Almost six hundred years ago, a short, genial man took a very old manuscript off a library shelf. With excitement, he saw what he had discovered and ordered it copied. The book was a miraculously surviving copy of the ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, and it changed the course of history.
He found a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas - that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion. These ideas fueled the Renaissance, inspiring Botticelli, shaping the thought of Montaigne, Darwin and Einstein.
So reads the blurb on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began. Here is an extract, to give you a feeling for his work, to whet your appetite for Book Hunting, and to introduce the character of Poggio Bracciolini.
ITALIANS HAD BEEN book-hunting for the better part of a century, ever since the poet and scholar Petrarch brought glory on himself in the 1330s by piecing together Livy’s monumental History of Rome and finding forgotten masterpieces by Cicero, Propertius, and others. Petrarch’s achievement had inspired others to seek out lost classics that had been lying unread, often for centuries. The recovered texts were copied, edited, commented upon, and eagerly exchanged, conferring distinction on those who had found them and forming the basis for what became known as the “study of the humanities.”
The “humanists,” as those who were devoted to this study were called, knew from carefully poring over the texts that had survived from classical Rome that many once famous books or parts of books were still missing. Occasionally, the ancient authors whom Poggio and his fellow humanists eagerly read gave tantalizing quotations from these books, often accompanying extravagant praise or vituperative attacks. Alongside discussions of Virgil and Ovid, for example, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian remarked that “Macer and Lucretius are certainly worth reading,” and went on to discuss Varro of Atax, Cornelius Severus, Saleius Bassus, Gaius Rabirius, Albinovanus Pedo, Marcus Furius Bibaculus, Lucius Accius, Marcus Pacuvius, and others whose works he greatly admired. The humanists knew that some of these missing works were likely to have been lost forever—as it turned out, with the exception of Lucretius, all of the authors just mentioned have been lost—but they suspected that others, perhaps many others, were hidden away in dark places, not only in Italy but across the Alps. After all, Petrarch had found the manuscript of Cicero’s Pro Archia in Liège, in Belgium, and the Propertius manuscript in Paris.
The prime hunting grounds for Poggio and his fellow book hunters were the libraries of old monasteries, and for good reason: for long centuries monasteries had been virtually the only institutions that cared about books. Even in the stable and prosperous times of the Roman Empire, literacy rates, by our standards at least, were not high. As the empire crumbled, as cities decayed, trade declined, and the increasingly anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the whole Roman system of elementary and higher education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work. There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books.
But all monks were expected to know how to read.
This book, as he explained to me, would be able to teach the reader much about ancient Rome. I very much wanted to find this book and to share it with all peoples.