BMCR 2011.01.30

The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History

, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2010. xiv, 139. ISBN 9780674050327. $35.00.


Between its discovery by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417 and the prohibition of the work in Florentine schools exactly one century later, Lucretius De rerum natura (DRN) was copied in numerous manuscripts in Florence and subsequently printed all over Italy. The main attractions of the poem seem to have been its treatment of the fear of death, evolutionary primitivism and atomism. In her book, Brown explores “the way in which these themes provide a link between the early revival of Lucretius and the humanists most interested in his philosophy in Florence.” Yet the readers of Lucretius and their motives for reading him remain largely unknown. Brown tracks the influence of this “intriguing and dangerous” text (p. viii) on Christian readers in the fifteenth century through direct and indirect quotations from DRN itself, in an “unashamedly contextual” approach and “an attempt to answer the question why so many ordinary Florentines appeared to be interested in this text”. ‘Ordinary’ may be an unhappy adjective for the three chancery humanists central in her book: Bartolomeo Scala, Marcello Adriani and Niccolò Macchiavelli. These laymen, she argues, were not inhibited by the concerns of clerical colleagues like Bartolomeo Fonzio, Angelo Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino. To them she dedicates the three central chapters (p. 16-87), in fact three previously written articles (of which one is forthcoming), here integrated into a narrative and framed by an introductory first chapter about the Epicurean revival in Quattrocento Italy and by a concluding fifth chapter about the fallout of this revival.

Poggio, who was at the basis of Lucretius’ revival, seldom quoted the poet directly, but he provided a link between the curial humanists who alluded to Lucretius in the 1430s and 1440s and the secular Florentines who were more open to these new, potentially subversive ideas. The outburst of hedonism and Epicureanism is linked by Brown to Florence’s religious heterodoxy in those days, a situation that may also have influenced the Platonic revival in the city. Brown tries then to discover how Lucretius was read, and by whom. She notes that his influence seems to have been restricted to a group of scholars who liked his poetry but not his message, and explains the interest in DRN as the lure of a bold and imaginative poet who wrote movingly about the human condition.

The second chapter is dedicated to Marsilio Ficino and especially to Bartolomeo Scala, whose lifelong engagement with Epicurean themes in his letters, fables and other writings is illustrated. The third chapter deals with the inaugural lectures of Marcello Adriani. They document Lucretius’ substantial influence on Adriani – until recently a ‘largely neglected figure’ (p. 45) – during his quarter century of teaching and working in the university of Florence and its chancery. While he has recently received some attention from scholars, it is Brown’s merit to have detected Lucretius as an important element in Adriani’s thinking, and as the missing link between his ‘backward-looking’ republican patriotism of Leonardo Bruni’s era and his forward-looking interest in natural science and history. Brown quotes numerous passages of Adriani’s lectures in an accurate English translation and prints the unpublished Latin source text (extant in two Florentine manuscripts) in the footnotes. Adriani interestingly used Lucretius to rebuff Savonarola’s fundamentalism in the years after the downfall of the Medici regime in 1494, and he was inspired mainly by Lucretius’ primitivism, atomism and criticism of superstitious religion. The origin of his arguments, however, was often disguised, as it threatened Christian orthodoxy.

The fourth chapter discusses Lucretius’ undervalued influence on Machiavelli. After the Church’s ban on both Epicurean and Averroist philosophy in 1513, he had to be cautious. Machiavelli never mentions Lucretius by name and rarely quotes him, but we have an autograph copy of the whole DRN in his hand, and his rational and skeptical outlook was clearly influenced by Lucretius, Brown argues, especially in his emphasis on the role of fortune in life and on the importance of behaving with moral flexibility in adapting to change. Machiavelli clearly echoes Adriani’s lectures, and the perspective of these lectures sheds new light on Machiavelli’s worldview. Brown even suggests that Lucretius may provide some important ideas in our understanding of Machiavelli’s coherent and original philosophy, and may resolve some of the discrepancies in it that have hitherto seemed difficult to reconcile, for example in Machiavelli’s ambiguous attitude to religion. For this reason, the marginal notes in his autograph transcription of DRN and his borrowings from Adriani’s lecture of 1497 are cornerstones for a good understanding of Machiavelli’s thinking.

The fifth chapter concerns Lucretian networks in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Brown shows how Poliziano and Ficino were more strongly influenced by Epicurus and Lucretius than they liked to admit, and the same was true for their friend Bartolomeo Fonzio. She discusses in addition Lucretius’ reception by Bernardo Rucellai, the Greek poet Michele Marullo and Piero di Braccio Martelli, other Florentines who were part of a ‘Lucretian network’ in the early years of the sixteenth century, while Lucretianism may also have influenced painters like Botticelli, his pupil Filippino Lippi, Leonardo da Vinci, and Piero di Cosimo. Piero’s Forest Fire follows Lucretius’ account of evolution particularly closely, and has been chosen to adorn the dust jacket of this attractively designed book. The main text is followed by an appendix about Machiavelli’s transcription of Lucretius now in the Vatican Library (Rossi 884, containing Lucretius and Terence), a Select Bibliography and a detailed Index.

Unfortunately, the book is not entirely free of typographical errors, mainly in the Italian ( du for su, p. 68; atesimo for ateismo, p. 92; schrittoio for scrittoio, p. 96), although a certain nonchalance seems at hand in the quoting of other languages and proper names: Ezio Raimondi is called Enzio Raimondi (p. 38, 97, 126, 137), László Juhász is spelled Laszio Juhasz on p. 5 and 124, and even Lucrèce himself has to settle for Lucrece in the quote of a collection about Le Timée de Platon: Contributions à l’historie (sic) de se (sic) réception (p. 99). The Florence Biblioteca Nazionale is spelled Biblioteca Nationale on p. xiv (getting its due, however, in the Abbreviations listing on the opposing page – where the usual BNCF would have been a better choice than the BNF that readers may spontaneously associate to Paris), while the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek is repeatedly misspelled Staatsbibliotek (p. xiv, 115, 118).

Faulty hyphenation is rather frequent, especially of Latin words in the footnotes ( fo-edis, p. 53, formav-erunt, p. 58, e.g.), as are obvious transcription errors: opinamus (p. 48 n. 18, corr. opinamur), hodies (p. 64, n. 62, corr. hodie). Moreover, quavis (p. 4 n. 11) and deerat (p. 122) seem the victims of overlooking an m/n in the form of a barred a. The last word of n. 30 on p. 53 should be quiddam, as it is in both manuscripts Brown is relying on, instead of the pointless quidnam; and in the subsequent note there is no reason to print the unlatin illud quid in ore omnium est for the manuscripts’ illud quod. In n. 41 p. 57 Brown prints “ morum contagia [R, collagio L]”, while both manuscripts actually read an irreproachable contagio; and on p. 66 in Empedoclis discordi et amicitia coierunt the manuscripts’ discordia has to be restored.

Generally speaking, the transcription policy seems rather arbitrary: the e caudata by turns is printed ‘e’ or ‘ae’ without a clear rationale, varying even within the same citation, and the manuscripts’ spelling, punctuation and peculiar capitalization are sometimes conserved at the expense of clarity, while in other instances they have been randomly normalized. One example may suffice: why print ‘licium Aristotelis’, surprisingly translated as ‘the academy of Aristotle’, instead of Lyc(a)eum (p. 66), and, in the same citation, print the ortus of one manuscript against the hortus of the other one, and then have it translated with ‘garden’? In a book that is so heavily reliant on unpublished manuscript resources, the reader should be informed about the transcription policy – and some consistency in such policies never hurts.

“In quoting Lucretius at the expense of the many other ancient philosophers in Adriani’s canon, I am aware that I may seem to be exaggerating his influence. We all read texts with an eye trained on what we want to find, and I have done the same,” Brown apologetically admits at the end of her discussion of Adriani’s lectures (p. 66). There is no reason for so much defensiveness, I believe, as the points she is making are all very convincing, never stretching the evidence, and indeed breaking new ground in our understanding of the presence and influence of Lucretius’ poem in fifteenth century Florence. In her very clearly written account, Brown proves that close reading goes a long way, and her very focused research and keen eye for hidden allusions produce the kind of results that need to be investigated before scholarship can move on to more comprehensive presentations. Brown effectively demonstrates how humanists concealed Lucretius’ influence on their thinking, following the route of his recovery from interest in moral issues to a scientific interest in atomism and theories of the universe. This disguised influence became even a sort of counterculture to the neoplatonizing golden age ideology that Lorenzo il Magnifico favored, one that had the potential of liberating these humanists (albeit covertly) from the Christian worldview and other superstitions. Lucretius couldn’t have been served any better.