Author(s) Colonna, Francesco
Title Hypnerotomachia Poliphili...
Imprint Venice, A. Manuce, 1499
Localisation Paris, Ensba, Les 1358
Subject Architecture, Gardens


     In the second edition which he reviewed in 1685, François Blondel comments on the list of books necessary to the architect, a list which concludes the Architecture françoise by Louis Savot : “Beyond the books on architecture that this author has named, I consider that it is not irrelevant to relate here what I have come to know about this. Firstly there is the Livre des Songes by Polyphile, written in Italian and translated into French by Jean Martin with excellent woodcuts : and that of l’amour Parfait, written in Greek they say by Athenagoras and translated into French by Mr Fumée. They are two novels, in which we see the description of several sumptuous edifices, and of course built according to Vitruvius’ doctrine, and in which we can learn very many fine particularities and grand ideas on architecture” (p. 351). Thus, almost three centuries after it first appeared in Venice, at the printing presses of Aldus Manutius, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna still occupied a place of honor in the mind of the director of the Royal Academy of Architecture, which had two copies of the book, the Italian edition of 1545 and the French translation of 1554. There was nothing surprising about that, even if the culture of a man during the 17th century in France was very distant from that of the Dominican monk at the convent of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. For architecture occupies considerable space in the “novel”, and the ekphraseis by Colonna (and moreover those of Martin Fumée) are exceptionally long and precise. They show, on the part of the author, a culture extremely modern for his time. An “architetto dilettante” according to Arnaldo Bruschi, perhaps Colonna contributed to the entrance of the choir in Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (gone today). In any case, he knew Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder and Alberti perfectly, from whom he borrowed an architectural lexicon which was still very new in volgare in 1499, and because of this, sometimes a bit imprecise.
Edifices are present throughout Poliphile’s trip and are more numerous and extraordinary in the first part than in the second, in which Polia’s narrative is introduced in residences, cloisters and “temples” closer to the reality of northern Italy of the period. The great moment of the architectural adventure is without contest the description of the Porta triumphans, at the beginning of the book, to which Colonna devotes several chapters. These pages, fixed in the emerging “classical” tradition, are in fact founded on the Vitruvian idea of symmetria, explaining in the manner of Alberti geometric lineamenta that it is extremely difficult to represent them concretely in a drawing (Furno 1994). Alberti also inspires the theme and the proportions of the arch of triumph. But Colonna had been able to see a fine real example at the Arsenal in Venice. In spite of appearances, several shapes described also have links with Roman archeological reality as with the practice of contemporary artists, Bramante in particular.
From the point of view of illustration, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is exceptional: it is one of the first printed books illustrated in a coherent manner, according to a plan established by the author himself, and without doubt with drawings provided by him, at least for the geometric diagrams. Another artist, probably Venitian, must have collaborated in the figurative scenes. Perhaps this relevance and graphic excellence did not suffice to guarantee great success for Aldus Manutius’ undertaking in Italy, but they contributed to the fame of the book outside of the Italian peninsula. Jean Martin’s translation, published in 1546, reedited in 1554 and 1561 and its avatar of 1600 are the best known, but the book also came out in English in 1592 (Hypnerotomachia. The Strife of Love in a Dreame), with poor quality woodcuts). Its images inspired the Dutch “romanistes” painters, and Walter Ryff drew on some of these for his Vitruvius Teutsch of 1548, but it is impossible to determine whether they come from the original Italian or the French version of 1546.

Yves Pauwels (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2011

Critical bibliography

S. Borsi, Polifilo architetto. Cultura architettonica e teoria artistica nell’ Hypnerotomachia Poliphili di Francesco Colonna, 1499, Rome, Officina Edizioni, 1995.

A. Bruschi, Francesco Colonna. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, A. Bruschi, C. Maltese, M. Tafuri & R. Bonelli (ed.), Scritti Rinascimentali di Architettura, Milan, Il Polifilo, 1978, pp. 145-276.

F. Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, critical edition by G. Pozzi & L. Ciaponni, Padua, Antenore, 1980 (1963). 2 vols.

F. Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Introduction, translation and commentary by M. Ariani & M. Gabriele, Milan, Adelphi, 1998. 2 vols.

M. Furno, "L’orthographie de la Porta triumphante dans l’Hypnerotomachia Poliphili de Francesco Colonna : un manifeste de l’architecture moderne", Mélanges de l'École Française de Rome - Italie et Méditérranée, 106, 1994-2, pp. 473-516.

S. Heringuez, "L'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, un recueil de modèles d'architecture pour les peintres flamands du premier tiers du XVIe siècles: Bernard van Orley et la Porta Magna de Francesco Colonna", ArtItalies, La revue de l'Association des historiens de l'art italien (AHAI), 18, 2012, pp. 12-17.

L. Lefaivre, Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Re-Cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissance, Cambridge (Mass.)/London, MIT Press, 1997.

G. Pozzi &d M. T. Casella, Francesco Colonna, biografia ed opere, Padua, Antenore, 1959.