An original copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna (1499) is available on the web. It is a fabulous book and has been translated into English by Joscelyn Godwin. Colonna’s dreaming imagination embraces architecture, landscapes and gardens in a tale of passionate love – and eroticism.
Polyphili meets a group of ‘friendly nymphs’ who invite him to join their bath – in a scene which might have inspired the much smuttier Hugh Hefner Playboy grotto: ‘Now that we had happily entered into such fragrance as could never have grown in Arabia, they spread out their silken garments neatly on the stone seats that served as dressing room… and unconcernedly let their shapely and delicious bodies be seen naked in every particular… I certainly could not prevent the ardent fires from leaping up to assault me in my furnace of a heart… but the nymphs, noticing it, found girlish amusement in laughing at my bashful demeanour’. Colonna was a Dominican monk but, as Godwin observes ‘we can surmise that Brother Francesco’s experience of women’s love was not limited to his dreams’.
The design dreams of the Hypnerotomachia are so rich that some scholars have attributed its authorship to Alberti. The word Hypnerotomachia is a compound of hypnos (sleep), eros (love) and mache (strife). Godwin, whom design historians must thank for his translation, renders this as The Strife of Love in a Dream and one wonders if the visions, both erotic and architectural, came to Colonna in a dream. I have not experienced such a combination but the best landscape design ideas I have had have all been when asleep. They have all been forgotten but Colonna may have put his dreams in words and images.
The graphic design of the Hypnerotomachia is admired as a masterwork from the printer, Aldus Pius Manutius (1450-1515), who devised the italic type and established the semicolon. This is the only illustrated book Aldus published and it is a brilliant example of the way in which words and images can be combined. I think garden design works best as a ‘word and image’ discipline (and regret that architecture seems to have lost much of this interest). Colonna had a far-reaching influence on gardens with his detailed descriptions of images, planting and construction ideas. He must be telling us something about the gardens he knew and he had a profound influence on the imagery used in renaissance, baroque and romantic gardens. Colonna influenced the Villa d’Este, Bomarzo, Versailles and Chiswick House. He also drew the earliest known image of what is called a knot garden in English. In Italian they were called compartmenti (compartments).