Among the incontestable masterpieces of the Italian Romance tradition, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme stands head-to-head with Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in terms of style, technique, motifs, similar scenes, ambition, cultural influence, and beauty. But one is centripetal, the other centrifugal.
Having read both in French, by the same translator (Michel Orcel) who did a masterful job of coining useful neologism and repurposing historical word forms, I am convinced that Tasso has beat Ariosto, but only because he came last. Tasso builds on a lot of motifs from previous writers, and some of his scenes are lifted almost integrally from the Furioso, such as Rinaldo’s ensnaring by the magician Armide, which reproduces Ruggiero’s by Alcina. Both poems deserve to be read in parallel, but contra Galileo who preferred the infinite, digressive, and ever-expanding Furioso, I have been compelled more by the tightness and density of Tasso’s Gerusalemme.
The subject matter is lofty: Crusaders, led by Godefroy de Bouillon, are reclaiming the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem from the hands of the Sarrasins holding it. Yet, one is compelled to cite Voltaire’s damning words on the historical Crusaders:
Quand ils arrivèrent au Saint-Sépulcre, ces monstres, ornés de croix blanches encore toutes dégouttantes du sang des femmes qu’ils venaient de massacrer après les avoir violées, fondirent tendrement en larmes, baisèrent la terre, et se frappèrent la poitrine. (Essai sur la poésie épique)
Those barbarians raping and pillaging all in the name of Christ get a heroic makeover. Drawing on the mythical origins of Godefroy de Bouillon as a descendant of the Swan Knight (an Arthurian element) in the Crusade Cycle, Tasso casts him as a knight chosen by the angel Gabriel to fight for Christendom. Alternating battles, love stories, conspirations, betrayals, magic snares, and religious conversion, Tasso packs with the density of Greek epic the interlaced stories and amorous intrigues of the Romance. He also moves breathlessly between techniques of representation, and edits the multiple strands of story down to the barest necessary details to ensure both concision and resolution.
I think it’s for this rich, complex concision (not in its adulation of the Crusaders!) that the Gerusalemme deserves to be read, because it becomes recognizable for us, modern readers, as a proto-blockbuster of action and romance against a vast historical backdrop. If the Furioso deserves an adaptation as an ambitious HBO-style TV series (and one that could be endlessly renewed season-by-season), the Gerusalemme deserves the three-hour big screen treatment. There can be neither sequel nor prequel: everything happens once, and only once.
Ultimately, Tasso discredited the Gerusalemme (which was never published in a definitive, author-approved form), and went on to pare it down even further into another poem, the Gerusalemme Conquistata. Almost universally reviled by criticism, it has unfortunately never been translated, depriving non-Italian readers the possibility to form an independent judgment, or at least to understand the amplitude of the fiasco.
Le Tasse, Jérusalem libérée, trad. Michel Orcel, Paris: Gallimard (Folio classique). ISBN 978-2070409761