Among yesterday’s announced Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephan Greenblatt’s, The Swerve–How the World Became Modern. This is the story of the 15th Century Florentine book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who rescued and recopied long-forgotten ancient texts he found stashed in the scriptoriums of remote German monasteries.
The lead story of the Pulitzer announcements was that they found no works of fiction worthy of the fiction prize. I’m sure they hunted around, so it’s interesting that a non-fiction prize would go to a book about a man who made difficult journeys to hard-to-get-to places in search of great books.
Unlike the Pulitzer folks, Poggio found great books. He found some lost oratories of Cicero, Commentaries on Virgil. He would copy them in his own hand in the monasteries, and then bring his copies back to Florence.
The most significant find, according to Greenblatt, was a previously unknown Roman poet. That would be Lucretius, whose “On the Nature of Things,” supercharged the secular humanism of the Italian Renaissance. After Poggio copied the book in his own handwriting, a script we now know as Italic, the Roman poem became widely read in the circles that included, Galileo, The Medicis, Machiavelli, and later Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Freud and Einstein.
Greenblatt is the founder of a school of literary analysis called, “New Historicism,” which views history something that has properties of a all-at-onceness, rather than linear. With its subtitle, “How the World Became Modern”, Greenblatt’s book stands as a testament that events of the Italian Renaissance remain in play in our own era. I think one way to look at this is that our mindsets operate as part of a collective consciousness with past mindsets.