Reading Dante ... on a Walk with Michelangelo
Posted on Jan 4 2013 at 10:02:30 AM in Visual Arts
I own a copy of “The Book of Great Conversations” (ed. Louis Biancolli), a great collection of famous “recorded” conversations from history. Ever wonder what Casanova said to Voltaire when they met? Here’s one of their conversations (“argue for the necessity of superstition among the masses”). Did you know Wagner and Rossini exchanged thoughts on “music of the future”? And for you fantasists, how about H.G. Wells sitting down with “Uncle Joe” Stalin (“I am more to the left than you, Mr Stalin.”)?
This volume, I’m sure, can be scrounged from one of the used-book or antiquarian sites, and you won’t be disappointed. One conversation that struck me as particularly poignant, from both the standpoint of the participants and the subject, was Michelangelo’s conversation with his friend, Donato, a man of letters of some quality, and also a Florentine (but now in exile in Rome). They would often meet on the street while on an afternoon walk. On this particular day, in 1546, they began to talk about Dante’s “Inferno” and the argument (objected to by Donato) “was Dante right to consign Brutus and Cassius to Hell for Murdering Julius Caesar?” Michelangelo took the positive standpoint, that the murderers deserved Hell, and he explains why ….
may 20, 2006
“Michelangelo: How do you know Dante did not feel that Brutus and Cassius did wrong in killing Caesar? Don’t you know how much ruin and misery came into the world as a result of his death? Don’t you see what a calamitous succession of emperors followed him? Would it not have been better if he had lived and carried out his ideas?
Donato: The one idea he had was to be called ‘King.’
Michelangelo: I grant you that. But wasn’t that a lesser evil than what followed? How do you know that Caesar would not in time have tired of ruling and like Sulla restored freedom to the country and reconstituted the Republic? Now, if by continuing to live, he had done that, would not Brutus and Cassius have committed a great wrong in killing him? It is an act of great presumption to set out to kill the head of a state, whether he be just or unjust, for no one knows for certain what good can come of his death, and there is always the hope that some good can come of his remaining alive. For that reason I am considerably annoyed by people who believe that there can be no good unless it begins with some act of evil—that is, with a few deaths. They don’t understand that times change, that unforeseen developments may arise, and that men get tired and change their minds. Out of all that it often happens— without anybody ardently hoping and striving and risking his life for it—that the very good will come about which many have thought desirable….”
– “Was Dante Right to Consign Brutus and Cassius to Hell for Murdering Julius Caesar?”, The Book of Great Conversations, ed. Louis Biancolli