Finding the Centre: Dante, Beckett, and Michelangelo - 6 June 2007

“I am as the centre of the circle, to which all parts of the circumference stand in equal relation; you, however, are not so.” Dante, Vita Nuova XII, lines 21–22

Thus Love, in the form of an angel, declares perfection to be his preserve, in the symbolic form of the compass. Te poet, by contrast, must content himself with “circling round this place [the centre], whatever its shape and extent may be” (Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable).

Earlier in Beckett’s novel, the Unnamable had declared that he “likes to think he occupies the centre, but nothing could be less certain”. No. All he and the other mortals can be sure of is that “from centre to circumference… is a far cry, and [he] may well be situated between the two”.

A far cry, indeed. So far, in fact, that to get this measurement wrong spelled disaster for Michelangelo, in Rome. Now 81 years old, he was called back to that city to rescue his three-part vault over St. Peter’s. While he had made a model of the vault to ensure accuracy of construction, its completion was left to less remarkable artists, for whom Michelangelo’s complex and intuitive design was “beyond belief”.

“Instead of a vault with a single centre… There should have been a great number [of centres]. And the circles and squares that come in the middle of their deepest parts [the vaults] have to diminish and increase in so many directions, and to go to so many points, that it is difficult to find a true method.” (1)

Michelangelo knew, as Peirce put it, that by “supposing the rigid exactitude of causation to yield… we gain room to insert mind [or intuition] into our scheme.” (2) Rather than a geometric correctness, he sought an “overall harmony of grace…”, one that even “nature might not present.” (3) And so he recommended that the artist should have compasses in his eyes, not in his hands, because the hand executes, but it is the eye which judges. (4)

(1) These comments are distilled from Vasari’s ‘Life of Michelangelo’

(2) C. S. Peirce, ‘The Doctrine of Necessity Examined’ (1892), in Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, eds., The Essential Peirce (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 309.

(3) Vasari.

(4) ibid.