This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Guardi (c. 1699 – 1760), was inspired by a scene from a poem called Gerusalemme liberata, written by the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Tasso’s poem, which translates as The Liberation of Jerusalem, is a fictitious tale that is set in the times of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). Despite the deceptive name of the poem, the Gerusalemme liberata more closely resembles ancient epic poems such as the Iliad and the Aeneid than an actual account of the First Crusade. Instead of Greeks besieging Troy, Tasso’s epic has Crusaders besieging Jerusalem. Whereas Greco-Roman gods helped or hindered the ancient heroes of old, Tasso’s newer characters faced similar meddling from angels, demons, wizards, witches, and a diverse host of other supernatural creatures. This scene, however, focuses on a relatively mundane part of the poem—it portrays a duel between the opposing champions, Tancred and Argant, who battled it out in a lone duel reminiscent of Achilles and Hector. Giovanni Antonio Guardi’s painting shows the first of two major duels between Tancred and Argant. This duel, as portrayed in the painting and its title, was witnessed by another warrior—Clorinda. According to the fictitious plot, she was a warrior on the side of the Muslim defenders who broke the medieval age’s gender norms to don armor and join the fray against the crusaders. Adding drama to the tense storytelling, Torquato Tasso wrote the tale so that juxtaposed Tancred and Clorinda fell in love as the siege of Jerusalem progressed. The warrior-woman’s presence at the duel was explained by Torquato Tasso, who wrote, “Said the king unto Clorinda, who stood nigh: ‘It is not right he [Argant] go while you remain, so take a thousand of our men; stand by for surety and follow in his train. Yet in fair fight let him alone appear…” (Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberate, Canto 6, stanza 21). Such is the setup for the duel that is occurring in the painting above. Concerning the first duel between Tancred and Argant, Torquato Tasso wrote:
“On this side and on that the people stare,
stunned and uncertain, at this cruel show,
await the outcome, between hope and fear,
see feats that cheer them now, now bring them woe.
Nor in this huge throng could one see or hear
the slightest gesture, the least outcry. No,
all men stood silent, motionless, except
as hearts in all their bosoms throbbed and leapt.
Now both grew weary. Now it might be said
to an untimely end would both have passed,
but that night falling such thick darkness spread
that even nearby things seemed overcast.
From this side and from that a courier sped
to bid them part, and parted them at last”
(Gerusalemme liberate, Canto 6, stanzas 49-50)
After the duel was over, the participants returned to their sides and the battle over Jerusalem continued. Of the main figures featured in the scene, only one would survive Torquato Tasso’s tale. Clorinda, unfortunately, was the first to go. Although Clorinda loved Tancred, and he loved her, the two eventually crossed swords during the chaos of battle. Due to Clorinda’s helmeted armor, Tancred did not know who he was attacking when he landed his blows. The realization came too late. Torquato Tasso described the tragic death of Clorinda, and Tancred’s reaction to it, stating, “Raising her visor with his hands, trembling, he bared the unknown brow unto the light. He saw it, knew it, horror in his eyes. Ah woe! To see, to know, to recognize!” (Canto 12, stanza 67). Death and sadness aside, the battle for Jerusalem went on and Tancred was again called forward for battle as the Crusaders continued to besiege the city. Inevitably, Tancred clashed once again with his old foe, Argant. This time, no one pulled the warriors apart as they dueled to the death. Torquato Tasso wrote:
“Tancred is lithe and nimble, swift to charge
in hand and foot, his body spare and trim.
Towering above him by a hand, the large
Argant exceeds him much in bulk of limb.
Tancred moves at a croude, without his targe,
and, ever on his guard, lunges for him,
and with his sword seeks his opponent’s sword,
employing every trick of thrust and ward.
But Argant, savage and of giant size,
shows equal art employed in different ways.
Much as he can, huge arm in front, he tries
not for the sword, but for some mortal place.
One at each instant new approaches tries;
the other keeps his blade before his face,
and ever threatening, watches and mistrusts
Argant beats back the blow, but, bent to win,
Tancred now comes to half-sword, closing in.
Advancing his left foot, he grips his foe
by the right arm with his left hand, and lets rain
from his own right hand blow after deadly blow
and thrust his sword, and thrust again, straight through
his visor, making certain of the way.
Thus Argant died, died as he lived: one who
threatens in death, not merely fades away.
He died, ferocious, formidable, proud—
in his last gestures and last words unbowed.”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberate, canto 19, stanzas 11-26)
As the quote conveyed, both duelists fought ably and each fighter landed blows upon the other. Tancred, however, was the winner in the end, leaving Argant dead on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the victory had come at great physical cost for the crusader, as Tancred was left severely wounded after the duel. The maimed crusader fortunately survived his injuries and, in Torquato Tasso’s fictional narrative, the hurt warrior was nursed back to health by Erminia, another woman from among the defenders of Jerusalem who fell in love with Tancred.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.