In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lucretius in Renaissance Thought

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Classical Context
  • Anthologies
  • Modern Editions of Early Modern Texts
  • Textual Transmission
  • Literary Reception
  • Art
  • Religion, Unbelief, and Modernity
  • Progress and Development
  • Enlightenment Impact

Renaissance and Reformation Lucretius in Renaissance Thought
Ada Palmer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0423


Even before its celebrated rediscovery by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417, Lucretius’s didactic Epicurean epic De rerum natura was famous as a Roman masterpiece celebrated by Virgil and Ovid, and infamous as a capsule of dangerous, irreligious paganism ferociously denounced by Arnobius and other Christian apologists. The manuscript remained in the sole possession of Niccolò Niccoli until his death in 1437 when his library was acquired by Cosimo de Medici and numerous copies began to circulate in Florence and, soon thereafter, in Venice and the Veneto region, then Rome, Naples, and Iberia. A total of fifty-four manuscripts survive from the Renaissance, and thirty editions of the poem were printed by 1600, including commentaries by Albertus Pius (1512), Denys Lambin (1563), and Hubert van Giffen (Gifanius, 1565–1566). The diversity of subjects treated in the De rerum natura has invited a broad range of scholarly approaches. Philological study of the text’s transmission has been extensive, and for many years work on the stemma of Lucretius manuscripts served as a model for transmission studies in general. Historians of science frequently examine Lucretius’s influence on atomism, materialism, corpuscular theory, and ideas of generation, especially from the 17th century on. Scholarship on his influence on poetry, literature, language, and art has concentrated on Italian and English contexts, though his influence in France and Iberia is also extensive. Others have concentrated on Lucretius’s influence on ethics and political thought; his Epicurean celebration of pleasure and his account of how human society and government developed gradually out of a less complicated primitive state greatly influenced Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Thomas Hobbes. Lucretius is also a lynchpin in current debates over the modernity of the Renaissance and is often invoked in narratives that portray Renaissance humanism as a modernizing, secularizing force, characterized by a turn toward rationalism and away from Christian orthodoxy—such narratives are common but also controversial, and much scholarship has been devoted to advancing and to refuting such readings of the Renaissance Lucretius. Other figures often examined in a Lucretian context include Pomponio Leto, Marsilio Ficino, Poliziano, Bartolomeo Scala, Botticelli, Pierre Gassendi, Edmund Spenser, Lucy Hutchinson, Margaret Cavendish, John Dryden, and Girolamo Fracastoro.

General Overviews

Hadzsits 1963 and Jones 1989 (both cited under Book-Length Overviews) provide long histories of Lucretius’s transmission from Antiquity onward, and Alfonsi 1978 (cited under Chapter-Length Overviews) provides a shorter version of the same. Three introductions cited under Chapter-Length Overviews, appropriate for undergraduates or first encounters, focus on different aspects of Lucretius’s dissemination: Wilson 2009 (cited under Chapter-Length Overviews) on intellectual impact; Prosperi 2007 (cited under Chapter-Length Overviews) on the Italian context, poetry, and art; and Palmer 2020 on the broader Renaissance context and textual dissemination; all three treat Lucretius’s association with radical heterodoxy in fruitfully different ways. The best chapter-length treatments of the poem’s transmission and dissemination are Butterfield “Lucretius in the Early Modern Period: Texts and Contexts” in Norbrook, et al. 2015 (cited under Anthologies) and the introduction to Lucretius 2016 (cited under Modern Editions of Early Modern Texts), a facsimile edition of the editio princeps edited by Marco Beretta. Gambino Longo 2004, Palmer 2014, and Wilson 2008 (all cited under Book-Length Overviews) provide broader general studies focusing on the first 250 years after the poem’s resurfacing in 1417. Later sections of this article include more thematically or geographically specific works, many of which also provide useful overviews, including Brown 2010 (cited under Geographic and Temporal Overviews) on Florence, Butterfield 2013 (cited under Textual Transmission) on textual reception, Goldberg 2009 (cited under Literary Reception) on materialism, Paladini 2011 ((cited under Geographic and Temporal Overviews) on the Reformation, and Passannante 2011 (cited under Literary Reception) and Prosperi 2007 (cited under Chapter-Length Overviews) on literary influence. See also Lucretius 2016 (cited under Modern Editions of Early Modern Texts).

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