Tasso: Pastoral Discipline

If Hypnerotomachia transplants the garden thinking of Bomarzo into literary form, then L’Aminta germinates from Valsanzibio. Where the former artfully transfers the bizarre excesses of Orsini’s sacred wood into literary prose, the latter transposes the disciplined architectonics of Bernini’s horticultural landscape into a script for dramatic enactment. More importantly, however, the allegorical ambiguity of Orsini’s garden imagery and Colonna’s erotic odyssey resolves into unmistakable clarity in Tasso’s play. Tasso manufactures this resolution through a rigorous disciplining of allegory in order to prevent the coercive effects of visual pleasure and intellectual interpretation from assaulting his play’s virtue.

Tasso received his early education from Jesuits in Naples where the Compagnia di Gesu, at the Collegio Massimo, had recently strengthened their commitment to endowing their Order with skills in rhetoric and other humanities disciplines (Lewis S.J.). As Davidson’s scholarship illustrates, the Jesuits sought to help their students, both lay and clerical, to survey, explore, and cultivate the inner garden of the imagination. To ensure that these gardens would not run amok with weeds or erode into fields of delight given over to mere fancy, Jesuit educators equipped their students with the keys to interpreting all that they would find when roaming their interior landscapes. Citing Le peinture spirituelle (1611) by Louis Richeome S.J., for example, Davidson observes that, “nothing, no single object observed in the garden, is allowed to pass without being at once supplied with a spiritual reading, an interpretation concerned with the virtuosity and mercy of the Creator as well as with the perceptions and spiritual growth of the observer” (Davidson 91). For poets, this encouragement to unleash the powers of imagination, while also always ensuring that those powers align with the will of the Creator and not some inner evil, may have provoked anxiety. At least, such anxiety seems to have plagued Tasso, who battled with melancholy and madness his entire life. Writing from the hospital of Sant’Anna where he was confined because of madness, Tasso affirmed that:

Human beings are easily led astray, for “Cio, che e soggetto a passione, e corruttibile” [that which is subject to the passions is corruptible ... ]. God realizes that, in humans, he must battle the “appetito del senso” [sense appetite] and so he assigns a guide to the “volonta” [will] and to be fair, another to guide the “parte sensuale” [sensual part]. (cit Cozzarelli 174— 175)

For Tasso, the poet had to listen to these guides and fulfill his role as the grand artificer, the profane counterpart to the Great Artificer of heavens and earth. Julia Cozzarelli explains this further when she observes, “Poetry harnesses and guides the flight of the imagination, and saves us from the dangers of an unbridled fantasy that transgresses all boundaries. Tasso’s extensive writings on the rules of poetry, and their underlying sense of divine inspiration now seen as laborious human ingenuity, illustrate his effort to control the uncontrollable” (181). Between the time he left Naples (and his Jesuit teachers) and his confinement in Sant’Anna, Tasso studied law and philosophy at the Univerista di Padua where he encountered the work of Plato and the famous Platonic interpreters of the day. As such, Tasso’s Jesuit-inspired theology melded with Neo-Platonic understandings of the soul’s immortality, Marsillio Ficino’s work on artistic ingegno (genius, intellect) and furore (passion), and Aristotelian poetics to create a polyvalent personal belief system. Ultimately, “For Tasso, the key to the escape from the labyrinth of the self lies in the creations of the imagination, in the form of a work of art. Poetic creation connects the poet to God” (180), and it was this connection that brought him much fame.

Of his many works, L’Aminta demonstrates Tasso’s most mature poetry and demonstrates the artist’s ability to discipline his poetic art. Specifically, Tasso charts a path through the fraught relationship between love and reason, much as il Percorso di Salvificazione guides the visitor to Valsanzibio through the microcosmic labyrinth of life’s journey. I do not wish to tout Tasso’s poetic mastery of love and reason or valorize L’Aminta as a hallmark of literature; instead, I wish to follow the path through the dramatic-literary garden prepared by Tasso so as to illustrate the loftiness of the pastoral genre and mastery of pastoral allegory that Ruzzante would critique and so vociferously fight against. Before arriving at Ruzzante’s theatrical critique, however, it seems appropriate to tarry with this “masterwork” of the genre and map out its terrain.

The Venetian bookseller Aldo Manuzio published Tasso’s play some time around 1581, though the famous Compagnia dei Gelosi may have performed the play as early as 1573 (Tasso). Through its familiar pastoral storyline of a human’s quest for a nymph’s love, L’Aminta weaves together an instructive allegory about the extents to which one must go in order to discipline the passions of love. Briefly, the story unfolds as follows. Aminta, a shepherd, loves Silvia, a nymph. The recognizable pastoral characters and plot build around these two figures. Seemingly more in love with her own beauty than with Aminta, or indeed anybody else, Silvia rebukes Aminta at every turn. Such unrequited passion leads to a plan for Aminta to spy on Silvia as she bathes, with the added advice from his faithful companion Tirsi that, if the nymph does not oblige Aminta’s desires, the young shepherd should take her by force. The shepherd’s moral sensibility prevails and he commits no such act, but this does not save Silvia, who has a run-in with a satyr for whom lust trumps moral virtue. Expecting to see a bathing nymph at Diana’s spring, Aminta instead finds Silvia naked, bound to a tree by her own hair, about to be raped by the Satyr. Overcoming his usual timidity, Aminta charges the Satyr and, with the help of Tirsi, chases him off. But the event has frightened and embarrassed Silvia who, once free, chastises her savior and flees into the forest.

Without Silvia, Aminta sees his life as worthless. Tasso ratchets up this despair by prolonging Aminta’s misery and crafting a near-death encounter between the nymph and a wild wolf. Aminta, believing Silvia to have succumbed to the wolves, asks for her veil with which he plans to hang himself. Nerina, Silvia’s friend, does not honor Aminta’s request, so, instead, the protagonist throws himself off a high cliff. Dafne, another of Silvia’s friends, carries word of this tragic event to Silvia who, it turns out, had narrowly escaped the wolves and fled into the forest to find sanctuary. Dafne’s report of Aminta’s suicide disturbs Silvia’s peace in the forest and instigates a remarkable occurrence. The proud and misguided Silvia, never before capable of feeling love for another, begins to cry. She reads her own tears as pity but the other characters read them as love awakening in her heart. Silvia eventually realizes this to be true and, now convinced that she does love Aminta with all her heart, decides to kill herself as a gesture of solidarity. The awakening of love only becomes possible once Silvia registers that Aminta’s death stemmed from his devout love for her.

This momentum turns back on itself when, against all odds, Aminta is found alive. A thicket made from tufts of plants and thorns broke his fall as he plummeted to earth. In a true leap of faith, Aminta had thrown himself resolutely into death’s arms, but, by taking this last step, found inside death’s embrace the love he had long been searching for. It is through this enactment of death that Silvia awakens to her love for Aminta, that Aminta and Silvia come together, and that Aminta, the personification of the play as a whole, finds true love. All the loose ends come together in this unifying leap off the precipice.

Tasso manages to master love’s excesses in L’Aminta by subordinating them to the philosophical guidelines of self-knowledge and sacrifice. This interpretation runs counter to the more conventional readings of L’Aminta, but analysis and attention to Tasso’s use of allegory bear it out. The typical reading of the story finds a pair of champions in Charles Jernigan and Irene Marchegiani Jones: “The story is not about them [Silvia and Aminta]; it is about love, the transforming power of love [... ] In a world where ambivalence reigns, where nothing is fixed, and mutability is the rule, love offers us an anchor” (xxv). I argue, however, that the play is not about love per se, nor does it champion mutability. Rather, the play showcases a poet’s ability to master the forces of love and nature through his art, to freeze the mutability of nature much like the sculptors froze Time into a statue within the garden of Valsanzibio. Since love, in the pastoral worldview, exists as something like the underside of nature, a force at once commensurate with, equal to, and yet distinct from nature, the poet’s art intervenes where human ignorance has attempted to block out love and thus works as a corrective on behalf of the natural world. At the same time, Tasso’s pastoral poetry recognizes a devious aberration alive within love. This aberration corrupts individuals by seducing them into narcissistic self-love, which, if unchecked, can enslave men and women to the impulses of eros much like Nemesis enslaved Narcissus to his own reflection within the glassy countenance of a pond’s surface.

Allegory guides the reader through this complicated terrain of nature, love, and narcissism. In his essay “Spenser, Tasso, and the Ethics of Allegory,” Andrew Wadoski hints at the pedagogical purpose of allegory in Tasso’s work and the way it “instructs men in virtue or knowledge or both” (368). Wadoski cites Melinda Gough in his discussion of Tasso’s epic Gerusalemma Liberata in order to argue that, in that heroic poem, “Tasso does not want to destroy beauty and pleasure; his interest lies in its preservation through proper reorientation” (371). Similarly, in L’Aminta, Tasso seeks to properly orientate love within the souls of individuals, to interfere with the narcissistic feedback loop of self-love and thereby help to guide his readers and spectators into nature’s divinity. Despite the pagan source material so prevalent in the text, Tasso’s early Jesuit education shines through in this attention to redemptive love.

To spy Tasso’s gesture of orientation (i.e. the path he lays down for his reader/spectator to follow through the baroque poetic assemblage of classical references and allegory), it helps to realize that in L’Aminta, and in the pastoral genre from Tasso forward, art tends to love and nature, which, again, mutually constitute one another. Art tends (or, in the mode of garden thinking, we might say that it prunes) love and nature. In exchange for this service that it renders, art would like to achieve recognition as something that need not be made; rather, true poetry (in this case) reveals itself in nature as a kind of signature imprinted on the natural landscape. Tasso reminds his readers and the spectators of his play, sometimes covertly and sometimes overtly, that they can gain access to the mysteries of nature and love when they engage with his poetry. For this reason, Tasso makes himself and his work visible within the world of L’Aminta where he offers the character of Tirsi who, as Jernigan and Jones mention in the introduction to their translation of the play, stands out as a thinly veiled aesthetic persona of the poet (Tasso xiv).

Tasso plants hints about his poetry’s power to guide its readers/spec- tators. In Act I, Scene 1, Dafne tries to convince Silvia that interfering with love’s powers will cause great problems for her. “Now don’t you know/ what Tirsi wrote about when full of love/he wandered like a madman through the woods?” she asks. “He wrote it on a thousand trees, that verse/and tree would grow as one; and I thus read”:

You mirrors of the heart, unfaithful eyes, how well I recognize in you deceit:

and yet for what, if Love allows no flight? (27, 1.1.225-230)

Through these words, Tasso makes Dafne summon Tirsi (Tasso’s poetic surrogate) to serve as a reminder of the architectonic order of the pastoral universe. In this world, love infects its prey like an organic toxin, a kind of psilocybin that gives way to wide-eyed wandering through the woods. In front of wide-eyes, madness and mystical insight comingle. Tirsi wrote of his visions upon the trees themselves, thus fusing the natural and artistic worlds, organic matter and linguistic artifice. Indeed, early on in the play, Tasso’s rhetoric fuses with nature and his own poetic verse grows within the very fibers of the forest. As the trees grow, so do the words. Nature and Poetic Art intertwine with one another. Tirsi’s message convinces Dafne that love, once infused within one’s soul, allows no escape. Dafne sees such a state of affairs in Aminta’s eyes when he gazes at Silvia, and she even believes she sees something similar in Silvia, despite the latter’s attempts to hide her feelings. Silvia, however, does not give in to either Dafne’s persuasion or Tirsi’s insights at this point, and instead persists in her shunning of Aminta the shepherd.

In addition to the references to his own poetic work, Tasso inserts other allegorical stitches into the fabric of his play intended to help his reader/ spectator interpret the relationship between love and nature so as to discipline his/her feelings of passion. Earlier in the same scene, Dafne says to Silvia, “And don’t/you see how all the earth/is now infused with love?” (19 1.1.133). Dafne offers this comment to Silvia in order to help her realize that by shunning love she shuns nature, too, and that, in turn, Silvia flirts with becoming unnatural. In such an environment, the poet’s argument, wrought through the play's poetic form as well as its action, amounts to a godlike power of correction, a steel rod that will straighten the unnatural curvature of Silvia's soul. Tasso will figure out a way to straighten Silvia and bring her back in accord with the world around her. An absurd dimension of love reveals itself here since Silvia, as a nymph of the forest, is nature. For her to deny love she would have to deny herself. Her name, for example, bears the stamp of the wild world: Silva, via selva, wild, and/or Silvus, wood. All characters in the forest bare a striking resemblance to their surroundings, as though they, like plants, sprouted from the soil. Bees even mistake faces for flowers, “fooled by the similitude perhaps” (37, 1.2.111). With great skill, Tasso creates a poetic universe that contains in its very literary fabric hints with which his readers can unlock the secrets of love and the natural world beyond the confines of the page and the theatre in which the play unfolds.[1] To do so, one need only follow the path laid out by the poet. Following Tasso’s path ostensibly leads to the Good Life.

I say “one need” follow Tasso’s path because dangers lurk in the shadows of the pastoral world. Love may correct the unnatural curvatures of the soul, but it also has the power to distort and corrupt the self. In the world of the play, Silvia may not, as nature, be able to escape from nature, but she can fall prey to the seductive aberration of love’s powers and come to know herself wrongly, to live a life of ignorance. The evils of self-love and narcissism act as the antithesis to the liberating power of love within Tasso’s allegorical framework. Tasso dedicates the majority of the play to showing how Silvia had succumbed to that trap. Dafne identifies Silvia’s dilemma first: “I understand your bashful girlishness:/what you are, so was I; like you I led my careless life” (13 1.1.47-50). Unfamiliar with the care of the self (the Platonic/Socratic epimileia heautou that accompanies the more familiargnothiseauton [know thyself]) Silvia became careless and began to esteem the less important experiences of life, such as hunting and, more notably, preserving her chastity out of allegiance to the goddess Diana. Next, in terms of affection for others, Silvia admits openly that she only cared for Aminta when his aims in life merged with her own: “I hate his love/who hates my chastity, and I loved him/when he desired the things that I desired” (19 1.1.110-111). From this youthful petulance, Silvia ages into a vainglorious nymph who prefers her own appearance to any human form. Later, In Act II, Scene Two, Dafne tells Tirsi about her suspicions that Silvia indeed knows infatuation but only insofar as she loves herself: she saw herself in disarray and smiled, for she was beautiful though disarrayed.

I noticed and was quiet. (67-69 2.2.35-55)

Tasso slowly reveals Silvia as a negative model, as proof of what happens to those who turn away from the world and pour love only into themselves.

Finally, to drive the point home about the dangers of narcissism and the need to chart a middle way through the thickets of love, Tasso even dares to compare Silvia with the creature that would rape her, the Satyr. Already marked as aberrant by his status as half man and half beast, Tasso aggravates the Satyr’s deficit of charm by revealing him to possess a similar narcissism. Pondering why Silvia does not return his amorous glances (“Now why, unjust,/do you abhor and scorn my gift?” [61 2.1.34]) the Satyr appraises his own form: “I am/not one to scorn, although I saw myself/reflected in the liquid sea, when winds/were quiet the other day and made no waves./This face of mine is ruddy-hued withal,/my shoulders great and large, my sturdy arms/robust and muscular [... ]” (61 2.1.35-40). The same narcissism that engenders violence in the Satyr will prove damaging to Aminta and the nymph herself if Silvia does not leave behind her self-love for the knowledge that true loves brings, a knowledge that will guide the individual through love’s excesses. The masculinity and misogyny of Tasso’s verses shine brightest here, giving credence to the claims of Jane Tylus and Maria Galli Stampino that the great Isabella Andreini devised her own La Mirtilla as a feminist response to L’Aminta (Stampino 3, 7). During the long stretch of time that her company, I Gelosi, performed the play, however, Andreini seems to have swallowed the bitter pill and brought Tasso’s message to the masses, a move that made her fame grow.

At the end of the play, Tasso differentiates Silvia from the Satyr by allowing her to realize her faults and abscond into the truth of the virtuous, Platonic/Socratic self-knowledge. Having heard the news of Aminta’s leap off the cliff, Silvia admits, “I lived for cruelty,/for self ’til now; for what is left, I wish/to live for him alone,/and if I cannot live/ with him, I’ll live nearby/his cold, unhappy corpse” (159 4.2.180). Fortunately for her, Aminta skirted death and will soon awaken in her arms. Aminta’s imperviousness comes in part from his selfless loving of Silvia, his willingness to pursue her, to protect her from danger, and his acknowledgement that to love Silvia is to learn about himself. Despite

Tirsi’s early attempts to transfer Aminta’s affections to another, the young shepherd persisted, “Alas! How can I find/another if I cannot find myself?” (31 1.2.22). Tasso ensures that Aminta’s journey reads as the path to true self-discovery. In corralling the various strands of love’s excesses, nature’s signposts, and the merits of self-knowledge into one poetic conclusion, Tasso utilizes the shepherd character of Elpino to expose a series of crucial reversals. By loving another purely, Aminta came to learn about his own inner courage. Conversely, by loving Aminta, Silvia shook off the damaging yoke of narcissism. The poet even rearranges the cardinal directions of the play’s world such that up becomes down, down becomes up, and death reveals its non-identical relationship with love and nature: “See here, Aminta, hurled down to the ground,/ who gains the heights, the summit of content [... ] still his fall was fortunate, and from/the effigy of death, so full of grief,/he’s found both life and joy” (165 5.1.10; 167 5.1.39).

With allegorical markers, indeed an entire allegorical garden crafted from poetic language and form, Tasso directs his audiences through the play’s action and reveals the only way to live, the way ordained by nature and love. Though no explicit garden imagery appears in this pastoral work, L’Aminta harmonizes with the orderly allegorical layout of Valsanzibio, particularly in the way that Tasso’s art passes itself off as an extension of the natural world. Recall the sonnet that appears at the conclusion of il Percorso di Salvificazione, notifying travellers in the garden that they have successfully navigated life’s twists and turns to reach spiritual enlightenment:

Curioso viator che in questa parte

Giungi e credi mirar vaghezze rare

Quanto di bel, quanto di buon qui appare

Tutto deesi a Natura e nulla ad Arte

(Curious traveler that in this location

Arrives and thinks of admiring rare things

Whatever beautiful, whatever good you will see here

It is thanks to the work of nature and not thanks to the hand of man) (Ardemani)

Unlike Bomarzo, where art (either as trickery or as ingenuity [or both]) proclaims its presence loudly, Valsanzibio subordinates art to nature. At first, this maneuver rings false. Diana’s Gate, the boxwood maze, the rabbits’ island: all of these constructions bare the fingerprints of Bernini. Within the pastoral world, however, art that springs from the signatures imprinted on the natural world merits the status of nature itself. Since all the stops on the path of salvation drive visitors to the magnetic pull of nature’s (i.e. God’s) true course, the architecture (at least, in the architect’s own mind) becomes one with nature. As such, it is thanks to the work of nature and not to the hand of man that Valsanzibio’s beauty manifests itself. Likewise, Tasso’s allegorical and rectilinear play merits the status of natural (again, in the poet’s own mind) since it helps all to distinguish between the right and wrong kind of love as well as the right and wrong kind of knowledge of oneself. The characters function more like the stops along Valsanzibio’s Percorso di Salvificazione than as discrete, dynamic human beings. This realization may help to explain why Tasso tells more than he shows. The characters dictate to the audience, just as the entryway into Valsanzibio dictates the story of the garden through its nested statuary and the sonnet points to the owner of the garden as the pinnacle of human achievement. Similarly, just as the Paduan garden levels an argument about the ethical life, so too does L’Aminta’s action and poetic language offer a strong claim. As Marta Spranzi has suggested, Tasso’s dialogues function “as the literary representation of a dialectical disputation in the sense of Aristotle’s Topics’’ (Spranzi 60). As such, L’Aminta appears as a work of poetic topiary and a dramatic-literary manifestation of garden thinking, the sole aim of which is to discipline the unnatural impulses alive in the soul of man.

  • [1] saw her there, nearby the city walls in those great fieldswhere midst the pools there lies a little isle;she pendant stood above the limpid lake’ssmooth calm and seemed to take delight in herreflection [... ]. While she, adorning, gazed adoringly,she raised her eyes by chance and was awarethat I had seen her there, and all ashamed,she quickly stood and let the flowers fall [... ]
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