On the Nature of Things


It has been estimated that prior to the European invention of typographic printing in the mid-fifteenth century, some ten million manuscripts were produced.* During the incunabula (c. 1450–1500), some 30,000 editions were printed in as many as thirteen million copies. Thus, in the course of just fifty years, more books were produced than had been in the previous 1,000 years! But what did fifteenth century readers read? For the most part, Renaissance readers differed little from their medieval forebears. One third of everything published in the fifteenth century was religious in nature, and as this is Europe prior to the Reformation, then by religious literature we mean that of the Catholic Church. The greatest proportion comprised liturgical books, like missals and psalters. Then the many smaller format books for private devotional use, like Books of Hours and prayer books. Then Bibles (Latin and vernacular) and Bible commentaries and books on canon or Church law, various edicts and Papal Bulls and broadsides (a single large sheet printed on one side).

Although the Renaissance remained profoundly religious, it was obsessed with pagan antiquity in all its aspects. In the literature of classical antiquity, the humanist scholars of the Renaissance, from Petrarch, saw in it a perfect or ideal model for Latin, which had, in their opinion, been adulterated during the long Middle Ages. Classical manuscripts came to be viewed as the gold standard of Latin style and orthography and great efforts were taken to track down lost manuscripts. Thus the fifttenth century witnessed a resurgence in the works of classical Roman and Greek philosophers and poets, from Cicero, published in more than 300 editions during the fifteenth century, to Aristotle, Virgil and Seneca, to name but a few.

Of the approximately 30,000 known editions published during the incunabula, close to 2,100 editions (≈15%) were of the classical authors. Of these, my favorite is the great didactic poem, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) by Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 – 55 BC). The work had been all but forgotten during the thousand-year Middle Ages, until rediscovered in a South German monastery in January of 1417 by book hunter and scholar, Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459). In addition to being a model for its exemplary Latin style, its ideas would sow the seeds for later intellectual and scientific movements. On the Nature of Things is a book of natural philosophy or science in which the author, espouses and defends the philosophy of Epicurianism, tackling everything from the infinite nature and constitution of the universe, that everything is made of atoms existing in a void, that the soul is mortal, that death is not to be feared, how civilizations and religions begin, through to the more prosaic; for example, the preferred position for successful conception, “breast down and loins up.” (Book 4:1263–77)

Detail from Lucretius’ De rerum natura, (Book 2:181–196) printed by Paulus Fridenperger. Verona, 1486. Contemporary annotations on section dealing with motion. Image courtesy of Utrechts Universiteitsbibliotheek.

On the Nature of Things was first published in print in In about 1473–74 by Thomas Ferrandus, a teacher, probably in Brescia, in Lombardy, northern Italy. He likely learned to print in Milan or Venice (I believe the timing makes Venice the more likely). Little else is known about Ferrandus besides the books he printed and that in 1475 he quit printing to become a priest. However, he did resume printing in 1493. He died in poverty in the first decade of the sixteenth century.

…truths kindle light for truths.
‘…res accendent lumina rebus.’ – Lucretius, 1:1117

I have not seen the first edition printed by Ferrandus and there are no digital scans or photos available. Only four editions* of the work appear in the fifteenth century – all published in northern Italy (Brescia, Verona and Venice). The image above reproduces a page from an edition printed in Verona in September 1486 by Paulus Fridenperger. The last of the fifteenth century was published by Aldus Manutius in 1500.

Aldus Manutius’ edition of On the nature of Things, published in Venice in December 1500. The woodcut initials first appear in his famed Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499. Image courtesy of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

It would be another 200 years before Lucretius’ ideas gained traction against religious dogma. It wasn’t translated into the vernacular until the seventeenth century: First in French in 1650, and in English, in the same decade, by Lucy Hutchinson. Thanks to those translators and to early pionerring printers, like Ferrandus, Lucretius’ great work was guaranteed survival, that it might educate, inspire and console countless generations. And Lucretius’ words are a constant reminder that truth and the search for truth matters.

If you’re interested in learning more about Lucretius’ wonderful On the Nature of Things, then I recommend the informative, entertaining and Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.

* Buringh, E., & Van Zanden, J. L. (2009). ‘Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries. The Journal of Economic History’, 69(2), pp. 409–445.
** On the topic of a fifth edition, apparently no longer extant, see Smith, M., & Butterfield, D. (2010). ‘Not a Ghost: The 1496 Brescia Edition of Lucretius‘, Aevum, 84(3), pp. 683–693