Stephen Greenblatt in his newest book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began writes about the rediscovery by Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, and the intellectual chain reaction it triggered in Italy.
According to Charles Nicholl in a review in The Guardian, in 1417 Poggio
found his biggest prize – a ninth-century manuscript copy containing the entire 7,400-line text of De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by Lucretius. This extraordinary philosophical epic poem, composed in Rome around the middle of the first century BC, was at this point known only by name. It was a missing celebrity of the kind Renaissance book-hunters dreamed of finding. Distant hints of its initial impact could be heard in a letter of Cicero’s of 54BC, which spoke of its “brilliant genius”; in Ovid’s commendation of “the sublime Lucretius”; and in Virgil’s lines from the Georgics, “Blessed is he who has succeeded in finding out the causes of things, and has trampled underfoot all fears”, the latter phrase echoing a line of Lucretius’s – “religion is trampled underfoot” – which would send a shiver through 15th-century Europe.
The poem is powerfully ranged against spiritual and supernatural beliefs. It posits a solely material world in which everything is composed of minute particles, the “seeds of the things” – the world of “atoms” previously proposed by Democritus, though Lucretius does not himself use that word. Among the dangerous ideas elaborated from this (as summarised by Greenblatt) are that the universe was not created by divine power; that the soul dies with the body; that there is no afterlife; that all organised religions are superstitious delusions; and that the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of physical happiness in the here and now. In short, it offered a highly charged, poetic exposition of Epicureanism, that philosophy of upbeat fatalism which the church had feared and condemned ever since.
This was the incendiary, anti-religious manifesto, ironically preserved for posterity in a monastery library, which Poggio Bracciolini released anew into the world.
In 1987, a team headed by a Neapolitan curator and a Norwegian papyrologist succeeded in deciphering and identifying 16 scraps of charred papyrus found at Herculaneum. They proved to be fragments of an early copy of De Rerum Natura – possibly a copy made during the author’s lifetime, certainly one in circulation before August AD79, when Herculaneum was engulfed in the eruption of Vesuvius. Without the copyists and book-hunters like Poggio Bracciolini, these tiny textual remnants might have been all that was left of this visionary poem.