I had never heard of an Italian Renaissance book entitled “ Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” a Greco-Latin title rendered into English by the its recent translator, Joscelyn Godwin, as “Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” until I read a front-page article about it in the New York Times . Published in Venice in 1499, the Times said, the “ Hypnerotomachia” has been called, because of its fine woodcuts and convoluted text, “the most beautiful book in the world and the most unreadable”; it has a hero who has “sex with buildings”; and it is “written in many languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean [and] Italian.” It was on the newspaper’s front page because it is the inspiration of Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s new novel, “The Rule of Four ,” which was number two on the Times’s June 13 best-seller list, right behind “The Da Vinci Code” (to which I devoted a column several weeks ago).
The Times’ description piqued my interest not only because of its reference to misbehaving architecture, but also because of its mention of Hebrew, Arabic and “Chaldean” (an archaic word for Aramaic), and so I obtained a copy of the Hypnerotomachia and had a look at it. Although, disappointingly, I found no sex with buildings, there was a bit of Hebrew and Arabic.
Late 15th-century Italy was a place in which there was a great awakening of intellectual interest in the culture, architecture and mythology of classical antiquity, in esoteric schools of mysticism and philosophy, and in exotic languages — and the “ Hypnerotomachia” shows all these influences. Written by a wayward Catholic monk named Francesco Colonna, it tells the allegorical story of a young man named Poliphilo who wanders through a lengthy labyrinth of Arcadian forests, ancient temples, mysterious sculptures and inscriptions, subterranean grottoes, and secret lakes and isles in search of his true love, Polia. At one point, having crossed a bridge across a river in the company of “two maidens,” Poliphilo recounts:
“Now that we had crossed the bridge, we walked beneath the cool shadows, gladdened by the sweet twitterings of many birds. We reached a rocky and stony place where the high mountains rose up steeply, and then came to an abrupt, impassable and jagged peak. It was all eroded and full of rugged outcrops, rising to the sky, circled with thorn bushes, devoid of any greenery and surrounded by treeless mountains. And here were three brazen portals, crudely hacked into the living rock: an ancient work of incredible antiquity in the utter desolation of this site.”
Accompanying this passage is a woodcut illustration showing Poliphilo and the maidens facing the portals. Each portal has four inscriptions over it: the top one in Arabic, the one beneath that in Hebrew, the third in Greek and the bottom one in Latin. The Latin inscription over the right-hand portal (looking out from it toward the viewer) is Gloria Dei; over the middle portal, Materamoris; and over the left-hand portal, Gloria Mundi. The Greek inscriptions, also reading from right to left, are Theodoxia, Erototrophos and Kosmodoxia; the Hebrew, Tif’eret ha-El, Gidul ha-Ahava and Tif’eret ha-Olam; and the Arabic, Jal ad-Dinya, Um el-Mujaba and Jal Allah.
Curious, Poliphilo knocks on the portals. Matronly dames, the right-hand one “in rags, squalid, skinny, poor, with downcast eyes,” and the left-hand one “with a golden sword her eyes fierce, her face set… her soul that of a ferocious giant” greet him at two of them. He flees both of them and knocks on the third portal, where he is admitted by a “noble lady,” whose “joyful airs seized and captivated me with love at the first sight of her.” Entering there, he has further adventures until he finally finds Polia.
The Hypnerotomachia is a story in which a semi-deified woman, such as Dante’s Beatrice or Petrarch’s Laura, leads a love-struck mortal through the perils of existence to a higher life. Facing the three portals, Poliphilo is confronted by two temptations that he must reject. The one called by the Latin inscription Gloria Dei, “the glory of God,” is the life of religious abstinence from pleasure; the one called Gloria Mundi, “the glory of the world,” is the pursuit of worldly power and success. The third door, which he chooses to enter — the one called Materamoris, “the mother of love” — is the abode of Venus, the goddess of love, and there resides the divine Polia.
The Greek inscriptions above the three portals mean the same as the Latin, with the slight difference that Erototrophos means not “mother of love,” but “nourisher of love.”
The Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions, however, are more divergent. As brief as they are, they give us some clues as to how much of these languages the author of the Hypnerotomachia or his research assistant knew, which in turn tells us something about their status in Renaissance Italy.
But I see I’ve run out of space and will have to continue next week.