About Torquato Tasso

Torquato Tasso was an infamously neurotic poet of the Italian Renaissance whose words were set by virtually all of the major madrigalists of his day, including Giaches de Wert and Claudio Monteverdi. His literary influence lasted into the nineteenth century.

Tasso was born to wealthy Neapolitan parents, but political conflicts caused his father to be expelled from the city. The poet, still a child, was permanently separated from his parents, making him dependent upon court patronage for survival. As a child, he attended a Jesuit school in Naples and was later educated in the normal manner of the courtier, taking literature, Greek and Latin, mathematics, music, and horseback riding. Obviously precocious, by 1560 he'd written the first draft of Gierusalemme, his epic on the first crusade.

In 1560, he began law studies in Padua, but soon changed his focus to philosophy and rhetoric. The atmosphere of the place continued to inspire him in two aspects in particular: the singers Lucrezia Bendidio (future wife of Niccolo Machiavelli) and Laura Peverara. Tasso wrote intense series of love lyrics for both women, who later became two of the celebrated "three ladies" of Ferrara. During his time in Padua, evidence of Tasso's tormented, inflammatory character first appears in the form of brawls, conflicts, and various misadventures. His behavior had already tarnished his reputation enough that he took the name Il Pentito (the Repentant One) on joining the Academia degli Ererei in 1565.

In the same year, he became a member of the opulent d'Este household in Ferrara, first under Cardinal Luigi, later as a "gentleman" under Duke Alfonso II. In that highly stimulating environment, he wrote his masterful play Aminta and also produced other dialogues, theoretical works, numerous lyrics, and began his great epic Gerusalemme liberata, which became popular so fast that before the first complete edition was published in 1581, it was already circulating in numerous pirated versions.

During this time, Tasso began the slide into instability that characterized the rest of his life. Most importantly, he developed a deep paranoia centered on the Spanish Inquisition. This culminated in 1577 when he knifed a servant he thought was a spy. After imprisonment and a subsequent escape, he became reconciled with the duke in the following year, but henceforth had trouble finding a satisfactory patron. During the preparations for the reception of Duke Alfonso's bride, Tasso's manic outbursts (shouting at and insulting people in public) led to his confinement in the sanatorium of St. Anna, where he remained for seven years. Amazingly, Tasso wrote prolifically through all weathers, including hallucinations and bouts of despair. He was released in 1586 at the request of Duke Vincenzo I of Mantua. Restless as ever, he only stayed in Mantua long enough to complete his tragedy Il Rè Torrismondo. From 1590 on, he divided his time between Florence, Rome, and Naples unhappy, in ill-health, and dogged by poverty, but writing steadily. In 1594, Tasso went to Rome to be crowned Italy's Poet Laureate by Pope Clement VIII, but he died one day too soon.