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Gerusalemme liberata in contemporary art

As the literary critiques of Quint and Fichter demonstrate, the romance narratives were both dangerous, causing knights to stray and halt the development of the plot, and essential, displaying the ability of Christianity and epic narrative to control and pacify the pagan “others”.  Tasso codifies the hierarchy of epic to romance through the literal hierarchy of the older Godfrey (rational control) to Rinaldo (passion—later brought under the control of reason).  This hierarchical structure is depicted clearly in a 1590 painting, The Liberation of Jerusalem (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) by Lodovico Cardi, ‘Il Cigoli’.  According to Charles Carman, the painting is based on the Christian siege of Jerusalem in Canto 18:

"Conforming with the poem’s epic nature, Cigoli suggests events that lead up to and, by implication, extend beyond their current activity.  Godfrey looks back anticipating the arrival of the Egyptians, and at the same time he gestures forward towards the walls and Rinaldo, who is on the threshold of victory."[13]

Fig. 1: Cigoli, The Liberation of Jerusalem, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

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To establish Godfrey’s authority over the situation, Cigoli places him on horseback in the foreground, holding a scepter with a dove on top to signify the divine purpose of the mission.[14]  Rinaldo, released from Armida’s grip, can be found immersed in battle, firing his arrows at the enemy.  The reclining female figure in the forefront represents Armida. Her out-stretched, open hand symbolizes her eventual release from sorcery at the end of the poem; additionally, the reclining position hints at her submission to Western authority.[15] Carman states that, “Cigoli, like Tasso, conceives the subject within the historical terms of the Counter Reformation.”[16]

Whereas Cigoli reinforces Tasso’s narrative hierarchy by focusing on the battle, other painters focused more on the amorous subplots.  The art historian Rensselaer Lee points out that painters,

"resolutely eschewed the serious main action of the poem that had to do with siege and capture of Jerusalem under the crusader Godfrey of Boulogne, and chose for the most part only those amorous and idyllic episodes wherein the lyric element is strong, and Tasso’s idiosyncratic vein of tender melancholy finds unfettered expression."[17]

For example, Julian Brooks discusses Andrea Boscoli’s illustrations the “Loves of Gerusalemme Liberata” (approximately 1590s), which depict Rinaldo and Armida, and Erminia amongst the shepherds.  The illustrations, though not the first to deal specifically with the amorous subplots and pastoral interludes of the main narrative, represent,

"an important step in the history of the illustration of Gerusalemme Liberata…. Over the course of the next century these sub-plots became increasingly dislocated from the main text, and were precisely the episodes used by later baroque artist such as Guercin, Domenichino, and Poussin."[18]

What made these divergent narratives popular for artists was the lyrical and sensual qualities they imbued, as Lee observes:

"These subjects were immediately popular not only for their intrinsic beauty and human interest, but also because they had behind them a long tradition of pastoral art and literature extending back into antiquity…."[19]

The appeal of the Rinaldo and Armida subplot for painters, according to Lee, was to depict the “languorous voluptuousness” of Tasso’s enchanted garden.[20] Annibale Carracci, who was the first to paint this scene, captures Rinaldo’s inaction and sublimation in Armida’s arms.  Yet, Carracci, like later painters, hints at the larger epic in the background: Rinaldo languishes in the lap of his mistress, Armida, with Carlo and Ubaldo spying upon the lovers in the background.  The two warriors are about to pull Rinaldo out of his sensual enchantment and “restore him to the Christian army.”[21]

Fig. 2: Annibale Carracci, Rinaldo and Armida Naples, Museo di Capodi-monte

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Overall painters, aware of Tasso’s literary theories, found means of depicting both the sensual aspects of the poem, while referring to the larger epic. The seventeenth-century painter, Nicolas Poussin, illustrated eight distinct episodes from the epic poem.  Except for the illustration Victory of Goffredo of Boullion, these pictures represent the divergent narratives throughout the poem.  As Jonathan Unglaub highlights, Poussin was deeply indebted not only to Gerusalemme liberata, but also to Tasso’s theoretical writings as well:

"Tasso’s precepts on the election of subject matter, ideal imitation, poetic delight, verisimilitude, and the relationship of poetic invention and history herald Poussin’s understanding of these concepts in his formal theorizing, in composing his works, and in their critical evaluation."[22] 

With deep understanding of both the poetry itself and the poet’s theoretical musings, Poussin executes depictions that focus on the romance narratives in and of themselves, while alluding to the larger epic as a whole. 

Poussin accomplishes this, according to Unglaub, by representing the sudden shift from history into myth and then its sudden reversal.[23] Unglaub singles out the works the “Abduction of Rinaldo” and the “Abandonment of Armida” because,

"these works chart the sudden transformation from myth into history, from episode to action, or vice versa…. In the “Abduction”, Armida conducts her prize from the realm of history to the idyll of myth.  In the “Abandonment”, this traversal will be reversed, definitively, to signal the fulfillment of the peripeteia, and the final resolution of history."[24] 

Though the two works are still confined to the divergent narratives, they are able to make connections outside their frames to the larger Christian epic.

Fig. 3: Nicolas Poussin, Abduction of Rinaldo Berlin, Staatliche Museen

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Fig. 4: Nicolas Poussin, Abandonment of Armida Paris, Musée du Louvre

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