Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Finished the Tim Pears book, The Portrait, today. It was okay, the ending came to life quite well, but it was a struggle to be honest. The first person dramatic monologue style - talking the whole time to a silent second person, was limiting. It made the story lack drama, and it felt very info-dumpy at times, the way he was telling the other guy things he already knew. And the accent seriously got on my nerves.

Anyway, I've now started a new one, The rule of four by Iain Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. To be honest, I'm not expecting this to be any great shakes: it's going to be a bit Da Vinci Code-ish I suspect. But I was fascinated when I heard about it, because the plot revolves around a genuine piece of incunabula, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna. Now, I studied this when I was doing my degree thesis ('Illustration in transition: the changing role of the illustration in illuminated manuscripts, block books and incunabula' - it took me three months to understand the title...)

It was published in Venice in 1499 by the printer Aldus Manutius, and although it was published only forty-four years after the invention of printing (the Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, 1455) it is regarded as one of the most technically and, above all, aesthetically beautiful books ever created. It is hard to believe that something so magnificent could have been produced in an art form which was still in its infancy. To examine the Gutenberg Bible and other incunabula, and then compare them to the perfect symmetry and form of the Hypnerotomachia, is to witness and understand genius.

The whole book was digitised and put online by MIT a few years ago. You can look at it here. Have a look. In particular, seek out pages with illustrations and see how perfectly in union the text and the illustration are: the weight of each is identical, the clarity and beauty of both the font and the woodcuts are, individually, extraordinary, but combined they create something which is timeless.

The received wisdom has always been that the text - the dreams of Poliphilus - was rubbish. It's written in cod-Latin, full of mystical gibberish which was pretty much unreadable. This was a time when Europe was in a panic of millennialist scaremongering. It was regarded as a certainty that Armageddon was going to arrive in 1500. Much the same nonsense re-occurred in 2000, 0f course, but not to the same extent. A brilliant novel which covers the millennialist traumas is Nicholas Salaman's The garden of earthly delights. It's out of print, but Amazon points to some used copies. Salaman's novel was inspired by Norman Cohn's outstanding The pursuit of the millennum, which is another great read. It's difficult to understand how such superstitious mumbo-jumbo can take root in the common psyche, but it does. A good examination of millennarianism can be found here.

Anyway, a minor digression there, but back to the Hypnerotomachia, when I was a student I was always puzzled why Aldus laboured so much over this piece of drivel: why make something so inconsequential so beautiful?

So maybe this new 'Rule of Four' novel will tell me. They're definitely trying to make out that the Hypnerotomachia has hidden meanings and extra significance. Whatever, it was just a pleasure to be reacquainted with Aldus's magnificent typography. You look at this and remember that there really is beauty in the world. Sometimes you get so jaded it is good to be reminded of how you used to be, how you used to stare at something new with awe, how you had to stand up, walk about, talk to someone - anyone, a stranger would do - about the thing you've just discovered. Looking at the Hypnerotomachia tonight transported me to 1985 and the fourth floor of the Queen Mother Library at Aberdeen University. That was a good place to be, right now.

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