This is a fascinating story about the search for ancient texts during the early renaissance and about Poggio Bracciolini, the papal secretary who located the last remaining copy of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. The church played a dual role as preserver and destroyer of texts from the ancient world - painstakingly copying and recopying on the one hand, and actively suppressing certain works and authors on the other. Lucretius and other epicureans were special targets for suppression since their ideas posed such a strong challenge to religious belief. As an aside, Greenblatt notes that the ideas of epicureanism were not only suppressed, they were distorted out of all recognition.
Bracciolini’s own history was pretty interesting in its own right, especially the period as papal secretary to pope John XXII (no, not that John XXII - the first one), Baldassare Cossa. Even for popes of the time Cossa was pretty wild. Rape, sodomy, bribe taking, extortion - he enjoyed all the vices available. Bracciolini was not involved in the criminal activity, except perhaps to cover them up after the fact, but lost his position when Cossa was deposed and tried.
Greenblatt does a nice job of interleaving Bracciolini’s personal history, the history of ancient manuscripts, and the specific history of The Nature of Things and other epicurean thought. In all a really enjoyable read.