Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.06

Ada Palmer, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. I Tatti studies in Italian Renaissance history.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 372.  ISBN 9780674725577.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Quinn Radziszewski, The Ohio State University (


It is a difficult task to track down the Renaissance reader. To do so, one must examine the endless marginal notes of scholars, the slanted scribbles of schoolmasters and the often incomprehensible doodles of their students. Ada Palmer’s entry to the I Tatti series is a testament to the reward of doing such work.

Palmer’s meticulously researched volume traces the life of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura from its rediscovery by Poggio in the fifteenth century up through Diderot’s reading of the text in eighteenth century France. Palmer examines a wide range of sources, including manuscripts and incunables, paratexts, introductions, and Renaissance vitae, to determine how the act of reading Lucretius changed with time, and ultimately how the life of this text has shaped the way we read it today.

The preface to the volume states explicitly that the focus of Palmer’s study is not atomism, but rather the forces that contributed to the survival of a text full of dangerous and controversial ideas. It is an important point that distinguishes the intent of Palmer’s work from that of Stephen Greenblatt’s 2011 volume The Swerve.

Chapter One begins with the provocative claim that Lucretius was an atheist; in the Renaissance, this term could be applied to any behavior that would threaten orthodox belief, making Lucretius a prime target for the label. In today’s terms, Palmer describes Lucretius as a “proto-atheist,” identifying a set of doctrines that, though not explicitly atheist, might lead to a world lacking inherent morality. The author goes on to discuss the complicated web of relationships between Epicureanism, atomism, skepticism and atheism, tracing the rise of these schools through the works of Lorenzo Valla, Girolamo Fracastoro and Giordano Bruno, culminating with the work of Pierre Gassendi. Palmer concludes, however, that most humanists read Lucretius for his moral philosophy and poetic language.

The chapter is also useful for Palmer’s excellent overview of Epicurean and Lucretian ideas, covering the definition of pleasure, the atomic gods, simulacra, which Palmer translates elegantly as “shells,” theories of sensation, and of course, the swerve. The reception of Lucretius from Cicero to Lactantius, Petrarch and Boccaccio is also covered here.

The magnitude of Palmer’s research into Lucretian manuscripts comes to the foreground in Chapter Two, in which the author uses marginalia to determine points of interest among Renaissance readers. Palmer limits her study to manuscripts and incunables produced before 1515. Palmer’s statistical analysis of the occurrence of marginal notes is presented clearly, with a brief but satisfactory explanation of the problems posed by sample size and other factors. The author identifies seven areas of interest: philological correction, vocabulary, poetic language, cultural and historical points, natural and moral philosophy, and atomism. Palmer usefully distinguishes between readers making restorative efforts (operating within the first four categories) and those interested in the content for its own sake (the last three areas). Palmer concludes that Lucretius was of interest in this period primarily for those wishing to restore the past, or the text itself, and for its moral, medical, and philological aspects.

In addition to presenting statistics on the entire group of manuscripts, Palmer studies in detail four eminent Renaissance readers: Pomponio Leto, whose annotation focuses on religion and moral philosophy; Marcello Adriani, who uses Lucretius’s arguments against superstition in his own attacks on Savonarola; Machiavelli, who displays a surprising interest in the mechanics of Lucretian physics; and Pietro Vettori, who rejects atomism as absurditas in sententia. Perhaps most striking is the section on Machiavelli, in which Palmer also argues that The Prince is indebted to Lucretius’s mechanistic universe, which is able to operate without the oversight of any deity.

Chapter Three operates on the premise that Renaissance readers considered works by authors of sound morality inherently better and more valuable than those by immoral authors. Accordingly, references to and proto-biographies of Lucretius were influential in the life of the De Rerum Natura in that they shaped the view of Lucretius’s character. Biographers boosted Lucretius’s reputation by presenting him as a predecessor of Virgil, as an author read and emended by the eminent Cicero, and as a poet on the same level as Ennius and Ovid, according to Statius (Silvae II.7). He was also, according to Eusebius, a madman who committed suicide, and lover of the boy Astericon, according to a letter falsely attributed to Jerome. There is a brief digression on the confusion of Lucretius with the author Lucilius, both names being abbreviated in the same way.

Chapter Four presents various justifications for reading authors who deviate from the Christian worldview. Palmer expands on Chapter Three here, presenting eight biographies of Lucretius and one list of quotations on the author, considering how each presents the text and author to the reader. Many, like Leto, focus on the value of language and philosophy, while others such as Avancius, Girolamo Borgia, and Petrus Crinitus emphasize Lucretius’s place among the poets of the Golden Age. It is only relatively late that a biographer presents the text as a useful source of natural philosophy—Denys Lambin, in 1570. Two of the biographies presented are also interesting in that they are reworked, or one might say plagiarized, from other biographers presented here, providing an interesting commentary on the idea of intellectual property in the sixteenth century.

Chapter Five considers print editions of Lucretius’s text, which continue to be annotated and often contain paratexts. Palmer finds that readers become rather passive in the late sixteenth century, though Lambin’s commentary, Montaigne’s annotations and the work of Pierre Gassendi stand out. Lambin attributes Lucretius’s “mistaken” ideas to Epicurus, an interesting defense strategy, while Montaigne finds value in Lucretius’s inclusion of Skeptic philosophy. The work of Gassendi, on the other hand, makes full use of Lucretius’s weak empiricism.

Palmer concludes that Lucretius emerged first as a poet and moral philosopher and second as a natural philosopher and atomist in the sixteenth century. The moment of the text’s rediscovery began a period of restoration that allowed readers to dismiss ideas that were too radical in favor of linguistic and historical material. As the text became more readable and more widely available, the reader’s focus shifted towards the content, and a second stage of reception began. As Palmer states succinctly, the text of the De rerum natura changed along with methods of reading it.

Palmer includes three useful appendices to the text. Appendix A provides a list of Lucretius manuscripts with detailed descriptions, divided by period, and a bibliography of secondary sources. Appendix B contains capitula for all six books of the De Rerum Natura, which Palmer posits may have begun as marginal notations and been incorporated into the text by scribes at a later time. Appendix C lists surviving editions of Lucretius from 1471-1600, possible lost editions, “ghosts” attested in other sources, and a table of individual copies inspected.

The only typo appears on page 206, line 6, “rather he invokes [the] fact that the True Faith itself…”.

Palmer has produced a clear and useful work for advanced scholars of Lucretius, easy to consult and thorough in all areas. The volume is also useful to beginning students; the first three chapters in particular work well as an introduction to the study of Lucretius and reception in general. On the whole it is a highly valuable contribution, for the sheer volume of manuscripts consulted, the methodology with which they are analyzed, and the lively narrative the author creates around them.

The title makes for an outstanding entry in the ongoing I Tatti series, which has become well-known for producing necessary and insightful volumes such as this.

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