Torquato Tasso, Sorrento's most famous son, was not in the town on June 13, 1558, the date of a particularly vicious sacking of Sorrento by Saracen pirates, one that killed thousands of persons, and saw many more carried away into slavery. He was fourteen years old at the time and had already moved away to Rome.
[For a related item on the so-called "Saracen Towers," click here.]
The raid, however,
was a pivotal inspiration for his masterpiece Gerusalemme
liberata (1581), still considered one of the
great epic poems in Italian and at the time viewed as
the great Epic of Christendom, recalling, as it did, the
First Crusade with its stirring opening:
Canto l'arme pietose, e 'l capitano/ Che il gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo—
(I sing the pious arms, and the captain who freed
the great sepulcher of Christ.)
Christians at the time of Tasso were still almost within living memory of the fall of the thousand-year old Christian Empire of Byzantium, and Gerusalemme filled a great need for rousing reminders of past glories. Tasso was compared to Homer, Vergil and Dante, and though such comparisons today seem too enthusiastic, the work fit the spirit of the times perfectly and was the most popular piece of Italian literature for years. Nevertheless, Tasso's life was a turbulent one, for even his masterpiece, in spite of popular acclaim, was severely criticized by the Inquisition. This disturbed him, as did the relative failure of virtually all of his other works. Tasso has become a metaphor of the disturbed misunderstood genius. He made virtually no money at all from Gerusalemme liberata, and he wandered incessantly, selling his stray poems. Also, he suffered bouts of depression and madness, even being locked away for a while.
From a distance,
then, the cliffs and mountains of Sorrento are
proverbially tranquil, yet, they are also a facade,
behind which is a violent history and the life of one
such as Tasso, who died in 1595 after a life of
disappointment and hardship as much as one of acclaim.