In amost every collection of paintings from before 1900, you’ll come across works with mystifying titles like Tancred Baptizing Clorinda. Those names don’t come from mythology, nor are they Biblical. I suspect that most just abandon trying to read that painting, and walk on to the next.
Domenico Tintoretto, the son of Jacopo, painted just that, Tancred Baptizing Clorinda in about 1585. Tancred was a fictional prince who fell in love with a pagan female warrior, Clorinda, who was then mortally wounded by Tancred, and at her request he baptised her just before she died.
They are among the leading figures in what was, until about 1900, one of the most widely-read epic poems in the western world: Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata – Jerusalem Delivered. Because it was so well known and loved, it was the basis for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of paintings, many by the masters. After Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it has probably been the source for more narrative paintings than any other literary work (taking the Bible as being mostly non-literary).
One of the greatest of the narrative artists to paint stories from this epic is Nicolas Poussin, whose Rinaldo and Armida from about 1630 remains one of the most brilliant narrative paintings ever made. Contemporary accounts of Poussin’s life record that his copy of Tasso’s epic was almost worn out through repeated use.
Unless you’re a scholar of Italian Renaissance literature, all you’ll see here is a pretty young woman on the one hand about to murder a sleeping knight with a dagger, and on the other hand caressing his brow.
The sleeping knight is Rinaldo, the greatest of Tasso’s Christian knights, who has stopped to rest near the ‘ford of the Orontes’. On hearing a woman singing, he goes to the river, where he catches sight of Armida swimming naked. Armida, though, has an evil aim. As a ‘Saracen’ witch, she has been secretly following Rinaldo, intending to murder him with her dagger. Having revealed herself to him, she sings and lulls him into an enchanted sleep so that she can thrust her dagger home.
Just as she is about to do this, she falls in love with him instead – and this is the instant, the twist or peripeteia (to use Aristotle’s term), shown here. A winged amorino, lacking the bow and arrows of a true Cupid, restrains her right arm bearing her weapon. Her facial expression and left hand reveal her new intent, which is to enchant and abduct Rinaldo in her chariot, so that he can become infatuated with her, and forget his mission of war.
This couple are central to the complex intertwined threads within Jerusalem Delivered. Tiepolo was another artist who was frankly obsessed with its stories, and painted them on many occasions. This example shows Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden (1742-45), and is now in The Art Institute of Chicago. It was originally hung in a special room dedicated to Tasso’s epic in the Palazzo Corner a San Polo in Venice, where it belonged to the noble Serbelloni family.
Johann Friedrich Overbeck worked for eight years painting this magnificent fresco of Ubaldo and Carlo free Rinaldo from Armida’s Castle (1819-27) in another room dedicated to the epic, here in the Casa Massimo in Rome.
For over three centuries, artists retold Tasso’s stories. Marie Spartali Stillman painted A Rose in Armida’s Garden as late as 1894. More of an aesthetic portrait than the depictions of others before her, Stillman gave this to a family friend for their wedding.
In 1899, John Collier tried this painting of The Garden of Armida in a contemporary setting and dress. Although it wasn’t a success, Collier was one of the few who tried to adapt Tasso for the twentieth century.
Images inspired by the epic appeared in some of the most surprising places. This wallpaper designed by Édouard Muller in 1854 shows (yet again) The Garden of Armida, and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Other smaller images appeared on coffee cups and all manner of other objects.
Jerusalem Delivered is set in the midst of the First Crusade, which for many of us today makes it even more difficult to access. It’s a curious fact that most Europeans and North Americans are more familiar with the history, figures, and mythology of classical Rome, than with the crusades which dominated much of European society in mediaeval times and later.
David Teniers the Younger shows this clearly in his oil-on-copper painting of Armida in the Battle Against the Saracens from 1628-30. Armed as an archer, the ‘Saracen’ witch rides on a chariot into a battle outside a large city. It’s a painting which makes no sense at all without knowing Tasso’s epic, a bit of background about the First Crusade, and the fact that the city is Jerusalem.
Tomorrow I will start to set the scene for the series by looking at paintings of that First Crusade, summarising its real history, and introducing some of the characters which Tasso wrote into his poetry. I hope that you’ll join me in the town of Clermont, in France, in late 1095.
Project Gutenberg (free) English translation (Fairfax 1600).
Librivox audiobook of the Fairfax (1600) English translation (free).
Anthony M Esolen, translator (2000) Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, Gerusalemme Liberata, Johns Hopkins UP. ISBN 978 0 801 863233. A superb modern translation into English verse.
Johathan Unglaub (2006) Poussin and the Poetics of Painting, Pictorial Narrative and the Legacy of Tasso, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 833677.