The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Image, Text, and Vernacular Poetics *

By Trippe, Rosemary | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Image, Text, and Vernacular Poetics *


Trippe, Rosemary, Renaissance Quarterly


In the third book of Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, set in Urbino in 1507, the discussion turns to how the ideal courtier approaches the lady he has chosen to love. One of the participants, the Magnifico Giuliano de'Medici, makes an observation: "For I have known some who, in writing and speaking to women, use Poliphilian words and stand so on the subtleties of rhetoric that the women lose confidence, and think themselves very ignorant and cannot wait to hear the end of such talk and get rid of the fellow." (1) This passage has been often cited as evidence of contemporary negative criticism of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. (2) Yet it also points to the book's most salient yet understudied aspects: rhetoric and love, the subjects of this essay.

Printed in Venice in December 1499, by Aldus Manutius, the publisher of ancient Latin and Greek and contemporary related works, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in the Dream of Poliphilo), was his first vernacular work and, with 171 woodcuts all of original design, one of the most lavishly illustrated books of the period. By its dedication to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1472-1508), the book was directed to an audience of persons like him, educated in the studia humanitatis and with associations to the courts of Italy. (3) The Hypnerotomachia recounts and illustrates the experiences of its protagonist, Poliphilo who, in a dream within a dream, searches for his beloved, the nymph Polia. In his quest, he encounters ancient architecture, sculpture, Latin and Greek inscriptions, hieroglyphs, and mythological and allegorical personages.

The principal focus of study has been on the identity of its author, Francesco Colonna (the name found in an acrostic composed of the initial letters of each chapter), (4) and the interpretation of the book as a product of his culture, whether Venetian-Dominican or Roman-noble. (5) Research on this question has significantly increased understanding of the author's education, particularly his familiarity with Greek and Latin literature. Recent publications, including a new critical edition with Italian translation and an English translation, have added to our knowledge. (6) These studies generally consider the Hypnerotomachia as a compendium of humanistic learning, more specifically as a philosophical treatise, in which simple, clear images recount the pleasing fiction of a dream, whose moral and ethical message is concealed from the unlearned by Colonna's ornate, artificed prose. (7) It has received less attention as a work of vernacular literature and fiction. Both critical editions note the Petrarchan theme s and textual allusions in the book. Yet their significance has been minimized; one writer has reduced their meaning simply to the evidence of the author's Roman identity, placed by Colonna in his text to memorialize allusively his ancestors' patronage of the poet. (8)

Emphasis on the question of authorship has also overshadowed study of the early reception of the book in Italy. (9) Art historical study of the Hypnerotomachia has concentrated primarily on the pictorial and literary sources of its illustrations, particularly those describing architectural monuments and sculpture, which reveal Colonna's knowledge of the writings of Vitruvius and Leon Battista Alberti. (10) A relationship between Petrarch's poetry and the book's images has been discussed only in relation to the triumphs, described and illustrated in Book One. (11) Scholarship on the book, noting the interrelation of its text and images, generally credits the author with the original design and invention of the woodcuts, though discrepancies between text and image have been explained as misunderstandings or embellishments of Colonna's intentions by craftsmen. (12)

The argument presented here makes two basic assumptions. First, based on the philological evidence in the text, the book's author was the Venetian Francesco Colonna, a Dominican grammarian, though this premise is not central to the interpretation presented in this essay. …

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