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From Some Lies and Errors of History by the Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D.; Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893; pp. 233-243.


THAT Torquato Tasso was insane during a long period of his life, and that he was subjected to restraint, although with all due consideration, is evident from his own letters. But that he was a victim of unfortunate love and of princely tyranny, and imprisoned in the ordinary sense of the term, is untrue.1 Credulous and perhaps sympathetic travellers yet continue to fee the lachrymose cicerone who shows them the Ferrarese dungeon, in which the poet is said to have alternately raved and languished. Byron, Lamartine, and many other romanticists — sincere and affected, — have fixed their autographs on the walls of the cell, in sign of fraternal commiseration. The municipal authorities, with a prudent desire to add to the attractions of their city, yet allow the inscription “Entrance to the Prison of Torquato Tasso” to entice the open-mouthed tourist of average calibre. Nevertheless, the confinement of Tasso was scarcely more of an imprisonment than that 234 of Galileo, and one can account for the obstinate hold of the tradition only in the words of the poet — that man is ice for truth, but fire for lies.2

None of the educated inhabitants of Ferrara believe the aforesaid prison to have been occupied by Tasso during his confinement in their city. How would it have been possible, they ask, for a man of gigantic stature, such as Tasso was, to have dwelt for several years in quarters so restricted, and yet to have been able to engage successfully in literary labor? The dungeon in question is only six feet high, and yet it is certain that during his restraint the poet revised his great work, and composed, among others, his several philosophical Dialogues. Madame de Stael, so given to commiserating illustrious misfortune, remarks Barthélemey, did not credit the story. Goethe, says Ampère,3 made many careful researches on this subject, and concluded that the alleged dungeon of the poet is not authentic. Again, none of the important personages, notably Scipio Gonzaga, who visited Tasso in his time of trouble, allude to any physical inconvenience entailed or aggravated by the condition 235 of his domicile. As to the poet’s treatment by his custodians, it could not have been very severe, since his only important complaint was that he did “not have sufficient fine sugar for the morrow’s salad;” and that his nightcaps were less elegant and dainty than those he had hitherto worn.4

At the age of twenty-two Tasso was received into the magnificent court of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, to whose brother, the Cardinal Louis, he had already dedicated his “Rinaldo.” He soon rose to great favour. The Duke appointed him to the chair of geometry in the University, and entrusted him with the continuation of the “History of the House of Este,” begun by the famous Pigna, his late secretary. It is said that he was beloved by Eleonora, the Duke’s sister. “Is it possible, asks Cantù, “that envy should not pursue him, and therefore also calumny? More than alive to his own merits, he fancied that the lackeys insulted him, and that he was opposed in his affections. Mistrust became habitual to him. He imagined that his letters were intercepted and that his desk was rifled. Scipio Gonzaga holds reunions of his friends, and he suspects that they meet in order to ridicule his poetry; 236 he distrusts Count Tassoni, who welcomes him to Modena; he doubts the sincerity of Cardinal dei Medici, who offers him protection if the Duke should ever abandon him. The servants laugh at his absurdities, while the courtiers take pleasure in compassionating one whose genius mortifies themselves. Then he cuffs them all, even uses his dagger, and bursts into tirades against the Duke.”5

Convinced of the poet’s insanity, Alfonso placed him under medical care, and forbade him to write. But Tasso imagined all sorts of dangers, and fled in disguise to Naples, then to Venice, Padua,6 and other places. Finally worse befell him. Some time before he had applied to the Inquisitor at Bologna, and accused himself of doubts concerning the Incarnation; and the reply had been: “Sick man, go in peace.” Now he again felt these scruples, and having once more applied to the Holy Office, was dismissed with encouragement. 237 But the unfortunate continued to be a burden to himself and his friends; and at length the Duke, regarding his reason as irretrievably lost, consigned him to the Hospital of St. Anna, in March, 1579.

Few men have talked more about themselves than Tasso; but he does not reveal the secret of his troubles, although he plainly admits that he was at one time crazy. Writing on December 25, 1581, to Cattaneo, he says: “One of my letters has disappeared, and I think a goblin has taken it; . . . and this is one of the wonders that I have seen in this hospital. . . . But amid all these terrors I have seen in the air the image of the glorious Virgin with her Son in her arms. . . . And although these may be fancies — for I am a lunatic, and am troubled nearly always by infinite melancholy and by various phantasms, — by the grace of God I yield no consent to these things. . . . If I mistake not, my lunacy was caused about three years ago, by certain sweets I had eaten. . . . My disease is so strange that it might deceive a physician, and hence I deem it the work of a magician; and it would be a mercy to take me from this place, in which enchanters are allowed to exercise such power over me. . . . I must tell you something more about this goblin. The little thief 238 has stolen from me I know not how much money. . . . He upsets my books, opens my boxes, and steals my keys.”

The unfortunate tried many remedies. Endeavoring to discover why he was so “persecuted,” he examines every accusation which could, rightly or wrongly, be brought against him, and then he turns to God and excuses himself for infidelity. “Both within and without I am infected with the vices of the flesh and the darkness of the world; and I have thought of Thee in the same way in which I used to think of the ideas of Plato or of the atoms of Democritus, and such like matters of the philosophers, which are rather creatures of their fancy than of Thy hands. . . . I have doubted whether Thou didst create the world, or whether it was independent of Thee from all eternity; whether Thou hast given to man an immortal soul, and whether Thou didst descend to earth in order to put on our humanity. . . . And yet it pained me to doubt, and I would have compelled my intellect to believe of Thee what our Holy Church believes. . . . I confessed and communicated as Thy Roman Church commands, . . . and I consoled myself with the belief that Thou wouldst pardon the unbelief of those whose deficiency was not encouraged by obstinacy or malignity. . . . 239 Thou knowest how I have ever abhorred the name of Lutheran or heretic as a pestiferous thing.”

It was while he was thus afflicted that Tasso received a shock which none but an author can appreciate. He was just about to revise and give the finishing touches to his “Jerusalem Delivered” when he learned that the poem had appeared in Venice (1580), and that it was by no means what he had intended it should be ere it should be given to the public. The negligence of a friend had permitted a speculator to obtain an original draft of the work; and now the world was criticising, as by the author of the admired “Rinaldo,” a poem filled with merely tentative and temporary expressions, and distorted, perhaps, by innumerable lacunae. To make the matter worse, the presses of all Italy and of France soon multiplied editions of this imperfect publication; for the impatience to read anything new by Tasso was universal. The famous Academy of the Crusca, which then, as for a long time since, exercised an almost tyrannical influence in literary matters, and which, Cantù somewhat bitterly says, “like all Academies, availed itself of the dead, who inspire no jealousy, to mortify the living,” was very severe on the new poem. This and other 240 criticisms, especially one by Leonardi Salviati, of course irritated the unsettled mind of Tasso; but a visit to Marifisia d’Este, Princess of Massa, which the Duke allowed him to make during the summer, greatly restored him.

Manfredi, another famous poet, visited Tasso in 1583, and submitted for his judgment his own tragedy of “Semiramis.” He found the invalid in fair mental condition. Many other persons of note also visited our poet, among whom the most acceptable appears to have been the Benedictine lyric writer, Angelo Grillo, who returned again and again to pass entire days with his friend. Meanwhile all Europe was compassionating Tasso’s misfortune; from all quarters he received verbal encouragement, and in many instances substantial tokens of sympathy in the shape of valuable presents. Many believed that freedom would contribute to his restoration more than confinement; and hence we find requests to Duke Alfonso from Popes Gregory XIII. and Sixtus V., from the Cardinal Albert of Austria, the Emperor Rudolph, the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and his consort, the Duke of Urbino, the Duchess of Mantua, and the municipality of Bergamo, for his release. On July 6, 1586, Alfonso delivered him 241 to the care of the Prince of Mantua, and he was once again a free man. Cardinal di Gonzaga gave him hospitality in his own palace at Rome, and the Pope assigned him a yearly revenue of two hundred golden scudi. Genoa invited him to explain Aristotle in her University, assigning him four hundred scudi as regular salary, and as much more in perquisites. But nothing could induce Tasso to lead a regular life: he wandered here and there, until finally he sought an asylum in the hospital of the Bergamaschi in Rome. Often he suffered from want of ready money, and frequent were his applications to the pawnshops.7

In 1594 our poet learned that Pope Clement VIII., at the instance of his nephew, the Cardinal Aldobrandini, had decreed him the honors of a triumph at the Capitol. “They are preparing my coffin,” he replied; but as no poet would dream of declining the laureate, he set out for the Eternal City. On the way from Naples, where he had been residing for some time, he stopped three days with his beloved Benedictines of Montecasino. “If misfortune 242 come to you,” said the abbot, “come to us. This monastery is used to giving hospitality to the unhappy.” Tasso answered: “I go to Rome to be crowned laureate on the Capitol, taking as companions of my triumph sickness and poverty. However I go willingly; for I love the Eternal City as the centre of the faith. My refuge has always been the Church, — the Church, my mother, more tender than any mother.”

Arriving at the gates of the Catholic Metropolis, Tasso found an immense multitude — prelates, nobles, knights, and citizens — waiting to salute him and to escort him to the Vatican. The Cardinal Aldobrandini took him in his own carriage to the palace, where the Pontiff welcomed him, saying, “We are about to confer upon you the crown of laurel, which you will honor, whereas hitherto it has honored those who have worn it.” His reception over, his cardinal protector would have taken Tasso to his own palace to wait for the coronation ceremonies; but the poet felt that his end was drawing near, and begged to be allowed to lodge in the Hieronymite convent of Sant’ Onofrio on the Janiculum.

In this home of peace, and often reposing under the branches of the oak which, only a 243 few days before,8 had sheltered St. Philip Neri and his class of little Romans, the wearied genius hearkened to the gentle Hieronymites as they prepared him for his last journey. Toward the end he wrote to a friend: “The world has so far conquered as to lead me, a beggar, to the grave; whereas I had thought to have had some profit from that glory which, in spite of those who wish it not, will attend my writings.” He made a holy death, in his fifty-second year, on April 25, 1595. During his magnificent funeral ceremonies, which were attended by the entire pontifical court, the laurel crown was placed on his brow. The monument which Cardinal Aldobrandini had designed to erect over the remains of his protégé was, for some reason, never undertaken; but Cardinal Bevilacqua, of Ferrara, disinterred the body, and placed it in a small mausoleum in Sant’ Onofrio. Afterward the late Pontiff, Pius IX., at his private expense, erected a magnificent monument, and placed the remains therein (1857), in a beautifully renovated chapel of the same church.

[For some sonnets and madrigals, in English and Italian, with a brief biography, on Tasso on this site see Lucchi. — Elf.Ed.]


1  “Cf. Valery, “Curiositiés et Anecdotes Italiennes,” Paris, 1842.


“L’homme est de glace aux vérités,
  Il est de feu pour le mensonge.”

3   In a letter from Weimar, May 9, 1827.

4  Unedited letters, Nos. 79 and 83.

5  “Illustri Italiani,” vol. i, p. 414. Milan, 1879.

6  The famous General, Sforza Pallavicino, happened to be in Padua during Tasso’s visit, and expressed a desire to meet him. When Tasso waited upon him, accompanied by four friends, Pallavicino drew a chair near to himself (he was suffering from gout), and begged the poet to be seated. Tasso ran out of the room, and afterwards excused himself to his companions, saying, “We must sometimes teach politeness to these people. Why did the man show that attention only to me?”

7  There is yet extant a receipt as follows: “I the undersigned declare that I have received from Abraham Levi the sum of twenty-five lire, for which he holds in pledge one of my father’s swords, six shirts, four bed-sheets, and two towels. March 2, 1570. Torquato Tasso.”

8  St. Philip died just one month before Tasso.

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