Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, which can be translated as “Poliphilio’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” tells the author’s tale of love for a girl, Polia. It takes place in two dreams amidst pagan bacchanalia that celebrate Greek and Roman antiquity, especially the architecture, gardens and costuming that the lustful Dominican monk imagined as he wrote in his cell at a Treviso monastery between 1465 and 1467. Based on hints left in the text and what little is known about Colonna during those years, Polia was the daughter of a nobleman, dead in her teens, whom he had loved apparently unrequitedly. The protagonist, Poliphilio (literally “the lover of Polia,” for Colonna was obsessively loving of every detail of the world that revolved around his ingénue) provides exacting descriptions of every lawn, statue, temple, garment and shoe worn by the object of his love and the many sprites, gods and goddesses that surround her. “Although these scenes were small, there was not the least defect in them, not even the smallest detail: everything was perfect and clearly discernible,” Colonna writes, via Joscelyn Godwin’s translation, approximately halfway through a 40-page description of a triumphant parade, not so much as a justification for his exhaustive cataloging of friezes, vases and garlands in the procession of lithe, voluptuous, nubile and hirsute pagan spirits, but simply as a transition to some 15 additional pages on the virtues of details that perpetually “stupefy” Poliphilio as he is led through his dream pursuit of Polia.
“How many bibliophiles have actually read it is another question, for its textual excesses are enough to deter most readers,” wrote Joscelyn Godwin in her introduction to the book. She was the first translator to succeed in making an English version of the book in 1999, on its 500th anniversary. The Hypnerotomachia, which is vaguely familiar to modern readers as the source of The Rule of Four, a mystical thriller written in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is often celebrated as a farsighted precursor of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a complex modernist linguistic tour de force published in 1939 that combined many languages in a dream discourse. Colonna’s use of languages, in contrast to Joyce’s, is rather limited, with only a few words of Greek and Hebrew appearing as inscriptions on statuary[i]. His real talent, in addition to that friar’s eye for arcane detail, was in his ability to forge new words from Latin and Italian to create his own vernacular, a lovelorn torrent that, as Godwin points out, if translated literally would include sentences such as “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.”[ii] Nine of those overripe words were neologisms concocted by the writer, none of them has found acceptance in the half millennia since Colonna invented them. His wordplay anticipates the inventive texting of today’s teens and young adults, some of whom have begun writing novels and serial dramas in truncated English, Japanese and Chinese that are delivered to their audiences, mostly friends, by mobile handset. “Viperine,” to be snakelike, doesn’t have the same tone as “LOPSOD,” the texting code for “long on promises, short on delivery,” but both describe a certain danger and untrustworthiness when applied in a narrative.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was definitely not a book for everyone, as few spoke or read Latin in Europe during the 15th century and Italian vernacular was seldom published. The sensuous subject matter could get its Catholic author into trouble with the Holy See due to its graphic content—indeed the Vatican’s copies are reportedly obscured to hide phalluses, pudenda and breasts in the illustrations—and the pagan religion it celebrates. Colonna is only identifiable as the author because he hid his name and a declaration of love to Polia in an acrostic puzzle made up of the first letters of 38 chapters of the book: “POLIAM FRATER FRANCISVS COLVMNA PERAMIVIT (‘Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia’)” according to Godwin.[iii]
By any measure, Colonna was typical of an author in any era, sitting alone in his monastic cell, he wrote primarily for his own enjoyment and hoped the work would be read by a few appreciative readers. Perhaps, he may have thought, it might be copied or quoted by others in the future. Fortunately for Colonna, if he had a thin skin, he lived before the time when an author’s hopes would be dashed by rejection letter from publishers.
The testament of love to Polia circulated in a few un-illustrated copies for the next 30 years before it found its way into print in 1499. Colonna would go on to write an epic poem Delfili Somnium, which did not reach print until 1959, under his own name in the early 16th century before dying at the age of 94 in 1527 while living on a church allowance of food and firewood. He never profited from the Hypnerotomachia.[iv] The book would be reprinted in Venice in 1545, in Paris in 1546, 1554, 1561, 1600,1804, 1880, 1883, 1926 and 2000, in London in 1592, 1888, 1890, 1893, 1901, 1904 and 1973, and in New York in 1976 and 1999, among other editions.[v]
Why then are early copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili selling at auction for tens of thousands of dollars as one of the most collectible books in history and the volume that definitively closed the era of the incunabula, the books printed during the first 50 years of the era of the printing press? It attracted the attention of a team of creative people who turned it into a classic publication. They did more than polish the text, they added substantially to the experience of reading Colonna’s book with a fine layout, clever typesetting and illustrations.
Ornate to the point of tedium, the Hypnerotomachia nevertheless happened to find a sponsor in Leonardo Grassi, a Veronese nobleman, some thirty years after it was supposedly finished on May 1, 1467. But no manuscript is finished, nor is it immune to the feedback of readers or publishers shopping for a risqué classical tale. Despite having dated the completion of the book, it has been shown Colonna wrote much of it later and, possibly, he rewrote some of the book at the suggestion of his editor to make its social and cultural references current to 1499.[vi]
Grassi wanted to impress the Duke of Urbino, whom he addresses in his dedication as “illustrious,” “unconquered” and virtuous, in addition to other superlatives deployed to flatter the Duke in order to gain business and social opportunities for the Grassi family. Grassi did not want his praise to adorn one of the few hundred titles already available, he wanted to present something new, a fashionable work that would stimulate talk at the sophisticated Court of Urbino. Another edition of Virgil, whose work was already available in as many as a hundred editions by the end of the 1400s, would not impress. He turned to Colonna’s odd dream record to surprise the Duke. Grassi also made the extravagant investment in an innovative printer, Aldus Manutius, to create the book known today, which is known for its page layouts that balance the arcane text with unprecedented amounts of white space and illustrations, including dozens of beautifully executed woodcut prints depicting scenes in the book, to produce a wonderfully pleasing visual experience.
The Hypnerotomachia became a classic through the combined efforts of writer, publisher, illustrator and printer, signaling a marked change in the production of books—the only modern contribution it lacked was in sales and marketing. The book failed miserably in the markets of its time, so much so that Grassi had to petition for the extension of his license to print the work in 1508, because he still had not sold most of the original press run. Even in reprint, the Hypnerotomachia was only successful as a curiosity and status symbol among the elite—it has never sold in large numbers, which increased the book’s mystique and contributed to its price-raising scarcity.
Hynerotomachia Poliphili would not be an important work were it not for Aldus Manutius (Manuzio), the greatest printer of his age, the first modern publisher. The care Aldus gave manuscripts and the elegance of the books he designed set him apart from contemporaries. His art reached its peak with Colonna’s erotic book, as Grassi apparently provided a lavish budget that produced exquisite returns. In books Aldus printed using his own accounts, he was thorough and diligent about the text and design, but he never again brought so many illustrations to bear on the page.
A late starter in printing, Aldus, born in 1450 at Bassiano, a village near Rome, had set up shop in Venice in the early 1490s to print Greek and Latin grammar primers and the works of Aristotle. Within two years of finishing Hynerotomachia, Aldus would revolutionize printing with the introduction of pocket-sized octavo volumes of the authors of antiquity and began ongoing innovations in typefaces, page layout and book distribution. His books were well-made and, most importantly, at a time when printers would grind out anything to make a profit often without any effort to edit or correct mistakes in the text, Aldus honored the texts he printed. He traveled extensively to find the most complete and authoritative copies of classic Greek and Latin texts, spending ample time on collating different versions and selecting the best version available of each passage. Aldus never set print in the forms for his presses,[vii] acting more as an editor-publisher, concerning himself with design and accuracy throughout the production process. His own commentaries on classical texts, works of serious scholarship, adorned the classical and contemporary works that flowed from the Aldine Press for the next decade.
Poring over the proofs of his pages, Aldus was the original editorially oriented publisher. Each edition he produced read better than previous printed versions of the same work. He also wrote his own grammars, that he published, and, according to the Renaissance theologian Erasmus, built “up a library which has no other limits than the world itself.” By the time of his death, he had printed almost every classic text of antiquity known today among the 132 titles produced over his 20-year career. He was the first printer to produce books for a “mass” market, increasing his print runs from the 100 to 300 of the incunabula era to more than one thousand, so that he could sell each volume more cheaply.
Aldus defined the print era, becoming the benchmark against which future publishers would measure themselves. His print shop operated in the midst of a glut of printing services as more than 150 printers rushed to Venice to set up their business by the end of the 15th century[viii], making the risks he took with formats, design and care in editing all the more impressive. By the time Hypnerotomachia appeared in 1499, scholars estimate that up to 20 million books had been produced in Europe. They were, however, 20 million copies of a small group of 200 to 500 titles, because novelty was seldom rewarded by buyers or censors. That Aldus managed in this environment to get Grassi to fund an elaborate work with almost 100 illustrations is a testament to his dedication to the Hypnerotomachia. Other publishers would certainly have offered to do it for less, but they also would have cut corners. Aldus probably broke even on the project. His goal appears to have been to show what could be accomplished with print.
Colonna was the first living author, other than Aldus himself, Aldus published. In one way, it may have raised the pressure the printer felt, as he would answer to an author if the book did not meet expectations, but it was much more important as a form of liberation from the traditions associated with classical authors in the design and presentation of their texts. Plato called, through the example of centuries of manuscripts, for a certain approach to design in his books. Aldus could forget all that and make the Hynperotomachia something distinctly modern. Aldus took his opportunity and broke with tradition.
There is little evidence of direct collaboration between Colonna and Aldus, despite the latter’s historic reputation for working closely with authors, such as the Enlightment scholar Erasmus. It is certain, however, that much of the text of Hypnerotomachia was reworked after the original date of completion. Events mentioned in the text happened after Colonna purportedly finished his work in the 1550s.
Early printing involved reproducing the works of dead authors in forms that resembled written manuscripts produced by scriptoria at monasteries and by commercial copyists. Just as Google and many e-book publishers today scan the contents of out-of-copyright books with little concern about the integrity of the text, which often appears on the electronic page mangled beyond recognition or with uncorrected page breaks and other detritus of the scanning process, early books took their contents from scribal works lock, stock and barrel. The Gothic script of manuscripts became the Gothic typeface of early printing, producing pages that were often more black than white paper or un-inked vellum. The Venetian market and all of Europe favored what was familiar, after all, and a vocal minority of the literate swore they would never purchase a printed book instead of a handwritten one, so publishers sought to minimize outward differences. The pages of books looked like their handwritten predecessors, crowded and usually unpunctuated, as books written primarily for reading aloud had been. Individual personalities were imprinted on books by the bookbinder, who usually performed his work for readers who bought the pages unbound and commissioned a binding, often ornately decorated, to fit into the look of their library. The page was a commodity from the start.
As revolutionary as the printing press was, it did not produce much change in the nature of books during the incunabula period. By the time Aldus began publishing in the 1490s, printers had fallen into well-established habits with the layout of pages, adopted two typefaces, Gothic and Roman, especially Jenson’s Roman type, and lax approaches to quality. Errors could be fixed in future editions, if there was enough profit to justify another edition. There usually was not. In 1501, Aldus introduced italic type, a slanted typeface that appeared similar to handwritten text and enhanced the clarity of letters by leaving more white space among the characters. Virgil’s Georgics, a book of instructional and rhetorical poetry, was the first to appear with italic characters and also was published and bound in soft leather in octavo size, roughly fitting into a pocket so that reading could be carried along with one while at work or traveling.
Nor would publishing come to resemble an industry until long after it was introduced from the workshop of Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, who published his first book, a Donatus Latin grammar primer written in the 4th century, in 1448. Gutenburg then produced his famed 42-line Bible in 1455 before losing control of his press to his financial partner and fading from history. The classics of Greek and Roman literature, along with religious texts, dominated at that time because they were the titles on which education of the era was built. Just as the largest school districts and states purchasing the largest orders of textbooks dominate educational publishing choices in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, the universities and church schools of the 15th century by sheer economic power determined what would be printed. There was also the benefit, from the printer’s perspective, that no fee need be paid when acquiring the texts, as they were widely available in manuscripts of varying quality and accuracy. Printers set up shops in approximately 200 European cities and towns by the turn of the century. They served local markets, often cadging the texts of competitors in other cities to produce their own versions of Aristotle, Plato and the fathers of the Catholic Church works to sell to local churches and schools. In many cases, former scribes, who had organized their writing work on an almost industrial scale, so that they were able to produce a hundred or more copies of a work relatively quickly as early as the middle of the 12th century, now purchased or built a press to take up their former business with printed alternatives to manuscripts.
Literacy was extremely limited, mostly to the few professional roles that required the ability to read. The ability to write did not necessarily mean one could read, as copyists often worked symbol by symbol. Book ownership was rarer than the ability to read. According to research by Christian Bec, who reviewed probate cases in Florence between 1467 and 1520, only 4.6 percent of estates sent to the probate courts included books, and 75 percent of those collections consisted of fewer than 10 volumes. [ix] Readers were scarce, the culture of words had yet to be born.
As print shops were set up across Europe over century after Gutenberg, the number of editions of the same set of authors proliferated. By 1500, in addition to the numerous copies of Virgil and other classical works printed in Europe, the writings of the doctors of the Catholic Church, psalters, Bibles and a few works of recent fiction were easily acquired by students, professors and the few recreational readers of the time.[x] The Book Hours, a prayer book that had been mass produced in scriptoria since the 12th century became the equivalent to a mass market best seller today, first as block-printed books and then typeset printed books that relied heavily on pictures to help semi-literate readers keep to their daily prayer cycle, as required by the Church. In every city and town, the same titles would sell reliably, along with very few parochial titles that enjoyed local favor, as there were few readers to tell others what to read. The first recreational readers collected a predictable range of books to demonstrate, to themselves or friends, their literacy and taste.
The situation is remarkably similar to the state of e-book publishing today, albeit there is a much larger range of books available now, because so many copyright-free titles are available after 550 years of printing. Kindle go along with this, often buying collections of classics, which are priced between 99 cents and $3.99, because they are familiar and regarded as necessary to being well read. The same lack of regard and investment in e-book titles is easily seen among electronic publishers. In Amazon.com’s Kindle store, for example, there are 118 versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice available as individual titles or in collections, not including commentaries and variations such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is available in 58 individual and collected editions. Amazon, at this writing, offers 285,000 titles in its Kindle bookstore. If 1,000 of these books are popular out-of-copyright books available in 25 different editions, almost 10 percent of Amazon’s inventory consists of these cheap duplicates. Publishers know how to cut costs, no matter the era.
Volume, then, carefully attenuated to meet the potential demand of a largely illiterate civilization, ruled the day, and there was not very much choice in reading materials as there was little appetite for risk. With the Church and government actively censoring writing and art, what mattered was to get approved books into print. Most printers had local state-sanctioned monopolies and combined book production with government and church print jobs to make reliable profits. The acquisition and preparation of texts suffered because any extra steps slowed the time to market and lowered profits. There were plenty of print jobs and not enough printers, where today we have too many printers, a growing crowd of willing writers and no shortage of readers.
Writers could not expect to earn a living from the books they published, relying on teaching and patronage rather than success in the market. The notion of value in authorship had only recently been revived by Petrarch at the outset of the Renaissance in the 14th century, though a few popular works of fiction, such as Canterbury Tales, The Song of Roland and Troubadour manuscripts had been produced on-demand as customers paid scribes for copies.[xi] Mathematics, accounting, celestial calendars and grammar books were the safe and replicable product for the times while authors like Colonna, who gained publication through patronage, remained rare and, often, completely uncredited. The producers of the book as a product, the printers, were the first to add their marks to the end of a book. Aldus’ anchor and dolphin mark was world famous, for example, but it would be well after the turn of the 16th century that title pages and authorial credit became a standard feature of books.
The dynamics of a publisher answering to an author were virtually unknown before Aldus took up Colonna’s indecipherable romance at the behest of a rich patron who was willing to foot the bill for an elaborate and flattering edition of the Hypnerotomachia, one fit for presentation to a Duke. The book’s pages—since books were sold without bindings for the most part—are extraordinary looking, featuring a Roman typeface based closely on the breakthrough type design of Nicolas Jenson, a Frenchman who has moved to Venice to begin printing in the 1470s and eventually died, selling his press and typefaces to Andrea Torresani, who would become Aldus’ partner and father-in-law[xii]. Like the announcements that printers produced for display on marketplace walls, all-capital headers introduce chapters of the Hypnerotomachia, but the comfortable hand-written appearance of the Jenson typeface set in wide margins makes the text pleasurable to look at, even if the verbiage was hard to read. Aldus indicated the ends of sections with tapering line lengths that make passages seem to dwindle away, as if in a dream, ending with lines of between five and 17 characters that drift in growing fields of the white page, compared to the 72-character lines of the body text. He used white space on the page, both in the margins and around the woodcut illustrations, which were dropped into the press and printed with the page, in a radical way, declaring that something precious lay within the generous borders of the book. And the illustrations are simply wonderful, full of details delivered with a courtly formality combined with the latest—in the 15th century— naturalistic depiction of people and places. The work is a celebration of text, partly Colonna’s text that in turn celebrates antiquity and simultaneously a declaration of modernity by Aldus, announcing that something new was possible and had been done. All these elements blended into an innovative product, which is why Hynerotomachi Poliphili is considered the last of the incunabula, the book that climbed out of the cradle where its predecessors remained.
Aldus made Hypnerotomachia Poliphili the first modern book and one of printing’s greatest accomplishments, after which the book would never be the same. After Hypnerotomachia, Aldus grew his printing operation into a bustling collaborative environment, developing a kind of friend-sourcing approach to publishing with a concern for the quality and value of the text that allowed him to surround himself with academic and creative talent. As many as 33 people lived at Aldus’ in 1508, some of them the most notable names of their times in arts and letters. Dutch philosopher and cleric Erasmus lived there for a time in 1506 or 1507 as Aldus was printing his work, but the Acadamia nostra (New Academy) or Acadamia Aldi, as the circle was known,[xiii] depended solely on Aldus’ presence and active participation to bind its members, just as many social networks today thrive only when the instigators of communities stay deeply involved. Aldus complained in his foreword to Cicero’s De arte rhetorica that his time was often taken for granted by people near and far, writing of visitors: “the largest number [come to his shop] for lack of anything else to do—they say ‘Let’s go to see Aldus.’ They come in droves and sit around idly…. I have taken care to warn them, by putting up a notice, like an edict, on the door of my office to this effect: ‘Talk of nothing but business, and dispatch that business quickly.” The Acadamia nostra disappeared as a functioning entity as Aldus’ health declined and died with him.
Aldus’ willingness to spend money to help an author travel to live with him while books were produced set the author apart, making them the eventual focus of the publishing industry. Without Aldus, authorship might have risen in stature, but not so far in such a short period of time, and the original work may have languished much longer while an approved canon continued to be printed en masse. This is why Aldus Manutius was so important to the acceleration of Western culture, for he was the first to place real emphasis on the text, to treat the pages of books produced by machines as the setting for creative, philosophical, religious or scholarly value distinguished from the writing-intensive pages of scribal manuscript, in which scribes frequently annotated or illuminated with formulaic drawings and abbreviated texts according to their own codes, or those of their scriptorium, mangling the meaning of texts as they migrated from one generation of a copy to the next. Aldus’ devotion to Colonna’s Hynperotomachia, a work of frivolous luxury—in fact, the book had its greatest impact on garden design, because it includes such specific descriptions and illustrations of gardens—and not a religious or philosophical text of great antiquity, paved the way for his future work, when he invited authors to work with him on the printing of their books and the first revolution in printing aesthetics.
Yet, for Aldus, books were never really finished. Books did leave his press, but they remained Aldus in workmanship and, through his adoption of the writer’s interests, his children. In his mind they were still growing through the use a reader gave them, just as the manuscripts he’d hunted down around Europe in order to discover definitive versions of the classics were not simply frozen in time. Aldus claimed the leeway to edit and improve with the care he gave to his reading of the variations on the text produced by error and intentional rewriting of scribes. By 1513, when he published Plato in folio, a large format more in keeping with traditions that equated value with size when it came to books, Aldus would write: “…up to now I have not published a single book that satisfied me, and my love for letters warns me that there hasn’t yet issued from my press into the hands of the studious a single book that was correct as I would have desired.” This seems like a lamentation, a meditation on failure at first reading, but it isn’t. Rather, Aldus sought increasing discussion and a kind of perfection in literature that was not finished. He saw himself as engaged in an ongoing process of editing, discussing and improving texts. The text continued to evolve, the book was a temporary container, though one with significant value if it met his standards of accuracy, scholarship and appearance.
His successors, dedicated to the printed word to their economic peril though they were, eventually forgot the fact that books are just a stop along the way in the life of an idea. As books became mass produced products, the became more standardized and ultimately, thought of as finished products—any two copies should be as similar to one another as a pair of boots or a Ford Model T. Within a century of Aldus’ death, most people would never think to write in a book and by the 1840s it was socially unacceptable to annotate a text, tantamount to defacing a book according to many librarians and fussy book collectors. Aldus didn’t invent printing, he invented the modern book, with all the faults, baggage and assumptions that the industrial artifact, “books,” accumulated over the centuries until computational technology began to change the book, again.
[i] For example, in Helen Barolini’s Aldus And His Dream Book, Ithaca Press, Inc., 1992, New York. Page 97: “…the language is a mix of Italian, Venetian dialect, Latin, Greek, some Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabian and the author’s own fantasy….” However, Joscelyn Godwin, who actually translated the book explains in her foreword to the book that Colonna’s Joycean reputation is overblown: “Colonna’s originality lay in choosing a middle way, combining Italian syntax with Latin vocabulary. He stretches Italian constructions to the limit, with a breathless piling of clause upon clause that sometimes tumbles into incoherence. But they remain Italian, as do is lack of declensions, his use of articles and prepositions, and his verb-forms. His vocabulary, on the other hand, is not to be found in any Italian dictionary. Much of it consists of Latin words, the more recondite the better, which he adapts with Italian endings. A small but significant proportion of the words is Greek in origin. However, there is no substance to the oft-repeated rumour that the Hypnerotomachia also displays a knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean. Hebrew appears in only two inscriptions; a few words of Arabic.” Page ix-x, Hypnorotomachi Poliphili, The Strife Of Love In A Dream, by Francesco Colonna, translated by Joscelyn Godwin, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1999.
[ii] Ibid., Godwin, page x – xi.
[iii] Ibid., Godwin, page xiv
[iv] Ibid., Godwin, page xv.
[v] Ibid,, Barolini, page 199.
[vi] Ibid., Godwin, page xiii
[vii] Ibid., Barolini, page 146.
[viii] Stephen Roger Fischer, A History of Reading, Reaktion Books, London, 2004. Page 211
[ix] Ibid., Martin, page 346
[x] Dahl’s History of the Book, Third English Edition, by Bill Katz, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., London, 1995. Page 148.
[xi] Ibid., Katz, pages 109-110.
[xii] The two men were only a year apart in age, according to Helen Barolini, but Aldus had focused on scholarly work in his first 40 years while Torresani went to Venice to become a printer and established himself early in the 1480s. He also had time to marry and have a daughter who would wed Aldus in his Forties as a kind of sealing of the partnership—much of Aldus’ property and his licenses to print works went to Torresani in Aldus’ will.
[xiii] Ibid., Barolini, page 138.