One of the Most Beautiful Illustrated Books of the 16th Century

Colonna, Francesco (1433-1527)

Hypnerotomachie ou Discours du songe de Poliphile. Deduisant comme Amour le combat à l'occasion de Polia

Paris: [Jean Le Blanc] Pour Jaques Kerver à la Licorne, rue S. Jaques, 1561


Folio: 33.5 x 21.4 cm. Collation: a6, A-Z6, Aa-Bb6, Cc8


Bound in 16th c. French calfskin, rebacked, discreet repairs to corners, some minor scuffs and scrapes. The boards are ruled in blind, with small floral tools, gilt, at the angles, and a central cartouche, gilt, at the center of the boards. Additional blind-tooling was added at the time of rebacking. The contents are in fine condition with a little occ. light foxing, a couple of closed tears, trivial marginal soiling. Magnificently illustrated with 181 fine woodcut illustrations (13 of which are full page), elegant woodcut initials and ornaments, and a woodcut architectural title page border with satyrs and cherubs.

Provenance: 1. Gottlieb Paul Christ (1707-1786), diplomat and scholar, who served as castle librarian at Ansbach (ex-libris dated 1758 on the first pastedown, with long note: "Theophili Pauli Christii Coburgensis. Ex Bibliotheca Zochia, quae constituta auctione divendebatur Onoldibaci" and an entire page of handwritten annotations on the verso of the front free endpaper); 2. The Earls of Ilchester (Holland House bookplate - sold to Hodgson's on 13 May 1948, lot 469.)

Third and best French edition of Aldus Manutius’ celebrated “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”, one of the most beautiful illustrated books produced in 16th century France, commissioned by Jacques Gohory (1520-1576), translated by Jean Martin (d. ca. 1553), and dedicated to Henri II de Lénoncourt, Comte de Nanteuil le Haudouin (d. ca. 1555). The identity of the artists who made the illustrations for this edition, which are designed after those of the original from 1499, is still debated, but Jean Goujon (ca. 1510- ca. 1569) and Jean Cousin (1490-1561) have been suggested. The design of the beautiful title, with its satyr herms, was recently attributed by Dominique Cordellier to Luca Penni.

In addition to the adaptations of the Aldine woodcuts, fourteen new illustrations of topiaries, formal gardens, and architectural details have been added. The woodcuts in the 1561 edition are the same as in the first French edition of 1546, with the exception of the architectural woodcut on the verso of the folio Bvi. The ornate woodcut capital letters form an acrostic that reads “Poliam frater Franciscvs Colvmna peramavit” (“Brother Francesco Colonna dearly loved Polia”).

The “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”, or literally "Polifilo's Strife of Love in a Dream, published by Aldus Manutius at Venice in 1499, is one of the finest illustrated books ever produced. In 1546, a French translation, with woodcuts modelled on those in the original work, was published at Paris. This is the third edition of the French translation, considered the best of the three. The beauty of the work is enriched by fourteen additional woodcuts (of topiaries, gardens, and architectural elements), designed specifically for the French editions.

“The illustrations are held to be the apogee of French book illustration. They are without doubt technically superior to the originals: the lines are more supple in the outlines, faces, and clothes; the bodies are less stocky and chunky, more elongated and elegant; and there is more emphasis on corporeality thanks to the increased use of hatching. The representation of space reveals a complete mastery of perspective, which the Italian does not. In fact, the French adds twelve entirely new perspectival images of buildings and gardens that were presumably beyond the reach of the inferior Italian technician. Finally, the more rationalist Parisian edition contains two geometrical representations, one of a garden and the other a complex breakdown of a triumphal arch in terms of its proportional system, described in the text, which the Venetian forgoes.”(Liane Lefaivre)

The French text was prepared by Jean Martin, who would also produce translations of the great Italian architects Vitruvius, Alberti, and Serlio. The “Polifilo” may be considered part of that programme, appealing as it did to French interest in antiquity, architecture, and landscape gardening. Martin tells us that he has revised and polished a French translation of Colonna’s original, made by a virtuous gentleman, and given to him by a friend, whom we know to be Jacques Gohory (1520-1576). In Gohory’s own note to the reader, added to this edition, we learn that the “virtuous gentleman” was a member of the Knights of Malta.

Polifilo’s Dream:

“Polifilo's search for Polia unfolds as a series of challenges developed in a dream within a dream. After roaming on winding paths through a dark, terrifying wood, Polifilo- led on by an unearthly sound- arrives in a valley from which passage to another valley is blocked by a huge pyramid surmounted by an obelisk. In this spectacular but apparently harmless scenery, Polifilo sees wild yet peaceful animals as well as remnants of a former civilization such as a pyramid and, before it, fragments of an antique peristyle. Polifilo studies the building carefully, discovers that it is consecrated to Venus, Amor, and Cybele. Suddenly he finds himself attacked by a loathsome dragon, and he flees into the inside of the pyramid, which turns out to be a labyrinth. Finding himself for the second time on dark and winding paths, Polifilo believes that he is near death, but in the end he succeeds in finding an exit.

“In contrast to the sharply outlined entrance of the pyramid, the exit that Polifilo finds on the opposite side is covered in luxuriant vegetation. Polifilo has arrived at a locus amoenus, the realm of Free Will, which is named after the female ruler Queen Eleuterilyda. Here, amid lovely scenery, he encounters five nymphs who personify the five senses, three nymphs called Impulse, Fantasy, and Memory, and the nymphs Reason and Will. In an octagonal bathhouse an embarrassed Polifilo bathes together with the naked nymphs of the five senses, and during the banquet given in his honor in the queen's marvelous palace, all his five senses become highly stimulated. The queen, informed of Polifilo's longings for Polia, orders Reason and Will to guide the lover to the realm of Aim, which is named after her sister Telosia. Passing two artificial gardens, a water labyrinth for boats, and a monument built of simple geometric forms, Polifilo and the two nymphs finally arrive at the tripartite gate of Aim.

“Urged to decide whether to serve Heavenly Fame, Earthly Fame, or Love, Polifilo follows the advice of Will and finds himself embraced by the charming ladies of Love. As quickly as they had appeared, the nymphs now leave him alone in an environment every bit as pleasant as that in the realm of Free Will. After some time a richly dressed nymph adorned with precious jewels appears and approaches Polifilo carrying a cornucopia-like burning torch. She will henceforth be his companion and guide. Polifilo falls in love with her at once, which thrusts him into a tormented inner struggle of bittersweet love. Together they see four triumphal processions in honor of Jupiter in union with the four elements, a triumphal chariot bearing the god and goddess of fertility, Vertumnus and Pomona, and a rural cult at the altar of Priapus, which is adorned with depictions of the four seasons. Finally, the couple arrives at the Temple of Venus Physizoa, the Temple of the Life- giving Venus. Here in a ceremony Polifilo follows the orders of the priestess to extinguish the nymph's burning torch in the cold water of the basin at the center of the assembly room. This act effects the inner metamorphosis of the admired nymph into the long-desired Polia (now perceptible to the senses), who reveals her true nature to Polifilo with sweet kisses. After further ceremonies in honor of Amor and Venus, which are celebrated in the sanctuary of the temple without Polifilo, the couple departs to await Amor in his bark at a port near an antique town of temples and tombs called Polyandrion. The beauty of the landscape as well as the presence of his beloved stimulate Polifilo's sexual longings for Polia, but for her part she suggests that he visit the nearby Polyandrion, which she knows will appeal to his antiquarian interests, while she stays alone at the shore to await the arrival of Amor.

“As soon as Polifilo leaves Polia, the natural surroundings become an impassable stony terrain covered with thistles and other disagreeable plants. Apart from an Egyptian obelisk and a hexagonal temple consecrated to Pluto, all the buildings and tombs of the town have fallen into ruin. Inscriptions on the tombs and also a mosaic image depicting hell report the tragic ends of those who failed to love happily. Observing another mosaic depicting the rape of Proserpine, Polifilo is filled with terror at the thought his Polia might be similarly abducted while he is studying the antiquities of the Polyandrion.

“Hastening back to the shore, he finds her unharmed, and shortly thereafter they embark for the island under the guidance of Amor. This circular island with symmetrically arranged gardens and avenues radiating from its center is once again a locus amoenus. Integrated into the triumphal procession of Amor, the couple passes circular enclosures and a round theater before finally arriving at the heptagonal fountain of Venus in the center of Cythera. A festive ceremony is celebrated in the presence of the goddess of love to seal the love between Polifilo and Polia. During this ceremony, the interaction of the persons with the highly suggestive architecture of the fountain reflects the couple's sexual relationship. After the arrival of Mars, who seeks repose in the arms of Venus, the couple leaves the sacral place together with several nymphs personifying conjugal virtues and moves to the tomb of Adonis where Polia will tell the love story from her perspective.”(Roswitha Stewering)

Mortimer, (Harvard, French) I, 147. Brunet, IV, 779. Cf. Davies, Fairfax Murray French 99; Jean Martin, Un traducteur au temps de François Ier et de Henri II (Cahiers V.-L. Saulnier, 16), Paris, 1999. D. Cordellier, Luca Penni, un disciple de Raphaël à Fontainebleau, Paris, 2012, pp. 111-113