Released in Quest History on November 22, 2018, Written by Carlijn Simons
In the sixteenth century, William of Orange and his elite contemporaries all wanted the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on their coffee table. What makes the most beautiful book in the world, as historians still praise it, so special?
The young Poliphilus is madly in love with Polia. But much to his regret, love remains unanswered. One evening he falls asleep in a sad mood, only to wake up in his dream in a dark forest. He decides to look for Polia. A love quest follows along ruins, temples and statues, through gardens, caves and orchards. Along the way, Poliphilus experiences one adventure after another. He encounters dragons, wolves and virgins. Dilemmas and symbolic encounters, with Wil and Rede for example, put him to the test. It takes a fall through a rock crevice to send Poliphilus to an idyllic kingdom after all the hardships. There he meets two charming nymphs, who take care of Poliphilus with attention and lead him, that ends well, all right, to his great love Polia.
Father with frayed edge
Drama, passion, romance, setbacks and a happy ending in which the two lovers get together. Indeed, with The dream of Poliphile, as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili reads in Dutch, the writer has delivered a great love story. Who this skilled author was has been disputed for years. “His name was not clearly stated anywhere,” says book historian José Bouman, also curator at the library of the Embassy of the Free Mind. “Now that was not common in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Authors were considered unimportant, so irrelevant that they might be mentioned just as quickly in the preface, but nothing more. ”
The name poem, formed by the initial letters of the book’s 38 chapters, eventually provided a clue. After each other, those letters form the phrase “Poliam frater franciscvs colvmna peramavit”, Latin for “Brother Franciscus Colonna loved Polia very much”.
That this Father Colonna, born in 1432 or 1433 and died in 1527, wrote the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, experts are now agreeing. He was a monastic in Venice, but not exactly an exemplary one, according to gossip about deflowering, falling in love and swindling a jeweler. He wrote his masterpiece between 1479 and 1499, the year in which the first edition of the Hypnerotomachia was published. For that, one Leonardo Grassi reached deep into his pouch. This Grassi, in a letter to the Duke of Urbino, explained his hefty investment as follows: “It is true that several things that are quite difficult by nature are described and explained in a melodious argument and with a certain grace.”
Encyclopedia with fantasy
The moneylender, for example, points out another reason why historians praise the Hypnerotomachia so much. In addition to a youth’s quest for love, it is a kind of encyclopedia in which the writer has stuffed countless facts about the Egyptian, Greek and Roman Antiquity. “It is full of incredible expositions on architecture, nature, mathematics, classical literature, philosophy and hieroglyphs,” says Bouman. Colonna also consulted other people’s writings for this.
Some books are so beautiful that you can doubt whether they have ever been opened
For example, he drew all kinds of scientific facts from the Naturalis historia of the Roman literary scientist Pliny. He used the reaedificatories of Leon Battista Alberti as a source of information about classical architecture. He obtained plant knowledge from the herbal book Liber de simplicibus of the physician Nicola Roccabonella. He just wasn’t always right. When he elaborates in extensive descriptions on the geometric constructions of a self-invented gate between two mountains, on which is not only a pyramid stacked but also an image and an obelisk, it turns out that mathematically his calculations are not correct. He also fantasized his explanation of the meaning of hieroglyphs together, says Bouman. Colonna herself does not mind that at all. He writes, “Choose from the abundance this horn offers you. Here is a book for entertainment and instruction; and if you disdain both, the blame is on you, not on this beautiful book. ”
Phrases without end
It is also special, according to Bouman, that the Hypnerotomachi was written from a godless, pagan perspective and not with a pious, Christian pen. A pen, moreover, that didn’t care much about grammar, spelling and style. Colonna uses a Tuscan syntax that he likes to combine with Venetian dialect, Latin and even some Greek here and there. He then knits this mishmash together with verbs that he conjugates in a Latin way, while often just as easily bending Latin words in an Italian way. Then there are also sentences that have to do without saying or subject, and sometimes without ending. As if because of this the text wasn’t burlesque enough, he also regularly shuffles some self-invented words through the whole. Like the title hypnerotomachia. It is a combination of the Greek words hypnos (sleep), eros (love) and machè (battle or showdown). Colonna coined this rebus-like term to indicate that this was a book about “the dreamed, strife-ridden quest for love.”
These elements make the text a distinct product of its time. Joscelyn Godwin, who took care of the English translation in 1999, states in his introduction that the transition from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century was linguistically uncertain. While Dante had proved with The Divine Comedy that you could also write a lofty work in folk Italian, others held firmly to Latin as the language of scholars. By choosing a challenging mix between the two, Colonna expresses this linguistic changing of the guard. According to Ike Cialona, who translated this mixture into Dutch in 2006, he did this consciously. According to her, it is in line with the humanistic aspiration of that time that you had to do something to achieve something.
Beautiful for decoration
Not a fast page turner for a holiday. Fortunately, there is every reason to have Poliphile’s Dream as a coffee table book, without ever actually reading it. Just like the readers of that time, José Bouman suspects. “Some copies still look so beautiful now that it is doubtful whether they have ever been opened. Also, no notes were found in the margin, something that was often done while reading. But it was an expensive purchase, and it allowed you to make a good impression with it. “Whatever the elite did, if you consider the four French reprints and the second Italian edition that appeared in the course of the sixteenth century. Pretty much a bestseller for that time. The typography, layout and illustrations are therefore magnificent, and it is on this basis that many connoisseurs still praise the Hypnerotomachia as the most beautiful book in the world. “The font, for example,” explains Bouman, “is exclusive and cut letter by letter. There are paragraphs indented with a square white: an absolute novelty in printing at the time. Also special are the pages on which the text is laid out as a vase, goblet or basket, in places where those objects are mentioned. There are also the 172 woodcuts that are embedded as images. Some of these are purely decorative, but others complement the text. Matching text and image in a book in this way had never happened before. ”
Still, the printer did not take any credit for his masterpiece. Not on the title page, not in the colophon. The man is only mentioned on the errata sheet. This page, which was added to a book after printing and cut from it by many collectors, contains a list of typesetting errors. That ends with the words: “Printed with great care in Venice, December 1499, in the house of Aldus Manutius.”
Despite these special characteristics, a modern adaptation of the Hypnerotomachia had to be used to make the book known to the general public. In the thriller A Venetian Secret (2008) by American authors Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, two students at the American University of Princeton go in search of the secret of Poliphile’s dream. They are convinced that it contains a hidden message that refers to a treasure. What follows is a De Da Vinci Code-esque manhunt that may be easier to read than the original. Yet this thriller can in no way match it. Colonna’s Renaissance classic is and remains unique.
Source of inspiration
Over the centuries, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili has proven to be a source of inspiration in many Versailles ways. The gardens of the palace in France, for example, and those of Constantijn Huygens’ Hofwijck country house in Voorburg are based on Colonna’s green fantasies. In Amersfoort, the architect of the Kattenbroek district was guided by Poliphilus’ dreams. The image of the elephant with the obelisk on its back has been used by artists such as Bernini and Salvador Dalí. Bernini’s elephant from 1667 can still be admired in Rome.
In the wake of William of Orange
In 1559 William of Orange also bought the French translation of the book, and then he planned to spend a while at the French court in Paris. He had the family crest neatly bound. In the centuries that followed, his personal copy traveled all over the world, only to return to Dutch soil in 2006. A timeline:
1690: The book appears in the Harlean library of the then English Prime Minister.
1743: through trader Thomas Osborne, who purchases part of the Harlean collection, it ends up in the hands of an English earl.
1938: The Earl’s heirs sell it to Sotheby’s auction house. A London bookseller pays £ 240 to sell it directly to New York collector Lucius Wilmerding. 1951: When Wilmerding dies, French bookseller Pierre Berès takes over at auction for $ 3,100.
2006: after his death, the Dutch antiquarian bookshop Forum buys it on behalf of the Dutch collector Bay van der Bunt for 352,223 euros. The book is exhibited in Museum Meermanno in The Hague.
2018: the book goes on a tour of various museums.
embassyofthefreemind.nl In the Embassy of the Free Mind in Amsterdam, the Execution of William of Orange from 1559 can be admired together with two old editions of the book, from 1561 and 1600.
boekvanoranje.nl the Boek van Oranje foundation recently published a new, accessible Dutch translation. Poliphile’s dream can be ordered on the site.