Since I had a go at early illustration earlier today in this blog I thought to write something about a book that is probably one of the most beautifully printed books not only of the Renaissance but of all time. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream) by Francesco Colonna was the greatest achievement by the greatest printer of the Renaissance (Aldus Manutius in Venice), a spectacular combination of story and type and design and illustration; an imaginative, secular Humanist self-romance like no other printed to that time. ) See the entire text HERE.)
Hypnerotomachia means “the strife of love in a dream”, and the reference to Poliphili refers to the narrator of the story, Poliphilo, telling of the love affair between Polia and Poliphilo—the master text of the whole story though is a description of ancient art and architecture, all told in a wonderful ”macaronic mélange” of Italian and Latin, and which were the “exact accounts” seen in Poliphilo’s dreams about Polia.. It is a modernist book for being printed in the last year of the 15th century (1499), and stands for vitality and grace and superb design, and according to George Painter was the Finnegan’s Wake of the fifteenth century. Painter continues, and writing that “Gutenberg’s forty-two line Bible of 1455 and the Hypnerotomachia of 1499 confront one another from opposite ends of the incunable period with equal and contrasting pre-eminence. The Gutenberg Bible is somberly and sternly German, Gothic, Christian and mediaeval; the Hypnerotomachia is radiantly and graciously Italian, classic, pagan and renascent. These are two supreme masterpieces of the art of printing, and stand at the two poles of human endeavor and desire! “(Cited by Alan Thomas, Fine Books, 1967, pp 71-4).
Martin Lowry in his The World of Aldus Manututus (Ithaca, New York, 1979) makes another interesting statement on this masterpiece: “(Hypnerotomachia) was a linguistic and literary debauch, choked with recondite imagery, erudite periphrases, and exotic verbiage: a work so bizarre that many critics have felt a certain uneasiness at Aldus' agreeing to print it.”
It is truly an astonishing accomplishment, and its significance in the design of type and of the book really cannot be underestimated. As E.P. Goldsmidt stated (in The Printed Book of the Renaissance, 1950, p. 52): "In the North an astonishing proportion of all Renaissance ornament and accessory design can clearly be proved to derive from Colonna..."
The book is summarized here and below:
“The action of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili takes place in a dream. The books opens on the hero, Poliphilo, who has spent a restless night because his beloved, Polia, has shunned him. At the break of day, he finally falls into a deep slumber and his "Hypnerotomachia," or, as it can be roughly translated, "struggle for love in a dream," begins. The action is particularly absurd, however, even by the standards of the genre. Poliphilo is transported into a wild forest. He gets lost, escapes, and falls asleep once more. He then awakens in a second dream, dreamed inside the first. Within it, he is taken by some nymphs to meet their queen. There he is asked to declare his love for Polia, which he does. He is then directed by two nymphs to three gates. He chooses the third, and there he discovers his beloved. They are taken by some more nymphs to a temple to be engaged. Along the way they come across no less than five triumphal processions celebrating the union of the lovers. Then they are taken to the island of Cythera by barge, with Cupid as the boatswain; there they see another triumphal procession celebrating their union. The narrative is uninterrupted, and a second voice takes over, as Polia describes he erotomachia from her own point of view. This takes up one fifth of the book, after which the hero resumes his narrative. They are blissfully wed, but Polia vanishes into thin air as Poliphilo is about to take her into his arms.”