‘THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK OF THE C15’
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.Venice, Aldus Manutius, Romanus, for Leonardus Crassus, Dec. 1499.
FIRST EDITION. Folio. ff. , a–y8 z10 A–E8 F3, without final leaf (errata) and the 4 preliminary ll., as often, and with the nine sheets in the original setting (cf. Harris). Roman type: 2:114R, 7:114Gr, 10:82R, occasional Greek: 9:84Gr. 172 woodcuts, 11 of which full-page (with Priapus censored in black ink by an early hand), of epigraphic inscriptions (some in Arabic, Hebrew or Greek), hieroglyphs, scenes with classical deities, urns and emblems; 39 woodcut initials forming the name Franciscus Columna. First leaf repaired at gutter and fore-edge, last backed with text inset on verso (a bit soiled), small scattered worm holes to first and last couple of gatherings, repairs to F1-2, affecting a few letters of latter, tiny trail to lower edge of gatherings e-f, very light water stain to lower blank margin of second half, the odd thumb mark or minor ink splash. A good copy in c1700 Italian mottled calf, double blind ruled, small blind-stamped fleurons to corners, gilt coat of arms with ‘A’ to covers (the Salviati family?), raised bands, spine gilt, all edges sprinkled red and blue, corners and head and foot of spine restored.
The first and only incunable edition of this example of finest Renaissance book production, and a masterpiece of woodcut illustration. Rated as ‘the most beautiful book of the fifteenth century’ (Mortimer, p.131), it is also one of Aldus’s only seven illustrated books (Gibbs, ‘Aldus’, p.109). ‘Universally revered as a landmark in C15 typography’ (Harris). The absence of the errata leaf and the 4 preliminaries including an additional or substitutional titlepage, may indicate a first or early issue. Two woodblocks contain what are now considered the first Arabic words to appear in print, carved on a stone and over three doorways. ‘While the script of the first inscription recalls Islamic bookish hands, that of the second reprises the use of calligraphy in Arabic-Islamic culture, with the practise of inscribing monuments and artefacts’ (Piemontese, p.207).
The woodcuts, in fresh, early 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 to Mantegna, Alberti or Benedetto Bordon; 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; their appearance dates the illustrations to 1470-95 (Huelsen, ‘Illustrazioni’, 175-6).
This majestic work, both in conception and production, has been attributed to Francesco Colonna (1433-1527), an Italian Dominican. The plot—Polifilo’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. It begins with Polifilo’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 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, ‘“Hypnerotomachia”’, 17). It was also the first published book where the illustrations consistently appeared on the same page as the text they illustrated.
The gilt ducal shield probably belongs to the Salviati, a prominent Florentine family since c.1400. In the C18, their very fine library, which included dozens of important medieval mss, was part bequeathed to Giovan Vincenzo’s son, later 6th Duke, Averardo (1721-83), and part sold. A c.1700 armorial ink stamp very similar in design to ours appears on selected books and mss which had been in the Salviati library since the C15. The C18 binding and the ‘A’ point to Averardo.Goff C767; HC 5501*; Sander 2056; Essling 1198; Ahmanson-Murphy 35; GW 7223; Renouard 21:5. 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’ (1997); N. Harris, ‘The Blind Impressions in the Aldine Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499)’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (2004), pp.93-146, and ‘Nine Reset Sheets in the Aldine Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499)’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (2006), pp.235-65; ‘Biblioteca Salviati’, in Archivio Possessori; A.M. Piemontese, ‘Le iscrizioni arabe nella Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’, in C. Brunett, ed., Islam and the Italian Renaissance (1999), pp.198-220.