“We must become like the animals in order to be wise, and be blinded in order to be guided”, advised Michel de Montaigne in his Essays. The French philosopher wasn’t referring to a state based on primal instincts, but to the silencing of the mind, for an overthinking mind is more unreasonable than one lacking in thought, is what the Frenchman concluded.
To support his stance, Montaigne resorted to the writing and emblematic personality of Torquato Tasso, a 16th century Italian Renaissance poet who embodied so well the notion of the mad genius. Tasso is the most cited Italian author in the Essays, referenced as a symbol of unbound creativity and sexuality, a counterpoint to the balance that reason instills.
The tragic story of Tasso, at the time Italy’s finest contemporary poet, who had been confined to an asylum in Ferrara after his mental breakdown, was used by Montaigne as a warning against the overindulgence of imagination and an example of how a writer can be blinded by his own artistic light.
For the longest time, it was believed that Montaigne had met Tasso in Italy and that some of his remarks were based on that meeting. The supposition – which was later proven false – stemmed from this quote, which must have also inspired French artist Fleury François Richard in depicting the encounter between the two great minds in Montaigne and Tasso:
“What a leap has just been taken, because of the very restlessness and liveliness of his mind, by one of the most judicious and ingenious of men, a man closely molded by the pure poetry of antiquity than any other Italian poet has been for a long time! Does he not have reason to be grateful to that murderous vivacity of his mind? To that brilliance that has blinded him? To that exact and intent apprehension of his reason, which has deprived him of reason? . . . I felt even more vexation than compassion to see him in Ferrara in so piteous a state, surviving himself, not recognizing himself or his works, which, without his knowledge and yet before his eyes, have been brought out uncorrected and shapeless.”
– Michel de Montaigne in An Apology for Raymond Sebond
Richard, who was known for his historical paintings, took some liberty in changing the setting of the meeting: instead of witnessing the scene at St. Anne’s mental hospital in Ferrara, we are looking at an unusual underground prison cell, monastic in its simplicity. Indeed, the original title in French translates as Tasso in prison visited by Montaigne, and the masterful play of light and shadows that the artist used for this mise-en-scene was inspired by the chapel of Sainte-Irénée in Lyon.
In the painting, the light, beaming down a steep staircase, washes over the disorderly sight of Tasso, seated to the right, with his disheveled hair, clothes and manuscripts. It is an allusion to the very light that blinded him, the brilliance of his genius, while the red velvet of his outfit and the general disorder emphasize the passion that continues to consume him, even while confined. Tasso’s portrayal couldn’t be farther from that of Montaigne on the left. The Frenchman looks all appeasing, yet authoritative in his somber outfit embellished with subtle touches of red. Behind them, a guardian is about to close the massive door and shun the light, leaving these two great minds in darkness. Ultimately, Richard’s painting is a wonderful rendition of a meeting that never took place, bringing to life a myth that continues to enchant.
You can zoom in here.
I will be taking a break for the next few weeks, so there will be no more posts until mid August. I hope you’ll enjoy your summer vacations and that we’ll reunite all tanned and invigorated. Thank you for your warm, continuous support and for taking the time to read this blog. You’ve made it all worthwhile.