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Book of the Month

February 2004

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

  Venice: 1499   
Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.14

Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance, our book of the month for February tells the story of a quest for lost love. Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.

folio a6v: Poliphilo sleeps and dreams

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili relates the story of the dream of Poliphilo 'in which it is shown that all human things are but a dream, and many other things worthy of knowledge and memory.' The tongue twisting 'Hypnerotomachia' poetically translates as the 'strife of love in a dream'.

As the work opens, the inconsolable Poliphilo is tormented by insomnia as he thinks of his unrequited love for Polia. At last he falls asleep, and then seemingly wakes in a dark wood where his adventures begin. In a somewhat labyrinthine plot, he moves through many strange places encountering dragons, wolves, and maidens, against an ever changing backdrop of mysterious ruins, monuments, orchards, gardens and fountains. Eventually he meets a nymph who resembles Polia and with whom he falls in love. Following triumphal processions and further spectacles, the nymph reveals that she is in fact that Polia 'whom you love so well'. After a ceremony resembling marriage, they embark for Cythera in Cupid's boat. Polia then takes over the narrative, relating how Poliphilo fell in love with her when he first glimpsed her combing her hair at a window in Treviso. Not only does she reject his advances, but to fulfil a pledge in surviving the plague, she dedicates herself to a life of eternal chastity. Poliphilo visits her secretly at the temple of Diana, and when he falls into a deathlike swoon at her feet, she drags his body away and hides it. But Cupid appears to her in a vision, and compels her to return and kiss Poliphilo back to life. Venus blesses their love, and the lovers are united at last.

The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.

Others have seen the text as a stereotypical product of its time. Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of 'a highly stylized genre'. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be 'a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature'. But its torturous plot and prose have been interpreted by some as a true reflection of the unconscious and mysterious world of the dreamer. George D. Painter eloquently argues that the author 'felt that reality itself is mysterious, and may legitimately be described in terms of mystery; that only perplexing symbols, labyrinthine narrative, and intentionally impenetrable prose-style can express the night-world of the unconscious mind'. More recently, Joscelyn Godwin praises the work's intensity of atmosphere, describing it as a sustained erotic fantasy 'saturated with the desire to gaze, to taste, and to consume'.

The book has, however, been universally and justly celebrated for its beautiful woodcuts and overall sumptuous design. It should be remembered that at the time it was produced in 1499, the inclusion of woodcut illustrations in printed books was still a relatively new phenomenon. Although the number of elaborately illustrated volumes increased throughout the 1490s, this work is exceptional for the way in which the woodcuts integrate harmoniously with the text, following the plot with a closeness unparalleled in other fifteenth-century books.

folio d3v: Poliphilo flees a dragon

folio a3v: Poliphilo enters a dense and pathless forest

folio i2v: Poliphilo is embraced by Thelemia

To Painter, the haunting woodcuts seem entirely modern 'in their passion and calm, their strangeness and reality, their startling but nobly classical carnality and paganism'. The name of their artist, however, is not known. Evidently possessing extraordinary range and ability, several contenders have been suggested, including Mantegna, Bellini and Carpaccio. The woodcuts are undoubtedly influenced by such artists, but no satisfactory solution as to the real identity of their creator has yet been reached.

The work is further lauded for the originality of its design. Several sequential double page illustrations add a visual dimension to the progression of the narrative, and act like an early form of the strip cartoon. There is an obsession with movement throughout which is driven on by the illustrations, resulting in the impression of bodies moving from one page to the next. Other typographical innovations include playing with the traditional layout of the text; in the opening shown here, for example, the pages are shaped in the form of goblets.

folios k5v-k6r: the first triumph

detail from folios l1v-l2r: the third triumph

The book is also frequently cited as being a landmark in the history of architectural writing. Although it is by no means a practical manual on the subject, Poliphilo encounters numerous buildings, ornaments, gardens and sculptures on his journey. Many of these are described in detail in the text, as well as being portrayed in the illustrations. Indeed, architecture (as with everything else in the book) is eroticised:  Poliphilo treats buildings as objects of desire and enjoys touching and caressing many of them, thus metaphorically demonstrating his feelings for Polia. While the name Polphilo translates as 'lover of Polia', it can also mean 'lover of many things', and truly this seems to be the case.


This typographical tour-de-force was produced by the great scholar-printer Aldus Manutius. As the colophon above states, the book was 'most accurately done at Venice, in the month of December, 1499, at the house of Aldus Manutius'.
Aldus settled in Venice - the printing capital of the late fifteenth century - in 1490. He set out to produce accurate editions of the Greek and Latin classics, and it is his great scholarly achievement in Greek printing that has ensured his fame. The first volume of his monumental works of Aristotle appeared on 1 November 1495, and in the following ten years he achieved a remarkable body of work in Greek. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is untypical of his usual output in several ways. Not only is it the only illustrated book that he produced, but it is also unique amongst his major works for being produced on commission. An extravagant enterprise, it was in fact commissioned by Leonardo Grassi of Verona who declares in a prefatory letter to the Duke of Urbino that he has had the book printed at his own expense. Ironically, while prized as one of the treasures of Renaissance printing today, the book originally sold badly and could not be exported as a result of ongoing wars.

folio B1r: Polia drags the lifeless Poliphilo into a corner of the temple

folio r3r: stone in Mausoleum

Aldus's great achievement as a typographer influences us even now. The beautiful Bembo type with which this work is printed was one of the most modern in appearance of the fifteenth century types, and is still a standard used today. A 'Roman' (as opposed to Gothic style) font had been invented earlier by another acclaimed printer, Nicholas Jenson; it was based upon humanist calligraphers' attempts to recreate the script of classical antiquity. This type was perfected by Aldus' cutter Francesco Griffi, and it appeared for the first time in Bembo's De Aetna. It was recut and improved for its second appearance in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

This particular work is also interesting typographically for containing Greek fonts, as well as one of the earliest examples of Hebrew type, and a small example of Arabic - the first Arabic to be printed in the history of European publishing.


folio b8r: tomb inscription in Hebrew, Attic and Latin

Although Aldus's colophon claims that he printed the work most accurately, there is a whole page of errata found at the end of the work. There is, however, one example of a mistake that was rectified with great deliberation. The word 'SANEQUAM' in the second title-page (line 5), was misprinted as 'SANEQUE'. Rather than reset the page and print it again, in all the surviving paper copies the incorrect 'E' has been scratched out and 'AM' stamped in its place, as shown (somewhat lopsidedly) here.

folio a1r: second title-page

folio z5r: Poliphilo and Polia leave the sacred fountain

Another facet of the book that has delighted readers are its innumerable puns and riddles. One ingenuity hints at the identity of the author of this otherwise anonymous text. The decorated initials of each of the thirty-eight chapters create the acrostic POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCUS COLONNA PERAMAVIT (Brother Francisco Colonna desperately loved Polia). It seems that the 'secret' writer of this erotic fantasy was a Dominican monk called Francesco Colonna. He belonged to the monastery of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice and it is known that at the supposed time of composition of the work in 1467 he was teaching novices in Treviso. Therefore, it is quite possible that he could have spied 'Polia' combing her hair at a window there. A few other details are known of his life, including the intriguing fact that in 1501 he was ordered to repay a sum provided by the Order for the printing of a book - could he have contributed to the cost of actually having this book produced? He died in October 1527 at the age of 94. Polia, if she existed, is a more elusive character to identify, although it is suggested that she may have been a member of the prominent Lelio family of Treviso.

This copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is from the eighteenth century library of William Hunter, but it is not known how or from whom he acquired the book or who owned it originally. There is some evidence that an early reader paid close attention to the text, however, as someone has gone through the book carefully making corrections, as can be seen here on the left. There is evidence in other copies that some contemporary readers found the volume's contents and illustrations too risqu: in many copies, the phallic woodcuts -  featuring characters such as satyrs and Priapus - are censored by erasures and pen-and-ink deletions to the offending parts.

folio C5v: Polia brings Poliphilo back to life with a kiss

As we revel in all things romantic for Valentine's Day, it may be sobering to reflect on the ultimate outcome of Poliphilo's story. After his many adventures and trials (and not without a little intervention from Cupid's well placed arrow), it seems that he eventually wins the heart of Polia. But do they live happily ever after? As they finally embrace and kiss, Polia vanishes with a cry of 'Poliphilo, my dear lover, farewell'. Poliphilo wakes up. It is dawn on the 1st May, 1467, and Poliphilo is in Treviso. His dream is ended and he is left 'filled to the brim with a sweet and loquacious illusion'. Everything that has passed has been his fantasy.

Aristophanes Aristophanis comoediae novem: Plutus, Nebulae, Ranae, Equites, Acharnes, Vespae, Aues, Pax, Contionantes cum scholiis Graecis et praefatione Marci Musuri Venice: 1498 Sp Coll Bh20-a.13 and Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.15; Aristotle Opera Graece: Theophrasti de historia plantarum libri X. et de causis plantarum libri VI ... Venice: 1495-8 Sp Coll Bh10-d.9-13 and Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.4-9; Giovanni Crastone Joannis Crastoni Dictionarium Graecum copiosissimum secundum ordinem alphabeti, cum interpretatione Latina. Cyrilli opusculum De dictionibus, quae uariato accentu mutant significatum... cum interpretatione Latina. Ammonius De differentia dictionum... Venice: 1497 Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.21; Dioscorides Pedakiou Dioskoridou Peri ules iatrikes logoi ex. Eti peri
iobolon... Nikandrou tou Kolophoniou Theriaka meta scholion. Tou autou Alexipharmaka...
Venice: 1499 Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.3.20Epistolae diuersorum philosophorum, oratorum, rhetorum sex et viginti ... Venice: 1499 Sp Coll Bl9-g.15 and Sp Coll Hunterian Bc.2.25-26;  Julius Firmicus Iulii Firmici Astronomicorum libri octo... Marci Manilii Astronomicorum libri quinque. Arati Phaenomena, Germanico Caesare interprete, cum commentariis et imaginibus...  Venice: 1499 Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.2 and Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.3.10; Ptolemy Ptolemaei Planisphaerivm Venice: 1558 Sp Coll Hunterian Bc.2.23; Theodoros Gazes  Introductiuae grammatices libri quatuor...  Venice: 1495 Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.3;  Iamblichus Peri ton aigyption mysterion Venice: 1497 Sp Coll Hunterian By.2.18;  Constantinos Lascaris Erotemata, cum interpretatione Latina... Venice: 1494-1495 Sp Coll Hunterian By.3.40; Niccolo Leoniceno Libellus de epidemia ... Venice: 1497 Sp Coll Hunterian Ac.4.5; Angelo Poliziano Omnia opera Angeli Politiani, et alia quaedam lectu digna... Venice: 1498 Sp Coll BD7-b.12 and Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.16; Theocritus Theocriti Eclogae triginta. Genus Theocriti et de inventione bucolicorum. Catonis Romani Sententiae paraeneticae distichi ... Venice: 1495 Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.3.21; Thesaurus cornucopiae et Horti Adonidis Venice: 1496 Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.2.19

For an example of another Venetian incunable, see the feature on Jenson's Breviary.



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Julie Gardham February 2004