The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a fascinating book. It was first produced by renowned Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius (ca. 1450-1515) in 1499. A specialist in the publication of Greek and Latin texts, Aldus was also famous for developing new formats, such as the small, handheld book, and for typographical innovation: he intruduced, for example, the use of printed italics. The typeface used in the Hypnerotomachia was designed specifically for the book, and drew from classical manuscripts and inscriptions. Another novelty came with the book’s daring and singularly harmonious marriage of text and illustration. Mario Praz thought it the most beautiful of all Renaissance books.
Poliphilo entering, “with great feare, into a darke obscure and unfrequented wood.” He wears a round skull-cap upon his richly curled head, and has the lower part of his long gown tucked under his right arm.
The book was published anonymously, and the identity of its author has never been established with absolute certainty. There is a strong clue, however, in the decorated initials of each of the book’s thirty-eight chapters, which collectively spell out the phrase POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCUS COLONNA PERAMAVIT (Brother Francesco Colonna desperately loved Polia). The historical figure who seems most closely identifiable with this acrostic was an apparently wayward Dominican monk of that name (ca. 1433-1527), born in Venice, who was lector of rhetoric, grammar and foreign languages in Treviso before returning to his home city in 1472. His name otherwise touched the historical record in brief mentions of monastic insubordination and unsavoury allegations of sexual misconduct.
Poliphilo, who has emerged from the dark wood, is kneeling by the side of a rivulet, and upon the point of refreshing himself from its waters, when his attention is suddenly arrested by a wondrously sweet song.
Hypnerotomachia is a portmanteau word conjoining Greek terms for sleep, love and struggle, and was rendered in the title of the book’s first (partial) English translation as the strife of love in a dreame. Poliphili refers to the book’s protagonist Poliphilo, whose name could be translated as lover of many things, or, lover of Polia where Polia is indeed the the young woman whose love Poliphilo seeks. Wordplay like this extends throughout the text, written in an Italian teeming with unusual coinages derived from antique Greek and Latin.
Poliphilo sleeping under an oak-tree; in the background are wooded hills. “He thinks over all his wanderings, and in doing so, falls asleep under the tree.”
The body of the text relates Poliphilo’s progress through his dream-world, a kind of pagan paradise strewn with magnificent buildings and colossal ruins, whose architecture is described in loving, even fetishistic detail; and which is populated for the most part by comely nymphs clad in diaphanous gowns. On the simplest level, this is escapist fantasy, embodying the author’s sensual longings, and beyond that lie, one presumes, levels of allegorical meaning not obvious to the casual reader such as myself.
Poliphilo surrounded by remains of classical antiquity - a richly ornamented fragment of an architrave, a corslet, a Corinthian capital, and the base of a column. Behind Poliphilo, near a group of palm-trees, we see a ferocious wolf which, however, is flying before him. In the foreground, a lizard and some plants.
The MIT Press have compiled a complete, on-line version of the 1499 Hypnerotomachia in four hundred and sixty-seven JPEGs. Its chapter index is here. This was my source for these images, which show the first five of the ca. one hundred and seventy-two woodcuts which gracefully illustrate the text. The captions for the woodcuts I took from this page. Details of the 1999 English translation, without which I would have been able to read the book at all, can be found here.
A huge pyramidic temple, of white Parian marble, with 1410 steps, dedicated to the Sun; it is surmounted by a marvellous obelisk of Syenite marble, with a winged female figure at the top, holding a cornucopia in her right hand, and with her robes floating in the air.
And here is a sequence of a half-dozen pages, showing the first of the abovementioned images again, but this time in the context of the surrounding pages of text.