Importing Italian Culture

Colonna Text

Full image.


Full image.




Francesco Colonna
Italian, ca. 1443–1527
Polia and Poliphilo enter the garden and the fountain,
Chapter 24 in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
First edition, Venice, 1499
Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections, Cornell University Library


This extraordinary book—a romance written in a mixture of learned languages, told as a dream within a dream about a young man searching for his beloved—still resists scholars’ attempts to solidify its authorship and meaning. But its combination of mystery and eroticism, as well as the seldom-equaled beauty of its typesetting and woodcut illustrations, made it a treasured publication then, as now.


The Hypnerotomachia epitomizes the new culture of refinement emanating from Italy in the early sixteenth century. In Burckhardt’s words, “the demeanor of individuals, and all the higher forms of social intercourse, became ends pursued with a deliberate and artistic purpose… A countless number of those small things and great things which combine to make up what we mean by comfort first appeared in Italy… All Western Europe, as soon as its wealth enabled it to do so, set to work in the same way.” (Th. Burckhardt, Die Cultur der Renaissance/ The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860) François I. admired this book so much that he had two copies of it in his personal library in Blois, with his personal symbols—the intertwined initials FF, the salamander, and the fleur-de-lys—on the cover (today BnF Res. Y2 405 and Biblioteca Medicea Laurenciana #D’Elci 15.)


In the Cornell library’s pristine copy of the Hypnerotomachia that we see here, the protagonist Poliphilo and his beloved Polia, having been joined, have entered a garden with a fountain on the island of Cythera where their union is celebrated by a group of nymphs playing music and singing in a setting of courtly leisure.