Thursday, February 21, 2013

Italian Renaissance Epic

4. The Liberation of Jerusalem (Gerusalemme Liberata) by Torquato Tasso

Did you know that The Iliad and The Odyssey are not the only epic poems produced in Western civilization? I mean, presumably you could have guessed as much since "epic poem" is a whole genre and Homer was (and is) so widely influential, but from the typical grade school and even university curriculum, you'd never know other epics exist (okay, The Aeneid too). Until you get to grad school that is.

Torquato Tasso, a sixteenth century Italian, was a scholar and poet intimately familiar with classical epic and the more recent romance genre (so cleverly mocked by Cervantes in the same time period). The Liberation of Jerusalem is his attempt at the ideal Christian epic, which he lays out in theory in his Discourses, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the epic genre. Among other things, he suggests that romances are really a sub-genre of epic, that only Christian miracles and not classical gods may appear in Christian era epic, and the epic subject should be historical, but neither too close to the present nor too ancient. Accordingly, The Liberation of Jerusalem treats the story of the First Crusade in the tenth century.

Godfrey, king of the Franks, is leader of the Crusade, though the most valiant warriors are the faithful Tancred and especially the fiery Rinaldo. The Christian Crusaders battle and lay siege to Jerusalem, as the cruel king within schemes against them, and the brave Muslim warriors Argant and Clorinda defend the city and await a rescuing Egyptian army. Angels and devils arise to protect each side respectively, and while no Greco-Roman gods wreak havoc, sorcery is a major player. The king's sorcerer Ismen is nasty, but the young and beautiful Muslim sorceress Armida proves most effective in her deceptions, at least for a time. As Tancred and Rinaldo fall for the charms of heathen women and plague strikes the camps, the odds seem stacked against the Crusaders. Then again, how do you think a good Christian epic ends?

The most intriguing aspects of Tasso's epic are his presentation of women and his presentation of the enemy. Argant, Clorinda, another warrior Solyman, and more are the enemy, yet Tasso not only presents them as being from diverse backgrounds (Turkish, Persian, Egyptian etc.), but develops them as characters (as much as epic can, these are certainly characters of demonstration, not education). Argant and Clorinda in particular are described as honorable and worthy. This seems strange given that the point of the epic is to vindicate and praise the Crusaders, doing God's holy work.

As for the women, the very presence of the warrior Clorinda should raise some eyebrows, though she was not alone in Renaissance epic (see Spenser's The Faerie Queene) and she has a classical precedent in Virgil's Aeneid, the warrior Camilla. Tasso's epic theory often refers to Virgil, so it's no doubt he would have been aware of this character. Still, besides Clorinda, there is the far more ambivalent (and to me, more interesting) position of Armida, a powerful sorceress who rides into battle and practices powerful deceptions on the Crusaders, only to be conquered later by the pinings of love. Armida may be the only character in the epic who can truly be said to have evolved from beginning to end. I see in her echoes of Circe, Helen of Troy, Calypso, and Cleopatra. Then there's Erminia, who I don't quite know where to place, as she's very sympathetic to the Christian side throughout and yet a Muslim princess by birth. Clorinda and Armida's attitudes seem far more natural, but there is still something quite human about Erminia.

Tasso is apparently quite well-known in academic circles, but he was unfamiliar to me, as are most of the epic writers of this time period. I wonder why that is? We're all familiar with Homer and also with Milton's Paradise Lost, though I don't usually conceive of the latter as an epic, that is its form. And yet, Tasso is just as interesting as his predecessors, and in his depiction of women, perhaps more so. The women here at least have a lot more say. I definitely recommend Tasso to any whose interest is piqued.

* I read Max Wickert's recent translation for Oxford's World Classics. It is written in Tasso's ottava rima verse, though it has to substitute iambic pentameter for Tasso's Italian hendecasyllabic (which apparently doesn't work so well in English).

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