Hypnerotomachia Poliphili


Images of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on display at the Huntington Library.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a beautifully illustrated and decorated work of considerable mystery. The text takes the form of an allegorical search by Polifilo for his lost mistress, Polia, but the book is also an important work on aesthetics and art theory, written in an odd combination of Italian and Latin. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was first printed by the great Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. It is anonymous but it is commonly thought that the author was Francesco Colonna. The printing and illustration blend Renaissance ornaments with exceptionally beautiful and fine woodcuts and innovative typography and page design.

My first encounter with this exquisite book was at a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania which celebrated the acquisition of the second edition of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1545) by the University Libraries. While at the symposium I had the good fortune to be able to examine both the 2nd edition as well as a 1499 edition that was lent to the symposium by Bryn Mawr College. In true bibliophile fashion, I was giddy with pleasure when I happened to encounter it again during a visit to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Although safely ensconced behind glass, it was still a sight to behold.   My challenge now is to learn how to properly pronounce Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a tongue-twister if there ever was one.

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