This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), re-creates a scene from a poem written by Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Although the image may look like an episode out of ancient Greek or Roman myth, it actually comes from a story set in the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). Nevertheless, the Greco-Roman gear seen in the painting works quite well for Tasso’s poem—the Gerusalemme liberata (or The Liberation of Jerusalem)—as it reads more like the Iliad or the Aeneid than an actual depiction of the First Crusade. The poem might be set in the time of the crusades, and features a few historical names, but the poet’s plot was heavily mythologized and folklorized, featuring wizards, witches, and a varied host of monsters and supernatural beings. Tiepolo chose to depict one such fantastical character in the painting above—the enigmatic sage or magus of Ascalon.
Tiepolo’s painting captures a scene at the end of a bizarre episode from Tasso’s poem. This particular supernatural and magical digression from the Crusade occurred when a crusader named Rinaldo (seen with the red cape) was kidnapped by a witch named Armida. She magically whisked Rinaldo away to a lair on the so-called “Fortunate Isles” (presumably the Canary Islands), and she summoned all kinds of monsters and supernatural creatures to defend the island fortress. To save Rinaldo, a rescue party of two crusaders was dispatched to save their captured companion. The two rescuers were Carlo and Ubaldo (or Charles and Hubald), who can be seen on the left side of the canvas. The duo would obviously need help to take on Armida’s magical monster-infested fortress. Luckily for the rescue party, they gained supernatural allies who would help them in their quest. One was the mysterious magus or sage of Ascalon, who armed Carlo and Ubaldo with a golden magic wand that could drive off Armida’s beasts. The crusaders also were aided by the goddess, Fortune, who volunteered to ferry the crusaders to and from Armida’s fortress in a timely and safe fashion. Equipped with their magic wand, and guided by Fortune, Carlo and Ubaldo successfully reached Rinaldo and freed him from the witch. Fortune was still at the beach when the crusader trio returned, and the goddess ferried them back to the Holy Lands and the ongoing Crusade. When Carlo, Ubaldo and Rinaldo disembarked, the magus or sage of Ascalon appeared before them. The sage gave Rinaldo a good talking-to about his capture and bewitchment, but then gave him an equally emphatic pep-talk. Tasso described the scene:
“Guard-like, an old man sits nearby, and he,
seeing them, rises up to greet the three.
Well did the two knights-errant recognize
the reverend face of their sage friend again;
but, having welcomed in most gracious wise
the cordial greeting of that pair of men,
he to the youth, who with his wondering eyes
looked on him mutely, turned his discourse then:
So spoke he; and the other, who had heard
in silence all the lofty things he said,
with chastened head, and treasuring every word,
gazed at the ground, while shame his cheeks bespread.
The ancient mage well saw the thoughts that stirred
his mind, and he resumed: ‘now lift your head,
my son, and fix your eyes upon this shield
to see your forebears’ mighty deeds revealed.”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 17, stanzas 58-64)
Such is the incident that is playing out in Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s painting. The sage or magus of Ascalon can be seen in the center of the artwork, pointing out the details of his decorated shield to Rinaldo. Carlo and Ubaldo watch on as the sage gives his history lessons, but in the background, a boat (presumably captained by Fortune) decides it is the opportune time to slip off to sea.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- [Edward Fairfax (c. 1560-1635) translation of Tasso] https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/392/pg392.html