An Italian poet, whose epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, set against the background of the siege and capture of Jerusalem on the First Crusade (1096-1099), was first published in its complete form in 1581.
To the events of the crusade, sometimes altered for dramatic effect, Tasso added episodes and characters such as the pagan sorceress Armida, who has a thwarted romance with the Christian knight Rinaldo, the tragic love story of the crusader Tancred and the pagan female warrior Clorinda, whom he unwittingly kills, and the unresolved love of Erminia, princess of Antioch, again for Tancred. Tasso wrote at a time of renewed Christian-Muslim engagement: his father Bernardo took part in Emperor Charles V’s expedition against Tunis, but his specific interest in the crusades may have been stimulated by the publication of histories of the crusades by Robert of Rheims (1533) and William of Tyre (1549). Indeed Tasso’s patron, Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, is known to have had a copy of Robert’s Historia Iherosolimi- tana in his library.
Gerusalemme liberata was widely read in Tasso’s lifetime, and numerous later editions and translations influenced the popular image of the crusades. The first full English translation, by Edward Fairfax, was published in 1600, and there seems to have been a copy of the poem in most libraries; a later translation by John Hoole (1763) ran to ten editions in fifty years. The combination of the subject matter and Tasso’s own eventful and rather tragic life, culminating in his confinement in the hospital of St. Anna in Ferrara after angrily denouncing his patron the duke, appealed to and influenced fellow writers such as John Milton, John Keats, Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth, as well as artists from Anthony Van Dyck to Nicolas Poussin and Ferdinand Delacroix. Gerusalemme liberata also inspired nearly 100 operas by composers as diverse as Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Friedrich Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Antonin Dvorak. Some later, particularly nineteenth- century, historians of the crusades seem to have had some difficulty in disentangling the accounts given by contemporary chroniclers of the First Crusade from events as told by Tasso.
Rinaldo Under the Spell of Armida, from Torquato Tasso’s poem Gerusalemme liberata, by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). (Erich Lessing/Art Resource)