March 11th, 2010
Tasso Torquato (1544 - 1595), author of the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), was a sort of talented victim of the Counter-Reformation. He grew up as the son of a courtier and, against the wishes of his father, decided to become a poet. Intuitively, he addressed the needs of the age and produced works of deeply felt emotion with a superior moral sheen. Tasso was famous everywhere in Europe as well a certifiably insane. Overreaching himself, he hoped his verses would be compared to Dante or Virgil. In Gerusalemme Liberata (Book 20), his main character, the slightly wooden Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the first Crusade, brings the work to a close in these stanzas:
"My loving queen, my wife and lady kind
Shall ransom me with jewels, gold and treasure."
"God shield," quoth Godfrey, "that my noble mind
Should praise and virtue so by profit measure,
All that thou hast from Persia and from Inde
Enjoy it still, therein I take no pleasure;
I set no rent on life, no price on blood,
I fight, and sell not war for gold or good."
Thus conquered Godfrey, and as yet the sun
Dived not in silver waves his golden wain,
But daylight served him to the fortress won
With his victorious host to turn again,
His bloody coat he put not off, but run
To the high temple with his noble train,
And there hung up his arms, and there he bows
His knees, there prayed, and there performed his vows.
Tasso’s literary gifts were painfully offset by tendencies to anger, rage and melancholy. His fear of not being accepted by every critic of the day caused him to rewrite his epic. The resulting Gerusalemme Conquistata proved an embarrassing failure. After years in an asylum and then further years of wandering from one patron to another, the pope finally summoned him to become poet laureate of Rome. Fate had other plans, the illness of his advocate, Cardinal Aldobrandini, necessitated a six-month delay. Before his crowning as laureate could be re-scheduled, Tasso himself died. During his fruitless waiting, he is said to have spent hours looking out over Rome from the Janiculum Hill, near the Church of Saint Onofrio. The suitably melancholy remains of “Tasso’s oak,” (struck by lightning in 1843) -- a sort of secular relic -- can still be seen. It shares the spot with several steps from a ruined amphitheater built to honor another Counter-Reformation retainer, Philip Neri. I stand between these two revered locations, both with a peerless view of Rome. Neri’s unique spoken and sung “oratorios” (sometimes delivered here) might have been heard by the same people who listened to Tasso’s poetry; they both died in the same year. The one, so successful, the other, such a tragedy. It’s best to remember Tasso with some of the fervent words he saves for his supporting characters:
Fame tells, that on that ever-blessed day,
When Christian swords with Persian blood were dyed,
The furious Prince Tancredi from that fray
His coward foes chased through forests wide,
Till tired with the fight, the heat, the way,
He sought some place to rest his wearied side,
And drew him near a silver stream that played
Among wild herbs under the greenwood shade.
A Pagan damsel there unwares he met,
In shining steel, all save her visage fair,
Her hair unbound she made a wanton net,
To catch sweet breathing from the cooling air.
On her at gaze his longing looks he set,
Sight, wonder; wonder, love; love bred his care;
O love, o wonder; love new born, new bred,
Now groan, now armed, this champion captive led.
(Gerusalemme Liberata, Book One)
March 18th, 2010
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh gives a public meditation on peace beneath to the obelisk in Piazza Navona. Four hundred of us are either kneeling on the rugs provided or standing at the end of the crowd. We listened to his short, whispered phrases: “I feel my heart like a flower in the center of my body.” Then two minutes of quiet and the phrase: “I feel the flower open.” After two more minutes: “I welcome in my father, I welcome in my mother.” The whole exercise takes 45 minutes; at the end, the group has located a silent point in their souls that seems a wellspring of peace. And, all the while, we are beneath the emblem of the Pamphilj family, a dove with an olive branch forever sits atop Piazza Navona’s obelisk.