The dream of the renaissance

David Rijser
Published in ‘Lees Lint’ 2007

The Italian poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca liked to sit among the ruins of Rome, dreaming of fame and glory – and how it could end. In 1368, he looked out over the cow and goat grazed plain of the dilapidated Forum Romanum that had become a ghost since late antiquity, and noted that “nothing more of that ancient Rome is now but a summary or a dream”. Petrarcha set a trend with this. Throughout the renaissance his humanists (that is how intellectual were called in the renaissance) followed in his footsteps and started to walk musingly on the Forum and the Capitol. “Now made of gold, once rugged through wild scrub,” Virgil had written about the classical Rome of his own time. “Once made of gold, now polluted with thistles and full of junk,” was added in 1430 by a companion of the famous humanist Poggio Bracciolini during such a Petracist mantelpiece on the Capitol. We think of romantic Ruinenfreude, the enjoyment of decay and mortality. The very thistles that crept through the ancient stones and sprouted from the rotten mortar of tremen of Caracalla were a symbol for Shelley of life, of the triumphant, indomitable nature in which the poet himself also participated through his creative work. The Renaissance humanists, on the other hand, dreamed of reconstruction and perfection.

The great dream of the Renaissance – the starter of modernity and the foremost movement of cultural renewal since ancient times – was to bring back to life the glory of antiquity. This, they argued, had had everything a man could desire, except Christianity. That paradise, now with the essential addition of true faith, was to be brought back within reach. That’s where the term “renaissance” comes from. Hence the boundless energy and creativity, the gigantic work and the joie de vivre, the curiosity and intrepidity in an intellectual and moral sense, which we now associate with this period. What became a melancholic ‘ruin-joy’ in Romanticism was in the Renaissance a feverish, hopeful dream, to the realization of which everyone wanted to contribute, literally or figuratively, with some decency.
That dreamed antiquity did not only consist of beautiful monuments that depicted proud power. Both the poetry and the visual arts of antiquity, which have been increasingly studied and reconstructed from Poggio onwards, revealed beautiful, seductive and admirable gods, goddesses and nymphs. In addition, in the world of ancient art, people could associate with gods, even have children with them, and do whatever was necessary. The world of ancient poetry was greatly eroded. The Roman poet Tibullus even created an Elyseum of lovers, where all the great lovers of history were shamelessly, innocently and intensely happily nibbling together. This contrasts sharply with Christian reservations about sensuality.

It is these two elements, the fascination with ancient remains and the dream of completing them, and the dream of a sensual love as a decent purpose in life, which shed light on the most remarkable, perhaps the most telling, and certainly the most beautifully printed book of the Renaissance. not in Rome itself, but in Venice, one of its great rivals. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili appeared there without mention of the author in 1499, in the list of Italy’s most prestigious printer, Aldus Manutius.

That the author was Francesco Colonna proves an acrostic of the first letters of the chapters. But who was Francesco Colonna? A Roman nobleman, who inspired the work on the exterior of the Colonna in Palestrina just outside Rome, containing the remains of the ancient temple of Fortuna Primigeneia with its impressive architecture, and the mysterious ‘Nile mosaic’, the thesis that the art historian Maurizio Calvesi has defended with fire and sword for decades? or even Leon Battista Albertí, uomo universale, art philosopher, theorist and architect, a theory that has recently been revived in the Netherlands? Despite all the scientific turmoil the authorship issue has caused, it is most likely a Dominican monk from Treviso, and there are good sources for that identification (for example, the monk is already identified as the author by an early sixteenth-century document), while other proposals actually all lead to rotten irreconcilable contradiction. The only thing that actually argues against the monk from Treviso is that he is otherwise so unknown. Many people do not accept that a masterpiece of unique influence would have been written by an unknown person. But in all likelihood it is. The renaissance still has many unknown heroes.

The Hypnerotomachia held a unique position within the Manutius fund. Not only is it not a Greek or Latin text, but an ‘Italian’. The quotation marks refer to the curious language in which this allegorical novel is written: a mixture of Italian, Latin and Greek, crammed with Hebrew and Arabic quotations. We are truly dealing here with a monument to multiculturalism. And that monument is also, for the first time in the history of the modern book, beautifully illustrated with engravings of the most fantastic structures, riddles and marvelous scenes (and of which the author, or, more likely, authors, have also remained anonymous) . These illustrations, together with the letter developed by Manutius, whose variants have determined the modern printing tradition, have made the book, in addition to its intrinsic fascination, physically exceptional. The embedding of the illustrations in the text is unique. Likewise the typography itself (see the publications of Frans Janssen for this). This physical exceptionalness has increasingly determined the book’s fame. But the content also gives us a glimpse into the kitchen of the Renaissance. Because that content shows beautifully how the boundary between dream and reality could blur in the Renaissance. Now, in fact still under the influence of the image that Burckhardt has sketched of the period, but also under the influence of our positivist basic attitude, we mainly want to see reality when we look at the Renaissance. They, then, as the Hypnerotomachia shows, mainly saw the dream: the mundus imaginalis.

Indeed, it revolves around the words dream, love and struggle, hidden like graceisms in the title: the dream of love and antiquity, the love for women and antiquity, and the struggle with love and antiquity, which are fought by Poliphilus, lover of many things (‘polla’), but especially of his mistress Polia, who perhaps refers to a multitude, but also to Athena Polia, protector of the arts and sciences. Not that she’s chaste like Athena, by the way. On the contrary. After a hopeless night of love, Poliphilus is asleep
at the beginning of the book and is haunted like a new Dante in a dark forest. He escapes that, but, in contrast to Dante’s Hell, enters a beautiful, mysterious and above all free world full of breathtaking nymphs, good food, luxurious baths,
exclusive entertainment and antique beauties. There he finds his Polia, is connected to her by Venus and enjoys indescribable happiness – until he wakes up again. The dream of Poliphilus is, apart from a few oppressive moments, one great celebration of eros and love of antiquity.

Poliphilus has trouble choosing, gets lost here and there, chooses the girl anyway, and then sees to his unspeakable joy that the girl contains everything that makes antiquity so enjoyable, and thus kills two birds with one stone. .

‘If the contemplation of the dilapidated buildings and the debris and even the pulverized rubble of venerable antiquity arouses such admiration and pleasure in us, how great would our delight be if all this had been left undamaged? ‘Poliphilus muses, thereby illustrating how much he stands in the above-outlined humanist tradition of reconstruction. He has just, in his dream, entered the robber world through the portal of a marvelous structure. It is based on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (which was of course only known from descriptions and now emerges integral and intact in the text as a virtual reconstruction), but is crowned by a pyramid with an obelisk on top, symbol of Egyptian, Hermetic wisdom and mystery religion. . In a square in front of it there is also an elephant with an obelisk on its back (later recreated by Bernini with visible pleasure for the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome) and other wonderful images and riddles in hieroglyphs. His senses are overcome with delight and bewilderment, and he almost compliments his Polia. The building itself almost dumbfounds him, almost, because he dedicates it page after page full of enthusiastic superlatives: ‘with how much bold ingenuity, with how much courage and manpower and organizational capacity and incredible financial sacrifices one had, as if rivaled with the gods. , can raise such a colossal creation? ‘ The reader then gets to see everything, not so much thanks to the picture, which is black and white and not very detailed, but because of the wandering, swirling description of detail after detail.

It is here that the special nature of this book reveals itself most. Colonna seems to deliberately confuse telling and describing, the two major tasks of the author, in such a way that they merge into each other. The narration of Poliphilus’ story is made up of descriptions, and the book has therefore been ascribed an “anti-dynamic concept” – Italian scholars like difficult words, as is also evident from the Hypnerotomachia itself. In the Hypnerotomachia the reader’s gaze does indeed wander around as in an amusement park: haphazardly, and not guided by an inescapable plot. Or so it seems. On closer inspection, the Hypnerotomachia also appears to have a logical structure: a structure derived from Plato’s Symposium, in which concentric rings are used. The outer ring describes the real world, the one underneath Poliphilus ‘dream, the one there underneath the story of Polia, in which again, one level deeper, Poliphilus’ speech to the priestess is embedded.

In 1923, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York received a copy of this book for his collection, which had been the standard for an ideal publication and a true collector’s item for centuries. He admired the beauty of the typesetting, the images, the letter, but was devastating about the content: ‘a dull, unreadable romance
written in learned macaronics’. Readers have received little the Hypnerotomachia, admirers all the more. The cause of this is precisely the above-described tendency of muddled narrative and eternal digression, of narration merging with and consisting of description. The never ending story could be stolen from the readers, because almost nothing happened. This is mainly due to the one-sided image that has emerged of the renaissance as the cradle of austere composition and uniform narrative movement. In Florence and Rome, in the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, this image can be justified, although it is all too magnified in classicism.

But the Treviso monk offers us a different, whimsical, dreamy, visual renaissance, and those aspects alone are an argument in the discussion of the author’s question. Its renaissance
was one great project of visualizing the ancient past as a hoped-for dream: that is what the Hypnerotomachia aims for, and in which the book succeeds wonderfully. If you read with the right eyes, you will see, you will participate in a chaotic adventure, dreaming like Petrarch, Poggio and so many others, but not now in Rome, on top of the core business of the Forum Romanum
but in distant Venice.

Antiquity is experienced in the Hypnerotomachia as a mystery religion, encoded in the many (picture) riddles in the book. The leitmotif of this is the in many ways (there are more than eighty variants in the book) designed and illustrated motto speude bradeoos (Greek), or Festina Lente (Latin): the ‘hurry slowly’ that also elsewhere on the title page from editions of Aldus, depicted by a dolphin with a
anchor. Some variations of it are comical, such as elephants turning into ants or vice versa, others cryptic, such as the girl with one foot firmly on the ground and the other high in the air, with the fixed foot adorned with wings, the winged food provided with a turtle . Slow rushing is terribly meaningful for Poliphilus, but wanting to enjoy everything to the fullest; not allowing your enthusiasm to be diminished by reflection, but making that enthusiasm deeper and more substantial by reason; connecting prudence with daring and thus initiating the soul into its deepest mystery, the union of Death and Love, for which hypneros is the poetic image, as Edgar Wind has shown.

Picture riddles also literally depict the journey of Poliphilus. Through the portal of the pyramid and obelisk of Hermetic Egypt, Poliphilus enters the wonderful world of the nymphs, and becomes truly free (the realm where he first lands belongs to Queen Eleutherylida, derived from the Greek eleutheros). As said, that freedom applies in particular to love. Colonna’s descriptions of both erotic temptations and the indescribable happiness of the true beloved’s favor are not only touching but also evocative and accurate. In the company of the five nymphs who represent the senses and are of dazzling beauty, the innocence of the swimming party of the most cheerful and contented Poliphilus is as great as that of his companions: ‘(they) put their silk robes on the stone benches and gathered their beautiful blond locks in hairnets of finely braided gold thread. Carefree yet chaste, they freely showed me and examined their shapely, delicate bodies completely bare: their flawless skin was the color of snow-sprinkled roses. ‘ This seems to say a lot about the Dominican order in Venice to which Colonna belonged. But the great freedom that the author allows himself is not exceptional in Renaissance theology, which was essentially metaphorical. It was not until 1527, with the breakthrough of the Reformation and the capture of Rome by the lansmen of Charles the Fifth, that literalism and rigor were destroyed – ironically, also the year Colonna died at the age of 94. Moreover, the enticements of the nymphs are but a prelude to Poliphilus’ rising realization that Polia is the one, whom he loves with a passion shared by body and soul: ” She put her creamy white, spotless arms around my neck and kissed me, biting gently, with her coral-red mouth. Her playful, moist, sugar-sweet, sucking tongue almost killed me. ‘ This was perhaps too much for the curator of the Metropolitan Museum. But perhaps he did not know that this is what Jan Pieter Guép called in the ‘Platonic French kiss’, a phenomenon no less mental than physical.

Colonna’s unique literary language is a mixture of Venetian, Tuscan, Latin and Greek that could never have been spoken by a mortal. The Italian language is re-established in it, ‘re-invented’ as modern scholars would say. That attempt was unsuccessful: the Italian that eventually triumphed was the stylized Tuscan of the influential Bembo, not the ‘macaroni’ of the unknown Colonna. Nevertheless, this book has not only defined our tradition in a formal, physical sense. The book is also substantively an act of love, strength and silliness that shows us what the renaissance could be, and a testimony to a mindset that fully deserves our fascination and admiration.

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