Completed in 1575, first published in 1581.




Torquato Tasso,

Gerusalemme liberata



Tasso’s heroic poem in twenty ottava rima cantos fictionalizes the vicissitudes of several leading historical figures from the First Crusade as it draws narrative details from the siege of Antioch and Jerusalem in early Crusading chronicles, in particular William of Tyre’s influential history that had been translated into Italian in 1562. While the poem’s primary plotline thus reimagines the historical conquest of a foreign territory through military violence, the invented romance episodes move in the opposite direction, envisioning male and female characters who desire (and, in some cases, attain the love of) individuals from the enemy camp.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden, 1742/45. The Art Institute of Chicago. Detail. Source:

Given that female protagonists and amorous adventures were lacking in the Crusading histories that served as the poem’s frame, Tasso drew from literary precedents as well as his own imagination to create a triad of women who inspire or experience the love element that he maintained was fundamental to the “mixed unity” of the heroic poem (Lettere poetiche, 434). The stories involving Armida, Clorinda, and Erminia with the two most prominent warriors on the Christian side, Tancredi and Rinaldo, are not minor episodes, moreover, but extend throughout the poem and determine the plot just as much as the attempt to conquer the Holy City.

The story of the enchantress Armida and the Christian knight Rinaldo runs from the maiden’s initial entrance into the Crusading camp in canto 4 to the couple’s reunion in the woods outside Jerusalem in the poem’s final canto. Unlike the other male protagonists, Rinaldo is not a historical Crusader, but an invented character whose name evokes the famous Carolingian paladin featured as the eponymous hero of Tasso’s previous romance epic, Rinaldo (1562). Part of Armida’s fascination as a character stems from her complex literary genealogy: she evokes the classical figures of Circe and Medea, she partially relives the vicissitudes of Virgil’s Dido, and she is described in ways that recall both Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura. The chivalric precedents she most closely recalls and combines, however, are found in the romance epics of Boiardo and Ariosto. Her initial appearance in the Crusading camp evokes Angelica’s entrance in Charlemagne’s banquet hall (Orlando Innamorato 1.1.20-35), whereas her sequester of Rinaldo recalls the machinations of the fairy Alcina (Orlando Innamorato 2.13.54-66 and Orlando Furioso 6.19-7.32). At the same time, unlike the epic genre’s typical figures of female seduction, Armida succeeds in permanently uniting with her man in the final canto of the poem. In this way, she ends up assuming a dynastic role akin to that of Bradamante, whose marriage to Ruggiero purportedly gave rise to the Estense family of Ferrara. Tasso thereby not only rejects a polarized view of woman as either dangerous seductress or legitimate bride, but also transforms the conventional episode of an epic hero’s amorous interlude into a narrative of the ruling family’s origins. Perhaps it was the anomalous transformation of a pagan seductress into a Christian hero’s promised bride that led much of the traditional scholarship on the poem to disregard or diminish the import of the final reunion of the young lovers and to concentrate instead on the earlier extended episode of Rinaldo’s seduction and liberation.

The poem’s other two love stories are intertwined. Erminia, the captive princess of Antioch, is in love with Tancredi, who in turn pines for the valorous female warrior Clorinda. From her initial appearance in the first canto of the poem until her death in canto 12, Clorinda evokes various female figures from Italian Renaissance epic, in particular the two female warriors who undergo notable transformations in the course of the Orlando Furioso: Marfisa, who assumes a Crusading ethos upon her conversion to Christianity, and Bradamante, who converts instead to the role of obedient daughter and eventually passive spouse. Neither precedent anticipates the conclusion of Clorinda’s story, however, in which the warrior’s final confrontation with Tancredi creatively refashions the episode of a Saracen knight who converts to Christianity after a fatal blow by Orlando (Ferraguto in the Spagna and Agricane in the Orlando Innamorato). The subsequent appearance of Clorinda in Tancredi’s dream evokes the role of heavenly guardian that Petrarch assigns to Laura after her death. Yet rather than leave readers with this reassuring vision, Tasso adds a scene in which an infernal spirit, imitating Clorinda’s voice, confronts an anguished Tancredi in Ismeno’s forest, thus demonstrating that the enamored knight is still obsessed with the maiden.

With a presence that extends from the third to the nineteenth canto, Erminia can be linked to diverse literary precedents. Within the chivalric literary tradition, her interlude in the forest as unrequited lover can initially be set against Angelica’s pastoral encounter with Medoro in the Furioso. Nonetheless, in the penultimate canto Tasso reserves for her an encounter with the wounded and unconscious Tancredi that recalls precisely Angelica’s precedent, thus suggestively foretelling a happy future for the couple. The captive princess not only tends to the knight’s physical wounds and returns him to consciousness, but immediately thereafter alludes to a reward she expects from him once he has regained his health (GL XIX.114).[1] Notwithstanding these promising allusions, Tasso leaves her story suspended. He subsequently muses in a letter to Cardinal Scipione Gonzaga that she may be destined to end her days as a Catholic nun – a conclusion that would have satisfied his censors (Lettere poetiche, 424) – but he does not insert this new narrative twist into the poem.

Given the centrality of these three love stories, how are we to understand the religious and political mission which is the poem’s ostensible subject? In a 1565 note to an Estense administrator describing his literary projects in order to justify his stipend, Tasso acknowledges that his writing is intended as political propaganda for his patrons and their allies. More specifically, he states that he plans to write two heroic poems on a theme chosen in accord with Cardinal Luigi (his patron at the time) and names three possible subjects along with their encomiastic purpose. The first, which is the subject of the Liberata, reads: “Expedition of Goffredo and other princes against the Infidels, and their return. Where I will have the occasion to praise the families of Europe as I choose.”

If we turn our attention to what Tasso thought of the historical Crusades, we find a decidedly cynical view. In a letter to Silvio Antoniano, professor of the Collegio Romano, Tasso attempts to justify his use of “amori” (love stories) in his poem by depicting the historical Crusaders as downright degenerate: “If we are to give credence to the historians, many of these princes were not only stained with lust, but moreover sullied with malice and savagery, and if instead of the injustices, the plunder, the deception, and treachery, I describe their passion and anger (lesser sins), I don’t think I’m rendering less honored or venerable the memory of that undertaking” (March 30, 1576; Lettere, 1.146). Pointing out the injustices, plunder, fraud, and betrayals of the flesh-and-blood Christian knights may not have been the most astute way of defending his fictional characters to “the most fanatical of his revisors” (Solerti 1.224), but it does reveal a disenchanted view of the First Crusade, the ostensible subject of his poem.

Tasso’s “Goffredo” – the original title of the poem – was completed in 1575. Following the practice of the time, Tasso submitted it to the scrutiny of friends and fellow poets. The pedantic criticism of the literati was not nearly as threatening, however, as the moral judgment of the poem’s religious censors. In fact, members of the prepublication committee formed in Rome by the above-mentioned Cardinal Scipione Gonzaga demanded extensive textual changes, including the excision of sections considered lascivious. Although Tasso promised to comply with the censors in order to secure the work’s publication, he also passionately defended the episodes under attack, maintaining that the romance elements of love and magic were essential to a successful heroic poem. (See, for example, his letters to his friend Luca Scalabrino from April and May of 1576).[2]

In 1581, the poem appeared without Tasso’s authorization, under the title Gerusalemme Liberata [Jerusalem Liberated], while he was imprisoned in Ferrara on the charge of insanity. Although seven editions were printed within six months, signaling the work’s popularity, two members of the influential literary academy Accademia Della Crusca criticized the poem, motivating Tasso to respond in 1585 with an Apologia in difesa della Gerusalemme Liberata [Apology in Defense of Jerusalem Delivered]. He further defended the structural blending of epic and romance elements in his Discorsi dell’arte poetica e in particolare sopra il poema eroico [Discourses on the Art of Poetry and in particular on the Heroic Poem], 1587). In his final years, however, he completely revised the poem in line with the censors’ demands and renamed it Gerusalemme conquistata (1593).

If, on the one hand, the Gerusalemme Liberata met with the disapproval of ecclesiastical censors and establishment intellectuals, on the other it found immense favor in both elite and popular circles. The sensual episodes, in particular, became the subject of musical, theatrical, operatic, and artistic adaptations in the following centuries (see Abbrugiati and Guidi). Until recent decades, in fact, the poem was recited from memory by shepherds in the Tuscan countryside, sung by gondoliers in Venice, performed as epic maggi (folk opera) in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, and sometimes dramatized in the puppet theaters of southern Italy and Sicily. Introduced into English letters via Edward Fairfax’s 1600 translation, it is now available in modern prose (Nash, used here) as well as verse (Esolan, Wickert).[3]


[1] Citing Erminia’s affinity with the motif of the captive woman, Melinda J. Gough interprets her final encounter with Tancredi as an opportunity “to initiate her own transformation from pagan slave to beloved Christian wife” (“Tasso’s enchantress, Tasso’s captive woman,” 542).

[2] For a more in-depth analysis of the poem along the lines traced in this introduction, see Cavallo, The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: From Public Duty to Private Pleasure, 186-228.

[3] For a comparison of English prose and verse translations of the Gerusalemme Liberata, both historical and modern, see Joshua Reid “Teaching the Italian Romance Epic in Translation: Materials and Methods,” 32-34.


Jo Ann Cavallo
Columbia University


Works Cited

Abbrugiati, Raymond, and José Guidi, editors. Les belles infidèles de la “Jérusalem délivrée.” La fortune du poème du Tasse XVIe-XXe siècle. Aix-en-Provence: Université de Provence, 2004.

Cavallo, Jo Ann. The Romance Epics of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso: From Public Duty to Private Pleasure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Gough, Melinda J. “Tasso’s enchantress, Tasso’s captive woman.” Renaissance Quarterly 54 (2001): 523-52.

Tasso, Torquato. Jerusalem Delivered. Translated by Ralph Nash. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987. [Prose]

—. Jerusalem Delivered. Translated by Anthony M. Esolan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. [Verse]

—. Le lettere di Torquato Tasso, disposte per ordine di tempo ed illustrate da Cesare Guasti. 5 vols. Florence: Le Monnier, 1852-55.

—. Lettere poetiche. Edited by C. Molinari. Parma: Guanda-Fondazione Bembo, 1995.

—. The Liberation of Jerusalem. Translated by Max Wickert. Introduction by Mark Davie. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. [Verse]

Reid, Joshua. “Teaching the Italian Romance Epic in Translation: Materials and Methods.” In Teaching the Italian Renaissance Romance Epic. Edited by Jo Ann Cavallo. New York: Modern Language Association, 2018. 28-38.

Solerti, Angelo. Vita di Torquato Tasso. 3 vols. Turin, Rome: E. Loescher, 1895.

William of Tyre. Historia della guerra sacra di Gierusalemme della terra di promissione e quasi di tutta la Soria ricuperata da Christiani. Translated by Giuseppe Orologi. Venice: Vincenzo Valgrisi, 1562.


English translations:

Jerusalem Delivered. Translated by Edward Fairfax (1560-1635); first published in London, 1600. Project Gutenberg eBook.

Jerusalem Delivered. Translated by Ralph Nash. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987. [Prose]

Jerusalem Delivered. Translated by Anthony M. Esolan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. [Verse]

The Liberation of Jerusalem. Translated by Max Wickert. Introduction by Mark Davie. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. [Verse]




The Tiepolo series of Gerusalemme Liberata paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Händel, Rinaldo, HWV7. Dramma per musica in tre atti. René Jacobs Freiburger Barockorchester. Libretto: Giacomo Rossi.