Alessandro Tiarini's Rinaldo e Armida: a translation in pictures by Torquato Tasso

Alessandro Tiarini (Bologna, 1577 - 1668) was one of the most cultured painters of the early 17th century: a great reader, with the "Rinaldo e Armida" in the BPER Banca di Modena Collection he left us one of the most beautiful interpretations in painting of Torquato Tasso.

It is difficult to say which seventeenth-century painter was best able to translate into images the verses of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata . If, however, one were to point to the artist who most passionately approached Tasso’s universe, doubts would begin to dissipate, and the name of the Bolognese Alessandro Tiarini, an avid reader, would emerge with all its force, to the point that this dedication to literature, the basis of most of his most admired masterpieces, was recognized even by his contemporaries. “He was a great reader and liked to see all histories and fables,” wrote Carlo Cesare Malvasia. “He studied Herodotus to the utmost; before he did a work proposed to him he would go and see the authors who treated him, electing the place he would learn it in his mind at night and then in the morning waking up he would ruminate it in the dark and he would go figurating all those characters the place, the circumstances and the incidents.”

The “accidents” referred to by Malvasia (who also called them “adjuncts”) are the situations that Tiarini creates to offer the relative a personal interpretation of the tale. Elements that the text does not tell explicitly, implied, details that can be grasped through the language of images, and that Tiarini employs to bring out the meaning of the verses, of the words, as well as to seek the maximum involvement of the observer. And they are also the key to a better understanding of the way in which this great and original follower of the Carracci approached the themes of literature. Of Gerusalemme Liberata, he was especially passionate about the story of Rinaldo and Armida. The beautiful pagan sorceress, vivid and bewitching embodiment of Tasso’s eroticism, who tries with her magical powers to weaken the crusader army, falls in love with Rinaldo, and ends up seeing the Muslim armies defeated and herself abandoned by her beloved: overwhelmed by her feelings, she tries to take her own life but is saved at the last by Rinaldo himself.

Tiarini depicted almost every moment of the story: at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, for example, a painting is preserved that focuses on the famous episode of Armida’s chariot, the means by which the sorceress transports Rinaldo, asleep, to her enchanted island, while the Galleria di Palazzo Hercolani in Bologna holds one depicting the Christian warrior leaving his beloved, sleeping in turn, on the island. The most famous, however, is surely the one preserved in the splendid collection of BPER Banca in Modena. It is the most famous because it is also the most tense and the most dramatic: it is the tale of the moment when Armida, by now about to commit suicide, is caught from behind by Rinaldo, who foils her deadly plan. A theme that Tiarini developed at least twice, as we learn from the sources, and one of these versions, now preserved in France, has a particularly illustrious history: it was in Rome in the collection of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este, and upon his death in 1624 it passed to his niece, Princess Giulia, daughter of Duke Cesare d’Este, and then came to the collection of the Galleria Estense in Modena, from which it was removed on May 22, 1796 at the time of the Napoleonic spoliations, and is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille.

Alessandro Tiarini, Rinaldo e Armida (1620-1625 circa; olio su tela, 120 x 150 cm; Modena, Collezione BPER Banca)
Alessandro Tiarini, Rinaldo and Armida (c. 1620-1625; oil on canvas, 120 x 150 cm; Modena, BPER Banca Collection)

The Banca BPER version, which is thought (without great doubt) to be the one seen by Malvasia in the Bolognese collection of Cardinal Vidoni, is, however, far superior and more successful than the one in the French museum, because of the decidedly more intense, vivid and participatory way in which Tiarini restores to the canvas the drama that unfolds amid the verses of Torquato Tasso.

It is one of the most dramatic yet sensual translations of the Tasso poem into images that the seventeenth century ever produced. And it is also one of the most adherent to the octaves of Gerusalemme liberata. The entire composition is orchestrated on a diagonal that contains, by itself, all the elements of the narrative, constitutes the visual axis that conveys the attention of the subject, and accentuates the pathos of an action that begins and ends in a few seconds. The sorceress, dressed in sumptuous robes, turns the sharp point of the dart she holds in her right hand toward herself, extending her arm. The arrow points straight toward her breast, creating a contrast, rightly noted by Daniele Benati, that fits well with the contrived, labyrinthine poetry of Gerusalemme Liberata: the sharp, rigid forms of the weapon against the voluptuous roundness of the pagan heroine’s breasts. Her expression already surrenders to delirium, but before the thunderbolt pierces her heart, Rinaldo in armor, wearing the helmet with the eagle symbolizing the House of Este, intervenes by grabbing her from behind to save her.

It is an image that condenses the most dramatic octave of Canto XX: “Qui tacque e, stabilito il suo pensiero, / strale sceleva il più pungente e forte, / quando giunse e mirolla il cavaliero / tanto vicina a l’estrema sua sorte, / già compostasi in atto atroce e fero, / già tinta in viso di pallor di morte. / From behind he aventa ei le and ’l braccio prende / che già la fera punta al petto estende.” There is everything in Tiarini’s painting: the stinging and strong stral already directed toward Armida’s heart, the arrival of the Christian knight, the deathly pallor that whitens the sorceress’s face, the way Rinaldo takes her, and even the sensual detail of the hero who “e’ntanto al sen le rallentò la gonna,” as we read in the last verse of the next octave. Here, then, is one of Tiarini’s “accidents,” of “additions”: “the painter,” writes Lucia Peruzzi, “transfers the poet’s melancholic vein to a plane of explicit sensuality and makes Armida’s body bend and yield [...] along the diagonal of the melodramatic gesture.” And it is for this reason, for this way of loading the eroticism of the scene, that the work becomes "one of the most significant results of that expressive research on which, under the banner of the Horatian formula ofut pictura poësis, the art theorists of the seventeenth century measured themselves."

One breathes the air of Emilia, looking at this painting. On the one hand, for its formal outcomes: Tiarini, who had been a pupil of Prospero Fontana, had been trained in the orbit of the Carracci school, and had studied the great masters (giving proof of this, by way of example, in the swirling frescoes of the basilica of the Ghiara in Reggio Emilia, indebted to those in Parma by Correggio, and capable ofensured his lasting success), he lavishes himself here in a search for truth mediated through measured forms that nevertheless already place themselves, with the exuberance of the drama unfolding before our eyes as if we were watching a play , in the orbit of great Baroque painting. Moduli typical of Emilian painting of the time. And again, the “risaltatissima intelaiatura luminosa,” placed in relation to the researches of Ludovico Carracci and Lanfranco, and the ample and theatrical gestures bordering on solemnity, are “the prerogatives destined to be accepted in the following of Reggio culture and in particular in the work of Luca Ferrari” (so Daniele Benati). On the other hand, it is a painting that informs us of the cultural orientations and literary tastes of the Emilian courts of the seventeenth century, for which Gerusalemme Liberata was a sort of beacon, and Tiarini its interpreter most sensitive and close to the text, but also an artist capable of taking the necessary liberties to suggest to the relative the malia of the Liberata’s fascinating erotic imagery. Torquato Tasso would surely have liked it.

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