Aminta

by Torquato Tasso

The Medieval Review, February 2002

Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2003


Premio Internazionale “Diego Valeri” (Premio Monselice) 2002
Remarks by Giuseppe Brunetti

Charles Jernigan and Irene Marchegiani have succeeded in their attempt to render the charming, melancholy musicality of Tasso’s Aminta into a modern English that is always supple and fluent. Iambic pentameters and trimeters reproduce the rhythms of hendecasyllables and septenaries. Rhymes appear naturalistically where they’re needed, and varied consonances and iterations complete the harmonic score, while vocabulary and syntax knowingly reproduce the stylistic variety of the original.


The Midwest Book Review, May 2001

Torquato Tasso’s Aminta is a pastoral play thought by scholarship to have been written sometime in the spring of 1573 and first performed on the island of Belvedere del Po (near Ferrara, Italy) July 31 that same year. First published in 1581 by Aldine Press of Venice, Aminta made Tasso’s reputation as a playwright and was eventually translated into French, English, Latin, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Polish, Hungarian, Slavic-Illinic, and Greek. Aminta has inspired writers down through the last two centuries, including Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. This new edition of a European classic has been ably translated and deftly edited for an English readership by Charles Jernigan and Irene Marchegiani Jones. Aminta is an invaluable, indispensable, core addition to definitive European literary history and pastoral plays reference collections.


L’Italo-Americano, November 1, 2001
Reviewed by Laura Stortoni-Hager Berkeley, CA

“Et in Arcadia...”

With this handsome volume the publishers of Italica Press have once again given us a masterpiece of Italian poetry in translation. The dual language text is enriched by an extensive introduction, a bibliography, copious endnotes, as well as illustrations from Renaissance books. While this edition is a very valuable study tool, it also makes for very pleasurable reading for the general public.

Torquato Tasso’s Aminta is one of the brightest gems of Italian literature and the most famous pastoral play ever written. The poet, famous also for his lyric poetry and for his epic, La Jerusalemme liberata, composed it probably in 1573. It was first represented on the island of Belvedere, on the Po river, near Ferrara, for the ruling d’Este family, Tasso’s patrons. This representation made the poet's reputation. It was played for the first time by the most famous dramatic company of the time, I Gelosi. Among the delighted spectators, there was a fourteen-year-old budding actress, Isabella Canali. Later, as Isabella Andreini, she was to become the most famous actress of her times. She and her husband, Francesco Andreini, became the directors of the Gelosi company. Isabella Andreini was also to compose the first pastoral ever written by a woman, Myrtilla, a work deeply influenced by Tasso’s Aminta.

In 1581, Aminta was published by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, then re-published in 1583, 1589 and 1590. Aminta (a name that the editors/translators have chosen to leave, along with all the other names, in Italian) exerted a deep and extended influence on Italian literature and on the dramatic and poetic traditions of continental Europe and England.

The play is a milestone in the pastoral tradition that had seen just a few attempts earlier in the century. Up to the time of the composition of Aminta, Tasso had been a lyric and epic poet. He suddenly burst forth on the Italian theater with a pastoral — a dramatic genre going back to the world of Greek and Roman classics, and especially Virgil. Virgil established the conventions of the pastoral in his Eclogues, and in turn connected himself to the tradition of the Greek pastoral, and especially Theocritus.

Aminta was prodigiously successful, as witnessed by its many representations and editions and by the fact that it was translated into many foreign languages. Aminta is a stepping stone in the itinerary that goes from the early practitioners of the pastoral to Guarini’s Il pastor fido, as well as to the masterpieces of the English Renaissance, from Spenser’s works to Shakespeare's pastoral comedies.

The play is set, like most pastorals, in Arcadia, during the mythical Golden Age. Arcadia was indeed a geographical location in ancient Greece. But, on stage and in literature, it assumed the wider qualities of a mythical world, out of space, out of time, a world where comedy and tragedy mingle on the way to a happy ending. In Arcadia, life is easy and nature generously bestows fruit on the inhabitants. Shepherds tend their flocks and spend time playing, singing and wooing. Yet, in this seemingly easy world, there is a void, a hunger for love. The Arcadia of this play is inhabited by nymphs and shepherds who speak like poets and courtiers and whose lives are entangled in a web of love affairs.

Many years after the publication of Aminta, we will have the enormous international success of Il pastor fido by Guarini, widely represented in Italy and abroad, and published in at least forty editions. Guarini was deeply influenced by Tasso, though he ungraciously only admitted to having “bumped” into him.

It has been often remarked that, though dramatic in form, Aminta is lyrical in essence. Compared to later pastorals, and especially to Il pastor fido, the plot is simple. It is essentially the story of the shepherd Aminta, who falls in love with a nymph, Silvia, who cannot return his love because she has devoted herself to the goddess Diana. A lusty satyr is also in love with Silvia and attempts to ravish her. Aminta of course rescues her.

While many echoes of classical themes resound in the play, not just in the topoi, but also in the themes and in the characters, the play is original in its intense glorification of love in all its forms. With Aminta, Tasso created a monument to love. Even in Arcadia, no one is immune from the longing for love, from the darts of love. It is useless to resist. Cupid sends darts in a careless manner. Is love always blind? These are themes that will be developed during the play.

Later tormented by religious doubts and fear of the Inquisition, to the point that for seven long years he was hospitalized in Sant’Anna Hospital, the Neapolitan poet, in this early work, seems to say: “S’ei piace, ei lice.” That is, if it is pleasing, it is allowed. This is the most famous quote from Tasso’s work.

Both editors/translators are professors at Long Beach State University, Charles Jernigan in the Department of Comparative Literature, Irene Marchegiani Jones in the Italian Department. It takes courage to translate this work, since Tasso's poetry is delicate, musical, lyrical, nuanced, and his diction inimitable. The editors/translators have given us an English text that flows naturally and musically. They have faithfully translated the original in hendecasyllabic blank verse, with variations of seven or eight lines. They have spared us the Thee and the Thou, without sacrificing the spirit and the feeling of Renaissance poetry. With humor, they write: “...we humbly admit that we are not Tasso, and the very greatness of his poetry presents real challenges to anyone who sets out to translate it.” But they have done an excellent job.


The Medieval Review, February 2002
Reviewed by Jo Ann Cavallo, Columbia University

The Aminta (1573), written and first performed two years before Tasso completed the Gerusalemme Liberata, provides us with an essential counterpart to his epic poem. Rather than a Crusading army that conquers the city of Jerusalem by the sword, here the shepherd Aminta wins the love of the nymph Silvia with the help of Cupid’s dart. Whereas the rich sensuality of the Liberata was relegated to the realm of the pagan enemy, here it provides the basis for the Golden Age evoked by the Chorus (Act One, Scene Two). Indeed, the Chorus’s wish to return to the time when mankind embraced the laws of nature and love is eventually granted to the play’s protagonists. Although at the play’s opening the virgin Silvia, the “most cruel nymph / who ever followed in Diana’s train,” disdains the love of Aminta, by the final act she and Aminta will “lay and love as one.”

The sensual force of the play is not presented through the dramatic action, but conveyed through the spoken word. Not only do Silvia and Aminta never appear together on stage, as the translators note, but all the events take place off-stage and are made known to us through the reports of the characters. Given, then, that the real drama of the play is not so much in the action of the plot as in the poetry of the verses, the challenge of any translation is to try to capture the explosive yet delicate expressivity of Tasso’s language. In my view, Charles Jernigan and Irene Marchegiani Jones have succeeded admirably. Their translation is a pure joy to read: clear, light, elegant, and musical. They have rendered the play’s endecasyllabic blank verse into iambic pentameter blank verse, with shorter lines in English corresponding to Tasso's own shortened verses. Moreover, where the Italian is rhymed, such as for the Chorus that concludes all five acts, the translation follows the original rhyme scheme. It was a treat to find the intermedii (interludes) included and translated. Although, as the translators point out, there is some critical controversy as to whether Tasso wrote them for Aminta, these exquisite lines of poetry provide an internal frame with strong thematic resonances.

Much useful information is packed into the twenty-four pages that precede the translation. After a brief overview of the pastoral form from its Greek origins to its Renaissance manifestations, attention is given to the plot and characters of the Aminta, to the history of the d’Este family that governed Ferrara since the fourteenth century, and to a consideration of the play's reflection of the Ferrarese court in terms of both characters and setting. The section on the Aminta’s reception and influence notes not only earlier editions and translations of the play into ten languages, but also performances from its debut in 1573 to the modern period. The following section entitled “literary analysis” offers many insights into the poem, pointing out the play’s essential ambivalence, the prevalence of disguises “where nothing is what it seems to be” (xx), and the haunting presence of death as a backdrop to the play's principal theme of love. The translators explain thus the play’s interplay between love and death: “Behind all the lamenting in Aminta there is the tragic knowledge of death, the brevity of life, and the fact that human beings have only one consolation in the face of the inevitable: not religion, as the Middle Ages would have posited, but love — human, sensual love” (xxiv). The introduction is followed by a biographical chronology and selected bibliography.

The Italian original facing the English text is based on Sozzi’s 1957 critical edition. The brief notes that complete the volume provide helpful information to clarify the text when obscure, explain devices of classical rhetoric used in the play, identify characters with historical figures, point out sexual innuendos, and describe the significance of the mythological figures mentioned. The volume is also graced with illustrations from the 1589 Venetian edition of Aminta showing rustic yet elegant pastoral life, on the edge of a sophisticated court, but exposed to the dangers of untamed nature in the form of the satyr. It might be helpful to cite a few passages to give a sense of the play in translation. In the first scene of Act One, Dafne, a nymph now awakened to the world of love, tries to show Silvia that her stubborn vow of virginity goes against nature. After imagining the world of wild animals in love, Dafne envisions an amorousness that embraces all of nature during spring. The almost hallucinatory repetition of the Italian comes through well in the translation:

But did I say that serpents, tigers, lions
alone have love's sweet self? No, even trees
may love. How much affection you can see,
and with how many sweet embracing folds
the vine entwines about the one it loves;
the fir tree loves the fir, the pine, the pine,
the flowering ash, the ash, the willow loves
its own, and beech for beech will burn and sigh.
(Act One, Scene One, 149-156).

The chorus, which comments on love at the conclusion of all five acts, describes with vivid freshness a scene from the Golden Age of uninhibited love:

the virgin maid, undressed,
disclosed her dewy rose,
which now we veil and close,
and showed the unpicked apples of her breast;
and oft in lake or stream
her lover frolicking with her was seen.
(Act One, Scene Two, 352-357).

The chorus ends its reflection in a more somber and urgent tone:

Let’s love, for with the years
man's life can have no truce, and disappears.
Let's love, for day will die, yet is reborn;
for us, though, all its light
sinks down, and sleep leads to eternal night.
(Act One, Scene Two, 382-386).

The conception of love as that which gives meaning to life in the face of inescapable death is also presented in the second interlude:

through you we find our joy and love along
with it until the final, bitter night.
You — joy, comfort, peace of lives, which fly and cease,
sweet solace for our ills, oblivion's stead —
who more than you can lead us to godhead?

Here human love not only gives pleasure to life, but is presented as the surest path to God. Considering that these verses were written ten years after the Council of Trent was reopened, this play gives pause to those who would consider Tasso a proponent of Counter Reformation morality. The Aminta , however, may indeed be the last expression of an uncensured celebration of nature in sixteenth century Italy. Although the play was widely imitated, the chorus’s credo of “s’ei piace lice” (do what pleases you) would soon be replaced in Guarino’s Pastor Fido with “piaccia se lice” (may what is allowed please you).

In sum, Tasso’s Aminta gives a picture of the Italian Renaissance in all its ambiguous splendor, and this affordable bilingual paperback edition brings this world to the desk of the general reader, the scholar, and the student. In ending I would like to add that I had the pleasure of attending a reading of this translation of the Aminta in New York in June, 2001. The English-language text, read by a cast that included Giovanni Ribisi and Penny Fuller and directed by Alessandro Fabrizi, largely succeeded in conveying the melodious power of Tasso’s verse. Selections of the Italian text, set to music by Marco Schiavoni and sung by Antonella Voce, added a haunting, magical quality to the performance. This bilingual Aminta [was] scheduled to be performed at the American Association for Italian Studies conference in Missouri in April 2002 and repeated in New York later in the year. For me this performance was proof that Tasso’s pastoral play, written over half a millennium ago in another language, still retains an immediacy and relevance capable of casting a spell over a contemporary American audience.


Renaissance Quarterly 56.1 (Spring 2003): 169-70.
Reviewed by Madison U. Sowell, Brigham Young University

. . . Tasso’s Aminta, composed and produced in 1573, remains notorious (and intriguing) for its failure to place the two lovers Aminta and Silvia simultaneously on stage. Nevertheless this bucolic frolic indeed exerted phenomenal influence on the development of pastoral drama, “spawning in Italy alone over 200 plays by 1700” (xviii). Furthermore, the resounding phrase from its Golden Age chorus (S’ei piace, ei lice — literally, if it pleases, then it’s lawful, but here translated as do what pleases you) epitomizes the spirit of the Italian Renaissance like no other slogan save perhaps carpe diem. (As evidence of Tasso’s pervasive influence, Battista Guarini’s echoing retort in his own pastoral drama Il Pastor Fido became the watch cry of the Counter Reformation: Piaccia, se lice, — that is to say, let it please if its lawful.)

As the translators correctly note in their straightforward introduction, Aminta “made Tasso’s reputation” (xvii) and served “indirectly . . . [as] a source of William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies” and as “a source of John Milton’s Comus (xviii). In addition, productions of the play, often performed outdoors in gardens or parks, have continued from 1573 right down to a postmodern version in 2000. In short, the play, regularly recognized for its lyric poetry more than its simple but implausible plot, merits modern critical attention for multiple reasons. This new translation, seeking to foster that end, is highly readable. It is largely in iambic pentameter blank verse, shortened appropriately to trimeters and tetrameters when Tasso abbreviates his own verses. Furthermore, the translators skillfully employ rhyme whenever the original Italian is rhymed, and the result is pleasing to the ear and faithful to the original’s sound and sense.

A few samples of the translators’ art must suffice in this brief review. The well-known concluding lines to Act 1, scene 2 (“Amiam, che non ha tregua / con gli anni umana vita, e si dilegua / Amiam, che ‘l Sol si muore e poi rinasce: / a noi sua breve luce / s’asconde, e ‘l sonno eterna notte adduce”) are rendered thus: “Let’s love, for with the years / man’s life can have no truce, and disappears. / Let’s love, for day will die, yet is reborn; / for us, though, all its light / sinks down, and steep leads to eternal night.” Not only are the rhyme schemes parallel, but the English closely shadows the Italian and nicely retains the figures of anaphora and personification.

Aminta’s famous unfolding of how he fell in love — “A poco a poco nacque nel mio petto, / non so da qual radice, / com’erba suol che per se stessa germini, / un incognito affetto / che mi fea desiare d’essere sempre presente / a la mia bella Silvia” (1.2.87-93) — is captured with a similarly alliterative and felicitous opening line and then sustained by parallel grammatical construction in the English translation: “And bit by bit was born within my breast, / I don’t know from what root, / as grass may seem to germinate itself, / a strange affection that / made me desire to be / forever present where / my lovely Silvia was.”

Finally, Dafne’s soulful lament (note how the repeated o’s in the plaintive second verse in Italian echo the initial exclamatory “O” [my emphasis]) — “O Silvia, Silvia, tu non sai né credi / quanto ’l foco d’amor possa in un petto” (4.1.66-67) -- becomes only slightly less poetic in this translation and aptly mirrors the imagery: “O Silvia, you neither think nor know / how in one’s breast the fire of love can burn.”

In fine, Professors Jernigan and Jones are to be complimented for their laudable attention to poetic nuances or how the poem means, to paraphrase “the master of those who know” (in this case, translator-poet John Ciardi). This reviewer’s only disappointment, in fact, derived from the translation’s overly-modest scholarly apparatus. While the translators’ scholarship includes, in addition to cursory introductory comments, a biographical chronology, a selected bibliography, and five pages of clarifying notes, most readers would likely welcome expanded glosses that detail Tasso’s complex poetics and decipher the Ferrarese court’s complicated politics.




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