Plate 4 from Americae Retectio
by Johannes Stradanus

Icarian Knowledge


In the early modern period, the classical story of Icarus was often used as a commentary on and warning about illicit knowledge. The theme of flying out into the mala via (ill way) was often metaphorically understood as the arrogant pursuit of knowledge that transgresses the limits of what may be known.

The story of Icarus falling into the sea is originally told in Ovid's Metamorphoses (8.195 ff). In Ovid's account, Icarus is boyishly awkward and playful in a way that counterbalances and counteracts his father's skill. For example, the boy is represented as artlessly underfoot as Daedalus orders the feathers on his wings, from shortest to longest ("nam ponit in ordine pennas a minima coeptas, longam breviore sequenti"). In flight, Icarus feels the joy of the open sky and forgets his father's advice to stay at a moderate height: he speeds past his father and rises too close to the sun, where the wax on his wings softens, and he falls into the sea. Icarus seems to represent a principle of disorder (expressed chiefly through exaltation and joy) that exacts a price on his father's ability to order materials in ways that would alter the laws of nature.

As the Icarus story is moralized and translated through the Christian Middle Ages, this disordering energy is usually understood as a transgression of self-control through pride and arrogance. Dante makes an explicit reference to Icarus and the mala via in Inferno XVII, when he describes his fear riding through the air to the eighth circle of Hell on the back of the beast Geyron:

né quando Icaro misero le reni
sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,
gridando il padre a lui "Mala via tieni!"

Nor when the wretched Icarus
felt his loins unfeathering (melting, softening) by the melting wax,
and his father cried to him, "You go an ill way!"

Dante uses the images of Icarian flight to emphasize the disorder-in-order principle thematized by Ovid: the violations of natural order in the lower Inferno and the horrible paradox of rising off the ground into flight in order to descend to the next level. By contrast, the "middle way" between flight paths too low and too high is often emphasized as a metaphor of moderation, a character trait that Castiglione in Il Libro del Cortigiano calls mediocritas.

Alciati's Emblematum libellus included a famous emblem of Icarus falling into theClick Here for a Larger View sea (Emblem 104). The verse beneath the emblem bears a warning to astrologers and by extension those who would traffic in forbidden knowledge. The verse also contains a reference to another sort of technique, casting bronze figures through the technique of lost wax. Alciati's source for the verse is Julianus's "On a bronze statue of Icarus which stood in a bath." The bronze statue of Icarus, made from the same materials that caused his flight and fall, will revive him to serve as an example to imposters. Here is the verse in English:

Icarus, you who were carried off through the heights and air, until the melted wax gave you headlong to the sea, now the same wax and raging fire revive you, that by your example you might teach us sure lessons. Let the astrologer beware of predicting anything. For the imposter will fall headlong, so long as he flies above the stars.

The warning to astrologers thus seems to be part of a competition between impostors—the craftsman and the philosopher. Oddly, then, the poem seems to flip over on itself and come down on the side of Daedalus, since the craftsman's mimetic power in forging the bronze of Icarus can carry such moralizing force. That Alciati's interest seems to be elsewhere than in the Icarus story is perhaps most powerfully felt in the unauthorized edition of 1531, where in place of the famous woodcut of Icarus, there is a picture of the philosopher Thales falling into the well while contemplating the stars.

For Alciati, the Icarian fall is philosophical in nature—not the result of exuberant soaring, but rather the consequence of contemplating the heavens while treading the earth. The Thales story has historically represented philosophy's distance from the everyday. Plato tells the story in the Theaetetus (174 A), adding that Thales was discovered in the well the next morning by a "good looking and whimsical maid from Thrace," who laughed at him. Plato also comments, "This jest also fits all those who become involved in philosophy."

Geoffrey Whitney spins the emblem's message into a social and political homily in hisClick Here for a Larger View A Choice of Emblemes and Other Devices (1586). Telling the future is something "to mortal men deny'd," but the sense created by "Let such beware which past their reach do mount" seems to warn ambitious men against tampering with the status quo. "Reach" commonly meant ambition, and the Elizabethan term most famously brought to the Icarus image—"overreaching"—originally meant the extension of one's own force into or over that of another or a social group.

Early modern responses to the image of Icarian flight are most heavily tempered by a sense reiterated throughout the period—both in theory and in craft—that winged flight was not an impossibility. Rather, especially given Ovid's account of Icarus and Daedalus, flight was thought of as a lost art, something that many were working to relearn. Flight by super- or non-human agents went on all the time. The skies were busy over early-modern Europe: angels, demons, and other various influenze ascended and descended all the time, especially at night—objects and persons self-translocating with angelic help. Besides the famous notebooks from Leonardo on flight and flying machines, important figures in the early scientific community—such as Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703)—considered unassisted human flight imminently foreseeable. (Mersenne spent his last days in the hope that the principles of flight would be discovered in his lifetime.) There are also several accounts of birdmen who attempted to fly using Daedalean devices of their own construction dating almost to antiquity. The most famous of these was certainly Giovanni Battista Danti (ca. 1477-1517), known as "the Daedalus of Perugia." There are four accounts of Danti's flights over Lake Trasimeno and through the town of Perugia. Also, sometime in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the painter, sculptor, and architect Paolo Guidotti (1569-1626) attempted a winged flight, throwing himself from a height in Rome. According to an eyewitness account, he "carried himself forward for about a quarter of a mile, not . . . flying, but falling more slowly than he would have done without the wings."

Seen in the context of these attempts, the images of Icarus falling may have provoked a different sensibility in early-modern readers of emblem books. Flight seems to have been something theorized, and thus considered worth theorizing, by the most important minds of the time; and it seems also to have been an objective pursued by craftsmen and artisans who must have felt they were closing in on success. The homiletic verses warn against trespassing into areas of forbidden knowledge. But the reader of these verses must also have had in mind a sense that flight was already a possibility; indeed, it was already going on all around.

Michael Harrawood
Florida Atlantic University

Suggested Reading

Barkan, Leonard. The Gods Made Flesh; Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven and London: The Yale University Press, 1986.

Hart, Clive. The Dream of Flight; Aeronautics from Classical Times to the Renaissance. New York: Wincester Press, 1972.

Paton, W.R., trans. The Greek Anthology. London: William Heinemann, 1915-18.