This painting, by the Italian artist Francesco Maffei (c. 1605 – 1660), re-creates a fantastical episode from the poetic works of Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Maffei’s chosen scene comes from Tasso’s poem, Gerusalemme liberata (or The Liberation of Jerusalem), which has a plot set in the time of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). The tale it tells, though, is far from historical, featuring many fictional characters, as well as 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.
As a prologue to the painted scene, one of Tasso’s fictional crusader characters, Rinaldo, was kidnapped by a similarly fictional witch, named Armida. She was completely in love with her captive knight, and she 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 totally bewitched him, and the emotional snares she laid on him were not all caused by witchcraft.
In Tasso’s fictional plot, the Crusader army sent a rescue party after Rinaldo. These rescuers were Carlo and Ubaldo (or Charles and Hubald), and they had magical allies of their own. First, they encountered the so-called Magus (or Sage) of Ascalon, who armed them with a magical golden rod, and they were also ferried to Armida’s island on a ship 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, and they were horrified to see that Armida had given him a flowery makeover. To share their horror with their bewitched friend, the rescuers decided to hold up a reflective shield in front of Rinaldo’s face, so that he could see his reflection as if he were looking in a mirror. Torquato Tasso described the scene:
“Hubald meanwhile stands facing him to wield,
raising it toward his face, the adamant shield.
He on the bright escutcheon turns his gaze
that shows what kind of man he has become
and how finely decked out. Sweet perfume plays
the wonton in his hair and cloak. Struck dumb,
he sees his sword, his very sword, ablaze
with womanish gauds, to luxury succumb.
Adornment makes it seem a useless toy,
not the fierce tool a soldier might employ.”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 16, stanzas 29-30).
It is this scene that is being re-created in Francesco Maffei’s painting. On the right side of the canvas, Rinaldo can be seen staring into the reflective mirror that is held up Ubaldo or Hubald. In the aftermath of this incident, Rinaldo would agree to abandon Armida and return to the crusade. Yet, by the end of Torquato Tasso’s poem, Rinaldo and Armida would reconcile and resume their relationship.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.