The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence
Harvard University Press, 2010
De Rerum Natura, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius’ epic poem “On the Nature of Things,” enjoyed a widespread popularity during his lifetime in the first century B.C., disappeared entirely during the early centuries of the so-called Dark Ages, enjoyed a brief flicker of notice during the Carolingian period, then vanished again, only to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417 (and even then, the thrills continue: Bracciolini lent it to a friend—always a disastrous move—and never saw it again; luckily, he made a copy first). This rediscovery coincided with the first flowerings of the Italian Renaissance in Florence, and the rationality and agnosticism of Lucretius’ Epicureanism appealed to the poetical but business-minded merchant humanists of Florence’s burgeoning scholarly class.
That class and its foremost characters—the scholar-adventurer Michele Marullo, reluctant intellectual firebrand Bartolomeo Fonzio, Lucretius’ first Florentine editor Pier Candido, the enigmatic Bernaro di Giovanni Rucellai, Florentine chancellors Bartolomeo Scala and Marcello Adriani, Lucretian-influenced luminaries such as the painter Boticelli and the political philosopher Machiavelli, and many others—are detailed in all their teeming, scheming glory in Alison Brown’s careful but winning study of the effects one rediscovered ancient writer had on 15th century Florence.
Brown asserts that in the Florence of that age, Lucretius was “a dangerous author to know” because his various stances—that all the universe consists of atoms in motion, that the gods are indifferent or absent, that organized religions are invented to cow or console the masses—were direct threats to the authority of the Church, and therefore urgently interesting to the Church’s Inquisition. As Brown puts it:
Lucretius’s desire to rid people of their fear of death and the afterlife is one of the principal themes of De Rerum Natura … this is the context in which to understand the first Florentines who repeatedly—and openly—quoted chunks of Lucretius in their writings.
Those writers, Brown says, were not university dons but rather the “scholars and merchants in the squares and piazzas, in private homes, in monasteries, and in the cathedral,” and she evokes an atmosphere charged with both a hunger for new learning and a fear of ecclesiastical repression. This was, readers must recall, the age as much characterized by the bonfires of Savonarola as by the muscular inquiry of scholar-potentates like Lorenzo the Magnificent. Wilson theorizes that the writers of the time, forming “Lucretian networks,” consciously suppressed their overt mentions of the poet in order to subvert Church censorship. This applies, she says, to that most famous of Renaissance writers:
… the extent of Lucretius’ influence on Machiavelli is still undervalued, partly, perhaps, because Machiavelli never cited him by name and rarely quoted from his poem openly, due to the situation in which he was writing …
That “situation” is the implied threat posed by watchful Church authorities, but it’s notoriously difficult to prove a negative: if a mimetic, name-dropping writer like Machiavelli never mentions Lucretius nor “openly” quotes from him, might we not infer that the Roman poet made no deep impression on him? After all, De Rerum Natura never appeared on the Church’s Index of banned books, and although Florence briefly forbade the teaching of the work in schools, the evidence that anybody ever lost his job—let alone his liberty or his life—for doing so is tenuous at best.
But even if this does turn out to be a bit of theoretical overreaching (Wilson might better convince me in a longer, more comprehensive book—certainly the vigor and insight of this volume makes me hope it won’t be the last we hear from her on the period), it hardly diminishes the worth of this slim volume; The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence reminds us that some of the greatest—and riskiest—voyages those 15th century Florentines made were conducted entirely in the confines of their studies. And it’ll make you want to read Lucretius—a volume of whom annotated by Wilson would be a decided treat.