Tancred’s Regret at Jerusalem’s Golden Gate

By Mauricio Roman

Any man who has had the misfortune of hurting a woman — even in her feelings — will certainly see himself portrayed in Tancred, a character in Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a madrigal drama first performed in Venice almost four hundred years ago, in 1624. Moreover, any group of people who has inflicted injury on another can see themselves personified in Tancred’s regret.

Tancred’s fictional story, set during the First Crusade (1096-99), is based on a historical account called Gesta di Tancredi, by Ralph of Caen. The Gesta was, in turn, transformed into an epic poem, Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), by Torquato Tossi, parts of which were musicalized by Monteverdi for his work.


Gerusalemme Liberata was widely read by all social classes in Venice, and it was common for a person on the street to know parts of it by heart. One of its most memorable and touching parts is the tragic duel between Clorinda and Tancred.

Tancred, Jerusalem and the Crusades

Tancred of Galilee (1072-1112) was a medieval Norman knight who, as one of the leaders of the First Crusade, became Prince of Galilee and regent of Antioch. He spoke Arabic and was one of the first to enter Jerusalem upon its conquest in 1099.

“Tancred de Hauteville, Prince of Galilee” by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1840)

His story,  known as the Gesta Tancredi, was written by Ralph of Caen, a priest serving as chaplain at Antioch with access to first hand accounts.

The Gesta, published in English for the first time in 2005, depicts Tancred’s romantic vision of Jerusalem, a city which he loves for what it represents to him as a Christian. Ralph of Caen describes Tancred’s experience upon his arrival at Jerusalem thus:

“when he arrived at Jerusalem, he circled the walls, but only after he had freed Bethlehem from the enemy. Getting his first view of Jerusalem from a distance, Tancred greeted her, placed his knees on the ground, fixed his eyes on the city, his heart on heaven, and this is the image of his salvation placed into poetic meter”

Jerusalem’s Walls seen from the Kidron Valley with sealed golden gate in relief

I was fortunate to see Jerusalem as a teenager, exploring her surroundings as part of a science youth group and learned to love her as the mother of all cities. Standing above the Kidron valley separating the city from the Mount of Olives, her walls are certainly a view to behold! Note the sealed Golden Gate in relief above. Most of the year the Kidron is dry, but during the rainy season a river flows through it.

The conquest of Jerusalem was the final episode in a period of time in which multiple Arab strongholds passed onto Christian hands across the Mediterranean: Toledo fell in 1085 and, in 1091, after a 30 year effort, Arab Sicily fell to the Normans (who shortly thereafter expanded onto Naples). The Levant was conquered between 1096 and 1099 during the First Crusade in an effort led by Normans who at the time possessed formidable military expertise, as demonstrated by their conquest of England in 1066.

These conquests marked the beginning of the “twelfth century Renaissance”, during which ancient Greek scientific, mathematical and philosophical texts, along with Arab discoveries and developments, were translated into Latin. In Toledo, texts were translated directly from Arabic; in Sicily, mostly from Greek (as it was less arabized). The small crusader population in the Levant contributed very little to the translation efforts. Texts already in Latin, such as the Roman classics, were generally well-known in Medieval Europe.

The Roman classics (Caesar and Livy) influenced Ralph of Caen’s approach to history, who emphasized history as a ‘noble discipline’ in which recounting the deeds of princes must be done accurately. For the chaplain of Antioch, history was not a form of entertainment but rather an educational discipline which records both good and bad deeds, so that the former can be emulated and the latter, avoided.

Tancred and Clorinda

In writing his epic poem, Torquato Tossi also intended to educate his audience along an ethical plane; yet, unlike Ralph of Caen, he also sought to entertain, and thus he conceived fictional characters and deeds. One of his most important characters is Clorinda.

In Gerusalemme Liberata, Clorinda is an Ethiopian princess, daughter of Christian kings, who due to particular circumstances was raised by a servant who did not baptize her. Growing up, she did not know about her background nor adopt a Christian identity. Over time, she became proficient with weapons and joined the Arab Muslim army which captured Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks in 1098; the year after, they had to defend the city from the Crusader attack, whose initial motivation had been to combat the Turks on behalf of the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople, and who were not expecting to meet the Arabs.

The combat between Tancred and Clorinda takes place in front of the Golden Gate in Jerusalem (porta Aurea in the original), the famous door to the city through which Jesus entered in a donkey prior to his Passion; it is the door through which both Jews and Christians believe the Messiah will enter the city in a future time. For Christians, it is also a place associated with love as tradition states that this is where Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachin, first met, depicted in a period icon below.

Meeting of Anna and Joachim by the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, 16th century Russian icon

Upon watching Clorinda fighting in the fields outside the city, Tancred falls in love with her, and refuses to engage in combat with her. In the painting by Paolo Domenico Finoglia shown below, she attacks him while he looks lovingly back at her, keeping his sword down. Even his horse continues trotting along placidly.

Clorinda attacks Tancredi (1640-45) by Paolo Domenico Finoglia at the Palazzo Acquaviva, Conversano

The night before participating in a risky operation (a night raid with a companion to set a siege tower on fire), Clorinda learns about her true life story from a eunuch, and also dreams about it. She goes out dressed in a black armor, which camouflages her — and which also symbolizes death. As they return, they are attacked by the Crusaders. Her companion manages to enter through the Golden Gate, but she is left out. At this time in history, the Golden Gate was sealed with stone, reportedly to keep the Messiah out. That she was also kept out suggests that she was meant to be a Christian.

Camouflaged, she slips by the gaze of the Crusaders, seeking another door to the city, but Tancred finds her and, not recognizing her, steps down from his horse and engages her in a mortal duel.

Monteverdi’s Madrigal

The duel forms the core of the operatic scene set to music by Monteverdi’s groundbreaking madrigal — Combatimento di Tancredi et Clorinda, SV 153.

As Tancred and Clorinda battle each other, we hear the sounds of galloping horses, sword clashes, heavy breathing and dripping blood — all there in the music! To achieve these effects, the orchestra uses tremolo (a trembling effect), spiccato and staccato strokes on the bow instruments, and tempo with accelerando and ritardando. For example at the very beginning we hear the first musical description by Monteverdi: Tancred’s galloping horse. These are some of the first special effects in music history.

Monteverdi indicates that the playing should reflect the varying emotional character of the poem, so that performers can change tempo beyond what is indicated in the score. Similarly, the narrator is encouraged to sing in a way which reflects the “emotions of the oration” and not to add any embellishments other than in Stanza 3, the invocation of the Night. Monteverdi also recommends that the action be choreographed so that the actors move and strike their blows in coordination with the music.

The Mantuan composer accompanies the agitation of the combat with his stilo concitato, or “agitated style”, supported by the tremolo technique that we hear for example here. The earliest description of stile concitato comes from the foreword to “Madrigals of war and love”, Claudio Monteverdi’s eighth and final book of madrigals, published in 1638, and which include his Combattimento. Monteverdi wrote:

I have reflected that the principal passions or affections of our mind are three, namely, anger, moderation, and humility or supplication… The art of music also points clearly to these three in its terms “agitated,” “soft,” and “moderate” (concitato, molle, and temperato). In all the works of former composers I have indeed found examples of the “soft” and the “moderate,” but never of the “agitated.”

Stile concitato is represented musically in Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda through the rapid repetition of sixteenth notes.

The drama, which lasts through the night, has five sections: (i) the encounter where they declare to fight to the death, (ii) a first fight in which both end up exhausted (Clorinda being in worse shape); (iii) a pause in which Tancredo asks Clorinda for her identity (she tells him that she is one who participated in the night raid) — a break which is faithfully reproduced by the music; (iv) a second combat which leaves her mortally wounded; and (v) the climax.

As Tancred is about to emerge victorious, the narrator poignantly admonishes him that there is nothing to feel good about:

Misero, di che godi? O quanti mesti
Fiano i trionfi ed infelice il vanto!
Gli occhi tuoi pagheran, s’in vita resti,
Di quel sangue ogni stilla un mar di pianto. 

Wretched man, in what do you rejoice? How sad
Will be your triumphs, how unhappy your boasting!
Your eyes will pay, if living you remain,
For each drop of that blood with a sea of tears

The climax of the drama is her transfiguration in the glow of the morning sun rays. As she is about to die, she talks to him (presumably in Arabic), forgives him and asks for forgiveness and pleads to be baptized:

“Amico, hai vinto. Io ti perdon, perdona
Tu ancora — al corpo no, che nulla pave —
All’alma si. Deh per lei prega e dona
Battesmo a me, ch’ogni mia colpa lave.”
In queste voci languide risuona
Un non so che di flebile e soave
Ch’al cor gli scende ed ogni sdegno ammorza
E gli occhi a lagrimar l’invoglia e sforza.

“Friend, you have won. I pardon you; pardon
Me as well — not my body, which fears nothing —
But my soul. Pray for it, and give
Baptism to me, which all my sins washes.”
In this dying voice there resounded
Something so mournful and soft
That it rose to his heart and all anger died,
And his eyes to tears were induced and forced.

Tancred rushes to a nearby stream — presumably the Kidron — grabs water and runs back to baptize her, giving her the sacrament which was denied to her in her childhood. While it is unusual for baptism to be administered this way, any person with the right intention could at the time (and still can) conduct an emergency baptism in the absence of a priest or deacon when the person in need is in danger of death. This privilege extends to unbaptized persons (for example, Muslims and Jews can conduct emergency baptisms).

Tancredi Baptizing Clorinda by Domenico Tintoretto (c. 1585) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The above painting shows Tancredi almost flying to get back in time to baptize Clorinda. Painted by Domenico Tintoreto (1560-1635), son of the famous Jacopo Tintoreto from Venice, it has resplandescent earthly colors: not only does the armor of both lovers shine, but also the foliage has a luminous sparkling light, in the manner of Correggio. Together with the image of the angels, this underscores that Clorinda is, at this moment, at the threshold of salvation with the glow of the morning light.

The resplandescent light that we see in the above painting can also be observed in a production of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda done in Amsterdam in 1993 by Nederlandse Opera and EKSO Ensemble; the light of a fire is reflected on the combatant’s armor suit as well as from the narrator’s face, who is dressed in a black vestment such as one which Monteverdi, who was a priest, would have used.

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (Amsterdam 1993)

When Claudio Monteverdi moved from Mantua to Venice in 1613 to become chapel master at San Marco’s basilica, painter Jacopo Tintoretto had already died but his son Domenico lived in the city. Artists in Venice had quite a bit of freedom and formed a type of aristocracy, to which both Tintoretto and Monteverdi belonged. Tintoretto, like most artists of the day, enjoyed hosting their artistic friends. It is highly possible that lively conversations on the topic of Tancredo and Clorinda’s story would have taken place at their home, shown below.

Tintoretto family house in Venice in the Fondamenta dei Mori

One of the interesting aspects for discussion of Torquato Tossi’s poem is the parallel between spiritual and erotic love which the poet captures in some of his verses and which Tintoretto also alludes to in his painting. This tension between human and divine love was a favorite topic during the Renaissance, pioneered by Marsilio Ficino in Florence and perfected by Judá Abravanel in his Dialoghi d’Amore (1535), a work with broad influence in his time but which, due to some allusions to cabalism, was placed on the index of prohibited books by the newly established Roman Inquisition (initiated in 1542).

While falling outside the scope of this article, this thread ultimately leads to the notion that erotic love can be transfigured into a spiritual form of love (which in koine Greek is called agapé) and thus a context-rich performance of Monteverdi’s madrigal needs to be sensitive to this transformation. The topic also has a scriptural foundation as evidenced by the Song of Songs (also known as Canticle of Canticles); to make sure that he was not “crossing any lines”, Tossi submitted his poem for approval at the Roman Inquisition, which was granted.

Monteverdi’s drama was presented in 1624 during the Carnival of Venice. Even though Monteverdi was the chapel master at San Marco, he occasionally took work from his secular patron Girolamo Mocenigo, who commissioned this piece. The work was presented for the first time in Palazzo Mocenigo, which occupies four adjoining buildings in the Grand Canal of Venice. The Mocenigo were an aristocratic family in Venice which became established in 1090 (at the time of the Crusades) and became extinct in 1953.

Palazzo Mocenigo in the Grand Canal of Venice



In conclusion, both Ralph of Caen in his history and Torquato Tossi in his poetry intended to educate their readers on a moral plane, an aspiration certainly shared by the chapel master of San Marco. We may ask, then, what are some of the learnings we can derive? I see three lessons.

First, in the desire to win in a particular situation we can fail to see the inner side of the other person — their essence and spiritual beauty — and, as Tossi states, whetting pride and igniting ire, cause damage, perhaps not with the sword, but with words. The regret that follows, well dramatized by Monteverdi, can be painful indeed. Yet the beauty of the act of pardon can be salvific as it was for Tancred and Clorinda.

In second place I see the importance of passing history onto future generations. In the third stanza, Tossi enjoins us “to future ages reveal and proclaim” the deeds. Sharing the good and bad deeds of history along with their musical, artistic, geographic and religious context makes it appealing to future generations, a task made easier by the brilliant music of composers such as Monteverdi, who portrays the passions of the combat while giving color to the spiritual beauty of an act of forgiveness.

Thirdly, the particular story of Tancredi and Clorinda personifies the broader story of many Crusaders and the Holy City. While there were many diverse motivations (power, greed, ambition, fanaticism), at least some Crusaders — Tancred in particular —  were, according to Ralph of Caen, moved by love for the Holy Land and saw Jerusalem through a romantic eye. In storming the city, however, they did much damage — which many have since lamented.

Here, we see a parallel between the fictional and the actual history. In fiction, Tancred regrets killing Clorinda, who he loved. Historically, as one of the leaders of the Crusade, he regretted the massacre of Muslims and Jews who took refuge on Temple Mount — on the inner side of the Golden Gate. Tancred had set his banner there to protect the refugees, yet they were killed.

In fiction, forgiveness overcomes the tragic end; we hope that it will be likewise on the historical plane of events.

To combine both perspectives — Tancred’s regret for Jerusalem and for Clorinda’s death — I wrote a little poem, in which Tancred speaks in English and Clorinda responds in Spanish:

When I contemplate your walls
My heart pauses, then leaps with joy
As the sun bathes their golden stone
I can now see your inner glow

Hurting you has pained me deeply;
It wounded too my heart and soul
You fought a good combat
I am now paralyzed by love

“Amigo, hoy me has vencido
Moribunda en tierra te perdono
¡no a mi cuerpo, sino a mi alma
pido que tú también perdones!”

Kidron is fortunately near
Its waters purify our sins,
Peace between us restore
And our love transform

“Se abre el cielo,
y yo voy en paz”.


There are many performances of Monteverdi’s famous madrigal available, most of which are not dramatized.

I am partial to the dramatized version of Il Combattimento di Tancredo e Clorinda (available also with Spanish subtitles) performed in Amsterdam in June 1993 by Nederlandse Opera and EKSO Ensemble, with singers Lorna Andrson, Maarten Koninsberger and Guy de Mey as narrator.

This rendition, while not dramatized, allows us to visualize the special effects of the music as instruments are played. It was performed in 2008 at the Festival de St. Denis in Paris at St. Denis basilica (where the kings of France reposed) with Rolando Villazón using a more operatic and passionate voice as the narrator.

A well-balanced performance which captures the action while giving the climax it’s just importance is this one (with no video), directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini in 1997 (also available on Spotify)

Reading List:

Gerusalemme Liberata Canto XII 52-62, 64-68 by Torquato Tasso (in Italian & English). Includes only the verses which appear in Monteverdi’s madrigal.

Il duelo di Tancredi e Clorinda by Torquato Tasso (in Italian). This is the full text of the poem showing the broader context.