by Roderick Conway Morris

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Dreams, Love and Erotica

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 February 2000



Francesco Colonna's 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' - love story, erotic novel, encyclopedia of ancient myth and legend and aesthete's guide to the good life - is a book unique in literature, illustration and art history. It could not have been written, let alone printed, at the time anywhere else than in Venice, where it first saw the light of day at the Aldine Press in December 1499.

The work's quincentennial was marked by the appearance of the first English translation of the entire text, a mammoth task of inestimable value carried out with learning, elegance and wit by Joscelyn Godwin. His dedication has been rewarded with the publication by Thames & Hudson of a handsome volume in the same size and format, and using the same layout and typefaces, as the hefty Aldine version, including all the magnificent original wood engravings.

Poliphilo's 'Hypnerotomachia,' or 'Strife With Love in a Dream,' tells of the eponymous hero's pursuit of his beloved through a landscape of otherworldly beauty, wonder and febrile sensation.

The title is ambiguous: Poliphilo is not only in love with Polia, an elusive damsel from Treviso, but also 'the lover of many things.' Thus, Poliphilo's comprehensive appreciation of Polia's enthralling charms is matched by his insatiable passion for architecture, ancient ruins, statuary, inscriptions, hieroglyphs, paintings, fabrics and gardens. And he becomes, in a certain sense, as aroused by his meticulous examination of a fragment of beautiful mosaic or a finely crafted ornament as he is by Polia's flawless features, physique and cultured conversation, or by his close study, when he encounters Venus in her fountain, of the goddess's golden hair, sky-blue eyes and snow-white, gravity-defying breasts.

The all-pervasive eroticization of every person, accessory, object and aspect of this story might have attracted the attention even of the Venetian censors had 'Hypnerotomachia,' although in theory the first vernacular text issued by the Aldine Press, not been written in a highly idiosyncratic, exaggeratedly Latinate Italian, replete with neologisms and arcane terminology, that exists only in the pages of this book and has never been used before or since - and that initially confined the book's readership to the upper echelons of the educated humanist elite.

The numerous, endlessly intriguing wood engravings were, of course, more instantly accessible. Who designed them remains a stubborn mystery. They clearly drew on the contemporary works of Mantegna and the Bellinis, but 'Hypnerotomachia' in turn exercised an influence on the development of art in Venice and, in due course, in places and times far beyond. Even within a few years of its publication, its effects can be detected in the serene and dreamlike reclining nudes in pastoral settings of Giorgione and Titian.

While the illustrations were returned to over and over again by generations of artists and their patrons, the text, too, for all its oddities, also became a fecund source of inspiration. Abstruse though it can be, it is often richly and sharply visual, describing with almost neurotic, not to say fetishistic, precision much that is not illustrated by the woodcuts. And, as early as the 16th century, partial if not very accurate translations began to appear in French and English.

Colonna was a Dominican monk, who died at a ripe old age in 1527. His unconventional, unbuttoned lifestyle got him into frequent scrapes with the authorities but, rather surprisingly, his monastery in Venice, Saints Giovanni and Paolo, contributed toward the cost of the book's publication. In his writing Colonna inhabited a mental universe as removed from his putative clerical calling as could possibly be imagined. There is only one, very fleeting reference to Christianity in the whole book, which is otherwise unashamedly pagan in philosophy and outlook. When Poliphilo finds himself terrified and lost in a forest, and calls on the 'supreme Father and eternal ruler' to come to his aid, it is to Jupiter, not the Christian God, that he addresses himself.

The fantastic universe of 'Hypnerotomachia' became a physical reality in the following centuries: in the sumptuous marble-lined interiors of Roman Renaissance villas, in Bernini's monument of the obelisk-bearing elephant, taken from one of the woodcuts and erected in the piazza of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in 1667, and in gardens laid out in Italy and at great palaces in the north, such as Versailles.

But Poliphilo was also the spiritual father of a line of European exquisites and aesthetes, stretching into the era of Huysmans, Wilde and Beardsley (a fervent admirer of 'Hypnerotomachia'). And perhaps Poliphilo's closest modern descendant, not least in his ability to observe minutely while surrendering to the intensity of an aesthetic experience, is the narrator of Proust's 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.'

Both the words and pictures of 'Hypnerotomachia' retain their strange fascination today. It is certainly one of the most sustained visions of an aesthetically enlightened, sexually sinless, classical world that may never really have existed, yet whose loss Poliphilo mourns as deeply as the vanishing of his nymph Polia, when he awakens to the sound of the nightingale's song and the discovery that it has all been but a dream.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023