Wednesday 1 January 2014

Tasso and the Search for En-light-enment

It has long been appreciated that an interdisciplinary approach has to be taken when looking at the arts. A book from 1922 said the 'pictorial qualities of the arts corresponded psychologically and aesthetically to the musical qualities of literature'. But it was the author's next words that struck me as particularly relevant, 'the formal objects of the art historian and the literary scholar, as far as the Baroque is concerned, are ... similar because the mode of conceiving reality is the same, and this same type of concept is anchored in the spirit and will of the men of that epoch' (my emphasis).1

It's an old fashioned way of stating that art, literature, music – and not forgetting the natural sciences – are all products of a particular time and place. Therefore although I'm ostensibly focusing on a piece of art, I feel that it is crucial to see across as many disciplines possible, whether art, literature or music because all of these offer valuable insights into prevailing thoughts. This explains why the final part of my essay moves from baroque musical monody to a different kind of poetic voice.

Works of Torquato Tasso beautifully echo Cardinal Montalto's spiritual and intellectual concerns. The poet's connection with the papal family was quite extensive and many musical manuscripts which the cardinal had in his vast library of at least 1680 volumes, used the words of Tasso. The ideas within Tasso's work seem to reflect the discussions of the cardinal's court artistic circle. Although many of his short poems, sonnets and madrigals are about love, or the loss of love, his words also explore late fifteenth-century political, religious and psychological concerns in very similar way to the painting. Namely, the reinvigoration of a militant church; an embracing of an increasingly devout humanism; adoration of the Virgin; an exploration of light and dark, and communicating emotion in a new, more direct way.

One particular poem of interest was dedicated to the cardinal's Uncle Sixtus V, which comes as no surprise in this world of patronage and an artist's financial need for recognition. This is why I open my essay with a quote from 'The Nativity', which reads,

My thought soars not so high ; though duly bent
In reverence, and awe, and long attent,
To study Nature and the works and ways,

So wondrous, that surround us : but no mind,
Whom earthly fetters bind, 

Though led to truth, and swift to utter praise,
Can pierce the crystal that enshrines above
The Flower of endless Love ; …

Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) 'The Nativity' Rome, December 1588

The study of the natural world was fascinating the intellectual elite. All manner of wonders were being revealed slowly and surely by the experiments of the early natural philosophers. Tasso agrees that it is good to study the wondrous ways of nature, but says that it has to be done with reverence and awe as befits God's work. He reminds the inquisitive that that no matter how much we learn, humans will never understand the powers of God; even prayer and worship cannot break through to the empyrean heaven, the dwelling place of the Divine. The love that pours out from this place, as Carracci represents in the painting of the Holy Family is not something to be questioned rationally. The sentiment behind this extract from 'The Nativity' is perfectly in tune with the ideas of this period, as Helmut Hatzfeld states, 'the Counter Reformation stood for the divine paradox of mystery and faith as being superior to human rationalizing'.2

A renaissance poet would address the muses at the start of any large scale poem, in the classical humanist tradition; even if they didn't actually pray to those gods, it was a poetic conceit. However Tasso's explicit religious feelings meant that in his epic poem 'Jerusalem Delivered' (1581), he invokes the Virgin instead. He is consciously turning away from the mythological to the consciously religious,

O heavenly Muse, that not with fading bays
Deckest thy brow by the Heliconian spring,
But sittest crowned with stars' immortal rays
In Heaven, where legions of bright angels sing;
Inspire life in my wit, my thoughts upraise,
My verse ennoble, and forgive the thing,
If fictions light I mix with truth divine,

And fill these lines with other praise than thine. (Book 1, Verse 2)

He overtly states that he takes inspiration from the Virgin, who is surrounded by the songs of the angels in Heaven, he is praising her and only her. Of course the new militant Virgin was also at the front of his mind, given the Battle of Lepanto and the theme of his poem, which was the taking of Jerusalem back from the Muslims.  Later in 'The Nativity' he writes that 'Mute is Apollo now, silent in his cave'. The age of the old gods, or even making reference to them, is now past. Similarly Carracci paints the classical architecture in his copper series as derelict and weed infested, the pagan temples are columns are crumbling, as entirely as Anubis's bare temples. In literature, as well as art and architecture, 'the mythological apparatus, though admitted by the Council of Trent, was entirely transformed by genuinely modern criticism and irony, and even by competition with a direct nature poetry'. Carracci's large scale 'gods and goddesses in love' ceiling project was done with a knowingness and humour which stripped the pagan mythology of its power, leaving just a stunning piece of baroque frippery.

If Tasso achieved a glittering luminosity through language, Carracci used oil on copper supports and Gabriele Fattorini created a pure clarity with musical lines. Light appears absolutely central to these talented writers, artists and musicians, so when Hatzfeld writes, 'with the particular fusion of darkness and light which baroque painting expresses by its chiaroscuro, we enter more deeply into the fundamental concepts of the Counter Reformation, where the overflowing of the heavenly light into the darkness of death is the eschatological, metaphysical, moral, and artistic topic par excellence' I do not think it excessive.3 Although Carracci did not delve into full chiaroscuro in the same way as Carravaggio did to incredible effect, his Holy Family and other copper works use light and dark in other ways. There is no doubt that heavenly light overflows from his sweet Virgins and Christ, in the case of the Temptation of St Anthony Abbot, their figures bright against the subdued theatrical backdrops. These are arts to inspire all manner of thoughts.

This will be continued in the my essay, and frankly, I'm in need of some inspiration here, divine, devilish or pagan, I don't care!

1 Theophil Spoerri in Renaissance und Barock bei Ariost und Tasso as quoted by Helmut Hatzfeld, 'A Clarification of the Baroque Problem in the Romance Literatures', Comparative Literature, 1:2 (Spring, 1949), 113-139, p114
2 Hatzfeld, p132 
3 Hatzfeld, p139

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