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This review is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

Sideways Movements STEPHEN GREEBLATT, The Swerve: How The Renaissance Began (The Bodley Head) £20.00

Stephen Greenblatt tells us a story that has more significance than we can immediately see. It is commonly imagined that it was art that transformed the world order in the Renaissance, specifically the great art objects we can now see in Florence. Erwin Panofsky was perhaps the most celebrated figure who made a vigorous case that the discovery of perspective led to a new understanding of the measure of man. More recently, popular works have celebrated the startling achievements of architects, such as the dome on Florence Cathedral. It may well be Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture that Greenblatt has in mind when he writes: 'Unlike Brunelleschi's massive cupola, the greatest dome constructed since classical antiquity, Lucretius's great poem does not stand out against the sky. But its recovery permanently changed the landscape of the world' (p. 219). We need to look a little beneath the surface if we are to understand what really transformed world history.

Greenblatt's story is simple enough. The humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1451), an inveterate traveller who was down on his luck and between jobs, rooted out a rather plain-looking manuscript in a monastery near Constance in 1417. This turned out to be Lucretius's great poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), a wide-ranging, often astonishing and confrontational, exploration of the universe. Lucretius was an atomist, who looked for natural, mechanical explanations of things and events, and who had little time for metaphysics, in particular, religion. ...


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