The Swerve: how the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
A fascinating look at the birth of the Renaissance, particularly the rediscovery of a poem written around 50 B.C. In 1415, papal secretary and scribe Poggio Bracciolini is out of a job when Baldassare Cossa, Pope John XXIII, is deposed. Cossa was one of three men at the time claiming to be pope. Poggio was a humanist and bibliophile, as well as a scribe praised for his elegant and legible handwriting. Friends and patrons interested in items of antiquity such as sculpture and Latin manuscripts funded Poggio’s search for lost Latin texts. Monastic libraries were a likely source, as monks were required to read every day. In 1417, probably in the remote Abbey of Fulda in central Germany, Poggio discovered several lost works, including De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things, by Lucretius. Lucretius wrote about Epicureanism, the often misunderstood philosophy about avoiding pain and seeking tranquility and pleasure without overindulging. One central them was about atoms, the smallest particles of matter, which clash in an infinite void. I though atoms were discovered in modern times, not theorized over 2000 years ago. I was also surprised to learn how much is known today about one man’s life in the early 15th century, even that Poggio had 14 children with his mistress, and later married and had 6 more children. Poggio also became chancellor of Florence.
Poggio had the manuscript copied, and eventually copies began to circulate in and around Florence. When Lucretius published De Rarum Natura, Virgil and Cicero both admired it, but it had been lost for several centuries before Poggio found it. Its rediscovery influenced many people, including the painter Botticelli, the Jesuits, Machiavelli, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, How to Live–or–A Life of Montaigne, has led to renewed interest in Montaigne’s Essays, and the publication of Swerve has led to a reprinting of Lucretius’ work. By a strange coincidence, Lucy Hutchinson, a Puritan woman in 1675, translated Lucretius into English, all the while abhorring its non-Christian worldview. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, who is fluent in English and Italian, and found it very absorbing.