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THE REAL RULE OF FOUR
By Joscelyn Godwin
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2004 Joscelyn Godwin
All rights reserved.
The Real Hypnerotomachia
The object that goes under this resounding name (pronounced "HIP-ne-RO-to-MA-kia PO-li-FEE-li") is a book of 467 pages, a foot tall and broad to match, which was printed in the Serene Republic of Venice by the press of Aldus Manutius in the year of grace 1499. A few dozen copies are still scattered round the globe, most of them in the locked presses of libraries or behind the security systems of wealthy collectors. Quite a few probably lie in bank vaults, keeping company with silent Stradivarius violins, waiting to appreciate in value beyond the $320,000 that a fine copy of the book currently commands at auction.
How does the Hypnerotomachia come to be so much treasured? It is not enough that it is rare; many books are rarer still, but almost no one cares whether they own them or not. The main reason is that it is a most beautiful object, appealing to those who find beauty in books themselves, quite apart from the words and thoughts they contain. The beauty begins at skin-level, for the previous owner has usually gone to the expense of having the book bound in the hide of some domestic animal: a calf, a sheep, more rarely a pig, or, in the case of morocco leather, a goat. (The jacket of The Rule of Four shows a vellum [calf] binding, with raised bands highlighted in gold leaf.) One turns it over like a miniature treasure-chest, gloating at having the bibliophile's ultimate prize within one's hands—even if it belongs to a library. Whatever the title on the spine means, word-associations with hypnotism or erotica seem to promise mysteries and delights within.
Although Patrick Sullivan gave his son a framed reproduction of the Hypnerotomachia's title page, (ROF, p. 82), not much is given away there. Unlike later books of its size and pretensions, the title page boasts no symbolic engraving, no publisher's name, place, or date: just the bald statement:
THE HYPNEROTOMACHIA OF POLIPHILO, IN WHICH IT IS SHOWN THAT ALL HUMAN THINGS ARE BUT A DREAM, AND MANY OTHER THINGS WORTHY OF KNOWLEDGE AND MEMORY.
* * *
—to which some copies add a warning not to reprint the book within Venetian territory (as if they would, or could).
THE FINE ART OF TYPOGRAPHY
None but a very few readers pay any attention to the art of typography, but to a connoisseur, there is a pleasure to be had from simply contemplating a page of well-set type. He will notice how the precise form of each letter has been designed, so that they work shoulder-to-shoulder in any combination; how close together the lines are; the proportions of the margins. Whatever else the Hypnerotomachia may be, it is secure in its reputation as a typographic masterpiece. Its clear, round, legible type derives from the handwriting of ninth-century scribes under the empire of Charlemagne, whose manuscripts of classical works were rediscovered and prized in the Renaissance. The capital letters are based on the inscriptions carved on the monuments of Rome. They are foursquare and sober, except for the palm-tree Y, and the Q with a tail as proud as a fox's brush. Each chapter begins with a summary of its contents set in these capitals, and a single much larger, decorative initial letter—those letters that conceal the author's name, which readers of The Rule of Four know all about. The typeface used in the Hypnerotomachia is one of the grandparents of all later roman typefaces, often receiving the homage of imitation. The typeface of the book you are reading is a modern recreation of it, called "Poliphilus," made by the Monotype Corporation in 1923.
Kelmscott Press, Doves Press, Nonesuch Press ... the names of these private presses are so many tributes to the achievement of Aldus and his contemporaries. For half a millennium, the work of those Venetian craftsmen has been held up as an example of typography at its best. [Ill. 1, p.17] But the compositor of the Hypnerotomachia, however sound his instincts, faced an extra challenge, because he had to fit into his pages of text 172 illustrations of every shape and size. Some of the illustrations, in turn, contain lettering. This spurred Aldus Manutius's typographer to devise some ingenious solutions. On one page, he makes the block of type taper in a triangle, subtly balancing the upright triangle of the broken gravestone [Ill. 2, p.19]; in another, the text winds its way around two illustrations of military standards [Ill. 3, p.20, 21]. Whoever designed these pages was a playful genius in a recondite field.
ILLUSTRATIONS AND EROTICISM
Surprises were in store for the first owners of the Hypnerotomachia as they discovered, a few pages in, how richly it was illustrated. This was by no means usual practice in the incunabula period (that is, in books dating from the "cradle" [Latin cunabula] of printing, defined as up to and including the year 1500). Some early printed books were enhanced by hand-painted illustrations, or colored initial letters; the Gutenberg Bible left blank spaces for them. The Hypnerotomachia was one of the very first printed books to be illustrated throughout with black and white woodcuts, and to make a virtue of this limitation. And what illustrations they are! I doubt that anyone has ever read it without first leafing through them all. Nor does one have to go very far to discover that there is something very odd about this book. After a few innocuous pictures of woodland scenes, architecture, etc., one encounters a group of dancers wearing their heads backwards; inscriptions in unknown letters and picture-writing; an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back; a man pursued by a winged dragon. Then comes the celebrated picture of an ithyphallic satyr approaching a sleeping woman. [Ill. 4, p.22] Whatever sort of story is this? A little further on, two charming young women are holding up a young boy who is preparing to piss, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. [Ill. 5, p.23] Which it is—but generally done without assistance.
The people in the pictures are almost all young women, evidently drawn to be attractive according to the canons of Renaissance art. There is one adult male, dressed in a beret and long gown, who appears in various combinations and relationships with them; what he is up to, one must read to find out. The classically educated reader (which meant anyone who got hold of the book before about 1950) recognizes some familiar scenes from Graeco-Roman mythology, and the conventional figures of the gods: Jupiter, Venus, Cupid, Mars, etc. But are these scenes, well known from Ovid's Metamorphoses, events in the story? Does the story take place nowadays (i.e. circa 1500) or in classical times?
One comes next to the series of two-page spreads illustrating processions. [Ill. 6 a,b, p. 24, 25] These only serve to confuse the issue further. Are these Greek myths that the writer is recounting, or are they events he witnesses himself? The processions all have a chariot or float, drawn by nothing as ordinary as horses, but by centaurs, elephants, unicorns, panthers, satyrs, and giant lizards. One of the floats (illustrated in the The Rule of Four, p. 65) carries a young woman who is apparently having sexual intercourse with a swan. (Classicists have no trouble with that: she's Leda, and the swan is really Zeus in disguise. Out of one of her eggs will hatch Helen of Troy.) The floats are all accompanied by a cheerful and jostling crowd, usually of nymphs in various stages of undress. One cannot help noticing that the artists have graced all the female nudes with that tiny line denoting the vulva, which has been conventionally omitted in fine art from that day to this.
I apologize for emphasizing the erotic element in the Hypnerotomachia, but you must put yourself in the position of someone looking through the book in past centuries, when sexual imagery did not leer from every newsstand. No such images had ever appeared in a printed book, and almost never in a manuscript, either. The looker—not yet a reader—would have found this anatomical display deeply shocking; and after the shock, would either slam the book shut in disgust, or make sure that no one else was watching, and then continue. Later, some owners inked out the offending portions [Ill. 7, p.26]. For instance, in the Vatican Library copy, not only Leda and the Swan have been inked over, but a careful librarian has even erased "the leg of an elephant mistaken for the genital organ of his neighbor," as the architectural historian Liane Lefaivre remarks.
Censors have often emasculated the most famous and provocative illustration: the "Sacrifice to Priapus," which naturally appears, though reduced in size, in The Rule of Four (ROF, p. 64). The eye is magnetically drawn and held by the genitals at dead center, all the more astonished if not acquainted with the classical "herm": a human figure from the waist up, but a column or plinth from the waist down. In ancient Greece, herms were statues of the god Hermes, planted in the ground to mark the boundaries of a town or region. It was an archaic and rustic custom—the earliest ones must have been quite crude, and of wood—and it seemed unnecessary to carve separate legs. However, the display of an erect phallus has an even more ancient history as a protective sign, warding off evil or warning enemies, symbolizing to a less prudish age the potency of the local divinity. So a proper herm (and one will find very few intact specimens in museums) has no hips or legs, but does have genitals. Here I show the version that was redrawn in the fashionable style of the 1540s for the French version of the Hypnerotomachia. [Ill. 8, p.27]
As we examine the picture more closely, we may well ask what the other people in the picture are up to. They are twenty-four in number, and beside two grumpy old men in the upper right-hand corner, they are mostly young women playing musical instruments, holding bottles, or tossing them up in the air. It is not all innocent fun and games: the three maidens in the foreground are twisting the tail of a donkey, cutting its throat, and catching its blood in a bowl. Apparently it is a pagan sacrifice, and the ithyphallic idol is Priapus, the god of gardens and fecundity—but is that all? Our imaginary sixteenth-century reader, even better educated in the Bible than in the classics, might sense disconcerting echoes. For instance, he might recall a passage in Chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse: "four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours"; and they all sang: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain." The number of participants and their attributes correspond. The bottles look just like the "vials" in pictures of the Apocalypse, where the Elders are often equipped not just with harps, but with a whole orchestra of different instruments. Imagine the sixteenth-century reader, as likely as not a churchman, wondering whether the book he has in his hands is not only pornographic, but blasphemous.
Not a little horrified, but still fascinated, our imaginary reader leafs on through the book. From this point, things cool off somewhat, at least to the outward eye. There is a series of pictures of what seems to be a religious ceremony, with a robed and mitred celebrant and an acolyte—but unlike the rites of the Roman Catholic church, every participant here is a woman. Readers of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (and Martin Lunn's Da Vinci Code Decoded) do not need to be alerted to the possible significances of that! Further on in the book, there are a lot of tombstones with inscriptions, and various classical-looking objects like urns and standards. It is in this section that the typographer displays his most elegant combinations of word with image. In the last of the processions, which shows the Triumph of Cupid, the God of Love's entourage includes two satyrs carrying portable herms. Lest we miss the details, a separate illustration highlights the anatomical correctness of these objects. [Ill. 9, p.28] A pair of well-endowed satyrs completes the presentation of the author's and artist's phallic obsessions. [Ill. 10, p.29]
Death and violence, even more than sex, are the obsessions that The Rule of Four's Professor Taft displays with such gusto to his audience at the Good Friday lecture. In this trio of illustrations [Ills. 11, 12, 13, p.29, 30] Cupid, wielding a birch, is forcing two bound, naked women to draw his chariot. In the second picture, the merciless infant takes a sword and beheads the women, then slices their bodies into pieces. Thirdly, a dragon, lion, eagle, and wolf feast on their flesh, while a clothed woman hides in the forest, watching, and Cupid flies triumphantly above the scene.
Does this really happen in the story? Strictly speaking, it does not. It is a dream, or rather a nightmare, related to her nurse by Polia, who is retelling it to an audience of nymphs. Polia in turn is a character in a longer dream related by Poliphilo. (This gives a hint of the complicated structure and the layers of unreality present in the Hypnerotomachia.)
The last part of the book has some pictures of normal people in church or temple interiors, and in houses. But abnormal things are afoot here, too. In one of them, a woman is dragging a seemingly dead man along the floor by his feet. In another, she is embracing him upon her lap. [Ill. 14, p.31] In yet another, the couple is being pursued by angry women armed with sticks. Finally, there are some scenes that take place on the clouds, concluding with Cupid shooting his arrow into a disembodied female bust. The reader closes the book in a state of mind-bogglement.
AN INVENTED LANGUAGE
Having now looked through the book, which is sufficient to whet anyone's appetite, the time has come to read it. Here the trouble begins, for the Hypnerotomachia, though it passes as an Italian novel, is not written in the normal Italian of 1500, nor in the earlier language of Dante and Petrarch. The author has essentially tried to re-invent the Italian language by enriching its vocabulary with hundreds of words adapted from Latin, and dozens from Greek. He has chosen Latin words so obscure that some of them only occur in a single Roman author. How anyone understood them in an age before proper dictionaries, I cannot imagine. All but the most learned scholars would just have had to skim over them. As if this is not enough to obstruct and deter most readers, the author writes in an extremely elaborate and wordy style, nominally Italian in grammar and syntax but more like the endless and scrambled sentences of Latin. Barely a noun lacks one or more adjectives, and more often than not these are in the superlative form. In short, the whole prose style is outrageously overdone, and on top of all that, it is in Venetian dialect.
Writers on the Hypnerotomachia often repeat the canard that its author used even more languages. Vincent Taft assures his audience that "it contains not only Latin and Italian, but also Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The author wrote in several of them at once, sometimes interchangeably." (ROF, p. 118) A clever lawyer could defend this statement, but it is misleading, as is much of what Taft says (and that, no doubt, by design). I will take the claims one by one.
Hebrew appears in three places, all in illustrations, not in the text. While exploring the interior of the obelisk-carrying elephant, Poliphilo reads the inscriptions on a pair of statues, which appear in three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. (pp. 39, 40) The same three languages are shown above the three doors between which Poli-philo has to choose. [Ill. 15, p. 32]
Arabic appears in two places: above the three doors, just mentioned, and a few letters on a banner, along with Greek. [Ill. 16, p. 33] For more on these inscriptions, see p. 159.
Chaldean never appears, though Poliphilo speaks of other trilingual inscriptions (quoted below) as being in "Chaldean, Greek, and Latin." (p. 36) In any case, "Chaldean" is a misnomer. It is the name given by Renaissance scholars to the northern Semitic language that we know as Aramaic, the language probably spoken by Jesus of Nazareth (hence its revival in Mel Gibson's film.) Because some of the Jewish scriptures and commentaries were preserved in Aramaic versions, "Chaldean" counted as one of the sacred languages, and that is probably why it seemed suitable here.
Egyptian hieroglyphs: there are no authentic ones in the work, only made-up hieroglyphs based on the Greek writer Horapollo (who couldn't read the real ones, either) and on pseudo-hieroglyphic inscriptions from imperial Rome.
If one were to accurately reproduce the language and syntax of the Hypnerotomachia in English, one would have to invent some new words, and the result might come out like this sentence, in which Polia describes what happened in illustration 14:
All on a sudden, O my most celebrated Nymphs, I felt as it were an amorous dulcitude, and with compasssionate and excessive alacrity my heart utterly dilacerated throughout its midst, where by that blood that through dolor and overmuch fear had been constricted within itself, now in unfamiliar leticity I felt laxating the veins, and all undone and thunderstruck I was ignorant of what to say, if I did not with solvent audacity offer to his pallid lips as a little blandishment a lascivious and mustulent kiss, the two of us being gripped and constricted in amorous amplexity, like the intricately convoluted serpents in the Hermetic Caduceus, and like the involuted verge of the sacrosanct Physician.
Excerpted from THE REAL RULE OF FOUR by Joscelyn Godwin. Copyright © 2004 Joscelyn Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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