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The e-Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

By Alana Shilling.

“Old men ought to be explorers”
– T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

TO RECAPTURE THE past by following the Ariadne’s thread of words; this is not the premise of a dream. No, this was a conviction that inspired many Renaissance humanists in their struggle to recover an elusive classical past through the Latin of Virgil or the Greek of Homer.

One man in particular, Aldus Manutius, represents the humanist connection between language and the past. He used what was then a new technology for book production — the printing press — to summon august ancients into being through their words.

Clicking an image will enlarge it.

The story begins in Venice in the late 1480s. Aldus, a former tutor of princes, a correspondent with humanist luminaries, but now working in obscurity, has just arrived at that bustling crossroads of commerce and culture with the intent of establishing a printing press. His decision to relocate to Venice as he approached middle age (he was born in 1449 or ’50) was hardly determined by chance. Venice was the center of the printing business during that period. In the 1470’s for example, one-eighth of all printed books in Europe came from Venice. The stakes there were high for would-be printers, but the potential for success was seemingly limitless.

LACKING ONLY MEANS, Aldus set to work collecting manuscripts and accruing the capital to found what would become the Aldine Press. Traces of the Press’ prestige can be found even today; publishers, such as Doubleday, still employ Aldus’ printer’s impress (his colophon) of a dolphin entwined around an anchor in an effort to appeal to the legacy. The Aldine Press did not just publish books, it was an indispensable part of a scholarly mission. Although he published works in Latin, Aldus dedicated himself to printing books the production of which presented a particular challenge to printers. The Aldine Press specialized in printing (and perfecting) editions of writings by ancient Greeks.

By presenting Greek texts in new, more legible fonts, Aldus began to make a part of antiquity accessible to men who had been thirsting after reliable Greek works and lamenting their paucity since Petrarch.  More than a mere printer, he had begun to assemble a humanist society of sorts. Fielding requests from Erasmus and corresponding with the famed Angelo Poliziano, Aldus united his humanist-customers through the shared goal of recovering antiquity with words. Aldus even instituted the “Aldine New Academy” in imitation of Plato’s Academy. Its members might converse in Greek over dinner.

In 1499, the Aldine Press produced an illustrated book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (the title roughly translates to Strife of Love in a Dream), that represented a longing for the past in entirely different terms. The narrative chronicles the pains and pleasures experienced by the ardent lover, Poliphilo (“Lover of Polia” – or “Lover of Many Things”). The hero of this prurient work cavorts through a series of sometimes bizarre erotic moments as he searches (not with great rigor, one might argue) for his beloved Polia.

The opening scene details Poliphilo’s anguish as he suffers from unrequited love and, notably, sexual frustration. He falls into a series of dreams within dreams and finally finds himself in a marvelous realm strewn with architectural splendors and artistic triumphs, all monuments in one way or another to the achievements of classical antiquity. This dreamland also happens to be populated by a surfeit of beautiful nymphs with healthy libidos.

Eros permeates the atmosphere of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. What is remarkable however, is the strange equivalence between ruins and female charm. That is, signs of antiquity elicit the same sexual reaction from the protagonist as the (plentiful) nymphs do. Poliphilo wanders amongst wonders—often fragments—from the classical past, from colossal Vitruvian triumphs of architecture to delicate urns. In practically every case, Poliphilo’s delighted amazement excites a pleasure that is inescapably sexual (this reaction calls to mind the famous episode in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historiae where the Roman emperor Tiberius grows so enamored of a sculpture that he attempts to transport it to his bedroom for personal use [XXXV.70.]).

The narrative unblushingly recounts Poliphilo’s more human sources of titillation as well. In one episode, our hero is naked and frolicking with five beautiful women, allegorical embodiments of the five senses. After a playful group bath, the ladies give Poliphilo a lotion, which increases his sexual desire so acutely that he contemplates raping a nymph or two. Of course, it is difficult to tally just how many girls Poliphilo contemplates ravishing. Poliphilo will go on to pursue other sylphs bearing names like “Seduction” and “Enjoyment,” while persistently trading moral and intellectual pleasures for sensual ones. At a certain point, he becomes so enamored of one particular nymph that not even the discreetness of euphemism can contain his desire. Though the object of such carnal temptation ultimately reveals herself to be the beloved Polia, she remains anonymous for some time, placidly accompanying Poliphilo as he gapes at other nymphs, admiring braids and legs while exulting in the pleasures of seeing exposed “round nipples.”

Other erotic elements are woven into the work, including an elaborate triumph filled with visual representations of Zeus’ infidelities—at the moment of their consummation. That procession is crowned by Priapus, that god of fertile gardens. Priapus’ most famous feature—his large, erect member—dominates the scene. To be sure, the plot is more involved than this. The dream-vision narrative itself was a recognized literary form with particular significance that carried the weight of tradition behind it. The Hypnerotomachia’s narrative overflows with elaborate allegories, strange moral tests and technical specifications for architecture so vast that some modern editors include glossaries. The text also contains an unremitting string of references to an array of works both ancient and contemporary.

This is not to say that erotic texts were an invention of the late-fifteenth century (one might think of Catullus’ infamous poems to Lesbia in this regard). Rather, the Hypnerotomachia is singularly important because it is inadvertently one of the more poignant treatises on how kindling a relationship to the past—what this looks like and how to achieve it—is an enterprise fraught with confusion. The very words used to tell the story of the Hypnerotomachia are evidence of how an attempt to resurrect the ancient through modern means can falter. The language of the book is ostensibly the vernacular. Yet the author (still unknown, though some scholars consider the Dominican priest Francesco Colonna to be the most likely candidate) fashioned centaurs and satyrs out of his words, wedding Italian to Latin and, on occasion, Greek. The result of these strange linguistic unions is curious, indeed. Joscelyn Godwin, who translated and edited an edition of the Hypnerotomachia in English in 1999, offers an example of how a literal rendering of the text would sound:

In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral and most miserable site of the algent and fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel with her vipertine capillament, her machine and miserable soul, implacably furibund.

One wonders if this is what the resurrection of the past—with all its attendant ambivalences—is doomed to be. But the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a hybrid in more than its choice of language; it also weaves together the past and modern in a more concrete way. Although the book imagines a wonderland of antiquity’s materiality in its pages, the work itself was an essorant demonstration of what could be produced in print.

architecture imaginedThe Hypnerotomachia was not only the first book in the vernacular that the erudite, classically leaning Aldus printed (the need for revenue played no small role in this decision), it was also the first illustrated book released by the Aldine Press. But the Hypnerotomachia was more than merely ‘illustrated’; the execution of the illustrations and the balance of images and text were more sophisticated than other illustrated books printed during the same period. Indeed, the woodcuts were rendered with such tremendous skill that they are thought to be the work of the famed Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna (pronounced in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari as stimato onorato e premiato – esteemed, honored and rare). The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a veritable litany of other ‘firsts’ as well: It marks the first time that Aldus’ aforementioned colophon appeared, one of the first appearances of an improved Greek font, one of the first books to include Hebrew script, the first book in Europe to attempt Arabic words, the first to feature illustrations that unfolded across two pages – in short, with the Hypnerotomachia, the Aldine Press printed a text unlike anything seen before.

BUT PERHAPS WE ought to leave behind Aldus and his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (which was incidentally as much a technical triumph as a financial failure). Recall the melancholy line from Yeats, “Hector’s dead and there’s a light in Troy”: the entire phenomenon of printed books—of print in all forms—is swiftly vanishing while electronic format has attained dominance with astonishing rapidity. Many a debate about electronic books and their print counterparts has been bandied about. The polemical matter draws commentary from scholars, publishers and lay-audiences alike. It seems that the more emphatically proponents of digital projects insist upon a new world, defenders of the printed book wax eloquent on the medium, though not without adopting an elegiac tone.

Yet the ambivalent welcome to new electronic media, torn between hesitation and celebration, repeats an old pattern. Not so very long ago, printed books were considered the “new technology.” In his Novum organum scientiarum (1620), Francis Bacon singled out printing along with gunpowder and the compass as part of the triptych of modern inventions that, as he noted, “changed the appearance and state of the whole world.” Three centuries later, one of the earliest scholars of print history, Elizabeth Eisenstein, published her The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983). Though her argument that using moveable type on a press—most likely invented by Johannes Gutenberg ca. 1439—disrupted social and cultural patterns so profoundly that the Western world would never be the same, at times can run to hyperbole, I do not think that Eisenstein’s point should be dismissed. Indeed, the printing press dislocated what had previously been the way of acquiring books, through manuscripts handwritten by scribes. What we know as “scribal culture” gradually melted into obsolescence with the advent of the printed book. As Eisenstein notes with some drollery, “Even incredulous modern scholars may be troubled by trying to calculate the number of calves required to supply enough skins for vellum copies of Gutenberg’s Bible…an abrupt rather than a gradual increase [in printed books] did occur in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

Not everybody was pleased with the transition to this new print format. Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-1498), a manuscript seller and prominent bibliophile in Florence expressed his disapproval of printed books on several occasions. The most well known of these censures occurs as Vespasiano praises Federigo, Duke of Urbino’s personal library and waxes eloquently upon the scope of the Duke’s collection and the beauty of his books (all manuscripts). Vespasiano cannot resist waspishly adding that a printed book would have been ashamed in the company of such elegant texts.

It is easy to see in Vespasiano’s passion for scribal culture a version of the resistance to the “new media” today. Though debates about new technologies meeting old are not novel, the uncertainties with which we are now girded on account of this present shift exhibit some (unsurprisingly) unique features. For instance, there is a phenomenon that can be conceived of as “the illusion of the cornucopia.”

The historian Anthony Grafton is, I think, one of the most prominent scholars currently exploring the implications of electronic books and digital libraries. In his (beautifully bound) Codex in Crisis (2009), for example, Grafton trenchantly pronounces Google Books “both a generous and fallible guide to the universe of books.” Obviously, Grafton’s evaluation is also a warning. Google Books opens a staggering array of texts to readers, one where access to these treasures is possible with a click of the mouse. And yet, it is precisely this supposed vastness that is so dangerous. As Grafton points out, Google Books has significant limitations: it cannot provide access to books out of copyright, nor can it make earlier texts accessible. However, in a world where information is cheap and its accuracy often ancillary to the speed with which it can be obtained, perhaps the shortcomings of Google Books is a venial sin.

Other complexities and other consequences tied to what digitization can and cannot do for books include the question of how electronic media shape their readers. When the printed page arrived, much changed. For instance, the significance of memory’s strength—such an important part of scribal culture–became diminished and consequently less cultivated. Meanwhile, as printed books spread, consumers – and indeed print did gave rise to a new legion of consumers who were able to afford what costly manuscripts had made inaccessible – soon were supplied with fanciful images of distant lands and exotic animals. People even learned to recognize the physical features of influential men like Erasmus and Martin Luther.

Digitization only multiplies possibilities and begs questions that have yet to fully emerge from dusky uncertainty. Before predicting that technology would create a “global village,” Marshall McLuhan wondered how medium determined content. When the physical presence of a book is replaced with a digital version, how does that impact our thought processes, our understanding of what we read and how we read it?

I BEGAN IN late fifteenth-century Venice with a dedicated humanist-printer and an illustrated book the bizarreness of which has seemed to elude complete explication. Although I might have appeared to stray beyond Aldus Manutius and the precincts of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’s pages, there is another quality of that book that I have not yet mentioned, perhaps the most important one. It was in that anomaly for the Aldine Press, the Hypnerotomachia, that a perfected “roman” type first appeared.

In a world where humanists believed in the power of material to recapture the past, this was no small achievement. The appearance of that now-familiar ur-font was perfected over the early decades of printing when there was an imagined relationship between “roman” type and the nearness of antiquity. It was once believed that the tradition of printing promised to readers, lonely in their early modernity, a way of finding continuity with their past by restoring what had once been lost, by restoring how later readers imagined past words “looked.”

Though electronic books can tell many stories, they seemingly do so without that magic printed books perform, that way materiality has of binding us to past readers, to past writers, in an open invitation to become Time’s contemporary. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is more than a sexy oneiric romp, more than a mere historical curiosity. It is the expression of a plight, one that we all find in our modest round as discoverers. Though Poliphilo realizes the fantasy of touching material objects of the past, it is only a dream; he awakens at the conclusion of the book bereft of Polia and antiquity. That moment of loss inspires a question. For centuries, the material fact of printed books has provided—whether explicitly or implicitly— a concrete reassurance that the past has not slipped away, that we have yet to discover it. But how shall we chase after the past, affirm our fellowship with it, when its very materiality proves protean? Will we find these “hollow” or “hilly lands” in the expanse that now sprawls forth before us?

Alana Shilling is a writer who resides in the New York City area. She is currently engaged in a project about the history of modern conceptions of cultural inheritance. Shilling has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, and a special interest in Latin literature and the Italian Renaissance.

Also in The Fortnightly Review The Production and Life of Books by C. Kegan Paul.

More online:

From an exhibition at Brigham Young University, this online catalogue is dedicated to the Aldine Press. The catalogue provides a visually rich survey of 67 books published by the Press.

MIT hosts a complete electronic facsimile of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili with an informative gloss on this unusual text in addition to access to the original source.

There’s an amusing and informed commentary on the Hypnerotomachia at




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Lily Mac Mahon
Lily Mac Mahon
3 years ago

Thank you very much for taking the time to write this article. It is incredibly well researched and was a very enjoyable read.

Andrew Janoff
Andrew Janoff
8 years ago

Interesting usage of Aldus Manutius!

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