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Torquato Tasso

Torquato Tasso, 1544-1595, Italian poet.

Tasso came from a noble and literary family, and received all the advantages of such a station, including receiving and education with the son of the Duke of Urbino. While studying law in Padua in the 1560s, he was introduced to some of the major figures in sixteenth-century European intellectual life, including the critic Sperone Speroni and the French poet Pierre Ronsard. He was also exposed to the classical literature then at the center of literary culture, especially Aristotle. (His Discorsi dell'arte poetica [published in 1587], for instance, was an influential defense of the "unities" supposedly derived from Aristotle's Poetics.)

Like his father, Tasso was a courtier poet. During the 1570s, while serving in the court of Duke Alfonso II d'Este in Ferrara, he wrote several of his best-known works: a pastoral drama, L'Aminta (1573); and, most important, Gerusalemme liberata (published 1581). This latter, one of the greatest epic poems of the Renaissance, describes the Christian conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

After the completion of his great work, Tasso suffered from mental instability (manifested as a persecution complex), and from 1579 to 1586 the Duke of Ferrara had him committed to the hospital of Santa Anna. While there, he revised Gerusalemme liberata and composed a number of other works, including Rime e prose, his famous letters, and a defense of the merits of his poetry against those of Ariosto's Orlando furioso. He continued writing after his release from the asylum, but without equaling the success of his earlier works; a revision of his epic, Gerusalemme conquistata (1593), was in fact a serious failure.

Tasso's reputation was international even during his lifetime: not only for his poetry, which was widely translated, but for his prose works and even for his life. And as time passed, legends grew up around his mental illness and his romantic adventures. By the end of the eighteenth century, Tasso had come to represent the persecuted and mad poetic genius.