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
né quando Icaro misero le reni
sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,
gridando il padre a lui "Mala via tieni!"(109-111)
Nor when the wretched Icarus
felt his loins unfeathering (melting, softening) by the melting
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.
libellus included a famous emblem of Icarus falling into the
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 his
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.
Florida Atlantic University
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
Paton, W.R., trans. The Greek
Anthology. London: William Heinemann, 1915-18.