Roots of the classical revival

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“The Three Muses”? Illustration for the “Swerve”/Greenblatt video linked below.

Here’s a passage from The Swerve, a 2011 book by Stephen Greenblatt on how the discovery of the lost poem “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius helped spark the Renaissance. The passage has to do with handwriting, not architecture, but feel free to read into the passage some thoughts about the recovery of the classical orders and how that resembled – or differed from – the recovery of other classical modes of art or thinking.

Greenblatt refers to Poggio, the papal official who lost his job and went around looking in far-flung monasteries for copied manuscripts of lost works of Greek and Roman literature. Greenblatt also refers to Petrarch, the 14th century scholar and poet whose rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is said to have been the first spark of the Renaissance.

Poggio arrived in Rome a quarter of a century after Petrarch’s death, at a time when the charismatic moment of the movement had already begun to fade. The sense of creative daring was gradually giving way to a spirit of antiquarianism and with it a desire to discipline, correct, and regulate all relations with the ancient past. Poggio and his generation became increasingly caught up in the desire to avoid mistakes in Latin grammar and to catch the blunders of others. But the lingering sense of the strangeness of the recovery of classical antiquity helps to explain the peculiar impact of his handwriting. The script that he fashioned was not a direct evocation of the handwriting used by the ancient Romans: all traces of that handwriting had long since vanished, leaving only the carved inscriptions in handsome capital letters on stone and occasional rough graffiti. But Poggio’s script was a graphic expression of the deep longing for a different style of beauty, a cultural form that would signal the recovery of something precious that had been lost. The shape of his letters was based on the manuscript style of certain Carolingian scribes. But Poggio and his contemporaries did not identify this style with the court of Charlemagne; they called it lettera antica, and, in doing so, they dreamed not of Charlemagne’s tutor Alcuin but of Cicero and Virgil.

The passage brings to mind how architecture after the decline and fall of Rome had changed, and yet how the differences between the Gothic style and its predecessors and its successors are often overemphasized. In fact, much of ancient classicism and its elements are common to the Gothic. Likewise, perhaps, Petrarch is said by Greenblatt to have exaggerated, for what we would call careerist reasons, the degree to which classical influences from Greece and Rome had disappeared from Western culture prior to their recovery by him. Moreover, Greenblatt describes Poggio’s handwriting and its relationship to that of original manuscripts that had disappeared, which remained only in copied form. This can help us to think about the classical revival and the process of rediscovering and reinvigorating not just ancient architecture but the broad traditional architecture that arose everywhere from its influences, and whose suppression in the past century resembles, in some ways, the suppression of certain classical ideas in the Middle Ages.

There is an irony in the subtitle of Greenblatt’s book! It is “How the World Became Modern.”

(“Stephen Greenblatt Discusses The Swerve” for about 23 minutes on this YouTube video, which I have not yet viewed. I trust it is interesting, but you be the guinea pig. … Four hours later I’ve listened to it and it was interesting. Not must-see TV, but okay.)


About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to Roots of the classical revival

  1. westfall2 says:

    Would someone explain to me what this sentence means, not the handwriting part but the first part of the sentence?

    But the lingering sense of the strangeness of the recovery of classical antiquity helps to explain the peculiar impact of his handwriting.

    Lingering since when or what? Poggio was in the papal entourage at the Council of Constance when he went looking in the monastic libraries. The Church spent four years healing the Schism and the Babylonian Captivity and was deeply involved in recovering canonic foundations for Papal authority. What was the classical antiquity that had been recovered that seemed strange? He was always more Florentine than anything else, and Florence had its own bones to pick with the papacy.

    I have not read the book, but if this is a sample, I don’t think I have missed anything.

    Among the books that Poggio came up with was the copy of Vitruvius that excited Florentines, not because Vitruvius had hitherto fore been unknown but because this was a better copy than any other known at the time.

    *Bill* *Carroll William Westfall* Professor Emeritus School of Architecture University of Notre Dame

    On Sat, Mar 5, 2016 at 6:53 PM, Architecture Here and There wrote:

    > David Brussat posted: ” Here’s a passage from The Swerve, a 2011 book by > Stephen Greenblatt on how the discovery of the lost poem “On the Nature of > Things” by Lucretius helped spark the Renaissance. The passage has to do > with handwriting, not architecture, but feel free to rea” >


    • Good question, Bill. I had to puzzle over the wording and never came up with a firm meaning, but I think he means something along the lines of, since classical antiquities had been left to moulder for centuries, it was strange to see them sought after at this later point in time, which helps explain how his handwriting could have been so celebrated in his own life. But yeah, a curious phraseology. It is possible that the odd phraseology, here and elsewhere, is meant to obscure certain parts of Greenblatt’s thesis that he found hard to hold together. I’m not done with the book yet.


  2. Lucien says:

    I meant not only the one ‘great’ Renaissance many Classicists refer to but also the many minor ones like the Carolingian one, and also Renaissances and often ‘Revivals’ in Europe, the USA and in other cultures/ Greek Revivals, Gothic revivals, and many other


  3. Lucien says:

    Thanks David for this very interesting and exciting reference. It seems to highlight again that the Renaissance is not (only) revival, not only rediscovery, but to a larger part a reinvention, and even a ‘myth’, and I use ‘myth’ here in the sense of artistic ‘truth’ as a creative ‘fiction’, and ‘analogue’ reality which refreshes, transcends and emulates what it aims to ‘imitate’ by an enhanced ‘ideality’ and corrected excellence.


  4. Pingback: Roots of the classical revival – Arteatromexperu's Weblog

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