The Swerve
Graziella Parati, Paul D. Paganucci Professor of Italian Language and Literature, and Professor of Women's and Gender Studies

If the idea that the humanities don’t change the world has ever crossed your mind, you must read The Swerve, published in 2011. It is a very legible book that won the National Book Award. It is the story of a poetry and philosophy manuscript that Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered, changing the course of western culture. The text was Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. In the 15th century, the cultural models were dominated by church models. Life was suffering, following the example of Christ and his sacrificial life. With the re-circulation of Lucretius’s writings, new models emerged, originating from Epicurus’s notion of the pursuit of “pleasure.” However, pleasure regulated by ethics, not pleasure as we would mean today. The works by Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo reflect the painters’/scientists’/sculptors’ familiarity with De Rerum Natura, and would exist if Bracciolini had not rediscovered the manuscript. The impact of Lucretius’s work continued for centuries, and is tangible in the Constitution of the United States. That right “to the pursuit of happiness” wanted by Jefferson is the direct consequence of his erudition and familiarity with the classic Latin text.