(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1499, the Venetian humanist scholar-editor Aldus Manutius published a curious book titledHypnerotomachia Poliphili, which translates as “Poliphilo's battle of love in a dream.” Rarer than the Gutenberg Bible (1455), it is regarded by book lovers as the supreme achievement of the printing press in the fifteenth century because of what Helen Barolini, in Aldus and His Dream Book (1992), calls “the harmony of illustration and text.” The work contains more than two hundred woodcuts by an unknown artist (who signed only one illustration, and that with an enigmatic “b”). These include eleven full-page pictures and thirty-nine floral capitals.

The text itself is something of a mystery, written in a mixture of Italian, Venetian dialect, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic. The woodcuts include various hieroglyphic and pseudo-hieroglyphic signs. Ostensibly, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili tells the story of the love of Poliphilo for Polia. As the book begins, Poliphilo awakens on May Day from a dream of Polia. In the longer part 1, he undertakes a journey in quest of her, but the text often strays into discussions of architecture and antiquity. The shorter part 2 is more of a love story, in which Polia initially resists Poliphilo's entreaties. Finally she yields to him, but then she vanishes and Poliphilo awakens.

Questions about the work begin with its authorship. The book is signed only with an acrostic and a pun. The initial letters of the chapters spell out Poliam Frater Franciscus Colonna peramavit, “Friar Francesco Colonna deeply loved Polia.” In part 2, Polia tells Poliphilo, “You are the solid column and culmination of my life.” In Italian “column” is “colonna.” Francesco Colonna was a friar living in the monastery of Saints Giovanni and Paolo in Venice. Polia may have been the niece of Colonna's bishop, but in Greek polia means old age or antiquity. Is Poliphilo's quest in fact not for a woman but for classical learning?

The book's subtitle states that in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili all human endeavor is shown as a dream. The dedication, written by Leonardo Crasso, who commissioned and paid for the printing of the work, states that the text contains matter not to be revealed to the common reader. Perhaps, then, this curious encyclopedia of antiquity contains secrets concealed in codes of various sorts. Fifteenth century humanists were fascinated with cryptography. Already in 1600 François Béroalde de Verville's adaptation included an essay on the alchemical lore in the work. The pictures, too, are enigmatic. For example, one series (reproduced in the novel) shows a naked winged boy in a cart being drawn through a forest by two naked women, while another woman, clothed, looks on from behind some trees. The boy is holding a whip. In the second picture the boy is cutting up the women with a sword, and in the final image the boy is flying away, while a lion, a wolf, an eagle, and a mythical beast devour the women's limbs. The illustrations appear to be an allegory of something, but of what?

In The Rule of Four, that is part of the mystery that Thomas Sullivan, Sr., Vincent Taft, and Richard Curry had set out to solve in the 1960's, when they met as young men. Curry found a contemporary diary by a Genoese harbormaster, who recorded that an aristocratic Roman named Francesco Colonna was expecting a secret shipment, and when two people tried to discover the nature of this cargo, they quickly died. When Colonna's goods finally arrived, they were easily transported, even by an old woman....

(The entire section is 1472 words.)