A note on the Hypnerotomachia (Venice, Aldus Manutius 1499)

Aldo Manuzio, using the Latinized name of Aldus Pius Manutius (1449 – 1515) was an Italian humanist who became a printer and publisher with the foundation of his legendary Aldine Press in Venice. His publishing legacy includes the distinctions of inventing italic type, and introducing portable books in small formats bound in vellum. In 1499 he printed the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This is an extraordinary book. Firstly, it is the only illustrated work ever published by the Aldine Press. Secondly, the work is written in ‘macaronic’. This is a linguistic mixture of Latin and vernacular, in this case Latin and Italian. Macaronic languages arose throughout Europe at the end of the Middle-Ages at a time that Latin, used by scholars and clergymen, was gradually losing ground to vernacular among minstrels and storytellers.

The term macaronic is believed to originate from Padua in the late 14th century, apparently from maccarona, a kind of dumpling eaten by local people. Its association with the genre comes from the ‘Macaronea’, a satirical poem by Tifi Odasi in mixed Latin and Italian, published in 1488/9 which intended to ridicule the broken Latin used by many pseudo-scholars and bureaucratic authorities. Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia (although recently the architect Leon Battista has been named as the possible author) is also a mixed-language text – but with a difference. The text was written using Italian syntax and morphology, but the author invented his own vocabulary based on roots from Latin and Greek. The aim was not satirical. The mixed language was designed as an aesthetic device to stress the refined nature of the book.

This is a story of love. Poliphilio adores Pollia and searches for her in a dream. The text is interspersed with descriptions of architecture and pagan imagery. There are similarities with Dante’s quest for Beatrice. But where Dante goes deep into hell and climbs up to heaven, Poliphilio stays on earth. As such it can be seen as the epitome of Renaissance thought as opposed to Dante’s medieval outlook. Very few people will be able to read the book in the original mixed-language, but that will not bother those who appreciate the art of typography. They recognized the book immediately as representing a groundbreaking work of art. The capitals cut by Francisco Griffo were widely imitated. The way in which the beautiful woodcuts have been integrated into the text made the book and its publisher famous.