The poem that ignited the Renaissance

March 2, 2012 | Kelli

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The Swerve largerIn The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini and his discovery of  Titus Lucretius Carus' influential poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).  According to Greenblatt, it is the discovery of this beautiful poem, which had been lost for more than a thousand years, that was the spark that begun the Renaissance and therefore the beginning of the modern world. 

Lucretius' poem contained some very dangerous ideas for 15th century Europe.  It claimed that the universe functions without the help of gods, that death should not be feared because there is no afterlife, and that the world is made up of very small particles that are randomly colliding and swerving.  Greenblatt argues that these ideas went on to have a significant impact on the great thinkers who followed, including Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein.

Greenblatt presents a vivid picture of the political, intellectual and religious climate of the early 1400s, when the Roman Catholic Church was split between several Popes and interest in the works of Greek and Roman philosophers was reviving.  Bracciolini, one of the great bookhunters of his time, spent his life trying to find lost classical manuscripts, such as On The Nature of Things, by visiting remote monasteries where generations of monks had spent their time copying, and recopying, the books in their collections.


The Swerve was a engaging and enjoyable book, easily understood by anyone with a basic knowledge of history. It may appeal to those who enjoy medieval and Renaissance history  as well as anyone interested in the history of philosophy.  Fans of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens may also find it of interest, as Lucretius' philosophy is part of the history of the their ideas.


The Swerve was the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Reviews for this book appeared in the Globe and Mail, and The Guardian, and The New York Times. The Swerve is also available as an eAudiobook.


For more suggestions of non-fiction books, have a look at our Literary Non-Fiction We Recommend list.