Born in 1544 in the Italian city of Sorrento, poet Torquato Tasso is perhaps most well-known for his work Jerusalem Delivered which presented a mythical account of the First Crusade. Often noted as one of the most popularly read poets in Europe, Tasso suffered from mental health problems throughout his life.
His father was a famous lyric poet from noble birth and enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Salerno until the political atmosphere changed. Whilst Tasso was a child, his father was declared a rebel and the boy spent some of his childhood with his mother under the tutelage of a Jesuit school in Naples. Tasso was precocious in his studies and moved to join his father again in Rome when 8 where the two lived in relative poverty for a while.
His father accepted a place in the Court of Urbino in 1557 and Tasso was noted as an intelligent and witty companion to the then Duke of Urbino. For the rest of his childhood, Tasso was lucky enough to live in comfortable refinement and by the time he was nearly 20 he found himself at the castle in Ferrara. There he gained the reputation as a philosopher critic with his work Discourses on the Art of Poetry. Although his father died shortly after, this was a happy period for the poet and writer and he became something of an idol in the Italian court of the day.
In 1570, now under the patronage of two princesses, Tasso traveled to Paris with the then cardinal. But Tasso’s outspoken liveliness and lack of tact caused him to leave after only a year and return to Italy where he went into service with the cardinal’s brother. During this time, Tasso wrote Aminta and completed his seminal work Jerusalem Delivered in 1574.
Jerusalem Delivered is an epic poem that was popular with the people and literary critics at the same time, quickly seen as one of the major classics of European literature. It was Tasso’s best work and afterwards his life seemed to stumble as if he had achieved all that he was meant to. He gave the epic poem to a number of eminent poets and critics who each wanted to force changes upon the work. Tasso had already been suffering from health problems and began to suffer fevers and other strange maladies as his epic poem was carefully dissected by others.
Back at the court of Ferrara Tasso’s health began to worsen even more. The other courtiers would often insult him and shortly after he developed some mania that his servants were all conspiring to persecute him. In 1576, Tasso got into an argument with a gentleman called Maddalo and drew his sword. Unfortunately this altercation was witnessed by the Duchess of Ulbino and Tasso was arrested but then released by the Duke who took him to his country estate for ‘a change of air’.
Increasingly paranoid, however, Tasso thought that the Duke intended to murder him and escaped sometime later into the country, returning to his sister’s home in Sorrento. He wrote to the court asking to be accepted back, which was duly granted, but his mental health issues persisted, resulting in his being sent to the asylum at St Anna. He wrote little poetry during this period and became upset when he heard that his masterpiece Jerusalem Delivered was being published without his permission.
Whilst he left St Anna’s in 1586, he continued to suffer ill health but, in 1592, his luck seemed to have changed with a pension from the Pope and a ceremony that was planned to crown him as poet laureate for Italy. Tasso’s health gave way in 1595 before he was crowned and he died at the age of 51 whilst in Rome.