The combination of intellectual enfranchisement and moral release produced “the man of the Renaissance.” He was not typical enough to merit that title; there were a dozen types of man in that age as in any other; he was merely the most interesting, perhaps because he was exceptional. The Renaissance peasant was what peasants have always been until machinery made agriculture an industry. The Italian proletaire of 1500 was like those of Rome under the Caesars or Mussolini; occupation makes the man. The Renaissance businessman was like his past and present peers. The Renaissance priest, however, was different from the medieval or modern priest; he believed less and enjoyed more; he could make love and war. Amid these types was an arresting mutation, a sport of the species and the time, the kind of man we think of when we recall the Renaissance, a type unique in history, except that Alcibiades, seeing him, would have felt reborn.
The qualities of this type revolved about two foci: intellectual and moral audacity. A mind sharp, alert, versatile, open to every impression and idea, sensitive to beauty, eager for fame. It was a recklessly individualistic spirit, set on developing all its potential capacities; a proud spirit, scorning Christian humility, despising weakness and timidity, defying conventions, morals, tabus, popes, even, occasionally, God. In the city such a man might lead a turbulent faction; in the state, an army; in the Church he would gather a hundred benefices under his cassock, and use his wealth to climb to power. In art he was no longer an artisan working anonymously with others on a collective enterprise, as in the Middle Ages; he was “a single and separate person,” who stamped his character upon his works, signed his name to his paintings, even, now and then, carved it on his statues, like Michelangelo on the Pietà. Whatever his achievements, this “Renaissance man” was always in motion and discontent, fretting at limits, longing to be a “universal man”—bold in conception, decisive in deed, eloquent in speech, skilled in art, acquainted with literature and philosophy, at home with women in the palace and with soldiers in the camp.
His immorality was part of his individualism. His goal being the successful expression of his personality, and his environment imposing upon him no standards of restraint either from the example of the clergy or from the terror of a supernatural creed, he allowed himself any means to his ends, and any pleasure on the way. None the less he had his own virtues. He was a realist, and seldom talked nonsense except to a reluctant woman. He had good manners when he was not killing, and even then he preferred to kill with grace. He had energy, force of character, direction and unity of will; he accepted the old Roman conception of virtue as manliness, but added to it skill and intelligence. He was not needlessly cruel, and he excelled the Romans in his capacity for pity. He was vain, but that was part of his sense of beauty and form. His appreciation of the beautiful in woman and nature, in art and crime, was a mainspring of the Renaissance. He replaced the moral with the esthetic sense; if his type had multiplied and prevailed, an irresponsible aristocracy of taste would have supplanted the aristocracies of birth or wealth.
But, again, he was only one of many kinds of Renaissance man. How different was the idealistic Pico, with his belief in the moral perfectibility of mankind—or the grim Savonarola, blind to beauty and absorbed in righteousness—or the gentle gracious Raphael, scattering beauty about him with an open hand—or the demonic Michelangelo, haunted with the Last Judgment long before he painted it—or the melodious Politian, who thought there would be pity even in hell—or the honest Vittorino da Feltre, so successfully binding Zeno to Christ—or the second Giuliano de’ Medici, so kindly just that his brother the Pope considered him unfit for government! We perceive, after every effort to abbreviate and formulate, that there was no “man of the Renaissance.” There were men, agreeing only in one thing: that life had never been lived so intensely before. The Middle Ages had said—or had pretended to say—No to life; the Renaissance, with all its heart and soul and might, said Yes.