The+SwerveThe Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, written by Shakespeare and Renaissance expert Stephen Greenblatt, is an account of how ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius’ ancient philosophical (funnily enough) epic poem On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) was rediscovered in the early 1400s by a Florentine man named Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio was an apostolic secretary, collector of ancient manuscripts, and great friends with wealthy and renowned collector of antiquities and manuscripts Niccolò Niccoli. On the Nature of Things contains many ideas that fuelled the Renaissance, inspiring artists and scientists alike.

Greenblatt weaves the tale of Lucretius’ poem’s journey from ancient times, to falling into Poggio’s hands, to its spread throughout Italy giving strength to the Renaissance. The Swerve is also a portrait of Italy on the cusp of the Renaissance – the political dealings, papal scandals and social climbing. Poggio, being an apostolic secretary and moving among the Florentine elite, was well placed as an observer of the times, the perfect starting point from which to map the course of the Renaissance.

Greenblatt includes a handy chapter that breaks down the basic ideas featured in Lucretius’ poem –

  • Everything is made of invisible particles
  • The universe has no creator or designer
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival
  • The soul dies
  • There is no afterlife
  • All organised religions are superstitious delusions
  • Religions are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion

The ideas of Epicurus (Lucretius’ poem introduced Epicurean philosophy to Roman readers) and Lucretius aren’t revolutionary to most people anymore but to think of ancient Romans and Greeks thinking about them seemed amazing to me. To have figured out so many truths only to have them be lost is mind-boggling. And even today their ideas on religion are furiously contested, ‘often by those who gladly avail themselves of the scientific advances [those ideas] helped to spawn’, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it.

I loved how Greenblatt paints pictures of what life was like, creates context and tells stories. He tells us what Poggio would likely have felt (though Poggio did write things down as well) among other details that, given the passage of time, are unknowable, but Greenblatt’s vastly educated conjecture is very welcome. He does the same with his recreation of ancient times. Greenblatt’s setting is the Herculaneum villa known as the Villa of the Papyri where during an archaeological excavation a copy of De rerum natura was discovered. Greenblatt uses these clues to show us the lives and social circles of the people that would have originally read Lucretius and Epicurus. Historical sleuthing, as it were.

I was hugely impressed by The Swerve. To a Renaissance history or philosophy buff perhaps there won’t be much that’s new. Maybe it won’t be a revelation that people in ancient societies hypothesised that the world is made of atoms. But Greenblatt still has a singular ability to demonstrate the awe and wonder and danger of scientific endeavour. It’s a rather intimate slice of history – the life of one man, the impact of one manuscript, but it shows the wide-reaching nature of intellectual exploration and the possibility of changing the course of history with a single discovery. Greenblatt writes with great clarity. The Swerve is ambitious in its vision to tell us ‘How the Renaissance Began’ yet remains crystalline in its real, more modest purpose – to tell the story of Poggio Bracciolini and the inspiring De rerum natura.