Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 2000
Francesco Colonna Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream Trans Joscelyn Godwin Thames and Hudson, 1999. 476 pp.; 174 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0500019428)

“Reader, if you wish to hear briefly what is contained in this work, know that Poliphilo tells that he saw remarkable things in a dream, hence he calls the work in Greek words ‘the strife of love in a dream’. He represents himself as having seen many ancient things worthy of memory, and everything that he says he has seen, he describes point by point in the appropriate terms and in an elegant style: pyramids, obelisks, huge ruins of buildings.” With these words, Francesco Colonna introduces his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in 1499, at the closing of the age of the incunabulum. A Dominican friar living in Venice, he waited for thirty years before his manuscript, completed in 1467, was published by Aldus Manutius. This was partially due to the cost of the undertaking, for the volume, together with its 174 woodcuts by an anonymous artist, was one of the most extravagant publishing ventures of its day. English readers have had to wait a lot longer, until this 1999 edition that appears exactly 500 years after the entry of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili into the Renaissance literary canon.

Often mentioned as one of the most handsomely produced books in the Renaissance, the first edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is exceedingly rare. Many surviving copies have been mutilated by readers wishing to possess some of its opulently designed woodcuts. It is, therefore, all the more rewarding that the present publication attempts to convey the beauty of the original by adhering to its size, as well as to the layout of the text and the images. Adding to the appeal of this English edition for bibliophiles is its typeface, favored by Aldus Manutius and known by modern printers as “Poliphilus.”

Indispensable to any study of the Renaissance obsession with the lost world of Antiquity, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is more admired than actually read. Part of the reason for this is the notorious difficulty of the original language, a fanciful linguistic idiom based on Latin vocabulary and Italian morphology and syntax, challenging even for Colonna’s contemporaries. A labor of love for Joscelyn Godwin, this translation follows his earlier forays in the intellectual history of the early modern world, most notably his publications on the seventeenth-century philosophers Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher.

The story—ostensibly a retelling of a long and involved dream that takes Poliphilo through a landscape filled with ruins, tablets with inscriptions and hieroglyphs, and other magnificent or curious remnants of Antiquity—is both autobiographical and allegorical. Like Dante and his Beatrice, or Petrarch and his Laura, Poliphilo pursues an ideal lover, a nymph by the name of Polia. And, like these illustrious examples, he is doomed to lose her at the moment of their closest embrace, as her body disappears into the air, ending both his dream and his book. While the exact meaning of this symbolic account is as elusive as Poliphilo’s pursuit, the author hints at his allegorical intent throughout, beginning with the names of the two main protagonists. That Poliphilo (literally “the lover of Polia”) is his alter-ego, is suggested by the closing words of the nymph in which she calls him a “column of her life” (Italian “Colonna”). Polia’s own name, deriving from the Greek term for “old age” or "antiquity, " is generally understood as a hermeneutical key to the overall theme of this dream-book.

Like its language, the literary genre of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is truly a hybrid one, combining the conventions of romance, travelogue, and antiquarian treatise in an ever-changing narrative. To follow Poliphilo’s descriptions of the temples and monuments encountered on his imagined journey is to delve into an assemblage of favorite Renaissance topoi. At the same time, this learned fabric is interwoven with passages detailing his desire for Polia, whose undisguised eroticism brings to mind the popular contemporary literature of a more lascivious bent. In this manner, as stressed in the dedicatory preface to the 1499 edition, he fashioned a book for many audiences, a cornucopia of knowledge that could rival the work of the ancients, and be presented with a pleasing grace and novelty.

Notwithstanding its textual eccentricity, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili has had a rich pictorial and literary legacy. Mantegna, Titian, Lotto and Bernini, to name but a few of the artists it inspired, eagerly drew upon its opulent, often enigmatic imagery. Equally important was the impact of this volume on emblem books, the principal vehicle for the dissemination of visual and poetic tropes in the seventeenth century. From Alciatus and Valeriano, to lesser known authors such as the Antwerp poet Jan van der Noot, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was a favorite sourcebook of Renaissance commonplaces.

Though its publishing history prior to 1999 includes a number of translations, most of them are abbreviated versions of the original. Notable among them, at least in terms of the wider circulation of the text in Europe in the century following its writing, was the 1546 French edition: Hypnerotomachia, ou, Discours du Songe de Poliphile. The first and only attempt to translate this work into English before Godwin was made in 1592, as Hypnerotomachia The Strife of Love in a Dreame (London, Simon Waterson). Thwarted by the scope of the undertaking, the translator R.D. (usually identified as Sir Robert Dallington, a courtier and man of letters), stopped about two fifths into the text, leaving the English readers for the next few centuries with a little more than a foretaste of Colonna’s fertile imagination.

In the brief and excellent introduction to the present edition, Godwin notes that his translation project would have been a lot more difficult without the critical edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Giovanni Pozzi and Lucia A. Ciapponi (Padua: Editrice Antenore, 1968, reprinted in 1980 with a new Preface and Bibliography). Unlike that scholarly volume, he intended this translation for a more general audience interested in the culture of the Renaissance. As he observes further, while he tried to preserve the spirit of Colonna’s literary style, he knew that by rendering it in plain, standard English, he would inevitably lose some of its linguistic wit.

Notwithstanding this recognition of the limits of any translation, Godwin proves himself a skillful interpreter of Colonna’s eccentric language. Thus, when Poliphilo ventures to describe the physical charms of Polia, his words resonate with the Renaissance poetics of praise of beautiful women, sensitively captured in Godwin’s translation. Polia’s tresses are “filaments of gold with a changeable lustre” ( subtilissimi fili d’oro inconstantemente rutilanti), her “festive and radiant eyesπ are fit to turn Jupiter into a rain of gold” (festevoli et radiosi ochii, da fundere Iove in piogia d’oro), while her cheeks, “fresh roses gathered at dawn and placed in vases of purest Cypriot crystal” (fresche rose alla surgente aurora collecte, et dopoi tra vasi di mundissimo crystalo de Cypri) (145).

This rhetoric of desire is even more pronounced in the author’s accounts of ancient ruins, each one a document of the continuous struggle between Culture and the implacable forces of Nature. Standing at a “great ruin of walls and enclosures” (vastitate magna di muri o vero parieti) Poliphilo observes fissures filled with “salt-loving littoral cock’s crestπsaltwort and fragrant sea-wormwoodπ” (alcuni lochi vidi il literale cachile et molto kali et lo odoroso abscynthio marino) (236). At another such edifice, he marvels at “the fragments of holy antiquity” (gli fragmenti dilla sancta antiquitate) and wonders what their effects would be “were they whole” (quanto farebbe la sua integritate) (59).

To render Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in an English version approximating the hermetic density of the language of the original would have required philological acrobatics of doubtful merit for readers. Godwin illustrates this point by comparing two passages, the first of which is a “more faithful” translation of Colonna’s description of a Fury: “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.” As we turn to the “plain” English of the actual translation, we find a welcome respite whose deviance from the original is more a blessing than a loss: “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” (249).

Godwin may have sacrificed some of Colonna’s linguistic craftsmanship, but he has certainly shown a great sensitivity towards Colonna’s imagination and mastery of tropes. In page after page of this expansive and convoluted dreamscape, he succeeds in imparting the poetic exuberance of the original to the modern reader. Even if Godwin intended this translation for a number of different readers, it will undoubtedly rekindle the interest of art historians in this famous, if still insufficiently explored monument to the Renaissance infatuation with Antiquity.

Aneta Georgievska-Shine
Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland