The family of Tasso belonged to Bergamo, in the north of Italy, a region which has given birth to several eminent men, among others to Tiraboschi, the historian of Italian literature. It was originally noble, and had large territorial possessions. One ancestor, Omodeo, who lived in the year 1290, is worthy of special mention as the inventor of the system of postal communication, to which the world owes so much; and hence the family arms of a courier's horn and a badger's skin—tasso being the Italian for badger—which the post-horses, down to within fifty years ago, wore upon their harness. In the time of Bernardo, however, the fortunes of the family had decayed, and the early days of the poet were passed in poverty. Adopted after the death of his parents by his father's brother, the Bishop of Recanati, he was placed at school, where he soon acquired a wonderful familiarity with the Greek and Latin authors, then newly restored to Europe. Highly cultivated, refined, and possessed of great personal beauty, while manifesting at the same time a peculiar talent for diplomacy, Bernardo speedily won his way to distinction. His first work, which was a collection principally of love-poems, celebrating his passion for the beautiful Genevra Malatesta, who belonged to the same family as the ill-fated Parasina of Byron, attracted the attention of the reigning Prince of Salerno, Ferrante Sanseverino, one of the chief patrons of literature in Italy, who thereupon engaged him as his private secretary. At the court of this prince he met Porzia de' Rossi, a lady of noble birth, who was beautiful and accomplished, and possessed what was considered in those days a large fortune. After his marriage with this lady Bernardo and his bride retired to a villa which he had purchased at Sorrento, where he enjoyed for several years an exceptional share of domestic felicity, his wife having proved a most devoted helpmeet to him.

In these propitious circumstances the infant that was destined afterwards to confer the greatest lustre upon the family name was born. His father was absent at the time with the Prince of Salerno, who had joined the Spanish army in the new war that had arisen between Charles V. and Francis I.; a war whose chivalrous and inspiring acts the Marquis d'Azeglio made use of in 1866 in his romance of history,Fieramosca, to rouse again a spirit of independence in his countrymen. A friend of his father, therefore, held the child at the baptismal font, in the cathedral of Sorrento, where he received the name of Torquato—a name which his elder brother, who lived only a few days, had previously borne. The treaty of Crepi, which concluded the war between Charles V. and Francis I., in which the former was victorious, allowed Bernardo Tasso to return home with his patron ten months after the birth of his son. By this treaty the French king, who had previously assumed the title of King of Naples, resigned all claims upon that State, and the inhabitants were henceforth subjected entirely to the dominion of the Spanish sovereigns of the house of Austria. The emperor, Charles V., appointed the Marquis de Villafranca, better known as Don Pedro de Toledo, to be Viceroy of Naples, who, like his despotic master, carried out his so-called reforms with a high hand, and interfered with the personal and domestic affairs of the inhabitants, so that he speedily roused their resentment. Against the establishment of the Inquisition, which he set about under the mask of zeal for religion, but in reality for the intimidation of the nobles, the whole city rose up in violent opposition. After having exhausted itself in a vain struggle with the viceroy, it resolved to petition the emperor, and commissioned the Prince of Salerno to plead its cause at the Court of Nuremberg. But in consequence of being forestalled by the cunning Don Pedro, the prince, when he arrived, found the case prejudged, and all his arguments and pleadings were of no avail. Disgusted with the failure of his errand, with the coldness of his reception, and with other indignities which he received at the hands of the emperor and his viceroy, he determined to abandon altogether the cause of Austria. Repairing to Venice, he publicly gave effect to his decision; whereupon Don Pedro, too glad to have an opportunity of oppressing his personal enemy, declared the prince a rebel, confiscated his estates, and seized all his personal property. In the misfortunes of his patron Bernardo Tasso shared. He too was proscribed as a rebel; his property at Salerno was seized, and his wife and children were transferred by the viceroy's orders to Naples, where her family resided, and where, under their cruel treatment, instigated by the viceroy, she was deprived of her fortune, and virtually held a prisoner to the day of her death.