The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began

Stephan Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. The book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, “On the Nature of Things,” by Lucretius — a thrillingly beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion. Stephen Greenblatt argues that the copying and translation of this ancient book fuelled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had revolutionary influence on writers from Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson. 3.6 out of 5 based on 9 reviews
The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History, Art, Architecture & Photography
Format Hardback
Pages 368
RRP £20.00
Date of Publication September 2011
ISBN 978-0224078788
Publisher Bodley Head
 

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. The book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, “On the Nature of Things,” by Lucretius — a thrillingly beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion. Stephen Greenblatt argues that the copying and translation of this ancient book fuelled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had revolutionary influence on writers from Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson.

Reviews

The New York Times

Sarah Bakewell

It combines hardheaded investigations of historical context with a profound feeling for the way writers somehow pull free from time, to enter the minds of readers.

28/09/2011

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The Observer

Charles Nicholl

... concise, learned and fluently written ... It may not quite tell us "how the Renaissance began", as the subtitle rather rashly promises, but the episode it describes is certainly resonant … This is a superb essay on the transmission of ideas, but it is also a kind of eulogy to the power and tenacity of manuscripts

25/09/2011

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The Sunday Times

Michael Prodger

Fascinating ... Greenblatt claims that Poggio’s find created an “Epicurean ferment” but his evidence is not always convincing ... This, though, is an exceptionally interesting book and Greenblatt is eloquent and erudite, the ideal guide to a moment of extraordinary change.

25/09/2011

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The Sunday Telegraph

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

It is an exciting story, and Greenblatt tells it with his customary clarity and verve. In many ways it offers a popular version of the historical methods he first attempted in the Eighties, in which the past was treated to a form of keyhole surgery that allowed apparently small events to become entrances to previously unsuspected networks of influence. Yet the idea that Poggio’s actions were the catalyst for the entire Renaissance is strained.

15/09/2011

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The Financial Times

Daniel Swift

Greenblatt’s central argument is built upon charisma rather than evidence. He is a forceful, seductive writer, and confident enough to draw us into lost worlds.

09/09/2011

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The Independent

Ian Thomson

For all his marvellous verve and scholarship, Greenblatt makes exaggerated claims for Lucretius. On the Nature of Things ... does impress by its intellectual ambition and theories of the physical world. But whether it changed the course of humankind is another matter.

30/09/2011

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The Literary Review

Jerry Brotton

As a story, The Swerve is terrific; as an argument, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The claim that Lucretius’s arguments ‘are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed’ is contentious enough, but the poem is surely just one among many defining texts unearthed by humanists like Poggio, and to accord Lucretius singular credit for inventing the modern world is extremely questionable.

01/09/2011

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The New York Times

Dwight Garner

It’s possible to admire Mr. Greenblatt’s book while wishing it contained more of the boldness and weirdness he admires in Lucretius. Mr. Greenblatt’s prose, charted on a Geiger counter, would register mostly a state-of-the-art air-conditioner’s steady hum. I found myself longing for a few more unsettling spikes of intellect and feeling. You won’t be bored by The Swerve; neither will you be on the edge of your seat.

27/09/2011

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The Washington Post

Michael Dirda

… I found the book strangely unserious. The prose was clear but lacking energy, the covered material largely consisted of borrowed finery, and the whole felt uncomfortably like an attempt to create a nonfiction pot-boiler ... By no means a bad book, The Swerve simply sets its intellectual bar too low, complacently relying on commonplaces in its historical sections and never engaging in an imaginative or idiosyncratic way with Lucretius’s great poem as a work of art.

22/09/2011

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