Book Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve is the story of Renaissance scholar, Poggio Bracciolini, and the monumental ancient poem he rescued from oblivion in 1417. Monks are burned at the stake for heresy, a librarian is flayed alive by Christian zealots and a piratical Pope is deposed for murder, simony and sodomy. Maidens floating in healing waters catch garlands in their open robes. Modern science is born and a nation is dedicated to happiness . . . all in an extensively footnoted 263 page literary history.

Poggio, from humble beginnings, rose to the powerful position of apostolic secretary under several Popes and ultimately became the titular head of state for the Florentine republic under Lorenzo the Magnificent. But it was his quests for ancient Roman manuscripts that lifted him to a level of historical significance among his near-contemporaries Brunelleschi, Petrarch, Ghiberti, Alberti and Donatello.

“We accept Aesculapus as belonging among the gods because he called back Hippolytus, as well as others, from the underworld,” Francesco Barbaro wrote to Poggio upon hearing of his discoveries.

“You have revived so many illustrious men and such wise men, who were dead for eternity, through whose minds and teachings not only we, but our descendants, will be able to live well and honorably.”

Fortunately for us Poggio was also an avid letter writer. The Swerve tells the story of his life and the history of his greatest discovery, Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura,” “On the Nature of Things,” one of the foundational documents of modern science.

“Totaling more than 7,400 lines . . . the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religions, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease . . . the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.”

The basis of the poem Poggio brought back from obscurity was a philosophic/scientific theory, “the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances” that was called by George Santayana “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.” “De Rerum Natura” went on to have a profound influence on Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Thomas More, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson who owned seven copies.

Now we understand the universe is made of atoms and voids, but in the fifteenth century, the severe religious orthodoxy which held the earth to be flat, suppressed Lucretius’s “atomism” and biological evolution. The brave humanist, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for espousing an infinite universe—theories based on Lucretius.

The Swerve is told by Stephen Greenblatt, an imminent Shakespearian scholar, in a series of gripping, cascading digressions that take us from a garden on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, where the highest pleasure is found in philosophical discourse, to self-flagellation by Medieval monks, to petty infighting among scribes in the Papal Curia. As many and as varied the stories in this beautifully written book are, what struck this reader is that invaluable ancient knowledge lay hidden on a monastery shelf, preserved and recopied by monk-librarians for a thousand years. Lucretius’s radical poem was preserved without immediate purpose and without understanding, for if it had been understood it would have been destroyed almost surely. Yet, because a book without current value was saved, and because that book was brought back to life, we live in a far better world.

Poggio Bacciolini was a superb scribe. The handwriting he and his fellow humanist Nicolo Nicoli devised became known as “the humanist script,” which is the basis of the typefaces we use today. Their clean and elegant copies of ancient manuscripts became an invaluable collection. Bacciolini’s and Nicoli’s transcription of “De Natura Rerum” is part of a bequest made by Nicoli to create the very first modern public libraries—libraries based on the design of ancient Roman public libraries with reading rooms and stacks as described by Vitruvius in manuscripts recovered by Poggio.

Their exquisite copy of Lucretius’s great poem is held in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.

Suggested reading:

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

Filippo Brunelleschi 1377-1446 by Peter J. Gärtner

The Sculpture of Donatello by H.W. Janson

The Architecture of Michelangelo by James S. Ackerman

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library