In Which It Is Shown That All Human Things Are But A Dream
February 4, 2005 5:47 PM   Subscribe

The Renaissance saw the publication of many great romantic epics: Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso in 1516; Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered in 1581; and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene in 1590 and 1596. But perhaps the most ambitious and mysterious of them all was the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili published in 1499 by Aldus Manutius (previously discussed here). The Poliphili has usually been attributed to an Italian monk named Francesco Colonna, although recently some have claimed that it was the work of architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti, even though he died in 1472. The Poliphili has long fascinated scholars because of its amazing typography, the cinematic style of its woodcuts, and the strange messages seemingly hidden in this multi-lingual text. Written in Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, and even some hieroglyphs, it has only recently been translated into English. This strange text has inspired a great deal of research and even a New York Times best-selling murder mystery.
posted by papakwanz (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
First FPP, BTW.
posted by papakwanz at 5:49 PM on February 4, 2005

Excellent post! I've never heard of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (phew!) before, which surprises me because I love Middle Age and Renaissance literature (but I'm really just a dabbler). I think I'll seek it out, but if it does turn out to be more ambitious than The Faerie Queene, I'll eat my hat. The Faerie Queene is the most sumptuously ambitious work I've ever encountered. It owes a large debt to both Tasso and Ariosto, so I wonder if Spenser also borrowed any elements of the HP...? I've never seen it referenced, but maybe I've been selectively ignoring it because I haven't been familiar with it.

posted by painquale at 6:26 PM on February 4, 2005

I just looked it the HP up in the Spenser encyclopedia, and yup, there's an entry on it. Here's a section:

"The Faerie Queene seems to echo the work, though precise links are hard to substantiate. Arguably, Spenser is indebted to Colonna for the singular importance of the triumph ... and for the arithmological stanza of II ix 22. Colonna's taste for emblems would have been congenial to Spenser, though not his frank eroticism."

And, for probably no one's interest but my own, here's the arithmological stanza referenced (it describes Alma's castle):

The frame thereof seemed partly circulaire,
And part triangulaire, O worke diuine;
Those two the first and last proportions are,
The one imperfect, mortall, foeminine;
Th'other immortall, perfect, masculine,
And twixt them both a quadrate was the base,
Proportioned equally by seuen and nine;
Nine was the circle set in heauen's place,
All which compacted made a goodly diapase.

I'm not sure how this relates to the HP... Hamilton's annotations don't make any reference, but he does say that this is an especially pregnant stanza that has attracted much scholarly attention.

Now I'm just rambling... but I'm PIQUED!
posted by painquale at 6:40 PM on February 4, 2005

it is beautiful--thanks, papa--i'd never heard of it.
posted by amberglow at 6:43 PM on February 4, 2005

The 'cinematic style' of his woodcuts is very interesting. The images actually line up like frames of film. I'm not so sure the concept of Roget's persistence of vision had been played with yet but the start of 'cinema' - in an indirect way - can certainly be attributed in part to the work in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
Thanks for the great post.
posted by Rashomon at 6:47 PM on February 4, 2005

Thanks for this.
posted by ori at 6:56 PM on February 4, 2005

This substantially satisfies my "something new each day" quota. Thank you!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:42 PM on February 4, 2005

Oh wow. I just read Rule of Four: I pulled it randomly out of the library stacks!
posted by dhruva at 8:14 PM on February 4, 2005

painquale- I only heard of the HP recently, from one of my professors who studies experimental literature. It is so quirky, and so hard to read in the original because of the vast number of languages it employs, that only a special few choose to really study it. Kind of like Finnegan's Wake, in that sense. Anyway, I'm writing my master's thesis on The Faerie Queene, and my thesis director, who specializes in Spenser and Elizabethan romance, had not heard of it.

I remember hearing about Rule of Four when it came out a year or 2 ago, and I read that it was about a mysterious Renaissance text, but I assumed that it was just made up. Imagine my surprise!
posted by papakwanz at 11:30 PM on February 4, 2005

MF readers fluent in Italian, graduate students or else, might be interested in a recent, economical re-edition by Italian publisher Adelphi, which back in 1998 had a celebrative edition of the Poliphili 1499 first, with translation and commentaries by Marco Ariani and Mino Gabriele. Also, my friend Giordano Beretta, a color specialist with HP (the Company, not the book) in Palo Alto, commented acutely on Manuzio and his role in information age history, back in 1996.
posted by lawendel at 4:09 AM on February 5, 2005

posted by rushmc at 8:53 AM on February 5, 2005


Thanks for all the links papakwanz. I haven't read The Faerie Queen in [literally] decades!
posted by kamylyon at 9:14 AM on February 5, 2005

the fairie queene's ambitious ... but i wouldn't call it 100% successful ... some of it's deadly dull
posted by pyramid termite at 9:36 AM on February 5, 2005

Pyramid- Agreed.

The wedding ceremony with all the rivers is beautiful and lyrical, but freakin boring as hell unless you are a geography buff.
On the other hand, it has some great LOTR-type moments. Perhaps it could be the next big movie trilogy?! All the actors could speak in Spenserian stanzas!
posted by papakwanz at 10:36 AM on February 5, 2005

Painquale- re: the stanza describing Alma's castle and its debt to HP:

HP has numerous discussions of architecture, which is why some have ascribed it to Leon Battista Alberti.
posted by papakwanz at 1:01 PM on February 5, 2005

I'm writing my master's thesis on The Faerie Queene

Coolness. Good luck with that!

Perhaps it could be the next big movie trilogy?! All the actors could speak in Spenserian stanzas!

That would be fabulous... but they'd probably do to it what they did to the Iliad with Troy. Brad Pitt should not play Guyon.

HP has numerous discussions of architecture, which is why some have ascribed it to Leon Battista Alberti.

Yeah, I took note of that after writing my comment. My brother and mom and dad are all architects - I'm going to have to tell them about this.
posted by painquale at 1:54 PM on February 5, 2005

This is fantastic. Thank you so much.
posted by jokeefe at 2:34 PM on February 5, 2005

This woodcut would make a charming image for a Valentine's Day card.
posted by verstegan at 3:47 PM on February 5, 2005

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