Piero de Cosimo's Lucretius - Inspired Paintings

  • Piero di Cosimo, A Hunting Scene, c. 1500

    Text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


    This picture and its companion (also in The Met's collection) reimagine the early history of humankind and are among the most singular works of the Renaissance. Their inspiration was the fifth book of De Rerum Natura by the Epicurean poet and philosopher Lucretius (ca. 99–55 B.C.). A manuscript of Lucretius’s work was discovered in 1417 and published in Florence in 1471–73. Lucretius believed that the workings of the world can be accounted for by natural rather than divine causes, and he put forward a vision of the history of primitive humanity and the advent of civilization that was much discussed in Renaissance Florence—and beyond.

    And so now,

    in what remains, my train of argument

    has now brought me to this point, where I must

    set down an explanation how the world

    is a mortal substance and was born,

    how a collection of materials

    established earth, heaven, sea, stars, sun,

    and the moon’s globe, then what living creatures

    sprang from earth, as well as those never born

    at any time, how the human race began

    to employ among themselves various words

    by giving names to things, and ways in which

    that fear of gods slid into human hearts,

    which preserves sacred places on earth’s sphere—

    shrines, lakes, groves, altars, images of gods.


    They could not look toward the common good

    and did not know how to make for themselves

    any laws or customs. A man would take

    whatever prize fortune might throw his way,

    with each one trained to look out for himself

    and get by on his own. And in the woods,

    Venus would join bodies in sexual acts,

    for each woman was either overwhelmed

    by mutual lust, or by the violent force

    and reckless passion of the man, or else

    by some reward—acorns, or strawberries,

    or fine pears. And trusting in the power

    of their hands and feet, which was amazing,

    they went after wild beasts in the forest

    by throwing rocks and with large, heavy clubs.

    They brought down many, but there were a few

    they avoided in their hiding places.


    And just in case, while dealing with these things,

    you are perhaps quietly wondering,

    it was lighting which first carried fire down

    to mortal men on earth—with that all heat

    from flames is generated. For we see

    many things ignite and burn up when struck

    by fire from heaven, once the bolt transmits

    its heat. Then, too, when a tree with branches

    is lashed by winds, sways back and forth, presses

    and rubs the branches of another tree,

    the violent force of rubbing brings out fire,

    and while trunk and branches chafe each other,

    sometimes the flaming heat of fire ignites.

    Either of these two could have provided

    fire to mortal men. And then sun taught them

    to cook their food, using the heat of flames

    to soften it, because out in the fields

    they would see many objects getting soft

    once beaten by sun’s heat and lashing rays.

    The Return from the Hunt, also at the Met.

  • Joshua I don't think we have these featured anywhere and we probably need a thread devoted to them specifically, so I will leave a cross-reference here but set up a separate thread. Thanks!

    Moved from here:

  • I do see we have this earlier reference, but it refers to a "Forest Fire"?

  • Joshua: Thanks for that link to Ian Johnston’s translation.

    I have decided, to assuage my poetic embarrassment, to prioritize finishing Lucretius. I’ve started all over again from the beginning, using Frank Copley’s translation (on Kindle); his loose blank verse seems to flow well (far better than Stallings’ fourteeners) – and I really want to read the poem as a poem. Do you prefer Johnston’s? (I’ll try to do a running comparison – but really I just need to knuckle down and read the poem!)

    I note that Johnston is very critical of prose translations, though he acknowledges some merit to Smith’s work.)

  • Good questions! I usually quote Johnston because it's easy to search for key-words and copy/paste. Perseus is a great resource but the chunks of text are often too small and it can be difficult to select text on mobile (although there are workarounds).

    I also find Stallings to be a bit distracting, but some people are drawn to her style. My favorite verse translation is Rolfe Humphries, but he admits in his introduction that his focus was to capture the flavor of the poem rather than a literal rendition, which I think he succeeds at.

    My best general advice for reading Lucretius is that contextualizing the poem can stave off boredom--we're so familiar with the idea that the earth is extremely old, that the universe is incomprehensibly large and ancient, that matter is made of little particles, that other worlds might potentially harbor life, and that nature is capable of sustaining a vacuum that reading about them in an old poem can seem rather dull. But if keep in mind how revolutionary these ideas really were, I think we can still capture a little bit of the magic.

  • I recently read Johnston's translation from a downloaded pdf (read it on the ReadEra app) and liked it; I also like the Melville translation. I agree that Stallings can get old. Haven't read the Copley translation but I'm curious how you like it as you proceed.

    Some many translations, so little time! I, too, tend to compare various translations as I read a particular version.

  • Great find Godfrey! (I was for some years a member of the Poetry Foundation – no great shakes that: you pay a membership fee and you’re a member! 8o )

    Although the Foundation site does not appear to have Tennyson’s Lucretius, it can be found here: https://allpoetry.com/poem/847…s-by-Alfred-Lord-Tennyson

    Confession: I’ve never been really fond of epic poetry, as a matter of purely personal, ill-grounded prejudice – being mostly a lyric poet, I have never been able to sustain a poem of any real length. :( Nevertheless, I am trying to read De Rerum Natura as a poem more than as a philosophical treatise.