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Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of…
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Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream (1499)

by Francesco Colonna

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    The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz by Johann Valentin Andreae (Sensei-CRS)
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    The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell (buckjohnson)
    buckjohnson: The Rule of Four is a fictional tale of Princeton undergrads seeking to unlock the mystery of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; this best-selling suspense novel is single-handedly responsible for generating popular interest in Colonna's cryptic work.
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Described on the back cover as a strange, pagan, erotic, allegorical, mythological romance and I would add at times a tedious, difficult, but also a fascinating read for anybody interested in medieval or renaissance literature. Written in the later part of the 15th century probably by the ordained priest Francesco Colonna; it was published in Venice in 1499. One of the earliest printed books it proved to be quite an undertaking to get it set for printing with its many wood cut pictures and diagrams, its mixture of Greek, Latin and made up text in the vernacular and it’s layout on the page, which predates some of the ‘concrete’ poetry of later times.

The simple love story beneath all the allegory, dream imagery and technical details is about Poliphil’s love for Polia a nun living under strict religious orders following her survival of a plague epidemic. In Poliphil’s dream he is in a strange land where he must undergo certain trials in his search for Polia. The allegory has him escaping from the perils of the forest where his earlier life was spent and after petitioning the Gods he places himself in the hands of the five senses who lead him to freewill. He then travels with two nymphs (reason and inclination) to an abode with three doors. The doors lead to a world of religion, ambition or love and beauty and Poliphil chooses love and beauty at which point he is deserted by the nymph of reason. His journey continues and he is accompanied by a maiden carrying a torch who appears to be Polia. They reach the domain of Venus Physizoe and in the temple of Venus various rites and initiations are performed before the nymph drops her torch and becomes Polia. They journey on through a desolate city of tombs where they witness the pangs of souls tormented by crimes against love, here the book feels like something lifted from Dante’s inferno. They eventually reach a large stretch of water and Cupid’s barge approaches, they climb aboard and are taken to the island of Cythera; a magical place of gardens, groves and labyrinths. Here near the tomb of Adonis the two lovers settle down and Polia tells her side of the love story to the nymphs that surround them. Polia’s story is told in the much shorter second part of the book and it is shorn of much of the allegory of the first part and tells simply how she is wooed by Poliphil. This is a more realistic and dramatic telling of the love story and takes place in the real world, however the telling of the story ends with Poliphil waking up from his dream and regretting that he cannot recapture it.

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a curious mix indeed, it seems to defy interpretation and also resists attempts to pin it down as wholly a work of the renaissance, this is because it contains so many elements of medieval writing and thought. It singularly avoids anything relating to Christianity with its subject matter being the intervention of pagan gods and its reverence for antiquity placing it firmly in the humanist tradition of the Italian renaissance. The structure of the book centered round the idea of a dream vision and its encyclopedic treatment of plants, animals, buildings and gardens harkens back to medieval times. Francesco Colonna appears to be standing at the crossroads between two periods, but perhaps it was never as clear cut as that and the Hypnerotomachia would have not seemed so out of place to readers in the early 16th century.

I mentioned earlier that the book can be a tedious read and that is because Colonna goes into the minutest detail when describing the gardens or buildings that Poliphil comes across on his journey. I found myself scanning whole sections where I soon became lost in the architectural detail. I have trouble enough in relating two dimensions into three and I am reliably informed that much of the structural detail contained in the writing would simply not work and so I soon found myself giving up on the attempt., however there are many line (woodcut) drawings to help with the visualisation and even if they are difficult to relate to at least they break up the text on the page. I got the impression that the technical details were in many ways more important than the love story, they seemed to be a celebration of renaissance learning that had been scrupulously adapted from antiquity. The love story seems to be buried in the detail, which can be frustrating for modern readers. This is certainly the case with the longer part I. In part II we are back to some sort of reality, but it is more inclined towards the reality of courtly love with Polyphil acting out all the precepts of the lover frustrated by not being able to attain his heart’s desires. The underlying story just about held my attention with the anticipation of what would happen next.

I did not find all the descriptions tedious as Colonna was obviously using his own experience when describing the processions that were a feature of Renaissance city life and his imagination does not let him down when describing cupid’s barge or the scantily clad nymphs that accompanied him. Some of these descriptions have an erotic charge, which seems a little out of place for a priestly author; but then again perhaps not. Some examples of the nymphs on the island of Cythera:

“Others covered there breasts with silken garments - breasts whiter than wintry frosts of Capricorn and pleasingly adorned with the first swelling of their bold nipples, resembling high-breasted apples with semi-globes standing out from them……; and yet others were cloaked in thin cotton that veiled their beautiful bellies and clung sportively to them…..Aschemosyne, presented herself amongst all these clothed nymphs fearlessly naked and provocative, just as though she had drunk of the Salmacian spring. In her left hand she held by its centre a sphere made from gold plates, and with her right she seductively prevented her long hair from covering her plump and wriggling buttocks. She was in a truly wanton condition, making obscene tribadic motions and rolling her eyes. With her prurient actions she resembled some shameless Gaditanian, crudely gesturing with excessive lust. The filthy Hostius, watching sodomites in concave mirrors was no worse than she.”

I enjoyed the translation by Joscelyn Godwin, which could not have been an easy one to do as Colonne had a penchant for making up his own words. Godwin has produced a text that flows smoothly most of the time with no “too modern” intrusions. There are many allusions to classical literature, but these are encompassed in the text in such a way that there is no need to look further to find their relevance. It takes some perseverance to plough through what appears to be so much superfluous detail in part I and yet this part has the dream like quality that is promised by the title of the book. I am glad I read it, but then again I am finding this period of history and its literature absolutely fascinating and so I guess it would not appeal to the more casual reader. ( )
8 vote baswood | Jul 6, 2012 |
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, at the time it was printed in 1499, was considered to be the most beautiful book that had been published since the Gutenberg Bible burst upon the book world almost fifty years earlier. In the early years of printing, connoisseurs of fine illuminated manuscripts scoffed at the printed books, which suffered by comparison in most cases due to a lack of care in the design of types and the overall craftsmanship of the books. So Aldus Manutius, the publisher, had this in mind when he produced this edition which employed a particularly beautiful Roman typeface and is copiously illustrated with woodcuts, one of only three illustrated printed books in the incunabula period.

The modern reader may well ask: What was so beautiful about it? As William Dana Orcutt stated so well in his book In Quest of the Perfect Book:

"On every page Aldus expended his utmost ingenuity in the arrangement of type -- the use of capitals and small capitals and unusual type formations . . . the type balances the illustrations in such a way as to become part of them . . . In a volume published in 1499 they stand as an extraordinary exhibit of what an artistic ingenious printer can accomplish within the rigid limitations of metal type."

And I might add, all the while attempting to emulate the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts which stood as the epitome of book production at the time. The Hypnerotomachia provides a prime exemplar of the first principles of good book design – that the woodcut illustrations should correspond in weight with that of the type, thus producing a balanced page.

After working for a time at a rare books shop, it gradually dawned on me that there were two kinds of booklovers. There are those who enjoy books first and foremost for the purpose of reading, and then there are those who revere and collect books as artifacts – not necessarily to be read. In fact, preferably not to be read because the more collectible books are handled, the higher the risk that value will be negatively affected. Rare book dealers – and collectors – are a unique lot. Many of them are scholars in their field, being experts in the history, value and fine points of collectible books as artifacts. But they don't read the books they sell or collect. They treasure them the way connoisseurs of great art treasure exemplary paintings. The Hypnerotomachia fell into the category of books to be seen but not read.

In fact, before Joscelyn Godwin’s translation appeared in 1999, exactly 500 years after the original publication, and then the subsequent publication of The Rule of Four by Caldwell and Thomason in 2004, nobody was talking about the Hypnerotomachia as a book to be read, especially since it had never been completely translated into English and almost all the scholarship regarding the book was in Italian, French or German. It was treated as a work of art, a historical artifact, and that was that. In fact, prior to Joscelyn Godwin's masterful English translation, I dare say not one in 10,000 Americans would have ever even heard of it.

Despite its recent notoriety, and despite the skilled translation by Professor Godwin, it still is not a book that will appeal to most readers. In fact, without the benefit of a background in classical mythology and the Renaissance, I doubt that most readers would stay with it. However, it is worth the extra effort for more than literary reasons. To fully appreciate the extended erotic romance of Poliphilo and Polia, with its digressions on many subjects including especially architecture, gardens, triumphal processions, collections, music, and with its constant mythological and other pagan references, one might benefit from first reading Godwin's The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance and perhaps even The High Medieval Dream Vision by Kathryn L. Lynch.

While it qualifies in spades as literature, it would in all likelihood appeal hardly at all to modern readers of so-called literary fiction. It has more in common with ancient epic literature and the Commedia or Paradise Lost even though it is not poetry. It seems to be emulating and mocking such works at the same time. It has actually been described as a pagan answer to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other nonepic interpretations are also possible, including Neoplatonic, alchemical, Jungian and as philosophical dream vision (see Lynch). The modern reader can be forgiven for not wanting to dive right in.

Professor Godwin stated at the outset that "The first principle of this translation is to honour every word of the original, however redundant the style may seem to modern ears. To have done otherwise would have only produced another abridgment. . . . But if one were really to convey the spirit and style of the original language, it would have been necessary to do as Colonna did: to invent English words based on the same Latin and Greek ones and to embed them in a syntax to match." In this propensity to create his own vocabulary, Colonna was a forerunner of Shakespeare and James Joyce.

Godwin gives an example of how he translated a sentence, thus:

"On this horrid and sharp-stoned shore, in this miserable region of the icy and foetid lake, stood fell Tisiphone, wild and cruel with her vipered locks and implacably angry.

and how it might have been rendered in keeping with the word-inventing flamboyant style of Colonna:

"In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral and most miserable site of the algent and fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel with her viperine capillament, her meschine and miserable soul, implacably furibund."

Godwin goes on to say that "While most readers will be relieved at the decision not to do so, something has been lost thereby. All the colourful patina, all the grotesque accretions have been stripped away from Colonna's language, leaving it comprehensible but bland."

The Godwin translation is a beautiful book in its own right. Its design and layout is an homage to the original publication and contains reproductions of most if not all of the original woodcut illustrations. Despite the cautions given above, acquainting oneself with this magnificent cultural artifact does have its own rewards. A further background source is Godwin’s The Real Rule of Four, which in addition to explaining aspects of the novel, The Rule of Four, contains extensive background material about the Hypnerotomachia as well.

Godwin sums it all up by saying,

Whoever we are and whatever we believe, more of our life is lived in the imagination than most people like to admit. Our day-to-day existence is crammed with dreams, fantasies and long excursions into the past, in the form of stories we tell to others and to ourselves. Just like Poliphilo, we chew over past experience and try to make sense of it or imagine how it might have been. The books we read become part and parcel of that experience. Reading them is a parenthesis within our world, a story within our story, and a dream within our dream. For as the author proclaims, "all human things are but a dream." ( )
18 vote Poquette | Apr 16, 2011 |
EXAMPLE OF WHEN THE VERY FIRST BOOKS WERE ART IN THEMSELVES EVEN THE TYPOGRAPHY WAS ART.
  Brightman | Jan 17, 2009 |
For half a millenium, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili has been one of the great literary enigmas of the Italian Renaissance. This book, the title of which is translated as "The Strife of Love in a Dream," was written by the Dominican monk Francesco Colonna in the late 15th century. It consists of the amatory adventures of one Poliphilo, who dreams of a search for his love Polia among spectacles of ancient buildings, sculptures and gardens frequented by the gods of pagan antiquity.

Colonna's Hypnerotomachia does in fact constitute a "missing link" between two critical antecedents of Aleister Crowley's Thelema: Saint Augustine and Francois Rabelais. Augustine, who wrote "Love, and do what thou wilt," proposed that the spiritual trinity within the human soul was composed of memory, understanding, and will. In the Hypnerotomachia, Poliphilo represents memory, and he is given two guides: Logistica (understanding) and Thelemia (will). Eventually, when forced to choose between their counsel, he follows Thelemia in deciding upon the path of erotic fulfillment over the options of worldly glory and ascetic contemplation. Florence Weinberg has suggested that Rabelais, who certainly read Colonna and explicitly acknowledged him, was inspired by Colonna's Thelemia in assigning the name Theleme to his utopian abbey.

The Hypnerotomachia was written in a curious and largely impenatrable "pedantesca," supplementing the Tuscan vernacular with many Greek and Latin neologisms. One partial translation into English by "R.D." was published during the Renaissance, when it was also translated into French. The book aroused the most interest in French readers of the 16th and 17th centuries, who usually understood it as an alchemical allegory. Anglophone scholars tended to concentrate attention on the innovative woodcut illustrations, rather than the text. Since 1999 Joscelyn Godwin's complete and lucid English translation (now available in a more economical second edition) has made it available to readers in a new and powerful way.
11 vote paradoxosalpha | Feb 6, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Francesco Colonnaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cialona, IkeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Godwin, JoscelynTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
A strange book origionally written in 5 languages. With strange architectural designs and poeticly superiority. It's real subject is still under discussion. The book tells the tale of Poliphilus, but the contex sugests a hidden meaning to the words and illustrations.

Together with the voynich manuscript this book is one of the great mysteries of the written word! After 500 years the book finelly got translated to Dutch (my native language).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0500511047, Hardcover)

The book that inspired Ian Caldwell's bestselling The Rule of Four—discover the secret codes of the best-selling novel!

One of the most famous books in the world, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, read by every Renaissance intellectual and referred to in studies of art and culture ever since, was first published in English by Thames & Hudson in 1999.

It is a strange, pagan, pedantic, erotic, allegorical, mythological romance relating in highly stylized Italian the quest of Poliphilo for his beloved Polia. The author (presumed to be Francesco Colonna, a friar of dubious reputation) was obsessed by architecture, landscape, and costume—it is not going too far to say sexually obsessed—and its 174 woodcuts are a primary source for Renaissance ideas on both buildings and gardens.

In 1592 an attempt was made to produce an English version but the translator gave up. The task has been triumphantly accomplished by Joscelyn Godwin, who succeeds in reproducing all its wayward charm and arcane learning in language accessible to the modern reader. 174 black-and-white illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:54 -0400)

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