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Filmic Woodcuts, The Birth of Italics, and Love to Love You
(In a Dream)
Stefano Questioli's lecture on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili inspired writer and translator Kiki Anderson to spend some time researching this curious late Renaissance book

In 1499, there were over one hundred printers in Venice. A mere two decades after the Gutenberg Bible was published, the Most Serene Republic had imported movable type technology and quickly became the European capital of publishing and woodcuts. Those working in the industry were not only Venetian: Northern Europeans moved to Venice to print, too. The most renowned printshop was that of Italian scholar Aldus Manutius, whose prodigious output both influenced printing techniques and disseminated humanist and late-Renaissance ideas.

One of the most famous and enigmatic books printed by Manutius is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, translated into English as Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream. The book is complex, linguistically dense, and combines text and imagery in innovative ways. Told in an amalgamation of old Venetian, Latin, and Greek, the story is pagan, erotic, and probably written by a Catholic monk. It pioneers the use of technopaegnia, or shaping blocks of text, and its woodcuts, superior to others of the time, display an interest in movement and sequence that some historians consider filmic.

500 year old book from the Rare Books Collection at the Milwaukee Public Library
Photo by Joe Riepenhoff

Art historian and curator Stefano Questioli, whose areas of expertise include Renaissance Art, Landscape Theory, and Graffiti Art, gave a lecture last fall and this spring on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in the Richard E. and Lucile Krug Rare Books Room at the Milwaukee Public Library, which holds a copy of the first edition. Questioli introduced the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, sometimes called the most beautiful book ever made, without reducing or simplifying its complexity. He also teaches seminars on the subject at The Newberry Library in Chicago.

The complexity as well as the richness of iconography and language found in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili have influenced and inspired psychologists, typographers, architectural theorists, and Renaissance historians, among others. Its dense beauty and radical innovations made it exceptional 500 years ago, but it is a masterpiece even today, long after the advent and into the decline of print technology, in an era which often eschews the term. It is one of the finest examples of incunabula, i.e. books made with movable type prior to 1500. One of the first examples of italic type first appeared on its pages. The story itself is an elaborate dream-within-a-dream that champions passionate love. The woodcut illustrations depict an elegant yet disturbing landscape in which the uncanny and allegorical reign, where an obelisk sits improbably atop a harsh, ziggurat-like structure and a bevy of cherubs cavorts on a winged horse statue.

Close up of one of the type-set and block printed pages
Photo by Joe Riepenhoff

The book was printed in 1499 in an edition of 500 and funded by Leonardo Grassi of Verona. It didn't sell well. One person who did buy a copy was Albrecht Dürer, as famous for his woodcuts as his paintings. The artist who created the detailed woodcuts in Hyperotomachia Poliphili is unknown, but some scholars surmise it was Andrea Mantegna, who, like Dürer, did both prints and paintings.

Anonymous artist, anonymous author: but many scholars now agree that the man who wrote the story was Franciscus Columna, a Dominican friar from Padua who was dismissed from the convent for sexual indiscretions. There are many riddles and hidden messages found in the book, including this autobiographical one: the initials of the 38 chapters form an acrostic: POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCUS COLUMNA PERAMAVIT, or "Brother Francesco Colonna was very much in love with Polia." Poliphilo and Polia are the story's two lovers. Those who believe that Franciscus Columna was the author, and that he was in fact a monk, see Polia as a fictional counterpart to an unrequited love.

In addition to a dream-within-a-dream structure, the story is told first from the viewpoint of Poliphilo, then Polia. It begins with rejection: Polia shuns Poliphilo. Chapter 1: Poliphilo enters the woods. The adventure begins, a tale of negotiating a mythic land of classical ruins and characters and a return to polytheism. Indeed poly-, many or several, is everywhere. The book is written in a polyglot hybrid invented by the author. And Chapter 8 is a polyamorous encounter: "Poliphilo bathes with the five nymphs" he has just met. Even the two lovers' names begin with poly-. At the end of the story, Poliphilo awakens to discover that none of the romantic adventures he has just lived, or dreamed, have taken place. No baths with nymphs, no passionate kisses, no majestic processions, no joining the cult of Venus.

Krug Rare Book Room at the Milwaukee Public Library
Photo by Joe Riepenhoff

Love and happiness triumph in dream and narrative, until the "unhappy ending," i.e. leaving the realm of the unconscious. The mastery of one's destiny through imagination, and the key role ruins and deities from classical antiquity play in this mastery, or even liberation, are humanist ideals. But mystery pervades and haunts the book: in the end Poliphilo is just as perplexed as the reader. Liberation is in the mind, but fleeting. The obsessional erotic longing and the cult of Venus also reflect the city in which Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was conceived. Venice was, after all, the birthplace of Casanova.

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