The Swerve

The Swerve
by Steven Greenblatt
2011 / 265  pages plus notes
Rating – 9.5

This is the story of how Gian Poggio, a scholar of the 14th century,  came to find an ancient manuscript, “On the Nature of Things” written by the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius probably around 60BC.   Lucretius’  work is a treatise on the ideas of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher.

So it’s Epicurean philosophy from the Roman Empire.  Poggio made the startling ideas known to his peers back in Rome and Florence in order to break through the darkness of Medieval Europe with some kind of early humanist-Christian thought.  He might not have known what he was doing.

What excites me is that this is an incredibly important link between the ancient Greeks/Roman and the Italian Renaissance, the source of the modern world.  It ties in to the Byzantine Empire, too.  Not too long ago I read a book called Byzantium by Judith Herrin which I really enjoyed.  And reading along in The Swerve  I came to a place in Chapter 5 where one Manuel Chrysoloras, “the preeminent Byzantine scholar,” is mentioned as having come to teach Greek to some of the early Renaissance scholars in Italy, including Poggio. Hmmm …

So I checked Herrin’s book and yup – pages 315, 332 and plate #40. The link between the times, the ages, the Empires is really very clear.  Herrin describes what Chrysoloras taught and brought to Europe while Greenblatt elaborates on Chrysoloras’ students.  Coluccio Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence, invited Chrysoloras to Florence in 1397 where he gathered Poggio, Leonardo Bruni, Niccolo Niccoli, and others to learn Greek to help them in their studies. This was not too long after Plutrarch died whom Coluccio greatly admired. (fwiw)

Okay so why am I typing this? Because the whole world of the Renaissance has just been illuminated for me (again) with the teachings of Epicurus and Lucretius plus Chrysoloras of Byzantium being instrumental in bringing new/old ideas to the West via Poggio.


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