Friday, February 16, 2018

Poggio’s Discovery of De Rerum Natura in 1417

A 1483 copy of De Rerum Natura
In his fascinating history book, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, Stephen Greenblatt posits that the Renaissance began when Lucretius’s 7,400-line poem De Rerum Natura was reintroduced in Europe. Here’s an excerpt from the book's Chapter 2, "The Moment of Discovery" (Greenblatt is describing Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of De Rerum Natura in the library of a German monastery in Fulda in 1417):
Even the smallest of the finds that Poggio was making was highly significant—for anything at all to surface after so long seemed miraculous—but they were all eclipsed, from our own perspective if not immediately, by the discovery of a work still more ancient than any of the others that he had found. One of the manuscripts consisted of a long text written around 50 BCE by a poet and philosopher named Titus Lucretius Carus. The text’s title, De rerum natura—On the Nature of Things—was strikingly similar to the title of Rabanus Maurus’s celebrated encyclopedia, De rerum naturis. But where the monk’s work was dull and conventional, Lucretius’ work was dangerously radical.  
Poggio would almost certainly have recognized the name Lucretius from Ovid, Cicero, and other ancient sources he had painstakingly pored over, in the company of his humanist friends, but neither he nor anyone in his circle had encountered more than a scrap or two of his actual writing, which had, as far as anyone knew, been lost forever. 
Poggio may not have had time, in the gathering darkness of the monastic library, and under the wary eyes of the abbot or his librarian, to do more than read the opening lines. But he would have seen immediately that Lucretius’ Latin verses were astonishingly beautiful. Ordering his scribe to make a copy, he hurried to liberate it from the monastery. What is not clear is whether he had any intimation at all that he was releasing a book that would help in time to dismantle his entire world.

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