Donne's Compass Image
In the twelfth chapter of Dante's Vita nuova, Love appears to the poet in the form of an angel and gives himself a mystic definition: "I am as the center of a circle, to which all parts of the circumference stand in equal relation; you, however, are not so." For Dante, as for most thinkers of his time, the spatial and temporal perfection represented by the circle precluded its use as a symbol for anything human. The perfect circularity of the Paradiso was a gift awaiting the man who had been through Hell; it could never be considered a birthright, for perfect circles transcend the human just as the heavens transcend the earth. So great was the gap between perfection and humanity that it could be spanned only by the Incarnation.
Dante and the early Florentine humanists were the last Italians for several centuries to take Love's admonition very seriously. Later thinkers of the quattrocento would not accept any such limitation and with their rhetoric attempted to set man free from the great chain which bound him to the angels above and to the beasts below. By attributing to the human soul an angelic perfection, they attempted to divorce it from its body, which they were prepared to leave to the protective custody of Lorenzo de' Medici. While they claimed for the soul eternity's symbol, the infinite circle, they surrendered to Il Magnifico the more limited space around the Square of the Signoria, thus making of God's circular hieroglyph not only an emblem of man's dignity, but also of his solipsism. This metamorphosis of the circle from the transcendent to the mundane, recently and brilliantly traced by Georges Poulet, was historically coincident, at least in Italy, with the metamorphosis of the human soul from incarnate reality, to angelic____________________