The early history of printing is strange because, unlike most inventions, it blossomed into being at the height of its aesthetic capabilities. Gutenberg took great pains and many years to achieve this, knowing that his invention would have to compete with the glorious beauty of illuminated manuscripts. His Bible is indeed one of the most beautiful books ever printed. But, in my opinion, it does not earn the title of The Most Beautiful Book Ever Printed.
That honor goes to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
Let’s take a break, here. Can you read that title aloud? All together, now: “hip-nah-ROT-ah-mok-ee-ah POH-li-fi-lee.” So begins our katabasis—our descent into the underworld of this strange book. The work is written in a complex Latinate Italian, with some Greek, Arabic (the first in European printing!), Hebrew, and even (false) Egyptian mixed in. Particularly, there are a number of coinages based on Latin and Greek roots. This book never was or will be easy to read. (Not surprisingly, the protagonist of one of Umberto Eco’s novels wrote his doctoral thesis on the book.)
The title loosely translates into “The Strife of Love in a Dream.” Hypnos=dream (as in “hypnosis”). Eros=love (as in “erotic”). Mache=battle, war, or strife (as in “centauromachia”…not that that helps). “Poliphili” means “of Polyphilo,” the protagonist of the work.
The subtitle is even better:
ubi humana omnia non nisi somnium esse docet. Atque obiter plurima scitu sane quam digna commemorat—In which it is shown that all human things are but a dream, and many other things worthy of knowledge and memory.
The book was printed anonymously, although the general scholarly consensus lines up behind a Dominican monk named Francesco Colonna. The reason for this attribution brings up another aspect of the book that is remarkable: it is full of puns and riddles. Although no author is mentioned, an acrostic is formed if you take the decorated initial letters of each of the 37 chapters: POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCUS COLONNA PERAMAVIT—“Brother Francisco Colonna desperately loved Polia.” Polia is the protagonist’s love interest.
The HP (as scholars refer to it, for obvious reasons) tells the story of Poliphilo’s dream, in which he declares his love for Polia and travels through a series of surreal dreamscapes, such as Venus’s island of Cythera, in an attempt to be united with her.
Given its nearly unintelligible mutt Italian and its bizarre yet stereotyped romantic plot, the book did not sell well. One scholar called it “a serious runner-up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature.” I mean, have you read the title? Not easy. HP would likely have faded into oblivion if it were not for the outstanding typographical design and woodcuts.
The work features visual acrobatics: in some pages, the type is arranged in the shape of a wine glass; in others, images follow one after another like a comic strip.
A cursory glance at the type–its stark, stable beauty, mixed so fluidly with the text–resembles a production from the typographic revolution of the early 20th century more than anything else. All this is astoundingly modern. But this book was printed in 1499.
Can you guess who printed it? Yes, friends, it was our Aldus. But this was not a typical work for him. It was the only illustrated work he ever produced, and the only work he ever produced on commission.
The type was cut by Aldus’ astounding punchcutter Francesco Griffo, best known for developing the first italic type. (This particular type was first used in a book by the author Pietro Bembo; thus when Stanley Morison revived the type in the 1920s, he named it “Bembo.”) Only the best for Aldus.
The woodcuts are also of the highest quality for this time period. Unfortunately, the artist is unknown. A number of candidates have been suggested, the most attractive of which is the great Andrea Mantegna. The woodcuts display an extravagant variety of architecture, for which the book is famous. Scholar Liane Lefaivre notes among the images “a temple, a pyramid, a triumphal arch, a hippodrome, a propylaeum, a palaestra, two colossi, a gigantic building in the form of an elephant with an obelisk on its back, a bathhouse, a palace, a two circular-plan temples, some ruins, and an amphitheater.”
Oh, I could go on forever. Instead, I hope I’ve given you a historical amuse-bouche that will leave you wanting more. (If so, see some of the links below.)
And here’s the question for my readers: how do you feel about me calling this, a book which is nearly impossible to read, the most beautiful book ever printed? What other books do you think can compete for that honor?