Rare Book of the Month February: Hypnerotomachia Polyphili

Close up detail of quartus page

Close up detail of quartus page

For this month’s Valentine’s Day we’re highlighting some images from our 1499 edition of a mysterious, romantic, and racy tale, once known as the most famous book in the world, Hypnerotomachia Polyphili. The work is believed to have been written by Francesco Colonna, an Italian Dominican priest, (d. 1527), based on decorated initials found at the start of each chapter that form the acrostic POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCUS COLONNA PERAMAVIT. The story follows the main character Poliphilo as he journeys through a lengthy and convoluted dreamscape encountering an assortment of creatures and characters as he pursues the love of a woman named Polia. While Polia initially rejects him, Cupid helps love win out in the end.

You might be thinking that reading about a long, bizarre dream doesn’t sound that riveting, and some experts on the work

Detail of cupid

Detail of cupid with Poliphilus and Polia

have agreed that the story, written in an idiosyncratic combination of Italian and Latin, is virtually unreadable. However, despite the qualms about Hypnerotomachia’s literary merit, the book is widely regarded as a masterpiece of type design and image layout that influenced the evolution of printing, typography and book design. Published by Venetian Aldus Manutius, the typeface was designed in collaboration with Francesco Griffo, a type designer who worked for Manutius’ printing house. Hypnerotomachia also contains over 100 woodcut illustrations striking woodcut illustrations that include remarkable architectural elements. The artist of the woodcuts was anonymous but according to the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Benedetto Bordone seems the most likely candidate. Other suggested possibilities have included Andrea Mantegna, Gentile Bellini, or Raphael.

About our copy


Zaehnsdorf binding of Hypnerotomachia

We are fortunate to have received this first edition from the Upjohn family to our Upjohn-Waldie Collection, named for noted book collector J. Kemp Waldie (1905 1978). Hypnerotomachia is one of a number of incunabula, or early printed books published prior to 1500, that we hold in our rare and special collections. This particular copy features binding by the noted Zaehnsdorf bindery, and was also previously owned by the bibliographer and art historian, Gilbert R. Redgrave.

Graham Library copy information:
Rare Book Upjohn-Waldie 1499 C65 fol http://go.utlib.ca/cat/10820655

Image Gallery

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Related resources at U of T Libraries and beyond

  • Colonna, Francesco, and Andrew Lang. 1890. The strife of love in a dream, being the Elizabethan version of the first book of the Hypnerotomachia. London: Nutt.Get it at U of T Libraries: http://go.utlib.ca/cat/406192
  • Colonna, Francesco, Marco Ariani, and Mino Gabriele. 2003, c1998. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Milano: Adelphi.The entire text translated for the first time into English with an introduction by Joscelyn Godwin ; with the original woodcut illustrations.Get it at U of T Libraries: http://go.utlib.ca/cat/5106523
  • Word & Image 31, no. 2 (2015): 74–80.
    Entire issue dedicated to research on Hypnerotomachia

    Get it at U of T Libraries: http://go.utlib.ca/cat/7765305

  • University of Glasgow featured copy of Hypnerotomachia Polyphili

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