Tasso Through Tiepolo: Rinaldo and Armida
Torquato Tasso produced the Christian epic, Gerusalemme Liberata in 1581. This work rivaled Ludovico Ariosto’s epic, Orlando Furioso by combining the influence of classical myth with Christian morality. Tasso did this by creating an amorous subplot between a Christian warrior, Rinaldo, and a pagan sorceress, Armida. Not only was the epic a major contribution to Italian Renaissance literature, the love story between Rinaldo and Armida immediately became a popular subject depicted in art and maintained its recognition for centuries to come. In particular, Gaimbattista Tiepolo painted many works about the love story between Rinaldo and Armida. His series of paintings, The Tasso Cycle (fig.1-4), commissioned in Venice verify Tiepolo’s knowledge of the text while his interpretation of the lovers could be attributed to what Venice was experiencing at the time.
This series of paintings depicts four scenes that describe the love affair between Rinaldo and Armida. Tiepolo illustrates Armida as a declining force within each painting. In the first painting she is positioned above Rinaldo and appears to be a god-like, dominant figure. With each succeeding painting Armida becomes less and less powerful until she is reduced to nothing. While she becomes weaker Rinaldo, in contrast, becomes stronger. In 1797 Venice officially lost its independence. The years leading up to this event were marked by a state of decline; Venice was no longer seen as a super power, it was thriving on tourism and culture. Given these circumstances Tiepolo’s Armida can be paralleled to his Venice.
I will discuss the life of Torquato Tasso and his epic Gerusalemme Liberata, paying particular attention to the story of Rinaldo and Armida. Then I will examine how the epic evolved into art, drawing on earlier artists such as Annibale Carracci and Anthony Van Dyck. After this I will discuss the life of Tiepolo and the state of Venice during his lifetime. The rest of my argument will be an analysis of Tiepolo’s paintings depicted from Gerusalemme Liberata, with intent to focus on his series commissioned by the Corner family in Venice.
Torquato Tasso was born in Sorento, Italy in 1544 and died in Rome in 1595. He studied at the University of Padua and was originally encouraged by his friends, G.M. Verdizzotti, a pupil of Titian and Danese Cataneo, a sculptor, to compose an epic on the First Crusades while in Venice in 1560. After completing his studies in Padua Tasso entered the service of the Este court in Ferrara. He wrote many works under the Este patronage but spent most of his life revising his Christian epic on the First Crusades. Although Tasso was never satisfied with this work, Gerusalemme Liberata immediately took cultivated Europe by storm when it was published in Ferrara in 1581.
There are three distinct goals Tasso had in mind in creating Gerusalemme Liberata. First, he attempted to imitate the classics, themes from the Iliad and the Aeneid are evident in his epic. In battle Rinaldo simulates Achilles from the Iliad, however when he is forced to leave Armida in order to save Jerusalem their love story is influenced by the Aeneid when Aeneas must leave Dido to found Rome. Secondly, he tried to emphasize historical facts and Christianity. For this reason he focused on the First Crusades when the Christians battled the Muslims for the city of Jerusalem. Lastly, he wanted to rival Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso that was also written for the Este court and published in 1516.
Literary scholar C.P. Brand states, “Structurally the Liberata is a fusion of the heroic epic and the chivalrous romance, that represents a conscious attempt at perfection of a literary form.” While Tasso’s objective was to compose an epic based upon the First Crusades, it is his amorous subplots that provide an idea of glory and honor throughout his work. The love story between Rinaldo and Armida exemplifies this idea.
Rinaldo is one of the fiercest and most honorable soldiers fighting in the crusades. Tasso states, “He finds in Rinaldo both a warlike mind and spirits impatient of rest. No lust for gold or for power in him, but an immoderate burning thirst for honor”
Armida is a pagan sorceress who has been sent by her uncle to lead important soldiers, including Rinaldo, away from the Crusades. Tasso describes her as she is appointed to this task. “A lady is his niece to whom the Orient yielded the first honors for beauty: well known to her are the subtleties and the most hidden frauds that witch or woman can practice”
Just as Armida is about to kill the sleeping Rinaldo she falls in love with him and holds him hostage in her enchanted garden in Syria where he falls in love with her. Eventually he is discovered by his fellow soldiers, Ubaldo and Carlo, and forced to leave Armida. While this is only a subplot it fits well into the entirety of Gerusalemme Liberata and a moral message Tasso was trying to convey, that being, personal sacrifice for a greater good. Literary scholar Ralph Nash states, “Tasso is concerned chiefly with expounding two significant details: the strong city Jerusalem stands as a symbol of man’s pursuit of earthly felicity; and Godfrey and Rinaldo stand respectively for the rational and the ‘wrathful’ faculties of the soul. Thus the historical Crusade becomes an Everyman story of the individual’s attempt to reconcile disparate and warring elements in his nature in the pursuit of earthly happiness.”
It was not long before Gerusalemme Liberata was illustrated. Bernardo Castello a Mannerist artist from Genoa, produced the first illustrated edition of the epic in 1590, only 9 years after its publication. Castello concentrated on the historical elements of the epic, rather than the romantic subplots, in order to capture the main action of the story. For example, he illustrates in great detail a battle scene where Godfrey, the leader of the crusades, combats another soldier. In another scene, Study for Rinaldo in the Arms of Armida (fig.5) Castello places Ubaldo and Carlo in hiding as they watch the lovers in Armida’s garden. Tiepolo also adds these soldiers when he paints the same scene. Both artists are not strictly concerned with Rinaldo and Armida, the soldiers foreshadow Rinaldo’s destined departure from the sorceress thus forming a fuller understanding of the text.
From 1590 to 1600, Annibale Carracci, an artist from Bologna, was the first artist to paint the poem’s famous love episodes. His painting, Rinaldo and Armida,(fig.6) depicts a bewitched Rinaldo reclining in Armida’s lap while the sorceress looks intensely into her mirror. This scene is described in Gerusalemme Liberata as the moment when Armida enchants Rinaldo.
From the lover’s side hung down (strange armor) a crystal mirror shining
And clear. He rose, and held it up for her between his hands, the chosen vessel for the mysteries of Love. He with enkindled, she with laughing eyes,
In varying objects gaze on one object only: she makes herself a mirror out
Caracci also places the soldiers in hiding as they watch the lovers, exuding his understanding of the text and what will succeed this scene.
From 1628 to 1630 Anthony Van Dyck and Nicolas Poussin painted Armida’s first encounter with Rinaldo. As Armida prepares to kill the sleeping Rinaldo she immediately falls in love with him. Van Dyck, influenced by Titian in his Rinaldo and Armida (fig.7), depicts an Armida who has already fallen in love with Rinaldo, with a soft expression she wraps flowers around his neck, preparing to take him away. In Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida (fig. 8) on the other hand, the artist captures in Armida the transformation from enemy to lover. Her left hand brushes back Rinaldo’s hair as her right hand holds a knife. Unlike Van Dyck, Poussin’s Armida is torn between love and duty; she has not yet decided to capture Rinaldo. The illustrated texts, as well as the paintings mentioned above, mark an artistic period in which the story of Armida and Rinaldo was developing into a major theme that would later be depicted frequently in art.
During the seventeenth century artists and patrons selected scenes from Gerusalemme Liberata that pertained to Rinaldo and Armida. According to scholar Rensselaer W. Lee, “With a direct instinct for genuine poetry, they cut through its arid rhetorical shell to those passages where Tasso laid aside his mannered style and wrote with superb ease and naturalness, passages amorous and idyllic and dramatic, that take their place among the finest in all Italian literature…” Perhaps this love story evolved in art because it was considered Tasso’s best work within Gerusalemme Liberata. However this theme also continued for the artists to convey the same moral messages Tasso portrays in his text.
Frescoes and paintings focusing on the stories of the Gerusalemme Liberata began to be produced within private palaces during the 1700s. Their main purpose was to project the honorable morals produced in Gerusalemme Liberata onto each patron. Thus by viewing Rinaldo’s decision to sacrifice love for duty, patrons were associating themselves with the same chivalric nature as Rinaldo. Art scholar Keith Christianson states, “Such sets usually responded to the desires of patrons to glorify their status, ambitions, and accomplishments, and the works often depicted heroic subject matter exalting extraordinary deeds, exceptional virtues, and high-minded self-denial.” It is in response to this major trend that Tiepolo paints many scenes from Gerusalemme Liberata,
Giambattista Tiepolo was born in 1696 in the Corte San Domenico, Sestiere Castello in Venice. Although he was not from a wealthy family and had nine brothers and sisters, in 1710 Tiepolo entered into the workshop of one of the most successful painters in Venice at the time, Gregorio Lazzarini, who is considered Tiepolo’s only teacher. While there Tiepolo copied paintings by Tintoretto, Bassano, Salviati, and Titian, for practice. Lazzarini was a cultured artist who created a strong network of Venetian and external patrons. This provided Tiepolo with commissions from patrician families in Venice, such as the Corner family, throughout his career. It also allowed him to travel to places such as Genoa, Milan, Ferrara, and elsewhere. As a painter Tiepolo was constantly traveling beyond Venice to undertake various commissions.
It is important to note, that the Venice of Tiepolo’s time was in a state of decline. In 1645 Venice went to war with the Ottoman Empire to defend the island of Crete, which was under Venetian control at the time. The war lasted until 1669 when Venice eventually surrendered and was left in a considerable amount of debt and without her richest overseas possession. In 1715 Venice suffered another defeat when the Turks forced Venice to surrender the Morea, a Venetian province in Greece. The Ottomans also threatened to take Dalmatia and the Ionian Islands from Venice. This war lasted until 1718 when the Treaty of Passarowitz was signed on July 21, forcing Venice to hand the Morea over to the Turks while maintaining Dalmatia and the Ionian Islands. Although this was a political setback Venice endured years of peace until it lost its independence to Napoleon in 1797. In describing 18th century Venice Count Paul Daru, a companion of Napeleon stated,
“She is reduced to a passive existence. She has no more wars to sustain, peaces to conclude, or desires to express. A mere spectator of events, in her determination to take no part in events, she pretends to take no interest in them.” Perhaps this interpretation of the city is a bit harsh, however it supports the fact that the city as a superpower was weakening during Tiepolo’s time. Nevertheless, commercial prosperity of the city was still thriving. While Venice was no longer a military force to be feared there was an influx of tourists, as this was the age of the Great Tour and Carnival. Along with this Venice’s economy flourished through opera and art.This allowed painters such as Tiepolo to thrive in Venice, taking up various commissions for the wealthy in public buildings as well as private palaces.
From 1742 to 1745 Tiepolo was commissioned by the Corner family to produce The Tasso Cycle, (fig.1-4) four paintings that depict the story of Rinaldo and Armida, in the Palazzo Cornaro. These paintings occupied the Corner family’s palace in the room of mirrors.(It is also around this time Tiepolo entered into one of the busiest phases of his career.) From 1751 to1753 Tiepolo painted two scenes in Wurzburg, Germany depicting Rinaldo and Armida in her garden, and Rinaldo abandoning Armida. From 1750 to 1755 Tiepolo worked on a series of paintings in London that depicted scenes from Gerusalemme Liberata.
In 1755 Tiepolo was commissioned with his son Domenico, to paint a number of frescos in the Villa Valmarana in Vicenza. Each room focused on different epics: the Stanza del’Iliad, Stanza dell’Eneide, Stanza dell’Orlando Furioso, and Stanza della Gerusalemme Liberata. By choosing four different epics that relate to one another the patron was able to display his education in classical and renaissance literature. He exhibits his knowledge of the influence each earlier epic had on the latter. Within each epic, the main hero is honored for making sacrifices to persevere in battle. In emphasizing this general message the patron is able to glorify himself with the same attributes of an epic hero. Thus the frescos in Villa Valmarana exemplify a patron’s desire to commission scenes from Gerusalemme Liberata.
The Tasso Cycle, commissioned by the Corner family, are the only depictions of Rinaldo and Armida that Tiepolo painted in Venice. It is also one of his most extensive series of Gerusalemme Liberata and the first time Tiepolo was inspired by a poem as his subject. While Tiepolo has been criticized by 20th century critics for not staying true to text in his choice of an Arcadian setting, it is clear that the artist, as well as the patron, had a clear knowledge of the epic and wanted to convey that through the four chosen scenes.
The first painting, Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida, (fig.1) is taken from canto 14. Armida sees Rinaldo sleeping and becomes so amazed by his beauty she captures the soldier using flowers to tie his feet and arms. She then abducts him in her chariot. Tasso writes:
But when she fixed her gaze upon him and saw how calm and countenance
He breathes, and how charming a manner laughs about his lovely eyes,
Though they be closed (now what will it be if he opens them?), first she
Stands still in suspense, and then sits down beside him, and feels her every
Wrath becalmed while she gazes upon him; and now she bends so above
Here Tiepolo depicts Armida as the dominant figure. She is posed above the sleeping Rinaldo on top of her chariot surrounded by clouds and her flowing drapery. Rinaldo, on the other hand, is sleeping and completely powerless. Unlike Van Dyck’s Armida, Tiepolo’s is more aloof and appears as a super-power. He does not capture the moment Armida falls in love with Rinaldo, like Van Dyck, nor does he depict her struggle between love and duty, as Poussin did. Instead Tiepolo’s Armida has just laid eyes on Rinaldo, “First she stands still in suspense.” This allows Tiepolo to depict Armida as an indestructible force. In his first scene she is not yet vulnerable.
The next painting, Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden, (fig.2) is taken from canto 16 in which Armida captivates Rinaldo as she gazes into a mirror. While the two lovers share a private moment together in her garden the fellow soldiers, Carlo and Ubaldo are anticipating the moment to seize Rinaldo and bring him back to duty. Tasso writes:
The one of them glories in his servitude, the other in her power, she in her-self and he in her. “Turn, oh turn to me those eyes (the knight was saying) by
which in your happiness you make others happy; for (if you are not aware of
it) my flames are the true portrait of your beauties; their shape, their
Both Tasso and Tiepolo’s heroine share an ambiguity of emotion. It is hard to determine if Armida has completely exposed herself to Rinaldo. In Tiepolo’s series the sorceress no longer appears as dominant, she is now reclining with Rinaldo. Only one of her breasts is exposed in this painting, while both were in the first, alluding to her new modesty and vulnerability with her lover. However her face exhibits the same proud aloofness from the past painting. Meanwhile Rinaldo is completely captivated by Armida. Tiepolo captures the true relationship behind Rinaldo and Armida in Canto 16, “The one of them glories in his servitude, the other in her power, she in herself and he in her.” While Armida is clearly active in this love story, she possesses superiority in Tasso’s text and Tiepolo’s painting. While he glories in his servitude, she glories in her power. This interpretation does not differ from Caracci’s Rinaldo and Armida (fig.6), or Castello’s illustration (fig.5). In each a bewitched Rinaldo reclines into Armida’s lap while the sorceress proudly gazes at herself in the mirror the lover holds for her.
In the next scene, Armida abandoned by Rinaldo (fig.3), Tiepolo captures the moment in canto 16 when Rinaldo abandons Armida. Rinaldo is persuaded by his soldiers to leave Armida in order to pursue his Christian duty in the crusades. This scene simulates the Aeneid when Aeneas, residing indefinitely in Carthage, is commanded by the gods to leave the city to found Rome. In doing this he abandons his lover, Dido, who kills herself upon his departure. Both scenes depict a hero making a personal sacrifice in order to follow his destiny and obtain glory. The difficulty of this act can be seen in Armida’s reaction.
“Wretch! Do I yet presume? Do I yet make my boast of a rejected beauty
That gets me nothing?” She wanted to say more, but her tears interrupted,
That welled up like a spring from the mountain rock. Then she seeks to
Grasp his hand or cloak, suppliant in gesture; and he steps back; he
Armida’s anguish is depicted very clearly by Tiepolo. While her face is turned away from the viewer, her grief is evident in her body language. Both of her arms are raised toward Rinaldo with her head turned upward. Her drapery, a light orange in the previous paintings is now a crimson red. Meanwhile Rinaldo’s garments are now a light orange where they used to be red. Tiepolo depicts the lovers’ role reversal through their drapery, positioning, and composure. Rinaldo stands above Armida as she gazes in a pleading gesture up to him. He holds his armor firmly and while Tiepolo might depict a sense of hesitancy as Rinaldo stares back at Armida, there is a boat in the background, alluding to his inevitable decision to leave the sorceress. This same message is conveyed in the text, “Kindness forbade, pity did that withstand; But hard constraint, alas! Did thence him lead.”
It is perhaps the last scene that truly exemplifies Tiepolo and the patron’s knowledge and interpretation of the importance of Gerusalemme Liberata. Rinaldoand Armida the Magus of Ascalon ,(fig.4) is taken from canto 17 when the Magician of Ascalona reveals a shield to Rinaldo that displays the feats of his ancestors. This in turn inspires Rinaldo to serve his Christian duty by battling the pagan enemy. Tasso writes:
So he spoke; and the other, quiet and attentive to his speeches of deep
Cousel, treasured up his words, and held his gaze on the ground, chas-
tened and shamed. The ancient wiseman saw clearly his secret thought,
and added: ‘Hold up your head, my son, and fix your eyes now upon this
Armida is not present in this scene. Rinaldo stands tall and erect with his hair pulled back. His drapery is once again a darker red, perhaps symbolizing the passion to fulfill his destiny in war. He listens intently to the magus and appears to be the warrior he was meant to be. This painting changes the message of the cycle. No longer are the paintings about an amorous story between a sorceress and a soldier, they serve a bigger picture, that being to amplify the glory and honor of one knight.
This same splendor can be transferred to the patron of these works. The Corner family was a noble patrician family in Venice. Many members served as the Doge at one point, such as Doge Giovanni Corner II (1647-1722). Like the frescoes in Villa Valmarana, these paintings exemplified the patron’s nobility and literary education. Tiepolo painted Rinaldo as a victor in his last scene to transpose the same pride and duty onto the Corner family.
While Tiepolo painted many works from Gerusalemme Liberata, The Tasso Cycle is the most detailed and the only set of paintings commissioned in Venice. This fact could have an effect on the choices Tiepolo made. It is clear with the last painting that the patron wanted to amplify his honor through the main message of the epic, that being the importance of Christian duty and honor. Scholar Keith Christianson states, “The salient point here is that Tiepolo’s delightful sequence captivates its audience at the same time that it asserts an ethical imperative” Nevertheless there is more than one interpretation of these paintings.
The interaction between Rinaldo and Armida changes throughout the series until it seems that the two form a role reversal, and when one was strong the other is now weak. Rinaldo simulates the life of a soldier in this series. He is first seen sleeping peacefully like an infant, completely innocent of his surroundings and the dangers of Armida hovering over him. In the next scene he appears as a love-struck boy, captivated by a woman. In the third scene he is shown making an emotional decision between love and duty. In the last scene Rinaldo is standing tall and proud. He is an honorable soldier with the Magus by his side.
Armida contrasts Rinaldo. In the first scene she hovers over the innocent soldier, appearing like a powerful sorceress. In the next she is more vulnerable, with one breast exposed and on equal level with Rinaldo. In the third scene she is reduced to a crouching begging position looking up at Rinaldo, as if he is now her superior. And finally in the last scene she is reduced to nothing, her importance has completely disappeared.
The role reversal of Rinaldo and Armida is not inventive of Tiepolo. Tasso also emphasizes this exchange. At first Armida is superior, “The one of them glories in his servitude, the other in her power,” However shortly after Rinaldo becomes greater than Armida, “Then she seeks to grasp his hand or cloak, suppliant in gesture; and he steps back;” Additionally, both protagonists were conflicted between love and duty. Armida faced this obstacle when she was sent to kill Rinaldo and failed to fulfill her duty. Rinaldo, on the contrary, chose duty over love in leaving Armida, thus claiming his superiority.
Tiepolo follows this theme by depicting a deteriorating Armida contrasted with a strengthening Rinaldo. This begs the question, what is Tiepolo’s focus? Is it the growth of Rinaldo or the fading of Armida? And why? Christianson states, “Thus, Rinaldo’s condition improves from canvas to canvas, at the same time that Armida’s physical state and moral standing deteriorate.”
Tiepolo’s focus could easily have been on Rinaldo. The artist depicts Rinaldo as a growing character who evolves from a bewitched boy into a brave hero. He does this through personal sacrifice and duty to his Christian cause. This is a characteristic powerful Venetians, such as the Corner family, would attribute to themselves. As leaders of Venice they would want to be seen as loyal citizens of Venice who would sacrifice anything for the city. For this reason the purpose of these paintings could have been to glorify Rinaldo.
Saying that, Armida and Venice share many characteristics. Armida appears as an omnipotent force in the first painting. Venice, like Armida, was a super-power feared by many. Throughout the paintings Armida becomes less and less powerful however she does not lose her superiority until Rinaldo leaves her. Perhaps this is the same for Venice, a Republic that involved itself in many wars and conquests seemed unstoppable until it lost its independence. Finally, Armida is reduced to absence in the last scene. What does this say about Venice?
In hindsight there are many parallels between Armida and Venice, however Tiepolo depicted these paintings to exemplify the honor of the Corner family in Venice. At the time Venetians might not have seen the city as one in decline. Given that, Armida could be seen as a warning to the Venetian contemporaries of Tiepolo. Armida chose to pursue love over duty, however she did not portray her true feelings towards Rinaldo until she was abandoned. Thus her power gradually receded into nothing. If Venice acted with the same pride and negligence she could also share the same fate as Armida.
Gerusalemme Liberata was immediately illustrated and scenes from Rinaldo and Armida became popular in paintings. This allowed different artists to accurately portray the epic. For example, Van Dyck depicts Armida tying Rinaldo with a string of flowers as Narcissus comes out of the water. “His handsome face that she seems Narcissus at the spring” For this reason, Tiepolo was able to accurately illustrate Tasso’s text. However Tiepolo chooses what parts of the epic to emphasize within each of his paintings. For example, he is not interested in painting an Armida torn between love and duty, like Poussin, he would rather portray her as a frightening force, gazing aloofly at Rinaldo. Within the text Tiepolo had many opportunities to portray vulnerability in Armida, yet he does not do this until Rinaldo leaves her. Even more obvious is Tiepolo’s decision to depict canto 17, Rinaldo with the Magus, not Armida, in his last painting.
Do Tiepolo’s choices portray a positive message about chivalry and honor or do they accentuate a tragic ending that foreshadows the success of a superpower? Perhaps the answer depends on the viewer:
What is more powerful in the Tasso Cycle? Rinaldo’s presence or Armida’s absence?
2 Norwich, John Julius, A History of Venice, New York: Vintage Books, A Division of
Random House, Inc., 1989.
3 Brand, C.P. Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and of His Contribution to English
4 Tasso, Torquato, Jerusalem Delivered: An English Prose Version…
5 Lee Rensselaer W., Poetry Into Painting: Tasso and Art, Middlebury, Vermont, 1970.
6 Tasso, Torquato, Jerusalem Delivered: An English Prose Version…
7 Brand, C.P. Torquato Tasso…p.79
8 Tasso, Torquato, Jerusalem Delivered…Canto 1, p.7
Museum of Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1996.
20 Norwich, John Julius, A History of Venice …
26 Christianson Keith, Giambattista Tiepolo…
27 Tasso Torquato, Jerusalem Delivered…Canto 14, p. 315
39 Tasso, Torquato, Jerusalem Delivered…Canto 14, p.315