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 Greco-Roman legend or myth, it actually comes from a poetic work called Gerusalemme liberata (or The Liberation of Jerusalem), with a plot set in the time of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). Nevertheless, the ancient gear seen in the painting works quite well for Tasso’s poem, as it reads more like the Iliad or the Aeneid than an actual depiction of the First Crusade. Tasso’s poem may reference the crusade and mention a few historical names, but he also heavily mythologized and folklorized his plot, and further spiced up the literature by featuring wizards, witches, and a varied host of monsters and supernatural beings. In regards to this painting, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo chose to depict a portion of one of the most outlandish and unhistorical episodes from Tasso’s poem.
Two character names are divulged in the title of the artwork—Armida and Rinaldo, both of whom are fictional creations. Armida, the sitting woman dressed predominantly in red and blue, is described in the poem as a powerful witch who specialized in bewitching her enemies and summoning monsters. She used her powers against the crusaders, and over the course of the war, she encountered an unruly and impetuous knight named Rinaldo, seen with long hair and draped in the orange-colored cloak. Although the two were enemies, Armida fell completely in love with Rinaldo, and she ultimately abducted him and magically whisked him away to an island lair that was guarded by mythical and legendary monsters. Despite being held against his will, Rinaldo likewise became quite smitten with his magical captor. Before long, Armida had him totally bewitched, and the emotional snares she laid on him were not all caused by witchcraft.
Back in the crusader camp, a rescue party was formed in hopes of finding and rescuing Rinaldo. Only two men were sent on the mission—they were Carlo and Ubaldo (or Charles and Hubald), seen in the painting as the men wearing helmets behind Rinaldo. As Tasso’s plot in this episode was quite fantastical, it is little surprise that Carlo and Ubaldo received supernatural help in order to reach the lair of Armida. First, they encountered the so-called Magus (or Sage) of Ascalon, who armed them with a magical golden rod, and they also were given passage on a ship (seen in the background of the painting) that was provided by the goddess, Fortune. After warding off the island’s monsters with their magic wand, Carlo and Ubaldo were able to find Rinaldo. They made contact with their bewitched friend when they saw Armida wander off, and they were able to quickly bring Rinaldo back to his senses by showing him his reflection in a polished metal shield. Torquato Tasso described the scene:
“As when, from sleep and idle dreams abraid,
A man awaked calls home his wits again;
So in beholding his attire he played,
But yet to view himself could not sustain,
His looks he downward cast and naught he said,
Grieved, shamed, sad, he would have died fain,
And oft he wished the earth or ocean wide
Would swallow him, and so his errors hide.
The noble youth remained
stock-still a moment, stunned, as in defeat.
But then, as shame gave way, his anger gained
(Anger, fierce warrior guarding Reason’s seat),
till all his face, by that new fire stained,
blushed redder yet and seethed with yet more heat.
He ripped his robes, his vain gauds, and the rest
of slavery’s wretched badges from his breast”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 16, stanzas 31-34).
Armida, as can be seen in the painting, returned to the scene after Rinaldo had been brought back to his senses. Pivoting between pleading and threatening, she tried to convince Rinaldo to stay, but the talk was to no avail. Tasso continued the tale:
“He [Rinaldo] motions her to say no more, while streams
course down her cheek as from a mountain scree.
She seeks to grasp his hand, his cloak, and seems
a suppliant maid. Pulling backward, he
struggles a while, then conquers every doubt,
his tears locked in his heart, and Love locked out.”
(Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 16, stanza 51).
Such is the scene that is playing out in the painting above. It shows Armida trying to convince Rinaldo to stay with her on the magical island. Yet, Rinaldo instead listens to Carlo and Ubaldo, who succeed in pulling their companion away from love, pleasure and peace. Rinaldo and his rescuers used Fortune’s ship to return to the Crusade. Armida, too, did not dally—her sadness soon gave way to anger, and she magically transported herself to Jerusalem to aid the enemies of the crusade. Their complicated story, however, eventually reached a pleasant ending, as Torquato Tasso fortunately let his two fictional characters reconcile and resume their relationship at the end of the poem.
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