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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Did a poem discovered by an Italian book collector make the Renaissance possible?

October 12, 2011

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern By Stephen Greenblatt W.W. Norton 320 pp.

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Reviewed by Troy Jollimore for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Have you read the plays of Sophocles? No, you haven’t – or at any rate, you have at best read an extremely small selection them, for only seven survive of the 100-odd plays that came from Sophocles’ pen. And Sophocles was one of the lucky ancient authors who managed to pass some of his works down to present day readers. As Stephen Greenblatt, author of a hugely entertaining biography of William Shakespeare ("Will in the World"), reminds us in his fascinating new book, it ought to seem astonishing that we can still lay hands on any of the classics when we contemplate the profound fragility of parchment, paper, ink, and other vessels for the written word:

At the end of the fifth century CE an ambitious literary editor known as Stobaeus compiled an anthology of prose and poetry by the ancient world’s best authors: out of 1,430 quotations, 1,115 are from works that are now lost.... The actual material disappearance of the books was largely the effect of climate and pests. Though papyrus and parchment were impressively long-lived (far more so than either our cheap paper or computerized data), books inevitably deteriorate over the centuries, even if they manage to escape the ravages of fire and flood. The ink was a mixture of soot (from burnt lamp wicks), water, and tree gum: that made it cheap and agreeably easy to read, but also water-soluble. (A scribe who made a mistake could erase it with a sponge.) A spilled glass of wine or a heavy downpour, and the text disappeared. And that was only the most common threat. Rolling and unrolling the scrolls or poring over the codices, touching them, dropping them, coughing on them, allowing them to be scorched by fire from the candles, or simply reading them over and over eventually destroyed them.

Against the background of this immense and heartbreaking cultural loss, The Swerve offers a portrait of an unlikely hero, a 15th-century humanist author, manuscript copyist, papal secretary and book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini spent much of his life in the employ of the Catholic Church during a particularly tumultuous period – the so-called “Papal Schism,” during which multiple contesting popes claimed authority over the Church. Bracciolini, who remained a layman throughout his life, kept himself somewhat apart from ecclesiastical affairs, gazing back longingly on an idealized vision of ancient Greece and Rome and spending much of his energy attempting to discover and restore relics of those lost worlds.

He was particularly interested in manuscript copies of works by ancient authors. These manuscripts were mostly to be found in the libraries of Europe’s monasteries – outside of these secure havens, few survived – where they tended to languish for centuries, untouched and largely unread. But if they were inanimate objects of little interest to most of the monks who served as their guardians, they were, to Bracciolini, something else entirely – literal embodiments of their authors:

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