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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