The Most Beautiful Book in the World

It’s not often that I find myself keen to talk about a book that I haven’t read, and don’t intend to read from beginning to end, but that’s what I’m going to do today. The book is «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili», by Francesco Colonna, translated into English, fully, for the first time. The translator is Joscelyn Godwin. Mr Godwin is Professor of Music at Colgate University in New York.The book was published this year by Thames and Hudson, an old English firm known for their large and expensive art books.

The title is a Greek phrase — “Hypnerotomachia” means “the strife of love in a dream”, and “Poliphili” refers to the narrator of the story, Poliphilo. There was an earlier English translation, in 1592, by an author surmised to be Sir Roger Dallington. He only managed slightly less than half the book before giving up. This new complete version runs to 476 large pages, copiously illustrated with woodblock prints — photographically copied from the prints that appeared in the original edition.

The book in its original form was written in Italian and printed in Venice in 1499, half a millennium ago. It has entranced book collectors, scholars and typographers ever since. Most of the great libraries in the world have a copy, and when I found myself in New York City a decade ago, I made a special detour to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see theirs.

It rests in its own glass case, in the dim lighting of the print room, open at a page featuring one of the woodcut illustrations. I remember I gazed at it, enraptured, for perhaps half an hour.

Well, what’s this book about? «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili» is the story of a man, Poliphilo, who falls asleep, and has a dream. He dreams about his love, a beautiful young woman called Polia, and describes his travels in search of her, and their visits to many interesting buildings, palaces and gardens.

Here’s how the author introduces the story, in the Preface:

Reader, if you wish to hear briefly what is contained in this work, know that Poliphilo tells that he saw remarkable things in a dream, hence he calls the work in Greek words ‘the strife of love in a dream.’ He represents himself as having seen many ancient things worthy of memory, and everything that he says he has seen, he describes, point by point, in the appropriate terms and in an elegant style: pyramids, obelisks, huge ruins of buildings, the varieties of columns, their measurements, capitals, bases, epistyles or straight beams, bent beams, zophohri or friezes, and cornices with their ornaments. There is a great horse, an enormous elephant, a colossus, a magnificent portal with its measurements and ornaments, a fright, the five senses represented in five nymphs, a remarkable bath, fountains, the palace of the queen who is Freewill, and an excellent royal feast. . . .
Then how he went with Polia to await Cupid at the shore, where there was a ruined temple, at which Polia persuades Poliphilo to go inside and admire the antiquities.

And admire the antiquities he does, at length, for hundreds of pages, interspersed with brief episodes of fondling and heavy breathing. The descriptions of this dream art and fantasy architecture are detailed, obsessive and fetishistic; this reader quickly tired of it.

And who was the author? In its original form the book was anonymous, and many people have been credited with its authorship over the centuries. In 1512, though, an alert reader noticed that the first letter of each chapter, typeset in large ornamental capitals, spelled out a message, which he wrote out in a note in his copy of the book. The acrostic message is in Italian, and reads “Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia” — Polia being the heroine of the book.

There was a man called Francesco Colonna; he was born in 1433, and went to Venice when he was forty-eight years old. He lived in various monasteries and was involved in religious affairs, though he was a troublesome fellow. In 1504 he voted against the nomination of a Sub-Prior who is supposed to improve the morals and discipline of the monastery where Colonna lived. When Colonna was outvoted he walked out of the assembly. A dozen years later we find him issuing an anonymous denunciation of four or five of his colleagues, accusing them of sodomy and other unspecified things. Under investigation, he confesses his authorship of this calumny, and asks pardon. He is banished from Venice for life.

The book was printed at the Aldine Press in Venice, a publishing and printing house set up in the 1490s by Aldus Manutius, the leading figure of his time in printing, publishing, and typography, and the founder of a dynasty of great printer-publishers. Manutius produced the first printed editions of many of the Greek and Latin classics and his name is particularly associated with the production of small, well edited pocket-size books printed in inexpensive editions.

He printed Aristotle, Theocritus, Aristophanes, Juvenal, Martial, Petrarch, Catullus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Dante, Xenophon, Euripides, Homer, Aesop, Virgil, Erasmus, Horace, Pindar, and Plato.

After Manutius’ death, his brothers-in-law carried on the business until his third son, Paulus, took over in 1533. He left the Aldine Press to his son Aldus Manutius the Younger. Scholars estimate that the Aldine family, in all, in the one hundred years between 1495 and 1595, at the very dawn of the craft of printing, brought out editions of a thousand different book titles, typesetting and printing and binding each copy of each one by hand.

Francesco Griffo was the type cutter for the Aldine Press. He was responsible in 1500 for the design of the first ever printed italic face, first regularly used in the Virgil of 1501. Many people still believe (wrongly, as it happens) that italic type was first invented as a direct copy of the handwriting of the poet Petrarch.

The «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili», with its outstanding woodcuts, was the Aldine Press’s most famous book. The woodcut illustrations are fresh, sophisticated, and surprisingly modern. There are hundreds of them scattered throughout the text, some small, others filling an entire page. Technically, they are brilliant.

It’s easy enough to draw a curved line with a pen or on an engraving plate with a graver. With a woodcut, as with the modern lino-cut, it’s much harder — the artist has to use a chisel to gouge and carve away the wood on each side of the line, which stands up from the base of the woodcut like the letters on a rubber stamp. The finer the line, the more difficult that is. The detail and delicacy of the lines in these prints are remarkable. Sadly, none is signed, and the artist remains unknown.

A Page from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
A page from «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili», taken from Warren Chappell, «A History of the Printed Word», Dorset Press, USA, 1989.

But all that — the story, the erotic dream, the detailed architectural fantasies, the lovely illustrations — all that is slightly beside the point. The bibliophile Douglas McMurtrie explains why, in his book «The Book — The Story of Printing and Bookmaking», published in 1943.

The typographic masterpiece of the Aldine press was issued in 1499 in the famous «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili»…. Though no one takes the trouble to read the text of this extraordinary work any more, the volume itself, a folio of 234 leaves, displays a harmony of illustration and text which is truly amazing for its day and age and establishes it among the master works of printing of all ages.

Robin Kinross in his book «Modern Typography», 1992, says “… the example so often cited in this connection, the «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili» … is said to succeed because its woodcuts are matched in colour to the areas of type against which they are balanced.” The word “colour”, here, means the overall effect of light, shade and contrast in the black strokes of the type on the white paper.

The historian Alexander Lawson says — in his book «Anatomy of a Typeface», 1990 — “Francesco Griffo … cut the roman type that was used for «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili» … This remarkable work, [is] believed by many bibliophiles to be the finest printed book of the entire Renaissance…”

James Sutton and Alan Bartram in their 1968 book «An Atlas of Typeforms» praise Griffo’s skill — “The typeface used in this book,” they say, “is the culmination of Griffo’s roman design, and the typography is equally remarkable. The quality of the woodcut illustrations and their perfect balance with the weight and colour of the text were admired and closely imitated after Aldus’s death. The dramatic use of areas of text to make abstract shapes on the page has the excitement of experimental typography, but here achieves as well a delightfully mellow assurance.”

But there’s more. In 1923 the English Monotype Corporation, one of the great type foundries of the world, issued a new typeface named Poliphilus with this announcement: “… The type … is a Monotype reproduction of the famous letter used in the «Poliphili» of 1499, and it may be in place to emphasise its producer’s claim for credit to a design beautiful in itself and important in its influence….”

The Canadian scholar and poet Robert Bringhurst explains, in his book «The Elements of Typographic Style», 1997, the peculiar charm of this twentieth century version of Griffo’s font: “… the Monotype draftsmen copied the actual letterpress impressions,” he says, “including much of the ink squash, instead of paring back the printed forms to restore what the punchcutter had carved. The result is a rough, somewhat rumpled yet charming face, like a Renaissance aristocrat, unshaven and in stockinged feet, caught between the bedroom and the bath.”

Monotype’s Poliphilus was much used in British books during the 1940s and 1950s by designers who wanted to show off a bit, and display their sense of style. The 1950 first edition of Elizabeth David’s «A Book of Mediterranean Food» used this font. When Penguin issued their paperback edition in 1955, they photographically reproduced the pages of the original volume. Now, when I prepare Elizabeth David’s casserole of mutton with chick peas (page 105), I do so guided by a recipe typeset in a font that Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo would recognise as their own.

Ever since Walter Neurath founded Thames and Hudson fifty years ago, he has felt a special affinity with Monotype’s “Poliphilus” typeface. And Poliphilus is the typeface chosen for their edition of Joscelyn Godwin’s new translation of the «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili». Indeed the style and layout of the original Aldine book is followed closely, and the translated version is as similar in appearance to the original as possible.

All in all, in both its versions, this book is a wonderful example of the triumph of style over substance. The text is fey, feverish, slightly crazy, and much too long. The combination of typography and illustration, though, makes the original Italian edition of this book one of the most beautiful books in the history of printing.

One Reply to “The Most Beautiful Book in the World”

  1. Thank you for these enthralling reflections on typography, woodcuts and superb printing. The lovely lines on your detour to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Hypnerotomachia, reveal the true connoisseur. And we owe the author of the book many thanks, too, for ruining himself on self-publishing to realize his secret dreams in print that captivates us five hundred years later.

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