de Gruyter (2020) h/b 300pp £118 (ISBN 9783110673470)
This volume is the product of a conference held at the University of Sassari, on Sardinia, to mark the five-hundredth anniversary of a significant event in the history of renaissance humanism, Poggio’s rediscovery of the text of Lucretius. Twelve of the eighteen contributors are Italian, and impressively, four of them come from the University of Sassari itself. No translators are credited; if most of these authors have indeed written in a language not their own, I stand in awe.
The editors observe that Lucretius’ reappearance, at a single moment, gave the history of his reception a distinctive shape. To which one might add the fact that this poet conveyed a body of doctrine. Catullus had somewhat similarly risen from the dead in the previous century, but Catullus was not in the business of teaching, as Lucretius was. Despite its title, the present volume is entirely concerned with Lucretius’ philosophy and its influence, not his poetry. That is fair enough: his rediscovery gave the world much more Epicureanism than it had had before, and this was what excited the humanists most.
The star turn is Ada Palmer’s essay, ‘The Persecution of Renaissance Lucretius Readers Revisited’. She is very funny (not a word one is often tempted to use of collections like this) about what one might call the ‘pop-highbrow’ reception of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. She is polite (too polite?) about the book itself, but takes an ironic view of its coverage, which has presented Lucretius as, in her words, a ‘poster-child for the modernizing and secularizing Renaissance’. She agrees that Lucretius appealed to the intellectually adventurous, but these radicals were as likely to be Catholic or Protestant as sceptical. Flexible, nuanced, wide-ranging but also rich in detail, this is a model of how reception study should be done.
Round this essay cluster five articles, all by Italian scholars, on more specialised aspects of the Italian ‘long Renaissance’, exploring areas that have mostly (I would guess) been little examined. One of these investigates what can be known about the first two translations of Lucretius into Italian, both now lost. Another argues for the influence of Lucretius on Machiavelli’s concept of free will. Two others look at early commentaries on the poem: the first published commentary, from Bologna in 1511, and a manuscript commentary by a humanist in Padua. Yet another studies Lucretius’ afterlife in Giovanni Delfino, who wrote on philosophy and science in the second half of the seventeenth century.
The eighteenth century gets two chapters, one on Leibniz, the other, less expectedly, on Latin poems by Mexican creole Jesuits (by Andrew Laird). It is chastening to see how confidently they handle the hexameter form. Their use of Lucretius may not extend much beyond the echoing of a few well known passages, but his influence is there, all the same. Not on the style, though: in the passages that Laird quotes, I spotted only one bit of Lucretian prosody; otherwise, they all seem to stick to the Virgilian rules.
The other chapters are more miscellaneous. The first is an essay by David Sedley on ‘Lucretian Pleasures’. He draws on the distinction between psychological hedonism (the theory that pleasure is what sentient beings actually pursue) and evaluative hedonism (the theory that true pleasure is what we ought to pursue), and claims that Lucretius is the only Epicurean source we have that explicitly takes the psychological line. He bases this on three lines in Book 6 (26-8). It seems to me unclear that this is what Lucretius meant; if it is, he expressed his meaning in a badly muddled way. But at all events, this is a thoughtful and elegant piece. It effectively lacks references to other modern scholarship, which has become rare in the discourse of classicists, but it has a liberating effect, and we should have more of it. There are two other chapters on Lucretius himself, one a fine and densely technical argument about his theory of perception (by Diego Zucca), and three on Lucretius’ influence upon later ancient authors.
The book ends with two chapters based around the fictitious stories of Lucretius’ madness and death, and one (by Gavina Cherchi) that surveys the poem’s ‘iconographic tradition’—mostly through frontispieces and title-pages of editions in several countries from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is generously illustrated with almost three dozen figures.
The editors describe their volume as ‘not only an extremely valuable collection of papers but a truly coherent collective reflection on the issues that brought about Lucretius’ reappearance’. It is not quite that (and anyway, isn’t this for readers to say, not the authors?), but the chapters on the Renaissance and its aftermath do cohere, and the book as a whole offers much of value.