#55 Poggio Bracciolini Part 3
June 7, 2019
#57 Lucretius “On The Nature Of Things”
June 28, 2019

#56 Poggio Bracciolini Part 4

In 1417, Poggio made the greatest discovery of his career – Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, aka “On The Nature Of Things”, the last surviving copy of his five-book epic attempt to explain Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience in poem. Little did Poggio realise the impact this book would have on the world.

* Scholars aren’t exactly sure where he made it.
* Because he kept it a secret.
* Because he found a gold mine of old manuscripts and he didn’t want anyone else to find out about it
* But one place might have been Fulda.
* smack bang in the middle of Germany
* Benedictine monastery founded In 744 by Saint Sturm, “Saint Storm” – pretty bad ass name
* True story – Great-great ancestor of Susan Storm aka the Invisible Woman, wife of Reed Richards
* Storm was a disciple of Saint Boniface, the so-called “apostle of the Germans”
* Boniface is often pictured with a large book pierced by a sword
* Because tradition has it that when robbers killed him, he tried to protect himself by holding up a gospel.
* They killed him anyway
* So much for that self-defense training
* Money wasted
* “Lads – what would like to learn? Gung Fu – or the ancient art of hiding behind a gospel?”
* The monastery later served as a base from which missionaries could accompany Charlemagne’s armies in their military campaigns to fully conquer and convert pagan Saxony.
* Fulda lends its name to the Fulda Gap, a traditional east-west invasion route used by Napoleon I and others.
* During the Cold War, it was presumed to be an invasion route for any conventional war between NATO and Soviet forces.
* contains two corridors of lowlands through which tanks might have driven in a surprise attack
* Anyway – the monastery.
* In the early 9th century, the abbot was Rabanus Maurus
* a learned scholar and prolific author
* He was one of the most prominent teachers and writers of the Carolingian age
* Best known for his encyclopaedia De rerum naturis (“On the Natures of Things”)
* Rabanus, who as a young man had studied with Alcuin, the greatest scholar of the age of Charlemagne, considered among the most important architects of the Carolingian Renaissance.
* Which we haven’t talked much about but it happened in the 7th and 8th centuries.
* Mostly confined to the clergy.
* A lack of Latin literacy in eighth century western Europe caused problems for the Carolingian rulers by severely limiting the number of people capable of serving as court scribes in societies where Latin was valued.
* Charlemagne ordered the creation of schools in 787.
* A major part of his program of reform was to attract many of the leading scholars of the Christendom of his day to his court.
* Carolingian workshops produced over 100,000 manuscripts in the 9th century, of which some 7,000 or 6% survive.
* The Carolingians produced the earliest surviving copies of the works of Julius Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Martial
* And so Rabanus knew where to get his hands on important manuscripts.
* He had them brought to Fulda, where he trained a large cohort of scribes to copy them.
* And so he had built what was for the time a stupendous collection.
* And even thought the monastery’s intellectual seriousness had declined since the times of Rabanus, and a lot of those pagan documents might not have been looked at for centuries – he hoped some might have survived.
* And boy – was he right.
* He found the only surviving copy of the 17-book epic poem Punica, about the Second Punic War, the longest surviving poem in Latin at over 12,000 lines, by Silius Italicus around c. 83 to c. 96 CE
* Born (c. 28 – c. 103 CE), a Roman consul, orator, and poet.
* an informer under Nero, prosecuting in court persons whom the emperor wished condemned
* He was consul in the year of Nero’s death (AD 68), and afterward became a close friend and ally of the emperor Vitellius in the Year of the Four Emperors.
* proconsul of Asia AD 77-78
* After his proconsulship in Asia he retired, and wrote.
* Developed an incurable tumour after the age of 75, and starved himself to death around 103 CE, keeping a cheerful countenance to the end.
* Interesting sidenote: In Punica, he mentions that Vesuvius had thundered and produced flames worthy of Mount Etna in the year 217 BCE, the last major eruption before 79 CE.
* Poggio also discovered the only surviving copy Manilius’ work on astronomy “Astronomica”, written at the very beginning of the empire, during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius.
* Written AD 10–20
* The poem espouses a Stoic, deterministic understanding of a universe overseen by a god and governed by reason.
* But where the universe also *is* god or A god.
* Pantheism
* Hard to find an english translation.
* He found many other lost works.
* Including a large fragment of Ammianus Marcellinus’s history of Rome from the accession of the Emperor Nerva in 96 to the death of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378,
* sort of a continuation of the history of Tacitus
* The Res Gestae was originally composed of thirty-one books, but the first thirteen have been lost.
* Poggio only found the sections covering the period 353–378
* And the remainder has never been found
* Marcellinus was writing only 20 years before the Goths sacked Rome
* Just as Christianity was taking over
* Although he himself was a pagan who was tolerant of Christians
* It’s this work where we get the wonderful quote: “no wild beasts are so deadly to humans as most Christians are to each other.”
* But the most exciting text Poggio found on Fulda – the one he will always be remembered for – was a long text written around 50 BCE by a poet and philosopher named Titus Lucretius Carus.
* The text’s title, De rerum natura—On the Nature of Things—was strikingly similar to the title of Rabanus Maurus’s celebrated encyclopedia, De rerum naturis.
* But it was a very different work.
* Poggio would almost certainly have recognized the name Lucretius from Ovid, Cicero, and other ancient sources he had pored over,
* but neither he nor anyone in his circle had encountered more than a scrap or two of his actual writing, which had, as far as anyone knew, been lost forever.
* There’s no way he could have known that this book would unravel his entire world.
* Cicero had written to his brother Quintus on February 11, 54 BCE, “The poetry of Lucretius, is, as you say in your letter, rich in brilliant genius, yet highly artistic.”
* The greatest Roman poet, Virgil, about fifteen years old when Lucretius died, seems to have been referencing him when he wrote:
* “Blessed is he who has succeeded in finding out the causes of things, and has trampled underfoot all fears and inexorable fate and the roar of greedy Acheron.”
* Virgil’s great epic, the Aeneid, was an attempt to construct an alternative to On the Nature of Things:
* It was pious, militantly patriotic, and sober, where Lucretius embraced the pursuit of pleasure, was skeptical; and pacifist.
* Ovid had written: “The verses of sublime Lucretius are destined to perish only when a single day will consign the world to destruction.”
* And yet Lucretius almost DID perish.
* It barely survived.
* And we know almost nothing about him.
* No biographical information, and as far as we know he wrote no other work.
* The poem is dedicated to Gaius Memmius.
* Tribune of the Plebs (66 BC)
* a strong supporter of Pompey, who went over to Caesar
* and then had a falling out with him too
* and went into exile
* according to Cicero, Memmius possessed an estate on which were the ruins of Epicurus’ house
* And Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus
* Memmius was married to Fausta Cornelia, the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Sulla
* The only biographical sketch we have of Lucretius comes from St. Jerome (c. 340–420 ce).
* Jerome claimed that “In 94 BCE, Titus Lucretius, poet, is born. After a love-potion had turned him mad, and he had written, in the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age.”
* All of which we should take with a grain of salt.
* wriitten centuries after Lucretius’ death by a Christian polemicist who had an interest in telling cautionary tales about pagan philosophers.
* And still today we know nothing else about Lucretius
* Except this
* On August 24, 79 CE, the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius completely destroyed not only Pompeii but also the small seaside resort of Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples.
* Halfway between Pompeii and Naples.
* Right at the base of Vesuvius.
* The expensive villas of the Roman elite were buried under sixty-five feet of volcanic debris
* forgotten until 1738, when workmen, digging a well, uncovered some marble statues.
* For a decade this site became a bit of what one author referred to as a “smash and grab”
* Workmen searched for statues, gems, precious marbles which they found in enormous quantities
* and just trashed everything else
* In 1750, under a new director, the explorers became somewhat more careful about what they were doing.
* Three years later, tunneling through the remains of one of the villas, they came across something baffling: the ruins of a room graced with a mosaic floor and filled with innumerable objects “about half a palm long, and round,” as one of them wrote, “which appeared like roots of wood, all black, and seeming to be only of one piece.”
* At first they thought these things were just charcoal bricks and used them to light fires on cold mornings.
* Then one of these objects, chancing to fall on the ground, broke open.
* And inside were letters.
* They realised they were looking at the charred remains of papyrus scrolls from a library.
* About eleven hundred books were eventually recovered.
* For centuries they had in effect been sealed in an airtight container.
* (Even today only one small segment of the villa has been exposed to view, and a substantial portion remains unexcavated.) The discoverers, however, were disappointed: they could barely make out anything written on the charcoal-like rolls.
* And when again and again they tried to unwind them, the rolls inevitably crumbled into fragments.
* Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books were destroyed in these attempts.
* But eventually a number of the rolls that had been cut open were found to contain near the center some readable portions.
* At this point—after two years of more or less destructive and fruitless effort—a learned Neapolitan priest who had been working in the Vatican Library in Rome, Father Antonio Piaggio, was called in.
* Taking issue with the prevailing method of investigation—simply scraping off the charred outer layers of the rolls until some words could be discerned—he invented an ingenious device, a machine that would delicately and slowly unroll the carbonized papyrus scrolls, disclosing much more readable material than anyone had imagined to have survived.
* Those who read the recovered texts, carefully flattened and glued onto strips, found that the villa’s library (or at least the portion of it that they had found) was a specialized one, many of the rolls being tracts in Greek by a philosopher named Philodemus.
* The researchers were disappointed—they had been hoping to find lost works by the likes of Sophocles and Virgil—but what they had so implausibly snatched from oblivion has an important bearing on the discovery made centuries earlier by Poggio.
* For Philodemus, who taught in Rome from about 75 to about 40 BCE, was Lucretius’ exact contemporary and a follower of the school of thought most perfectly represented in On the Nature of Things.
* Excavations tot he Villa were halted in 1765 due to complaints from the residents living above.
* The exact location of the villa was then lost for two centuries.
* In the 1980s work on re-discovering the villa began by studying 18th century documentation on entrances to the tunnels and in 1986 the breakthrough was made through an ancient well.
* The backfill from some of the tunnels was cleared to allow re-exploration of the villa when it was found that the parts of the villa that survived the earlier excavations were still remarkable in quantity and quality.
* As of 2012, there are still 2,800 m2 left to be excavated of the villa.
* Most Roman villas would have two libraries, one Greek and one Roman covering a variety of topics.
* Of the scrolls that have been unrolled and deciphered there seems to be only one topic – Epicurean philosophy – which leads experts to think we have found the Greek library, so where is the Roman one?
* The remainder of the site has not been excavated because the Italian government is preferring conservation to excavation, and protecting what has already been uncovered.
* As for the scrolls, many of them were destroyed over 200 years as various methods were attempted at unrolling them.
* The first big breakthrough:
* Using multi-spectral imaging, a technique developed in the early 1990s, it is possible to read the burned papyri.
* With multi-spectral imaging, many pictures of the illegible papyri are taken using different filters in the infrared or in the ultraviolet range, finely tuned to capture certain wavelengths of light.
* So, the optimum spectral portion can be found for distinguishing ink from paper on the blackened papyrus surface.
* But the latest way of trying to read them doesn’t even require them being unrolled.
* A CT scan studies the body, and in theory we’ll be able scan the scroll without physically touching it and digitally flatten it.
* And if you want to see what the Villa might have looked like before Vesuvius, go have a look at the Getty Museum in California.
* Based on the villa.
* some of the statues and other treasures found at Herculaneum
* The bulk of the marble and bronze masterpieces—images of gods and goddesses, portrait busts of philosophers, orators, poets, and playwrights; a graceful young athlete; a wild boar in mid-leap; a drunken satyr; a sleeping satyr; and my favourite, an obscene Pan and goat in flagrante delicto—are now in the National Museum in Naples.
* BTW – Since the eruption of AD 79, Vesuvius has erupted around 36 times.
* The last was in 1944.

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