constant sirocco winds depressed the spirits of the people and prevented all outdoor enjoyments. And thus the season wore on till April dawned with the promise of brighter skies, and the day was fixed, and all the élite of Rome and of the chief cities of Italy were invited to attend the coronation. Extensive preparations were made; the whole city was in a flutter of excitement, and the people looked forward to a holiday such as Rome had not seen since the days of the Cæsars. But by this time the poet was dying, fever-wasted, in his lonely cell. He could see from his window, as he lay propped up with pillows on his narrow couch, across the river and its broad valley crowded with houses, the slender campanile of Michael Angelo ascending from the Capitoline Hill, marking the spot where at the moment the people were busy preparing for the magnificent ceremony of the morrow. But not for him was the triumph; it came too late. "Tomorrow," he said, "I shall be beyond the reach of all earthly honour." He received the last rites of the Church from the hands of the diocesan, and passed quietly away with the unfinished sentence upon his lips, "Into thy hands, O Lord," while the concluding strains of the vesper hymn were chanted by the monks. And they who came on the morrow, to summon him to his coronation, found him in the sleep of death. The laurel wreath that was meant for his brow was laid upon his coffin, as it was carried on the very day of his intended coronation, with great pomp, cardinals and princes bearing up the pall, and deposited in the neighbouring church of the monastery. Ever since, the anniversary of his death has been religiously kept by the monks of St. Onofrio. They throw open on that day, the 25th of April, the monastery and garden to the general public; ladies are freely admitted, and a festival is observed, during which portions of the poet's writings are read, his relics exhibited, and his tomb wreathed with flowers.
Tasso died, like Virgil his model, in his fifty-first year. Short and chequered and full of trouble as was his life, it is amazing what an immense amount of literary work he accomplished. Since the publication of his Rinaldo, in his seventeenth year, he never ceased writing, even in the most unfavourable circumstances. Of his prose and poetical works no less than twenty-five volumes remain to us. These works are all rich in biographical materials. They show an ideal tenderness of feeling, an intense love for everything beautiful, and a deep piety, not only of sentiment but of duty. They are specially interesting to us as links connecting the ancient world with the modern. We can trace the influence of Tasso's genius in very varied quarters. He not only gave a new impulse to the literature of his own country, but even inspired the artistic productions of the day. The most beautiful passages of Spenser's Faerie Queen were suggested by his pastoral poetry; while his chivalrous epic was to Milton at once the incentive and the model of his own immortal work. It is probable that the New Heloïse of Rousseau, and the tragedy of Zaire by Voltaire, would not have been written had not Tasso invested the subject of romantic love and of the Crusades with such a deep interest to the authors. We of this age may miss in Tasso's poetical works the dramatic force to which we are accustomed in such productions; but we acknowledge the spell which the lyrical element that pervades them all, and towards which Tasso's genius was most strongly bent, casts over us. His own personal history strikingly illustrates the vanity of a life spent in dependence upon princes. But fortunately the lesson is no longer needed; for a wide and intelligent constituency of readers all over the world now afford the patronage to literature which was formerly the special privilege of single individuals favoured by rank or fortune. Both to authors and readers this emancipation has been productive of the happiest results.
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