Professor Nicholas Davidson

Featured Publication

'Lucretius, Irreligion and Atheism in Early-Modern Venice’, in D. Norbrook, S. Harrison, and P. Hardie (eds.), Lucretius and the Early Modern (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 123-34

Lucretius and the Early Modern

The rediscovery in the fifteenth century of Lucretius' De rerum natura was a challenge to received ideas. The poem offered a vision of the creation of the universe, the origins and goals of human life, and the formation of the state, all without reference to divine intervention. It has been hailed in Stephen Greenblatt's best-selling book,  The Swerve, as the poem that invented modernity. But how modern did early modern readers want to become? 

This collection of essays offers a series of case studies which demonstrate the sophisticated ways in which some readers might relate the poem to received ideas, assimilating Lucretius to theories of natural law and even natural theology, while others were at once attracted to Lucretius' subversiveness and driven to dissociate themselves from him. The volume presents a wide geographical range, from Florence and Venice to France, England, and Germany, and extends chronologically from Lucretius' contemporary audience to the European Enlightenment. It covers both major authors such as Montaigne and neglected figures such as Italian neo-Latin poets, and is the first book in the field to pay close attention to Lucretius' impact on political thought, both in philosophy - from Machiavelli, through Hobbes, to Rousseau - and in the topical spin put on the  De rerum natura by translators in revolutionary England. It combines careful attention to material contexts of book production and distribution with close readings of particular interpretations and translations, to present a rich and nuanced profile of the mark made by a remarkable poem.

  • The history of the Inquisition
  • Italian history
  • Early-modern Catholicism

My work explores two major themes in the history of the early-modern period: the religious divisions created by the Reformation, and the cultural challenges generated by the increased interchange of people and ideas between Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.  How readily in the wake of these developments could contemporaries question or reject the political, intellectual, moral, religious, and social norms of their own cultures?  And how effectively could those norms be enforced by the established powers of Church and State?  My research and writing are therefore shaped by questions about the nature of relations between different societies, about coercion and co-existence, about human rights and international law, and about conscience, free will, and authority.  Much of my evidence is necessarily drawn from legal and judicial records, and especially from the extraordinarily rich archives of the Inquisition tribunals in Italy, Portugal, and Spain.  But both the content and the processes of the law need to be examined in the context of the communities in which lawyers, judges, witnesses and defendants operated.

I am currently completing a book on the Inquisition in Venice in the sixteenth century.  Forthcoming projects include studies of relations between Greek and Latin Christians in the East Mediterranean, the origins of the Roman Inquisition, founded in 1542, and the careers and policies of the Cardinals who ran the Roman tribunal between that year and the end of the 1700s.  I am also interested in the history of Catholicism as a global religion, especially in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the Americas; in Catholic missionary activities and tactics both within and outside Europe; and in the development of cultural understanding and exchange in the early-modern world.

  • Sebastian Castellio: Knowledge, Doubt, and Ignorance

  • Latins and Greeks in the Venetian Colonies of the Eastern Mediterranean

  • ‘Lucretius, Irreligion and Atheism in Early-Modern Venice’

  • Hispanophobia in the Venetian Republic

  • The Inquisition

  • Sex, Religion, and the Law: Disciplining Desire

  • Religious Minorities

  • Le plus beau et le plus meschant esprit que ie aye cogneu: Science and religion in the writings of Giulio Cesare Vanini, 1585-1619

  • Poor relief and health care in Southern Europe, 1700-1900: The ideological context

  • Fuggir la liberta della coscienza: Conscience and the Inquisition in Sixteenth-Century Italy

  • More

Current DPhil Students

  • Bradley Blankemeyer (co-supervised with Professor Alan Strathern)
  • Ashley Ellington
  • Katie Fellows
  • Oliver Ford
  • Thomas Goodwin
  • John Hawkins (co-supervised with Professor Geoffrey Tyack)
  • Ernesto Oyarbide Magana (co-supervised with Professor Alex Gajda)
  • Giulia Vidori
  • Luca Zenobi (co-supervised with Professor John Watts)


I would be willing to hear from potential DPhil or Masters students regarding Italian history; history of Catholicism.

I currently teach:

Prelims: FHS: Masters:
General History III, 1400-1650 (Renaissance, Recovery and Reform)

General History VII, 1409-1525

The Dawn of the Global World, 1450-1800: Ideas, Objects, Connections
OS 10: Conquest and Colonisation: Spain and America in the Sixteenth Century General History VIII, 1500-1618  
Approaches to History: Anthropology and History; and Art and History General History IX, 1600-1715  
Foreign Texts: Machiavelli General History XVIII, Eurasian Empires, 1450-1800  
  SS8: Politics, Art and Culture in the Italian Renaissance, Venice and Florence, c. 1475-1525