In the fifteenth century, the new culture of Renaissance humanism, with its sense of new possibilities inspired by the past, filled rulers throughout Italy with enthusiasm. Clever manipulators like Cosimo de’ Medici and ruthless soldiers of fortune like Federigo da Montefeltro appointed fluent Latinists to write propaganda for them, studied the ancients themselves, and collected as many classical texts as they could. Contemporary popes, scions of aristocratic Italian families and Renaissance princes in their own right, followed suit. Pope Nicholas V created, and Pope Sixtus IV expanded and institutionalized, the Vatican Library: a humanistic collection, stuffed with newly discovered Latin texts and newly translated Greek ones, which they made available to all the members of their large entourages who took an interest in antiquity. “The whole court of Rome” supposedly browsed there. Certainly Leon Battista Alberti did so when he collected from dozens of texts the vast amount of information about ancient buildings and cities that he compressed into his pioneering treatise The Art of Building.
It seems only natural that Sixtus’s handsome manuscript of Lucretius should have found its way into the Vatican Library. The work of a brilliant poet and ambitious philosopher, the text had earned the praise of the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil himself. Except for its title and opening line, the manuscript was written in the handsome, rounded script that the humanists of fifteenth-century Italy thought of as appropriate for ancient Latin texts—though they had derived it not from ancient books, which were written very differently, but from manuscripts of the classics written in Carolingian Europe, seven hundred years before their time.
Yet there is something troubling about the manuscript. Lucretius, as it proclaimed, was an “Epicurean” poet—a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Like his master, he believed that the universe consisted of invisible particles, or atoms, that fell through the endless void until one of them “swerved” and struck another one. The stars, the planets, and the animals and people that inhabited the earth had all come into being by chance, as particles collided, and would eventually fall apart again into nothingness. The gods formed a separate order of being, and took no interest in the fates of humans. Hence it was pointless to fear them or invoke their help.