Browsing through a sale bin in search of summer reading, Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World) happened upon a paperback with an extremely odd and erotic cover. Intrigued, he bought a copy of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) for 10 cents. Through the random discovery of this poem, Greenblatt recognized a worldview that mirrored his own, for the ancient poet wrote that humans should accept that we and all the things we encounter are transitory, and we should embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt elegantly chronicles the history of discovery that brought Lucretius’ poem out of the musty shadows of obscurity into an early modern world ripe for his ideas. At the center of this marvelous tale stands an avid book hunter, skilled manuscript copyist and notary: Poggio Bracciolini. While Poggio’s adventures in book hunting had not turned up much of value for several years, one day in 1417 changed his life and the world forever. He pulled down a dusty copy of On the Nature of Things from its hidden place on a monastery shelf, knew what he had found and ordered his assistant to copy it. The manuscript of Lucretius’ poem had languished in the monastery for over 500 years; the monks ignored it because of its lack of religious value. In Poggio’s act of discovery, he became a midwife to modernity.
With his characteristic breathtaking prose, Greenblatt leads us on an amazing journey through a time when the world swerved in a new direction. The culture that best epitomized Lucretius’ embrace of beauty and pleasure was the Renaissance. Greenblatt illustrates the ways that this Lucretian philosophy—which extends to death and life, dissolution as well as creation—characterizes ideas as varied as Montaigne’s restless reflections on matter in motion, Cervantes’ chronicle of his mad knight and Caravaggio’s loving attention to the dirty soles of Christ’s feet. This captivating and utterly delightful narrative introduces us to the diverse nature of the Renaissance—from the history of bookmaking to the conflict between religion and science—and compels us to run out and read Lucretius’ poem.