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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) by Francesco Colonna. The paganistic and erotic dream phantasies of a late 15th-century lover of antiquity

This article briefly reviews the multifarious questions related to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) -an “often quoted but seldom read book” in the words of E. Wind. A masterpiece of typographical art, published by the celebrated humanist Aldus Manuzio, it was only fully translated into English in 1999. Its author, Francesco Colonna, was traditionally thought to have been a Venetian friar in the monastery of SS Giovanni e Paolo; quite recently (1980) M. Calvesi proposed that the author was the prince of Palestrina under the same name, while other candidates have been discussed as well. The subject is the search for idealized love amidst extensively described ancient ruins, generally set in Arcadian landscapes, and inhabited by pagan deities and nymphs. The mixture of pagan and Christian elements reflected in some of the famous ceremonies and encounters described in the work are typical of the time and place of its creation. The antiquarian lore and feigned antiquity seem more appropriate to Venice than to Rome. The language, a most curious and purely individual mixture of Latin, Italian, Greek and elements of Hebrew and Arabic, may have been deliberately chosen as an appropriate vehicle for conveying the nature of dreams. The work’s exquisite 172 woodcuts have been attributed to various distinguished masters; their closest affinities, however, are with those in the 1497 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the vernacular language and in the art of Benedetto Bordon. Already in 1600 Beroalde de Verville had read the book’s supposedly “arcane” content in the light of alchemic wisdom; this particular French edition, consulted by Jung in 1925, probably stimulated his interest in alchemy. His friend and collaborator Linda Fierz-David (1950) and, more recently, I. P. Couliano (1984) detected in its rather bizarre content intriguing, though very different, psyco-analytical overtones.