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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Leopardian Interlude (1)

Before starting the translation of selected passages from Canto 6 of Gerusalemme Conquistata, we'll devote some posts to the Dialogue between Torquato Tasso and His Home Genius (in the sense of sprite, djinn) written in 1824 by the Italian poet and scholar Giacomo Leopardi, then published in his collection of Operette Morali, "brief essays on morals," i.e. on the meaning of life.

The dialogue is set in Ferrara in the years 1579-1586, when Tasso had been interned in St. Anne Asylum under the pretext of his 'having gone insane.' The details -- as Leopardi himself explains in a note -- have been taken from the biography of Tasso written by his dear friend Giovanni Battista Manso, a book that became very popular during Romanticism because it conveyed the classic picture of a maudit poet. Manso's descriptions are very interesting insofar as they are based on personal experiences, though he also added unfounded facts, e.g. Tasso's love for a noble woman of the Este family. The biographer witnessed some dialogues between the poet and his "home Genius," who however was called "folletto," elf, by him. Manso also provides the link between Tasso and John Milton, who met him in Naples, and would dedicate his Mansus to him.

Details aside, what matters is substance, and Leopardi's Dialogue provides a very deep insight into Tasso's personality and worldview. That was not to be taken for granted, as Leopardi is the only atheist in the 'official' history of Great Italian Literature before the 20th century, fiercely fighting against the Catholic mainstream culture. So, it may seem odd that he appreciated an author like Tasso, often described as the voice of Counter-Reformation. But Leopardi, who was himself a genius, could recognize a "brother," and see things under the surface.