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The Most Charming Pagan

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

by Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 356 pp., $26.95
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Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican), Vat. lat. 1569 fol. 1 recto medbio04 NAN.13
Frontispiece to On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, copied by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Pope Sixtus IV, Italy, 1483

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve celebrates an ancient Latin poem. So, as he shows, did the scholars and scribes who brought it back into circulation in Renaissance Europe. The frontispiece of one manuscript suggests something of what they found in it (see illustration on this page). On it stands a classical arch, adorned with colored marble and sculpted capitals, standing before a landscape with river, cliffs, and a spindly, towering tree—the kind of imaginary country you usually see in fifteenth-century paintings of saints receiving the stigmata. On the pediment and in front of the base, naked putti run about. Two of them hold a giant compass: a hint that the text that follows may hold secrets about how the universe was made. Two more hold up a tablet, with a Latin verse written on it in classical capitals:

ENEADVM GENITRIX HOMINVM DIVVMQVE VOLVPTAS (Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, delight of men and Gods)

Four more cherubic stagehands, two at the top and two at the bottom, use cords to stretch an enormous piece of what looks like skin across the entire opening of the arch. This bears thirteen more lines of Latin verse: a marvelous description, charged with passion and energy, of spring, as the earth becomes fertile once more, and breezes and flowers herald the erotic dance in which all creatures will soon join.

Standing on the top of the arch, two more putti hold up another tablet that identifies the book for which this humanist fantasia is merely the extravagant title page: “The first book of Titus Lucretius, the celebrated Epicurean poet.” Go (virtually) through the arch and you’ll find On the Nature of Things, the remarkable Latin poem in six books that is the only surviving work of the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, written in a handsome script. This manuscript was copied by an Augustinian friar, Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris, in 1483, for Pope Sixtus IV. It now belongs to the great library that he did so much to create, where it holds the unromantic shelfmark Vat. lat. 1569.

The story seems simple enough. In the fifteenth century, the new culture of Renaissance humanism, with its sense of new possibilities inspired by the past, filled rulers throughout Italy with enthusiasm. Clever manipulators like Cosimo de’ Medici and ruthless soldiers of fortune like Federigo da Montefeltro appointed fluent Latinists to write propaganda for them, studied the ancients themselves, and collected as many classical texts as they could. Contemporary popes, scions of aristocratic Italian families and Renaissance princes in their own right, followed suit. Pope Nicholas V created, and Pope Sixtus IV expanded and institutionalized, the Vatican Library: a humanistic collection, stuffed with newly discovered Latin texts and newly translated Greek ones, which they made available to all the members of their large entourages who took an interest in antiquity. “The whole court of Rome” supposedly browsed there. Certainly Leon Battista Alberti did so when he collected from dozens of texts the vast amount of information about ancient buildings and cities that he compressed into his pioneering treatise The Art of Building.

It seems only natural that Sixtus’s handsome manuscript of Lucretius should have found its way into the Vatican Library. The work of a brilliant poet and ambitious philosopher, the text had earned the praise of the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil himself. Except for its title and opening line, the manuscript was written in the handsome, rounded script that the humanists of fifteenth-century Italy thought of as appropriate for ancient Latin texts—though they had derived it not from ancient books, which were written very differently, but from manuscripts of the classics written in Carolingian Europe, seven hundred years before their time.

Yet there is something troubling about the manuscript. Lucretius, as it proclaimed, was an “Epicurean” poet—a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Like his master, he believed that the universe consisted of invisible particles, or atoms, that fell through the endless void until one of them “swerved” and struck another one. The stars, the planets, and the animals and people that inhabited the earth had all come into being by chance, as particles collided, and would eventually fall apart again into nothingness. The gods formed a separate order of being, and took no interest in the fates of humans. Hence it was pointless to fear them or invoke their help.

After surveying the disasters and miseries of human life—which included the plague, vividly described in terms that Lucretius adapted from the Greek historian Thucydides—a wise man would devote himself not to the service of divinities but to the pursuit of true and lasting pleasures: above all the state of ataraxia, freedom from disturbance, which could be attained by contemplation—but also friendship. This was a magnificent vision, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Swerve, one that taught the votary of wisdom how to abandon fear and take pleasure in the beauty of the world—but also one impossible to reconcile with Christian ideas about God, the cosmos, and the duties of mankind. How did this most pagan of the pagans gain entry to the papal library? And what did his presence there mean?

These are some of the questions that Greenblatt poses, and tries to answer, in his book. Lucretius, he argues, offered Christian readers a vision of the world so radically alien that it called all their assumptions into question. Recognizing this, the authorities did their best, ultimately without success, to suppress his work. Jerome, Church father and influential historian of ancient literature and culture, recorded his disapproval in a strangely equivocal biographical note—the only surviving one from antiquity:

Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later on, he was rendered insane by a love potion. When he had written some books in the intervals of his madness, which Cicero later corrected, he killed himself in his forty-fourth year.

Few librarians stocked, and few learned men cited, the work of this ancient madman—even if, as Jerome suggested, he had apparently been sane enough while writing to gain Cicero’s editorial help.

In 1414, however, a swerve worthy of Epicurus himself brought On the Nature of Things back, not just to life but also into the cultural swim. Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist scholar who worked as a secretary for Pope John XXIII, accompanied his master to Konstanz, to attend a council of the Church, which was deep in trouble. The council had to deal with the fact that there were three rival popes, each with followers, as well as the Hussite heretics in Bohemia, one of whom it executed, breaking a promise of safe conduct. When John realized that his support was gone, he fled the city. Arrested and deposed he capitulated, bringing his papal name into such discredit that none of his successors would adopt it until Angelo Roncalli did so in 1958. Poggio found himself for the moment without a job. A passionate book hunter, he took refuge from his troubles throughout his life by hunting for truffles in libraries.

Now he decided to brave the difficulties of traveling in German lands, where he did not speak the language, and of hunting for books in dusty, cobwebbed monastic libraries guarded by obdurate and suspicious monks, whom he did not like. (In a tradition that went back to Boccaccio and before, Poggio suspected them of corruption and hypocrisy.) In 1417, in one of the collections that Poggio explored—probably that of the great Benedictine house of Fulda, in south Germany—he found the text of Lucretius. Poggio read the shocking book and changed the world. Or at least he let loose a text powerful enough to frighten some readers and fascinate others. Greenblatt lays out, in a disappointingly dry series of bullet points, some of “the elements that constituted the Lucretian challenge”—e.g., that “Religions are invariably cruel”—and he writes suggestively, though all too briefly, about the work’s “compellingly, seductively beautiful” poetry. But his central argument has to do, again, with swerves: what happened when the particle of De rerum natura, newly set in motion, began to strike readers.

Changing the world always takes time, and the way in which a book can be the agent of change needs a fair amount of explaining. Before Greenblatt tells the story of Lucretius and the Renaissance, he pulls back from his granular, close-up account of the discovery and lays out vivid panorama after panorama. The story begins with Lucretius and his contemporaries. The worldly philosophers of the late Roman Republic, men like Cicero, sought the truth not by isolating themselves in book-lined cells but by bringing together good company and staging debates. They looked for wisdom in their villas on the Bay of Naples, where they found refuge from the stench, graffiti, and raging crowds of Rome. Modern archaeology has recreated one of these realms of high living and high thinking, from a few generations later: the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, the rooms and treasures of this great house have been brought back to life by more than two centuries of archaeological effort.

Great scholarly and technical ingenuity, which Greenblatt vividly describes, have made it possible to open and read many of the carbonized scrolls once stored in the villa’s library. They include the works and notebooks of an Epicurean philosopher and erotic poet named Philodemus, a contemporary of Lucretius (fragments of his work have also been found there). Drawing on Cicero’s vivid accounts as well as these materials, Greenblatt evokes a critical, sophisticated world in which cultivated men could develop a skeptical attitude toward the personal existence of Rome’s ancient gods.

Here as elsewhere in the book, the reader may feel that Greenblatt is alluding to personal experiences, allegorically: in this case, perhaps, the reading groups and seminars of Berkeley, another city of villas by a lovely bay, where Greenblatt taught for many years, before joining the faculty at Harvard. The core of Greenblatt’s discussion, however, is directed to the Epicureans themselves. He eloquently conveys their conviction that their master had led a truly exemplary life, capped with a courageous death, even though he had remained secluded in the austerity of his Athenian garden, avoiding the temptations of fame and political engagement.

Books do furnish a room.” The scrolls of the Epicureans decorated what must have been a lovely library, its walls mounted with wooden shelves, in the villa. But books also led a precarious life, in antiquity and after. The teeth of time gnawed continually. Individual scrolls were menaced not only by volcanoes but also by theft, damp, and hungry animals too tiny to see with the naked eye (Greenblatt quotes a wonderful description of bookworms from Robert Hooke’s treatise of 1655, Micrographia). Whole collections were damaged or destroyed by the fires that broke out in times of civil war or civic disturbance—both of which took place at Alexandria, home of the greatest of ancient libraries, and led to destruction.

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