THE ALDINE EPITOME OF THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE
La hypnerotomachia di Poliphilo.
Venezia, in casa haer. Aldo I Manuzio, 1545
Folio. 234 unnumbered ll., a-y8 z10 A-E8 F4. Roman letter, little Greek or Hebrew. Woodcut Aldine device to t-p and recto of last, 170 full-, ½- or ¼-page woodcuts of epigraphic inscriptions, hieroglyphs, scenes with classical deities, urns and emblems (one partially hand-coloured). Couple of marginal ink splashes to t-p, and to a letter of a6, another to foredge of last couple of ll., slight marginal foxing to first gathering, light yellowing in two gatherings. An excellent, wide-margined copy in C17 polished calf, marbled eps and fore-edges, triple gilt ruled, gilt fleurons to corners, raised bands, spine double gilt ruled to seven compartments, large gilt fleuron and cornerpieces to each, gilt-lettered morocco label, ancient repair to joints and extremities, edges scuffed, ‘1798’ to verso of first fep.
Excellent, wide-margined copy of the second edition of the symbol of the Italian Renaissance, originally published by Aldus in 1499. Rated as ‘the most beautiful book of the fifteenth century’ (Mortimer, ‘Harvard C16 It.’, 131), it is also one of Aldus’s only seven illustrated books (Gibbs, ‘Aldus’, 109). The second edition is ‘rarer than the original’ and a ‘reprint, page by page, line by line’ except for the t-p, the type used for the Greek and the initials, and five illustrations which were recut (Sander I, 2057). This majestic work, both in conception and production, has been attributed to Francesco Colonna (1433-1527), an Italian Dominican, though his name is not cited on the t-p. He was 66 when the work was finally published ‘in aedibus Aldi’ at the expense of the Veronese lawyer Leonardo Crasso, and dedicated to the Duke of Urbino. The plot—Poliphilo’s quest for his love, Polia, through a dreamlike world, narrated in the first person—is framed within a complex setting based on classical allegory, emblems and Egyptian hieroglyphs. The language is an unusual Latinate Italian suspended between scholarship and engaging narrative, which contributes to the unsettling nature of the work. It begins with Poliphilo’s walk into a Dantesque ‘dark wood’ infested by snakes and wolves, and it follows him through allegorical landscapes with enormous pyramids surmounted by statues, obelisks sitting on the back of elephants, pedestals with ancient inscriptions or sculpted scenes—all handsomely depicted in the accompanying allegorical woodcuts. What makes the ‘Hypnerotomachia’ unique is the ‘overall composition of text and image into a harmonious whole, which allows the eye to slip back and forth between textual description and corresponding visual representation…It is the first experimental montage of fragments of prose, typography, epigrams, and pictures…an extraordinary visual-typographical-textual “assemblage” of a type not repeated until the avant-garde books of the 1920s and 1930s’ (Lefaivre, ‘Leon Battista Alberti’s “Hypnerotomachia”, 17) . It was also the first published book where the illustrations consistently appeared on the same page as the text they illustrated.
Its woodcuts, of outstandingly fresh impression in this copy, changed the history of Western book illustration and art, influencing the likes of Titian and the Carracci as well as the C16 French school after the work’s translation in 1546. Scholars have suggested that they were not designed in Aldus’s workshop, but were already present in the ms. that reached him; their authorship has been linked even to Mantegna and Alberti; certainly to a northern Italian artist. An anonymous cutter transferred them onto woodblocks in Venice. Scholars have suggested that, in order to portray classical monuments, ruins and epigraphic inscriptions so vividly and in detail, the illustrator had access to drawings of ancient monuments discovered in Rome, some clearly reprised by the woodcuts; their appearance has allowed to date the illustrations to the years 1470-95 (Huelsen, ‘Le illustrazioni’, 175-76).
Renouard 133:14; BM STC It., p. 430; Mortimer, Harvard C16 It., 131; Brunet IV, 778: ‘assez recherchée’; Sander I, 2057; Essling II/2, 465. C. Huelsen, ‘Le illustrazioni della Hypnerotomachia Polifili e le antichità di Roma’, La bibliofilia 12 (1910), 161-76; M.L. Gibbs, ‘Aldus Manutius as Printer of Illustrated Books’, Princeton University Library Chronicle 37 (1976), 109-16; L. Lefaivre, Leon Battista Alberti’s ‘Hypnerotomachia’ (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).