Colonna: Pastoral in Excess
As translator and musicologist Joscelyn Godwin explains:
The title of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is compounded from the three Greek words hypnos (sleep), eros (love) and mache (strife). The sleep of Poliphilo, the narrator and protagonist, is the occasion for the erotic dream that comprises the entire novel. The “strife” or “battle” of the title refers not to any outward violence, but to the turmoil of Poliphilo’s own emotions and to his desperate efforts to gain the love of Polia. He is eventually victorious in this—but only in his dream. (Colonna vii)
The date of the book’s creation and the identity of the true author have not been easy to determine. While the book’s imprint reads, “Most accurately done at Venice, in the month of December, 1499, at the house of Aldus Manutius,” the date of May 1,1467 appears at the end of the story. Godwin and others insist that parts of the book referencing historical events could not have been created prior to 1489, thereby hinting at the book’s gradual evolution from incipient idea to final form (xiii). Who actually wrote it? Some say Alberti, others say Lorenzo di Medici, and an acrostic poem formed by the first letter of each chapter (“POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCVS COLVMNA PERAMAVIT”) suggests Francesco Colonna (xiv). The existence of two different Francesco Colonnas (one a priest of the Dominican order, the other a member of the noble Colonna family) makes matters more confusing, though scholarly consensus bestows the former with the honor of writing this wild, overgrown book.
A patchwork of Latin, Greek, faux Egyptian hieroglyphs, Italian, and Italian-Latin hybrid languages, Colonna’s story makes numerous references to classical texts, draws its momentum from endlessly circuitous sentences, and contains diagrams of the dreamscapes visited by the young Poliphilo. Leonardo Crasso’s dedication to the Duke of Urbino, contained in Godwin’s 1999 English translation, offers the Duke a taste of what will unfold in the book’s many pages: “he who approaches it with less learning should not despair. It is the case here that although these things are difficult by their nature, they are expounded with a certain grace, like a garden sown with every kind of flower” (2). An excerpt, in which the narrator describes the fictional land of Cytherea, one of the story’s settings, offers a glimpse of this pastoral garden:
It was so benign and pleasing to the senses, so delectable and beautiful with unusual ornamental trees, that the eye had never seen anything so excellent and voluptuous. The most eloquent tongue would feel guilty of poverty and parsimony in describing it: any comparison with things already seen would be false and inappropriate, for it surpassed imagination. This heavenly and delicious place, all planted and decorated, combined a vegetable-garden, a herbarium, a fertile orchard, a convenient plantation, a pleasant arboretum and a delightful shrubbery. There was no place for mountains or deserts; all unevenness had been eliminated, so that it was plane and level up to the circular steps of the wonderful theatre [... ]. It was a garden yielding incomparable pleasure, extremely fertile, decked with flowers, free from obstacles and traps, and ornamented with playing fountains and cool rivulets. (292)
Cytherea appears as a garden within a garden insofar as Poliphilo reaches it only by traveling over numerous other lands, each one described with equal boisterousness. As one might suspect to find in a dream, the traveler does not cross through these lands so much as penetrate each territory’s center. Upon finding the center, another land springs up. In what seems to be an attempt to help orientate the reader, Colonna offers maps and diagrams ofthe many lands, though, as interpreters have discovered, the scales ofthe maps bear no trace of mathematical accuracy (314). Neither the maps nor the narrative is in any way “ to scale. ”
At the center of this paradise, to which Poliphilo arrives after having enticed his Polia to join him, the two lovers locate a theatre:
The amphitheatre was of a structure not to be believed, because its elegant base, its string-courses, its ring of symmetrical columns with their beams, zophori and cornices were all cast exclusively from bronze, fire-gilded with bright gold. All the rest was of diaphanous alabaster of lustrous sheen, including the columns in antis with their arches. Marcus Scaurus [163 BCE-89 BCE, Roman Consul, in charge of the public games (ludi)], when he was aedile, built nothing like it. (348)
By this point in the story, the paradisiacal island begins to resemble the island of Venice. Matteo and Virgilio Vercelloni see this resemblance as more than a coincidence since only one year after the publication of Colonna’s work (if the date on the imprint bears scrutiny) Jacopo de Barbari published his bird’s-eye view of Venice. This map “was the culmination of more than three years of detailed surveys of every part of the city. In the foreground of this huge print we see the island of Giudecca with its wonderful gardens: they closely resemble the ones shown in the woodcuts in Francesco Colonna’s book, thus confirming that its illustrations were inspired by reality” (Vercelloni 42-43). In addition to this similarity, the central location of the theatre in Cytherea calls to mind the Piazza San Marco at the heart of Venice, which too opened out onto the Basin of St Mark like a natural amphitheatre and even housed lavish performances from civic parades and religious festivals to, as I discuss in Chapter 4, public executions.
At the center of the theatre (yes, another center), Poliphilo, with the help of Cupid and the nymph Synesia, begins a ritual that would lead to sexual intercourse with his beloved, were it not for the destruction of paradise that occurs. Nevertheless, the abundance of detail burns the imagined scene of sexual activity into the reader’s mind. Citing “a huge, immensely voluptuous, recumbent female figure reclining on a ledge halfway up the slope of the garden” at Bomarzo, Sheeler suggests that Vicino certainly had the same scene burned into his mind. “The raised pose of her upper body and languorous tilt of her head,” writes Sheeler, “indicate that she [the female of the statue] is not dead but sleeping, in the manner of many a stone nymph in many a classical or Renaissance garden. [... ] In Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia there is a woodcut of a sleeping nymph in a roughly similar pose to the one at Bomarzo” (Sheeler 60). Colonna’s epic clearly took from many sources and inspired just as many.
I am not moving through Colonna’s story with any specific aim. Rather, I am wandering through it as one might wander through Vicino’s garden. Ultimately, the linearity of the story seems less important than the worlds within worlds that open up through Colonna’s ornate and excessive descriptions. Likewise, I do not mention the flummoxing facti- city of the work’s author and creation date for the reason of empirical diligence. Whoever created it, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili exists. It exists as a literary environment that guides the reader deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine world, one from which it becomes quite difficult to extricate oneself. In this way, and in the other ways cited by Vercelloni, Sheeler, and
Godwin, the world of the Hypernotomachia unfolds as a baroque pastoral garden. Orsini’s inscription cited as the epigraph to Part I of this book may apply equally well to the at times mind-numbing prolixity of the work as it does to the esotericism of Bomarzo. Readers do not so much survey the story’s events as they walk through the garden laid out by Colonna and try to discern the allegorical content grafted onto the images and characters. It would take nearly 100 years for a poet to live up to the complexity of Colonna’s work without needing the academic onslaught of references, syllogisms, and allusions to justify the intellectual acumen of the finished poem. Arguably, one finds that distilled version in Tasso’s Aminta. Unlike with Tasso’s work, however, the baroque pastoral landscape of the Hypnerotomachia starts to effervesce into an ethereal, dreamlike material. Not quite guilty of absolute abstraction, Colonna’s work remains bound to the artistic and social worlds from which it sprung, but bound with only the most tenuous of tethers. Another name for the weave tightening and tying each tether to both ground and work is allegory, and the different allegorical weaves found in Colonna and Tasso require comparing each poet’s work to a different garden.