BMCR 2006.10.07

“Di soavi licor gli orli del vaso”. La fortuna di Lucrezio dall’Umanesimo alla Controriforma

, Di soavi licor gli orli del vaso : la fortuna di Lucrezio dall'Umanesimo alla Controriforma. Centauri. Torino: N. Aragno, 2004. xiv, 274 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 8884191963 €14.00.

Table of Contents

The aim of this study, in the words of its author, the Pisan doctor Valentina Prosperi (P.), is to establish the scope and preferences of the reception of Lucretius in the Italian Quattrocento and, especially, Cinquecento (XI).1 She consequently reexamines the regard in which the Epicurean poet was held by the Italian humanists in the light of a generous selection of previously ignored philosophical, poetic and preceptive texts, which definitively throw overboard the opinio communis that the influence of Lucretius in Catholic Europe after the Counter-Reformation was an anodyne one. For the fact is that his fortune in Europe, in spite of being one of the most fruitful and attractive, as was recently underlined by M. v. Albrecht (2002), has not yet been sufficiently researched. Specifically, in Spain and Portugal his legacy is even today practically terra incognita as a result of this a priori opinion. As regards the mark left by Lucretius in Germany, special mention should be made of the articles by F. Schmidt (1962), W. Schmid (1972) and H. B. Nisbet (1986), which trawl the Lucretian waters as reflected in specific authors and periods; but I am unaware of any general study. By contrast, his influence in France and England has received closer attention thanks to the monographic studies by C. A. Fusil (1917), E. Belowski (1934), G. R. Hocke (1935), J. H. Wagenblass (1946), W. B. Fleischmann (1964) and H. Jones (1992). Finally, the extent of his influence in Italy has received constant critical attention, but in such a dispersed manner that no satisfactory answer has been proposed for a question of the utmost importance for other areas of European philology: how highly was Lucretius really regarded by the Italian humanists? There are, however, two studies which stand out: Epicureanism and Poetry of Lucretius in the Renaissance by Ch. P. Goddard (1991), an unfortunately unpublished thesis which examines the earliest reflections of Lucretius among the Neapolitan humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries, and Lucrezio in Toscana: Studio su Alessandro Marchetti by M. Saccenti (1966), whose memorandum on the difficulties the Church placed in the way of the first Italian translation by Marchetti clarifies many doubts regarding the belligerent attitude of the Inquisition towards the DRN. This study by P. connects with these works and is of great use, as it undertakes this desideratum by looking into the poetic, philosophical and medical treatises of the period. In so doing it manages to harvest a collection of opinions proceeding from different humanistic disciplines which offer a much more closely defined picture of the place occupied by the work and figure of Lucretius than has hitherto been provided by a swarm of articles more concerned with commenting on dispersed echoes.

The book is structured into four thematic sections, divided into several chapters, at times heterogeneous and uncomfortably matched, which detail by way of excursus numerous facets of the influence of Lucretius.

In the first section, titled “Di soavi licor gli orli del vaso: fortuna di un topos tra antichità e Rinascimento” (3-96), P. studies the Graeco-Latin tradition and the reception in the Italian Renaissance of the simile which defines didactic literature as a sugared pill, to which Lucretius gave perhaps the most perfect and seminal expression in I 936-42, as is made clear in the imitatio which introduces the section, taken from the Gerusalemme liberata (I 3, 6) of T. Tasso. In her analysis she focuses on the three basic applications of this locus communis, which she labels “honey- pharmakon“, in the course of the Western tradition: one of them positive, its main proponents being Xenophon and Lucretius in defending the philosophical nature and pedagogic utility of poetry; another eclectic and rooted in Plutarch, who was at once cautious and favorable with regard to poetry as a pedagogical tool for young people, and, finally, a hostile interpretation, based on the opinions of the Church Fathers, attacking the gentile poets as a corrupting influence, since their sweetened poetry poisoned the Christian doctrine.

In the second section, “Venere, la Vergine e la voluttà: i codici della ricezione di Lucrezio nel Cinquecento” (97-180), P. begins by tackling the historical paradox that the most impious philosopher-poet of Antiquity was never included in the Indices librorum prohibitorum, and presents texts of great documentary and exegetic value. She shows how, in spite of the apparent permissiveness, those writers who dealt with Lucretius to any extent had to repudiate the Epicurean heresies publicly and in the strongest terms. This protestation became a necessarily dissembling procedure for humanists like Pietro Vettori or Sperone Speroni, who felt real fervor not only for the poetry of Lucretius but also for his philosophy. She then investigates the auctoritas of Lucretius in the poetics of the 16th century, tackling that burning question among humanists of whether Lucretius was more of a poet than a philosopher or both at the same time, a doubt raised by the notion advocated in Aristotle’s Poetics that poetry was imitation. In an abrupt change of course P. examines the hymn to Venus, centering on the different proposals to explain it which it inspired in the Cinquecento and on its Nachleben as a Christianized hymn model, whether to sing the praises of the Virgin Mary or to celebrate the angels. Of particular interest is her digression on the erotic reading of book IV of the DRN in the Italian Renaissance, in that she shows how Lucretian erotology fused with the neo-Platonic counterpart of Ficino and eventually became the doctrine with the greatest influence in the love poetry of the European Renaissance. Finally, from amorous physiology she goes on to assess the auctoritas of Lucretius in the medical treatises of the Cinquecento, paying particular attention to the work of the physician Girolamo Mercuriale, who emended a locus criticus of Galen with the help of the Roman Epicurean.

The third and fourth sections make up the second thematic block of the work, devoted almost exclusively to the reminiscence of Lucretius in the work of T. Tasso, the Italian Virgil. Under the heading “Tasso, Lucrezio e l’idea di poesia” (181-206), P. examines how the allegory of “honey- pharmakon” adopts different modulations in Tasso’s poetic treatises, depending on the poet’s evolution as regards theory, and how, of all the many existing formulations, that of Lucretius was the one with the greatest impact. The dissertation, though convincing and abundant in texts, comes across in the end, however, as being somewhat repetitive.

The last part, titled “La memoria poetica lucreziana nell’opera di Tasso” (207-266), comments on the imitations by Tasso of different passages of Lucretius, especially in his Gerusalemme liberata. P. investigates the background to Tasso’s familiarity with Lucretius, which she traces back to his father, the poet B. Tasso. The latter possibly had DRN in his library and in his work L’Amadigi had emulated stellar verses of the Epicurean (I 1-9 and I 936-42). Of particular interest is her examination of the possible scepticism of Tasso in religious matters, as she takes up one of the most attractive polemics of the Cinquecento which had Lucretius as its target. For many moralists the Latin poet, even though he sang of the Epicuri deliramenta, was a powerful agent of atheism and heterodoxy. And in this they were by no means off the mark.

The study contains irritating repetitions as a result of the author’s determination (in our view unnecessary) to structure it around the topos of “honey- pharmakon” (which it would have been preferable to refer to in Latin or Greek). The bibliography, though extensive and up to date, is not organized in a specific section, and fails to take into account the above-mentioned thesis by C. P. Goddard, which also tackles at first hand the influence of Lucretius in Bonincontri, Pontano and Marullo, among others. The index, featuring solely nomina notabilia, is useful and extensive, but insufficient. One would have expected to find an index locorum, all the more in a work on classical tradition containing such a profuse sprinkling of texts, where many readers will surely want to size up whether this or that humanist was imitating Lucretius.

These blemishes, however, do not detract from the interest of a study whose conclusions stem from direct handling of the primary sources. Nor is the prologue writer, G. B. Conte, mistaken when he claims (VII-X) that it deserves to be added to the section which Ernst Robert Curtius devoted to the Topica in his seminal work, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, since it is a most enlightening study, written with precision and good taste. It will appeal to students of the Classical Tradition in general and those who are particularly interested in the fortune of Lucretius in Western Culture. It will also be useful to critics and editors of the work of Tasso, since it analyses his poetic art in the light of its Lucretian influence and the significant number of echoes it contains. In short, it fills a gap with regard to the survival of the most modern of the poets of Antiquity, whose influence, even if unperceived, lies beneath present-day ethics and science with such vigor that he deserves all the attention that classical philology can give him. It is sufficient to recall that his verses fed Enlightenment thinkers with arguments to liberate Europe from the Ancien Régime and that modern science is heir to the Epicurean atomism which Lucretius described in verse, as was made perfectly clear over a century ago by J. Masson (1884). And far from being totally spent, Lucretius’s legacy continues to offer answers to postmodern man to such a degree that the philosopher M. Onfray (2005), author of a best-selling Traité d’athéologie, has declared himself to be following in the footsteps of the Epicurean poet.

Works cited:

– Albrecht, M. v. (2002): “Fortuna europea de Lucrecio”, Cuad. Filol. Clás. Estudios Latinos 20.2, pp. 333-61.

– Belowski, E. (1934): Lukrez in der französischen Literatur der Renaissance, Berlin: Verlag Dr. Emil Ebering.

– Fleischmann, W. B. (1964): Lucretius and English Literature 1680-1740, Paris: A. G. Nizet.

– Fusil, C. A. (1917): L’Anti-Lucrèce du Cardinal de Polignac: contribution à l’étude de la pensée philosophique et scientifique dans le premier tiers du XVIII e siècle, Paris: Éditions “Scientifica”.

– Goddard, Ch. P. (1991): “Epicureanism and Poetry of Lucretius in the Renaissance”, Ph. D. Diss., Cambridge University.

– Hocke, G. R. (1935): Lukrez in Frankreich, Köln: Buchdruckerei Dr. Paul Derschgens.

– Jones, H. (1992): The Epicurean Tradition, London and New York: Routledge.

– Masson, J. (1884): The Atomic Theory of Lucretius Contrasted with Modern Doctrines of Atoms and Evolution, London: George Bell and Sons.

– Nisbet, H. B. (1986): “Lucretius in Eighteenth-Century Germany. With a Commentary on Goethe’s Metamorphose der Tiere“, MLR 87, pp. 97-115.

– Onfray, M. (2005): Traité d’athéologie: physique de la métaphysique, Paris: B. Grasset.

– Saccenti, M. (1966): Lucrezio in Toscana: Studio su Alessandro Marchetti, Firenze: Leo S. Olschki-Editore.

– Schmid, W. (1972): ” De Lucretio in litteris Germanicis obvio“, in R. Hanslik (ed.), Antidosis: Festschrift f. Walther Kraus z. 70. Geburtstag, Wien: Böhlau, pp. 327-55.

– Schmidt, F. (1962): “Lukrez bei Goethe”, Goethe 24, pp. 158-74.

– Wagenblass, J. H. (1946): “Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition in English poetry”, Ph. D. Diss., Harvard University.


1. I am grateful to Jan Zoltowski for the English translation of this review and to Gabriel Laguna Mariscal for his support.