Why mention Pico when I might have begun this consideration of Renaissance Man with the better-known Michelangelo or Alberti, the preeminent Leonardo, or the beautiful Raphael? Well, where better than Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man to become acquainted with aspirational Renaissance Man, the model, the paradigm of manhood from the Quattrocento until yesterday’s soyboy, beta back-seater. Each Age will have its fashion and its end.
Yes, true, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) is our first instance of Renaissance Man, an accomplished architect, painter, classicist, poet, humanist, scientist, mathematician, horseman, athlete … from a standing position Alberti could leap over the head of a middling, standing man. Remarkable. When speaking of us (me, you, and himself), Alberti said, “A man can do all things if he but wills.” Willing is everything, the ambition, the honor, the pain, the strength to run in test to learn if you are the best man in the race … or merely a horse that places, shows, one among the multitude that dissolves into dust and forgetfulness. Willing, running, testing in pain has built a great, Classive Civilization, a renaissance of ascendance to high things.
Raphael and Michelangelo rose to high things. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), architect, sculptor, painter, accomplished poet; Raphael Sanzio (1483–1520), architect, painter, antiquarian, bon vivant, the very model of sprezzatura, that seeming ease in the accomplishment of most difficult things. Reference his School of Athens. You will notice that gentlemen, alike Raphael, do not envy; gentlemen celebrate achievement because the gentleman honors, values high things, the best of all that is best (statuary, pictuary, verse, manners, et cetera); the gentleman ignores low things, Rap, porn, politicking, et cetera, the base desires unworthy of notice.
Here, I am put in mind of Curtiz’ Robin Hood when Flynn’s Robin says to Little John, “I love a man who can best me,” meaning, Robin honors the Good, the Beautiful, the True in others. Yes, Michelangelo could be a curmudgeon, foul and sometimes ripe; even so, the intense labor of creation wearies the body while strengthening the soul. For instance, when Michelangelo unbooted himself after the labor of many days’, his sweat-softened skin with his sock would leave his foot. See what a soul creates in the body’s wreck, a Sistine Ceiling. And of his verse, well, here we learn of strengthening the soul by exercise with heavy things.
Leonardo. Hum, should he not be first in definition of man qua man, exemplar of limitless capacity, central creature of the universe, a soul in search of all knowledge, of wisdom godlike. Surely, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a supreme painter, scientist, inventor, sculptor, theorist, engineer, architect, weaponist, and alike Alberti, preternaturally strong … when in old age, Leonardo lifted from its hinges a huge oak-heavy door. There was a man. And Pico?
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) was a nobleman. Truly. When 23, Pico challenged all comers to debate his 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and wizardry. * The challenge was announced:
THE CONCLUSIONS will not be disputed until after the Epiphany. In the meantime they will be published in all Italian universities. And if any philosopher or theologian, even from the ends of Italy, wishes to come to Rome for the sake of debating, his lord the disputer promises to pay the travel expenses from his own funds.
And so he did, and from this challenge, the book, Oration on the Dignity of Man, Manifesto of Renaissance Man, of the why, how, and wherefore of Classive ascendence.
Perhaps you have heard of the Chain of, the “Ladder of Being” whose lowliest rung is the worm, whose highest rung is the angel, the angelic, that conception which encourages ascending to the skies, or higher, to God. Pico, a poet, macho philosopher, theologian, humanist, master of languages, recognized that Man is miraculous, that each man is free to choose as he will, that by choice of will he might descend to a Hell below worms, or ascend beyond angels to become one with the Supreme Heavenly Being. As you know, corporeal Man, not incorporeal angels, were created in the image of God, and for this, mere angels might envy we who are at liberty to become godlike.
Liberty of choice, liberty of action is the essence of the Dignity of Man. And here, I should mention our American, Renaissance Man, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), architect, diplomat, farmer, inventor, statesman, author who composed the summoning, liberating phrase “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, ** a phrase which encourages all men to ascend to high and highest things.
Why not choose Jefferson before Pico in this gloss on Rennaissance Man. Briefly: Pico fashioned the portrait of man best suited to live in the Renaissance, a period that seems to be just now concluding … a man best suited to live, if he lived today, in a Renaissance Revival house. Yes, of course, Jefferson invented a house style (the Jeffersonian) appropriate to men of godlike achievement, and Jefferson conceived a state that facilitates universal accomplishment (our nation, these united states of America). Yet, in the first instance, Pico recognized a universal soul whose dynamic will liberates each person from hierarchies of body and circumstance. Pico wrote it, we became it, persons who in Classive tradition continue to accomplish, to ascend by achievements godlike, to become Renaissance Man.
Renaissance Man: formed of body, composed of soul. You will notice in best examples of the Renaissance Revival house a bilaterally symmetry alike the symmetry of our human body, friendly and sympathetic; you will notice a scale that ennobles by enlarging, a drawing forth of the eternal spirit from the temporal body (as in the experience of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and other houses of the type, both for God and for Man); you will notice that your animal nature is calmed by patterns of eternal geometries, that your mind delights in decorative artistry, that solid formality lends confidence to your day, offers hope in the permanence of Beauty, in the continuing ascendence of Classive tradition.
* * *
* In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII suspended debate on Pico’s Oration until a commission had examined the theses. In 1943, the examination concluded, Pope Alexander VI absolved Pico of all heresies, et cetera. Unlike the reckless Progressive, the Classive is patient, allowing full consideration to attain a correct opinion.
** By “Happiness”, Jefferson intended eudaimonia, the fulfillment accomplished by arete, an achievement of excellence in character, et cetera … there is no English language equivalent of eudaimonia, so Jefferson, a classical scholar, chose the word “happiness” to conclude his tricolon and to achieve for us the summit of God-granted Liberty.
Featured image credit, Michelangelo’s boyhood home, Tuscany, Italy, David Nicholls.
* * *
And these notes:
When in his seventies, Michealangelo carved a pietà for his own tomb, a pietà that featured his face in Nicodemus.
Of Michelangelo’s strength, Vasari describes Michelangelo holding the leg of a statue he had smashed to pieces … you should know that marble weighs approximately 100 pounds per cubic foot, that Michelangelo was then in his 70s holding a stone that weighed 200 to 300 pounds.
* * *