DAEDALUS AND ICARUS — TWO HUMANISTIC MORAL IDEALS
For humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries the literary motive of Daedalus and Icarus became a basis for discussions about the attitude of a man towards both other men and the world. The elitarian, “philosophical” character of this motive is emphasized by its scarcity in plastic arts of that period and, on the other hand, by its great popularity in the moral and emblematic literature. Here was the Renaissance somewhat a heir of the mediaeval Ovide moralisé.
However, while the story of Daedalus and Icarus was for the mediaeval moralists an illustration of subjection to destiny, the Renaissance (especially the neoplatonic medium) exposed the element of tragedy and protest against the fatalistic condition humaine. Classics of the first generation (Poggio, Alberti, and even Erasmus) want to see in Daedalus their hero: for them he is an ideal of a positive action, an ideal of moderation and modesty. Others, however (Pico della Mirandola, Luter, Tansillo, Michelangelo) consider the tragical Icarus to be an incarnation of the everlasting anxiety of man and a symbol of unlimited deed. Already towards 1530 Tansillo makes Icarus a symbol of the highest humanitas. The plastic expression of this humanistic idea is the picture of Bruegel in the gallery of Brussels. Another apology of Icarus is the work of Bruno Degli heroici furori (part I, chapter 3).
This exaltation of Icarus is based precisely on the humanistic moral argument dignitas. For Tansillo and Bruno the ethical value is determined not by the effects of a deed but by its intention.
Icarus, the hero of the Romantics, presents therefore a polemic both with mediaeval ideals of humility and with the classic ideal of moderation which was incorporated in Daedalus.