Dionysius Lardner.

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multitude, and fortune from patrons, in whose cause he

TASSO. 131

had sacrificed two sources of competence his own
small patrimony, and his wife's dowry.

During this visit the youth was attacked by a dan-
gerous illness, from which being rescued by the skill of
a physician named Coppino, the grateful father rewarded
the doctor with the fee of a stanza to his honour in a
new poem, entitled " Floridante," which the aged
minstrel, whom no medicine could cure of the disease
of rhyme, was composing in his seventy-third year.
This daughter, as she might be called, of his " Ama-
digi," to which it is a sequel, and his own last child of
imagination, proved as short-lived as its romantic,
and almost as its natural, parent, though the dutiful
Torquato endeavoured himself to revive it, in his own
dark days ; but " Floridante," of whom it could not be
said that ie she had no poet," died though she had two,
and those of no mean name. Bernardo Tasso himself
survived for five years, dying in 1669, at the age of
seventy-six. However undervalued by posterity, he
was unquestionably the greatest poet who had appeared
between Ariosto and his son Torquato.

About this time Torquato received an intimation that
the cardinal d'Este, brother to the duke of Ferrara,
had nominated him one of his personal attendants,
and expected him forthwith in that city. Notwith-
standing the warnings of his father's old friend,
Sperone, and afterwards his own, Zoilus, who, exas-
perated by the disappointment of hopes of preferment
which he had cherished when he went to Rome, gave
loose to the most violent invectives against courts and
courtiers, and earnestly dissuaded Torquato from trust-
ing himself where nothing but allurements to ruin would
be placed in his way, from which it was hardly possible
for virtue to escape unscathed or uncorrupted, the
young poet, however, determined not to profit by the
experience of the old one, but to learn for himself what
experience alone can teach, and what he indeed learned
at an awful cost in the issue. He resolutely, therefore,
determined to put both his virtue and his fortune to the


hazard of temptation, not doubting that he could secure
the former and advance the latter, where the most
illustrious court in Italy was held by a descendant of
the patron of Ariosto. Accordingly he hastened to
Ferrara, anticipating every thing that never came to
pass, except the one thing on which, indeed, his mind
was most bent, that there he should complete his con-
templated epic, and establish a name which should
associate him with the most renowned of his prede-
cessors. What a bright morning was that, forerunning
a day of darkness and despair, on which he entered
the city, happily unsuspecting the troubles that awaited
him there ! The kings of England, of the house of
Hanover, are lineally descended from the family of
Este. These much celebrated princes, in the best pe-
riod of their ascendency, during the sixteenth and se-
venteenth centuries, were the magnificent, if not the
liberal, patrons of most of the men of genius in the
finer arts who were contemporary with them ; and none
was more so than the reigning duke, Alfonso II., under
whose benign influence for a while, but under whose
blighting displeasure afterwards, poor Tasso flourished
and faded.

On the last day of October, 1565, Torquato arrived
at Ferrara, where the most superb preparations were
making for the nuptials of Alfonso with Barbara,
daughter of the emperor Ferdinand, and sister to Max-
imilian II. He was cordially welcomed, and imme-
diately received into the service of the duke's brother,
cardinal Luigi, whose establishment consisted of nearly
800 persons, ministering to his pleasure or subsisting
on his bounty. This prince was not less dignified than
his brother, but altogether more amiable and engaging.
On the 2d of December the queen (as she was styled
from her imperial lineage) entered Ferrara, crowned,
and accompanied by a gorgeous retinue. The marriage
was celebrated by a succession of the most imposing
spectacles and profuse festivities, which continued for
six days, when they were suddenly broken off on the

TASSO. 133

arrival of intelligence of the death of the pope.,
Pius IV. Among the throng of the great and the
small, who had assembled from all parts of Italy to
witness the tournaments, the pantomimes, the balls, and
the banquets given on this occasion, Torquato was but
a solitary unit ; observing and treasuring up in his
memory all that he saw and heard, as materials for
celebration in another form of the same scenes of luxury
and splendour upon a grander scale, and, though in an
ideal field, of more enduring exhibition. Myriads of
eyes may have glanced upon the contemplative youth,
and passed over him as one of the most insignificant
personages in the city ; but, after the lapse of nearly
three centuries, even these gorgeous ceremonials are
principally subjects of interest because he was present
at them. Not a human being in existence at this re-
mote period (one might imagine) can feel any personal
sympathy with the bridegroom, the bride, or any other
actor or spectator, native or stranger, upon the spot ;
yet even cs the representation of the Temple of Love,
which was erected in the ducal gardens, with a stu-
pendous scenery of porticoes and palaces, of woods and
mountains," is worthy of being remembered, because of
the far-surpassing glory of imaginative palaces and
gardens which were suggested to the admiring poet by
the tawdry pageant, " which lasted six" hours witfiout
appearing tedious to the spectators" as Muratori states ;
though, according to the pithy remark of Gibbon, the
latter is " the most incredible circumstance" connected
with the whole account.

During the four months which intervened between
the demise of Pius IV. and the election of a new pope,
who assumed the name of Pius V., Torquato's patron,
the cardinal Luigi, being absent, he was left at Ferrara
to make his way into favour wherever an opening might
be presented ; and it was then that he became more
particularly acquainted with the princesses Lucretia and
Leonora of Este, by whom he was brought under the

K 3


notice of their brother the duke, who, after all that has
been said and conjectured, seems never to have regarded
him otherwise than with stately or selfish condescension.
That a youth so gifted w r ith genius, so early distin-
guished among his countrymen, favoured by nature with
more than ordinary personal advantages, and in many
other ways gallantly accomplished, should have attracted
the esteem of these illustrious ladies, who appear to have
been more than mere court beauties, both in intellect
and sensibility, delighting in poetry, and occasionally
exercising themselves in it, was almost a necessary
consequence of the parties becoming acquainted. Under
such circumstances, nothing could be more natural than
that, on either side, secret presentiments of the most
gratifying kind should unconsciously spring up and be
covertly cherished by the several individuals ; never,
indeed, as must be inferred from the sequel, to be fully
disclosed, nor even, perhaps, perfectly understood by
themselves. If, in the age of chivalry, it was imperative
upon true knights to assert the beauty and maintain the
honour of their ladies in all due seasons, and in all
proper places, it was, in the seventeenth century, equally
the duty of true poets to celebrate the same virtues and
adornments in their verses upon t those of the better
sex, who were either their mistresses or their patron-
esses. Torquato, dazzled by the transition from schools,
law offices, and colleges of philosophy, to the court
region of enchantment, has described his own emotions
and the influence of the change upon him in the lan-
guage which he puts into the mouth of Tirsi (the
representative of himself in his (C Amintor"), where,
after taking vengeance on his father's friend, but
his own very questionable one (Sperone), for having
dissuaded him from going to the city, which, he assured
him, was given up wholly to deceit, voluptuousness,
avarice, and ambition, the shepherd tells his companions
how bravely he was disabused when he beheld the mar-
vellous reality ; for there, Cf as gracious heaven would
have it, I happened to pass near the blissful dwelling,

TASSO. 135

whence issued sweet, harmonious voices of swans, of
nymphs, of syrens heavenly syrens ! and sounds of
music soft and clear, with other ravishments so strange,
that for a while I stood entranced with joy and ad-
miration." Being courteously invited to enter by one
of noble aspect, who appeared the guardian of the en-
chanted spot, he exclaims, (f O then what saw, what
felt I ? I beheld nymphs, goddesses, and minstrels
luminaries new and beautiful all without veil or cloud,
as to the immortals, scattering silver dews and golden
rays, Aurora seems ; Apollo and the Muses, too, I saw,
and in that moment felt myself as growing greater.
Filled with new virtue, new divinity, 1 sang of wars
and heroes, disdaining my rude pastoral pipe. But
though I soon returned to these calm shades (to please
another), I still retained a portion of that nobler spirit ;
my simple reed no longer warbled as before, but, rival-
ling the trumpet, filled the woods with notes more lofty
and sonorous. Mopso (Sperone) heard it, and, with
evil eye, looked on me and bewitched me, so that I
grew hoarse, and long continued mute. The shepherds
thought I had been glared at by a wolf a wolf, in-
deed, he was to me !" The last allusion is to Sperone's
savage criticisms on the ef Gerusalemme," when sub-
mitted to his examination in manuscript. Torquato,
however, had reason to think, after years of disappoint-
ing experience, that Sperone's notions of courts and
courtiers were quite as near the truth as his own, during
his first visit and sojourn at Ferrara.

Of the duke, his brother the cardinal, and their three
sisters, it is recorded that thirteen years before this date,
on a public occasion, in presence of their father, Her-
cules II., and pope Paul III., the " Adelphi'' of Te-
rence, in the original, was recited by them with great
spirit and effect, the parts being sustained by the prin-
cesses Anna, aged twelve, Lucretia, eight, Leonora, six,
the princes Alfonso, ten, and Luigi, five years of age.
Mr. Black observes, with apparent justice, that the court

K 4


of Alfonso united, "like the poems of Tasso, classic ele-
gance with the richness of romance ; and every thing
conspired to kindle the fancy and refine the taste of thi
youthful bard."

Anna, the eldest of the three sisters above named, in
1548 was married to the celebrated Francis, duke of
Guise, and, after his decease, to James of Savoy, duke
of Nemours. Lucretia, some years later than Tasso's
arrival at her brother's court, was married to the prince
of Urbino, only fifteen years old, when she herself was
thirty-seven. This was one of those state alliances
which so little resemble treaties of peace, that they de-
serve to be branded as treaties of discord, in which
royal and noble parents sacrifice their children, if not to
Moloch, at least to Mammon nay, too often to both,
for purposes of family aggrandisement, by adding
territory to territory, and confounding blood with blood.
On the occasion of these unhappy nuptials, Tasso, " as
in duty bound," wrote an epithalamium, which had, in
its predictions of felicity, the equivocal qualification for
excelling in that kind of poetry which Waller, with
experienced adroitness, hinted to Charles II., when ral-
lied by his majesty on having composed a far finer
panegyric on Cromwell than on himself the qualifi-
cation of fiction ; for scarcely had the ill-paired couple
had time to fall out, when the gallant prince left his
bride to volunteer in a crusade against the Turks, with
whom everlasting warfare, in every petty form of hos-
tility, was wont to be carried on by the states of Italy.
The union ultimately was dissolved, without the in-
tervention of death ; and Lucretia, as duchess of Urbino,
returned to Ferrara. For many years afterwards, she
was, more openly than either her brother or her younger
sister, the patron of Tasso, and to her are some of his
most graceful lyrics addressed.

Leonora, the third and younger sister, remained un-
married. Being highly attractive in person, in manner,
and in mind, it is no wonder if Torquato, having many

TASSO. 1 37

opportunities of ingratiating himself in her favour,
should he gradually betrayed,, under the guise of that
romantic strain of adulation to rank and beauty (es-
pecially in verse) which the fashion of the times not
only tolerated but sanctioned, to insinuate all the
fervour of a passion which, though hardly aware of it
himself, and altogether unacknowledged by its sensitive
object,, might yet be harboured in the bosoms of both,
though so secretly, that each more : complacently and
jealously watched the symptoms of a tender attach-
ment in the other, than cared to examine the reality of
the same in themselves. The mystery, thus cherished,
for the tantalising delight of a hope too remote to be
fulfilled, except at the sacrifice of every thing but that
love, for which, if true, nothing might be deemed too
much to be sacrificed, has never been cleared up, and all
reasoning and conjecture on the subject, at this distance
of time, must be vain. It has been with equal confi-
dence both affirmed and denied, that the poet impru-
dently aspired to the hand of the princess, and that the
princess as imprudently surrendered her heart to the
poet, though, from necessity, she withheld her hand.
From the numberless cansoni and sonetti, of which love
is the theme, among the rime of Tasso, no premises to-
wards the solution of this problem can be drawn.
Dante and Petrarch, in all their effusions of the kind,
are constant each to his respective mistress. Beatrice
and Laura are the perpetual idols of their amorous de-
votion ; but to so many or, if to one, under so
many different names and characters^ - are Tasso's
adorations addressed, that he may have had fifty fits
of passion for as many flames, and been as true in turn
to each and equally volatile to all. It is, however, a
remarkable circumstance, that three of the greatest poets
of Italy should owe as much of their posthumous re-
nown to their questionable love as to their acknowledged
genius, having been avowedly attached to ladies w r hose
very existence is unascertained at this day, though


volumes have been written, proving nothing more
than (to borrow the comprehensive judgment of sir
Roger de Coverley) that " much may be said on both

In the mean time, whatever was the subsequent con-
duct of Alfonso towards Tasso, there seems to be no
doubt that, for a considerable period during which the
poet was engaged upon his great work, the duke
countenanced him in the way most agreeable to his lite-
rary' ambition and his personal vanity ; for he loved
rich apparel, splendid apartments, sumptuous fare, and
to be associated with persons of the highest rank
feeling that he could adorn and dignify the circle in
which he moved, both as a man of genius exalted above
competition by intellectual endowments, and as a man
of the world qualified to shine in external demeanour
pjnong gentlemen and soldiers as well as among students
and men of letters. During this prosperous period
when the smiles of princesses, who were pleased to
receive the homage of his muse, flattered his gentler
affections, and the favour of sovereigns gratified the
pride of a heart easily elevated to an eminence of self-
satisfaction, from which the fall when it came was the
more terrible, and the dashing to pieces of its hopes and
its claims the more humiliating and deplorable Tasso
accompanied the cardial Luigi as legate to the court
of France. Here his fame had prepared the way for
his reception with peculiar honour by Charles IX., him-
self both a lover of verse and a versifier. It is said that
the king offered the poet some splendid presents, \vhich
the latter declined to accept, though he was so scantily
provided with a wardrobe, that he left the kingdom, at
the end of twelve months, in the same suit of clothes in
which he entered it. The snake has but one skin, but
while that \s wearing out another is forming beneath :
it would be well for poets, who live on court expect-
ations, if they were as well provided.

As not many personal anecdotes are related of our
poet, two or three indifferent ones may be given here as

TASSO. 13.9

specimens of the tone of his conversation ard address
in public. A poet of some repute having committed
a crime for which he was condemned to die, Tasso re-
solved to obtain, if possible, a mitigation of the pun-
ishment. At the palace he learned that the sentence
was about to be executed immediately. Undiscouraged,
however, he pressed forward; and being admitted to the
presence, he thus addressed the king : " May it
please your majesty, I am come to implore you to put
to death a wretch, who has brought disgrace upon phi-
losophy, by showing that she cannot stand out against
human depravity." The king, struck with the turn of
the request, spared the criminal. Being asked by his
majesty one day, (< Whether men most resembled God
in happiness, in sovereign power, or in the ability to do
good ? ' Tasso replied, <c Men can resemble God only
by their virtue." Again, before the same monarch a
discussion w r as held to determine what condition in life
is most unfortunate. (e In my opinion," said Tasso,
e( the most deplorable condition is that of an impatient
old man, borne down by poverty, who has neither for-
tune to preserve him from want, nor philosophy to sup-
port himself under suffering."

In the course of this journey, whatever he may have
gained in honour at the French court, gratification in
the society of eminent contemporaries, and knowledge of
the country and people of his hero, Godfrey, Torquato
lost the favour of cardinal Luigi, as Ariosto forfeited
that of the cardinal's kinsman and predecessor, Hippo-
lyto of Este ; though not for the same reason want
of servility to his highness (Luigi probably not exacting
snch base homage as Ariosto's barbarian patron had
done), but for having manifested more zeal for the
catholic faith than, in the opinion of some of his confi-
dants, was deemed politic at a time, when, for the most
treacherous purposes, previous to the massacre of St.
Bartholomew, the protestants were treated with un-
wonted indulgence, to throw them off their guard.
Hereupon he returned to Italy, though not immediately


to Ferrara ; for, travelling in company with Manzuoli,
the secretary of the late embassy, we find that he
arrived at Rome in January, 1572. Here he was cor-
dially welcomed by many of his father's old acquaint-
ances, as well as greatly distinguished for his own sake.
Pope Pius V. honoured him with an audience, and the
privilege of kissing his foot.

Through the mediation of the duchess of Urbino and
Leonora, he was soon afterwards formally admitted into
the service of Alfonso, with a pension of a hundred and
eighty gold crowns a year, and the understanding that
no personal duties would be required of him; but that
he should be at liberty to pursue his studies and finish
his poem at his own leisure. Generous as this provision
undoubtedly was, it yet made him a captive in golden
chains, too weak to bind the limbs, but strong enough
to enthral the soul and enslave the mind. So, at least,
Torquato found his obligation; and even when on both
sides it had been broken, after his second imprison-
ment, he was never in spirit enfranchised from the yoke
of Alfonso, till death set him free. His own testimony
concerning his patron's munificence at this time, long
after he had lost his favour, is honourable to both :
(f He raised me from the darkness of my low estate to
the light and glory of his court ; he removed me from
penury to abundance; he exceedingly enhanced the
value of my works, by often and willing listening whiLe
I read, and treating their author with every mark of
esteem. He placed me at his table, and countenanced
me with his personal attention ; and he never denied
me a favour which I requested."

Under these auspices, while Tasso was still vigor-
ously prosecuting that splendid crusade of his muse, the
poetical siege of Jerusalem, and had now nearly made
himself master of it for an everlasting stronghold of his
poetical sovereignty, his exuberant mind poured out
multitudes of sonnets, canzoni, and other miscellanies in
verse and prose almost entirely on transient themes,
love fancies, and panegyrical attempts

TASSO. 141


" to give a deathless lot

To names inglorious, born to be forgot."

Among these, in the composition of which it might be
questioned whether he was wasting his genius or culti-
vating it, he produced something more excellent, in the
form of a pastoral drama. Accordingly, the most beau-
tiful offspring of his imagination so far as refers to
exquisite grace of diction, and consummate skill in
adorning a subject altogether artificial, and feigning a
state of society that never did, never could, never ought
to exist, in a story not very natural though the inci-
dents are few, nor very happily connected or intelligibly
developed, his (C Aminta" appeared, written in flowing
verse of various measures without rhyme, and enriched
with lyric chorusses of extraordinary elegance. How
the public exhibition of such a drama could be tolerated,
before the most exalted personages of the state, ladies
of the highest character, and religionists of the most
plausible professions, is very difficult for us, in our cold
climate, and with our severer as well as juster senti-
ments of decorum, to imagine. All that can be said in
extenuation of the audience, and perhaps of the poet,
comes to this presumption, that, though the piece
abounds with descriptions and allusions the most vo-
luptuous and fascinating to awaken the mast perilous
passions in youth, and which no gravity of age ought
to endure, such were the manners of the day, and so
little of evil was apprehended, where the serpent, that
allured Eve with his wiles of beauty among the flowers
of paradise, put on this pastoral disguise of the inno-
cence of the golden age, that the fair and the virtuous
alike imagined themselves as guiltless in listening to
his blandishments, as Milton represents the mother of
mankind to have been unsuspicious of danger, when
she followed the tempter to the forbidden tree, and
entered into a parley with him there, till at length, be-
guiled, by his subtilty, " she plucked, she ate." And
here a subject too delicate to be handled on the present
occasion must be left to every one's conscience who in-


dulges in the luxury of such reading as the work under
consideration furnishes. It is remarkable that die
author, designating himself under the name of Tirsi,
seems to have been forewarned of the malady which
soon afterwards overwhelmed him, and to which, no
doubt, from constitutional temperament he had been
prone from his youth upward, and which, in premature
old age, cast such clouds of mystery over the gloom and
splendour of his latter life. (( Knowest thou not what
Ti-ryi wrote, when, fired with frenzy, he wandered
through the forest, at once moving laughter and pity
among the lovely nymphs and shepherds ? Nor wrote
he even then ' things worthy to be laughed at, al-
though he did such things.' ;

The duchess of Urbino being absent from Ferrara,
when Tasso's muse, like Habington's "halcyon/' pro-

" The happy miracle of this rare birth,"

invited him to her delightful retirement of Castel-
durante, where she heard the pastoral strains from his
own lips, which, though not eloquent from natural
infirmity, would yet convey the soul and passion, the
delicacy and pathos, of every passage, with an impres-
sion which no actor on the stage, nor indeed any reader
but himself, could give. The living voice, in this case,
would be the actual language of the spirit that con-
ceived the thoughts, speaking to the spirit of her who
received them through the ear, fresh and flowing from
the fountain in his heart ; for the written copy, to the
eye, would be but a translation, wanting the incom-
municable accompaniments of tone, look, expression,

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 12 of 34)