What is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili?

“…The month of December in 1499 was a very cold year indeed. Venice particularly was beaten furiously by the northern icy winds, bringing with them a frost never seen in centuries: snow was abundant and rested along the bridges and calli of the Serene Republic. The Ducal Palace next to the Basilica of St. Mark’s seemed completely cancelled away by the white coloured snow and sky which dominated the city’s landscape. Large pieces of ice floated gently throughout the Laguna, and very few ships were seen to venture nearby. Commercial barges, slowly accommodated along Venice’s docks through “natural canals” left by floating ice. Empty gondolas were roped to piers, one tightly after the other. They were left floating in gloom along the city’s banks like hallowed carcasses. This image could only be the best scene that Leonardo Crassus saw for some time, after having survived some of the worst economic and war-torn upheavals that Venice can remember. But he had a plan to invest in something…something innovative, which he hoped would become a precedent. It was to be completely new, both in beauty and in function. While approaching the Church of San Polo, Leonardo pulled out of his mantle a letter he was carrying from a brilliant entrepreneur here in Venice, who had agreed to print a manuscript that only by fate fell upon his hands. This man is Aldo Manuzio. He was not only an innovative typographer, but also an erudite and acute man of culture and scholarship, which only the spirit of the First Renaissance could produce. He was the best man for the job. Aldo wrote him saying that their project was ready, and that the well-travelled and scrawled manuscript he brought to his hands, is now a masterpiece noteworthy of the Ancients. The wind picked again, and snowflakes started to fall in sporadic contrast to the dark, and still calle of Venice. Leonardo finally reached the Campo of San Agostino, and sent one of his courtesans to knock discreetly on that small door on a side alley called Calle del Pistòr. Here, History would begin once again, after so much obscurity and uncertainty. The only thing was that the Solicitor had Leonardo oblige to one condition: that he, nor his descendants, never reveal who contributed to its authorship. A burden he will carry to his grave…

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The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (pronounced “Eeep-nero-tomakia-Poli-fili”) is one of the most famous and mysterious books of the Renaissance. It embodies classical knowledge and at the same time, visionary inspiration all in the form of a narrative with an almost encyclopaedic fervour. It was published anonymously in 1499 at the printing press of Aldus Manutius The Elder in Venice, and presented in a “re-invented” language composed of Venetian, Tuscan, Latinate, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. It is also famous for its use of hieroglyphs and symbolic references.

The title comes from greek: hypnos, “sleep,” erotos “of love,” mache “strife,” of Poliphilus (polù+philos, or lover of “many things”), which is the book’s protagonist. “The Strife of Love in a Dream” was probably written at the end of the first half of the 15th century, because the narrative ends with the year 1467. A famous acrostic from the book was discovered already in the first half of the 16th century in Italy, alluding to a Francesco Colonna who “loved intensely Polia.”. No one knows who exactly wrote this book, but my theory is that it was a group effort, and probably coordinated by one or few patrons. Whoever had contributed to the Hypnerotomachia’s creation, they certainly lived in one of the most dynamic and dangerous periods of Italy’s history: the First Renaissance, or the birth of the Modern Age.

The narrative accounts that Poliphilus, falls asleep and while searching for his lost love Polia (in greek, “many things”), he engages on an erotic pilgrimage through Antiquity, discovering incredible architecture, gardens, and landscapes described in minute detail. Part treatise, part narrative, this book introduces a vast array of artistic examples, which were too visionary for its time.

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Text Copyright © 2012 by Esteban Alejandro Cruz

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