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The Most Charming Pagan

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican), Ms. lat.224, 2 recto
Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, portrait from a manuscript of his work De varietate fortunae, written when he was sixty-eight years old

The classical heritage as a whole, finally, was threatened in a more comprehensive way by Christianity. Learned Christians like Jerome struggled to free themselves from their passion for the beauty of the ancient texts. In Jerome’s case, the pursuit of virtue became an obsession. It inspired the famous nightmare described in one of his letters in which he was dragged before the judgment seat of God and accused of being a Ciceronian, not a Christian. Other Christians feared the ridicule of cultivated pagans, who despised the crude Christian scriptures and what they saw as the bizarre nonsense of Christian theology. Augustine recalls with exquisite relief, in his Confessions, how much it meant to him to learn from Ambrose, bishop of Milan, that he did not have to take everything in the Bible literally. Like a learned pagan, he could use allegory and the spiritual sense when the texts that mattered most to him proved impossible to understand.

All Christian authorities, finally, denounced the idea that virtue could lie in the pursuit of pleasure. In the monasteries that embodied the virtuous Christian life most clearly, athletes of holiness sought the opposite of what Epicurus and Lucretius had aimed for. Virtue, for Christians, meant not the pleasure to be found in a quiet life devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, but the pain, frequent and extreme, that could atone in part for the sinful nature all had inherited from Adam and Eve.

The monasteries, in Greenblatt’s account—a curious blend of Gibbonian irony and Sadean relish—were not quiet, dignified centers for the performance of the liturgy and the copying of texts but “theaters of pain.” Their inmates vied to torment themselves more effectively than their rivals, wielding everything from whips and chains to iron crosses fixed with nails into their bodies. In these houses of self-punishment, classical texts naturally aroused relatively little interest, and pleas for the pursuit of pleasure were stigmatized as especially evil. Only a swerve or two—the fact that a copy survived in a library that Poggio happened to explore—saved On the Nature of Things from the extinction suffered by most of Epicurus’ own works.

Poggio, however, did far more than just have the text copied. He was the fifteenth-century equivalent of those expert consumers who nowadays inspire thousands of imitators when they choose a pair of jeans or a device from Apple. A poor but ambitious boy from the Tuscan countryside, he had made a name at Florence in culturally advanced circles. The chancellor of the Republic, Coluccio Salutati, was a learned scholar and a book collector, and he offered Poggio support. He arranged for a learned Byzantine, Manuel Chrysoloras, to teach Greek in Florence for three years, and opened his library to Poggio.

Niccolò Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni cultivated more avant-garde tastes. Niccoli, an aesthete and antiquary who collected ancient works of art and dined off crystal, choreographed the search for lost and unknown classical texts on which so many younger scholars were engaged. He built up in his own house the magnificent collection of books that eventually became the nucleus of the library of San Marco. Bruni, in a brilliant dialogue, recorded the scorn with which Niccoli dismissed the Latin written by moderns like Petrarch and Boccaccio. These men insisted that earlier scholars retained far too many traces of the Middle Ages. They had not realized that letters must always be written in the first-person singular, as the ancients had written them. And they had misspelled many words, writing nichil, rather than nihil, and the like.

To the modern reader, arguing about the spelling of nihil may sound like much ado about nothing. To these devoted aesthetes, the way such questions were decided mattered deeply—as deeply as the choice of color, centuries later, to another classicist, Oscar Wilde. Choices of spelling and script could exemplify true civilization or reveal barbarous ignorance. It was in their company that Poggio devised the plain text block of printed words, written with exquisite clarity, that became first the proper form for classical texts and then the standard modern format for books in general (as it has remained). And it was from them that he took direction as he became a skillful book hunter.

Eventually, Poggio found his way to Rome, where the pope and the cardinals needed highly literate staffers to create and sell the official documents—marriage annulments, for example—that brought in much of the Curia’s income as well as to draft and preserve the papacy’s official correspondence with other powers. The Curia was a strange and inward-looking world, then as now a center of anticlerical humor. Many of the learned laymen who served as secretaries liked nothing better than retreating to their “chamber of lies,” where they told nasty stories about arrogant prelates, ignorant priests, and lustful friars, in the manner, though usually without the wit, of Boccaccio. “Nobody was spared,” Poggio recalled. He himself climbed to the top of the pole, becoming the pope’s domestic secretary—the highest office someone like him could aspire to.

Greenblatt emphasizes the curial humanists’ spite and jealousy, which found expression in everything from vicious written attacks on one another to actual scuffles. After one of these, George of Trebizond, a fellow scholar, wrote to Poggio: “I could have bitten off the fingers you stuck in my mouth; I did not. Since I was seated and you were standing, I thought of squeezing your testicles with both hands and thus lay you out: I did not do it.” Greenblatt finds these quarrels “grotesque,” evidence of “something rotten” in the humanists’ lives. To me, these grumpy scholars look like normal avant-garde intellectuals, caught in a pressure-cooker environment that forced them to spend time together even as they fought to reach their patrons’ ear trumpets: not so unlike the young playwrights of Elizabethan London, or, for that matter, the young New York writers of a few generations ago, who resorted to knives as well as fists at the sort of party where, in John Berryman’s words, “Somebody slapped/Somebody’s second wife somewhere.”

What does seem clear—and though Greenblatt does not bring this out very clearly, Alison Brown does in her excellent short book The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (2010)—is that the humanists of Rome and Florence actually formed something like a coherent group of cutting-edge thinkers, some of whom moved back and forth between the two cities. After the Romans expelled Pope Eugenius IV, the connections became even closer. The Pope and Curia spent years in Florence and nearby, attending—among other great events—the dedication of Florence’s new cathedral. Most of these men shared a distaste for what they saw as the corrupt church that some of them served and a taste for new classical texts. It was only natural, then, that Lucretius would interest them.

One more swerve took place. Poggio did not copy the manuscript of Lucretius that he found. Instead, he ordered a copy, which took some time to reach him, and which he then sent on to Niccoli—who simply held on to it: “You have now kept the Lucretius,” the exasperated Poggio wrote at one point, “for fourteen years.” But finally the text came back. Copies began to circulate: more than fifty manuscripts descended from Poggio’s copy survive. In the 1430s, the Florentine scholar Ambrogio Traversari translated the Greek Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius: a gossipy work, but rich with information, which included the full texts of three letters by Epicurus himself. Gradually, humanists in the Roman-Florentine world realized that Lucretius and the Epicurean philosophy he espoused were good to think with. Soon intellectual experiments were going forward.

Take Alberti—the brilliant papal secretary, classical scholar, and architect, who makes only cameo appearances in The Swerve. An illegitimate member of a family banished from Florence for political reasons, Alberti returned to the city in the 1430s. Filled with enthusiasm by the new work being done by Florentine artists, he wrote—first in Italian, and then in Latin—the treatise On Painting. The Italian version began with a prefatory letter to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Here Alberti confessed that he had long believed that nature had become old and tired, since she no longer produced geniuses or giants. Coming to Florence, however, he saw Brunelleschi’s new dome—big enough, he claimed, to shelter the whole population of Florence (and, as he noted in another work, to create its own gentle climate). Suddenly Alberti realized that nature still had power: the course of history and the cosmos was not necessarily downward to destruction.

The only thing Alberti did not say—as Greenblatt’s Harvard colleague Christine Smith has pointed out—is that he had learned his pessimism from Lucretius, who described the world as degenerating from its primitive fertility. The Epicurean poet gave Alberti powerful ideas, which he enjoyed testing—in this case to destruction—against his own experience. It was in this same period that Lorenzo Valla—another brilliant, iconoclastic humanist—wrote his dialogue On Pleasure, which included a powerful statement of the Epicurean position—one so strongly put that it shocked Poggio, who took it as Valla’s true belief even though the dialogue included a Christian refutation.

For two centuries to come, Lucretius would serve as an intellectual fire-starter. Some, like the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, would feel the attractions of Epicurus, only to recoil. Others, like the humanist and public official Bartolomeo Scala, would explore Epicurean tenets over and over again. The Medici and the scholars and artists who worked for them, who dominated Florence from 1434 to 1494 and again after 1512, loved to evoke the Golden Age—the paradise at the beginning of time, when Justice ruled the earth, which the Medici claimed to restore.

When the city expelled the Medici in 1494, great convulsions followed, as the Dominican prophet and reformer Girolamo Savonarola helped convince the Florentines to rebuild their republic. Almost two decades of struggle followed. No wonder, Brown argues, that Florentines began to see the uses of Lucretius’ haunting description of the primitive world, which he portrayed as an age of savagery and violence, and applied it to their own world. No wonder either that one eager reader, who not only copied a manuscript of Lucretius, now in the Vatican, but adorned it with unusually perceptive notes, was a young man named Niccolò Machiavelli. For this dark, materialist political thinker—as, a century and a half later, for Thomas Hobbes—Lucretius offered a mode for understanding the political, as well as the physical, universe.

Yet as Alison Brown shows, there were other strands to the Florentine response to Lucretius. During the arduous voyage that brought him Lucretius and so much more, Poggio visited Baden-Baden. He was charmed by the sight of diaphanously clad Germans swimming and playing ball, men and women barely separated—a custom, he noted, that his fellow Italians would never have tolerated. And he described what he saw in a wonderful, light-hearted set piece of a letter, in which he praised the “Epicurean thinking” of the Germans. Something about this connection between foreign customs and Epicurus proved attractive. When the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci wrote his description of South America’s inhabitants, who went without clothing and shared property and wives, he described them as “Epicureans”—a point that would, in turn, inspire Thomas More. The citizens of his Utopia, as Greenblatt notes in a short but insightful discussion, were also Epicureans.

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