Architecture as a dream decor

Wolbert Vroom 2007

In the Hypnerotomachia Polihili, buildings and architecture play a role that challenges architects to comment. This article by architect Wolbert Vroom focuses on two questions: how does an architect view this book and could this book have been written by an architect?

The Hypnerotomachia Polihili examines architecture and in particular the architectural aspects of classical architecture. However, it is neither an architectural treatise, a handbook for the architect, nor a book written by an architect. The author of the book, however, is generally believed to be Francisco Colonna, a meticulous and enthusiastic observer of architecture.

That the book was not written by an architect, is evident from the way of writing about engineering and architecture. The author cites haphazardly from a number of sources, of which De Architectura van Vitruvius (first century BC), the forefather of all later architecture observers, and that of Alberti De Re Aedificatoria (1485), are the best known.

Without an introduction, explanation or comment, the author uses numerous architectural terms. The reader must have thorough prior knowledge to follow the story. In an introductory poem on page 4 of Ike Cialona's just-published translation, the reader is confronted in advance with the abundance of architectural details in the story, such as: 'pyramids and baths, gigantic colossi' and 'architraves and friezes'.

 Colonna's architecture

Colonna deals with architecture exclusively in the first of the two books. He reviews six buildings. The pavilion-like structures and fountains that he finds in the gardens of a palace and on the island of Cythera are left out of consideration because they are about garden architecture. The six buildings described are very different in size:

  1. The ruin: a complex that is partly enclosed and carved out of the mountains, consisting of:
  • the portal [chapters 5-6), which is at the base of this complex;
  • a huge pyramid (chapter 3);
  • on top of that: a tall obelisk (chapter 3);
  1. Queen Eleuterillida's Palace (Chapters 8-9);
  2. The temple where Poliphilus meets Polia (chapter 17);
  3. A dilapidated temple, pedestals and funerary monuments (chapter 19);
  4. An amphitheater on the island of Cythera (chapter 22); with inside:
  • a heptagonal Venus temple (chapter 23) '

1 A ruin complex: a base with a portal topped by a pyramid and topped by an obelisk

In chapter 3 Colonna describes the gigantic pyramid that is 'crowned' by an obelisk: both pyramid and obelisk are easy to draw from the text. Colonna starts from scratch with a list of architectural terms: 'architraves, elegant capitals with deeply carved sculptures, cornices, friezes and archivolts'. The Haslinghuis and Janse Architectural Terms manual can be immediately taken off the shelf. Here the accompanying image clarifies the description of this structure, later in the text it will be different. Chapter 5 describes the dimensions and proportions of the portal: the classical portal is an important element in classical architecture.

It clearly starts with a square with a half square placed on top, which is divided into 16 + 8 = 24 squares. Then follows the geometric structure with additional lines and center lines: from the square, the main shape of the portal is described step by step with the help of grids, circles and diagonals. The author tries to provide the reader with some knowledge and insight into the composition of a portal.

In practice, this turns out not to be so easy because of Colonna's confusing and unclear description. In later translations this has led to completely different ones

descriptions. In short, the description is not unambiguous. In the next chapter, Poliphilus shows his admiration – and even more the joy over – all the structures he has seen so far.

Then he enters this portal, in his own words 'insatiable'. Once inside, he enjoys all the works of art in an intense way 'step by step'. Arriving at a dark room, he decides to return, but just before the exit of the portal, he is frightened by a 'monstrous' dragon and he still runs into the dark space in panic, driven on the one hand by fear of death and on the other by his love for Polia. . Completely unexpectedly, the story then takes a favorable turn. The portal thus symbolizes a purifying experience, it is an important step in his life.

2 Queen Eleuterillida's palace

Chapter 8 admires the residence of this queen: "the facade of the lavish, grandiose, majestic palace, the location or the symmetry of the miraculous design". He is immediately impressed by 'the artful construction' and 'that feeling for the relationship between but and the mutual distance between columns'. He enthusiastically describes the decorations, materials, colors, windows, colonnades and cassette ceilings. The dimensions and proportions of this special palace are completely lacking here. In chapter 9 the author first admires the materials and decorations. He enters a 'roofless courtyard' (atrium) measuring 28 by 28 paces, each wall of which is divided into seven planes by rectangular pilasters. The number seven counts as a "number most pleasing to nature". This is followed by a description of the architrave, profile moldings, frieze, cornice molding and gutter molding. In combination with the images, the reader is presented with a good impression of the solemn atmosphere in and around this Palace.

3 The temple where Poliphilus meets Polia

Much further in his story, in chapter 17, the author describes the decagonal temple, where Poliphilus first met Polia. This temple, so important to him, is described in detail for 16 pages. This makes this the longest and most difficult chapter of the book. The ground plan is described exhaustively, as is the relatively complicated structure. "The temple was round and built according to the rules of architecture," and a complete description follows. The bronze domed roof is equipped with an ingenious drainage system for rainwater. The doors that provide access to the sacrificial altar are equipped with an ingenious self-closing system. The temple is depicted in plan, section and perspective at the same time (p. 205). Despite his admiration, the author is furious at the lack of appreciation for classical architecture: "Oh, miserable times we live in! How can the modernists (to use an appropriate word) deny such beautiful and dignified inventions? No one should think that architraves, friezes, cornices, bases, capitals, columns, pilasters, floors, walls, the beams under the floors and the whole system in relation, size and layout could be so beautifully designed and ordered without indications of the skillful and excellent ingenuity of the ancients' (p. 204)

  1. A dilapidated temple, various pedestals and funerary monuments (chapters 18 and 19)

Polia advises Poliphilus to go and see the dilapidated temple and some funerary monuments to "curb the annoying fire a little." On its path to the temple is an obelisk, decorated with signs and hieroglyphs with wise sayings of life, a frieze with text and a chunk of stone with ominous text. Then his gaze falls on a hexagonal, simply decorated temple. Here Poliphilus finds the way to an accurately described crypt located beneath it. Then he sees a few altars and tombstones, with or without plinth, heel, hollow molding, torus and decorative edge. Startled by the violent funeral texts, he runs back to his Polia.

5 The. amphitheater (chapter 22)

After a boat trip (on the orders of Cupid), the loving couple arrive at the island of Cythera, divided into twenty segments. Here he discovers a 'particularly beautiful, artfully built and appropriately designed portal, which provided access to a magnificent amphitheater'. First this portal is described and then the amphitheater is discussed. He also describes this building in detail. It is divided into four quarters of eight segments each, on which are the thirty-two pillars

posted. The depiction of a facade fragment together with some imagination make this classical building appear in the mind of the reader. The amphitheater, as the author points out, is very similar to the Colosseum in Rome and the theater in Verona. The inside walkways have pergolas lined with perfectly pruned greenery, herbs and

flowers. It will serve as a backdrop for the ceremonies to come.

  • A heptagonal Venus temple e (chapter 23)

In the middle of the amphitheater is a temple in a seldom occurring heptagonal basic shape. Colonna describes the beautiful materials and colors of 'this divine work of art': cyan blue sapphire, 'glass green' jasper and the 'purest' gold. Text and image show the structure of this heptagon. The twelve constellations depicted in the frieze connect the columns, each representing one of the seven (known at the time) planets. The whole is covered with a 'clear, translucent and immaculate' rock crystal with an egg-shaped sphere at the top. In the center is the well, where Poliphilus must undergo a cleansing before both lovers formally form a pair. In the last Chapter (24) of the first book, both leave the temple and the amphitheater through the portal.

Leon Battista Alberti and Vitruvius: Sources for Francesco Colonna

In literature, the treatises of Vitruvius, and especially those of Alberti, a well-known Italian master builder from the fifteenth century, are the most important references for the way in which Colonna writes about (classical) architecture. Alberti has been suggested as a possible author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, but the differences with his other work are too numerous and elementary.

For example, Alberti did not disapprove of grotesque images in gardens, but obscene images did. Colonna is certainly not averse to erotic images. Alberti hardly ever discusses gardens and plants and Colonna often. The authors also differ greatly in accuracy. Heights of buildings are 'estimated' by Colonna (p. 23). If the reader were to draw the geometric shapes with the aid of a compass and ruler, then they are just not correct. This is the case, for example, with the design of the heptagonal Venus temple and the determination of the circumference of the island of Cythera. And if one were to follow the directions in the text literally, the angle of inclination of the portal's pediment would be too high and too steep.

In addition, the three images of this portal (P.26, 55, 62) do not match. The complicated explanation of the structure of the portal requires a lot of effort, not only from the average reader, but also from an architect. Alberti, on the other hand, was well aware of Euclid's geometrical doctrine: his measures and proportions are always correctly related to each other. Incidentally, Albeti's De Re Aedificatoriae was published without images in 1485. They only appeared in the Florentine edition of 1550. Colonna quotes Vitrivius: [dat]'craftsmen are at the service of the architect'. Alberti also mentions in his preface to De Re Aedificatoriae that carpenters are only an instrument for the architect. It is an assertion that is repeated later in every architectural treatise.

Who is Colonna addressing, who is his intended reader? In the introduction, initiator and lender Leonardo Grassi says: 'The subjects in this book are not such that they should be disseminated among the people and read in the village square: they are taken from the secret treasury of philosophy'. Colonna herself makes no comment. In my opinion the book is not an architectural treatise, not a handbook for the architect. The architectural descriptions, such as that of the Venus temple, should not be read as literal guidelines and instructions for a client. However, in the Hypnerotomachia Polihili an important role is reserved for architecture, not only as a decorative decoration of the story, but also at the level of symbolism. An example of the latter is entering a portal as a cathartic experience in Chapters 5 and 6. Moreover, the exuberant descriptions of sizes, proportions, materials and use of color not only offer the reader a beautiful picture of the setting of the story, but also give architects an idea of how a layman, in this case Colonna, can appreciate architecture. To this day, this architectural experience hides the value of this book for architects.

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