I had never heard of an Italian Renaissance book entitled "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,"a Greco-Latin title rendered into English by the its recent translator, Joscelyn Godwin, as "Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream," until I read a front-page article about it in the New York Times. Published in Venice in 1499, the Times said, the "Hypnerotomachia" has been called, because of its fine woodcuts and convoluted text, "the most beautiful book in the world and the most unreadable"; it has a hero who has "sex with buildings"; and it is "written in many languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean [and] Italian." It was on the newspaper's front page because it is the inspiration of Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's new novel, "The Rule of Four," which was number two on the Times's June 13 best-seller list, right behind "The Da Vinci Code" (to which I devoted a column several weeks ago).
The Times' description piqued my interest not only because of its reference to misbehaving architecture, but also because of
its mention of Hebrew, Arabic and "Chaldean" (an archaic word for Aramaic), and so I obtained a copy of the Hypnerotomachia and had a look at it. Although, disappointingly, I found no sex with buildings, there was a bit of Hebrew and Arabic.
The Hypnerotomachia is a story in which a semi-deified woman, such as Dante's Beatrice or Petrarch's Laura, leads a love-struck mortal through the perils of existence to a higher life. Facing the three portals, Poliphilo is confronted by two temptations that he must reject. . . . .
The Greek inscriptions above the three portals mean the same as the Latin, with the slight difference that Erototrophos means not "mother of love," but "nourisher of love."
The Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions, however, are more divergent. As brief as they are, they give us some clues as to how much of these languages the author of the Hypnerotomachia or his research assistant knew, which in turn tells us something about their status in Renaissance Italy.
[To be continued.]
Friday, June 25, 2004
SOME HEBREW, SOME ARABIC, BUT . . . "No Sex with Buildings." Philologos reviews Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in the Forward. Excerpts from this week's part one: